Virginia School Choice Roadmap

By: National School Choice Week Team

Last Upated: January 19, 2023

Choosing a school? You’ve got options. 

If you’re wondering about school choice in Virginia, here are two things to remember. First off, you’re not alone. Every year, tens of thousands of parents in Virginia make K-12 school decisions for their children. Secondly, you can do it! Understanding your state’s different school options can help you find a learning environment where your child is not just “getting by” at school, but actually thriving and inspired to learn. 

This post will break down the school choice options available for the nearly 2 million children living in the Old Dominion State. In short, families can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, homeschooling, and learning pods.

Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in Virginia at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.

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Traditional public schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public charter schools do not charge tuition. They are usually managed by nonprofit organizations and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public magnet schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and focus on themes, such as math, science, technology, and the arts.
Private schools charge tuition, but scholarships are often available via state programs or by individual schools. Private schools are privately managed and can be faith-based or secular.

      Virginia Traditional Public Schools

      Most Virginia families choose traditional public schools. These are operated by school districts, free to attend, open to all students, and funded by taxpayers.  Did you know that, on average, Virginia spends $12,905 per public school student each year? You can search your school’s spending and that of nearby schools at Project Nickel.

      In Virginia, the state allows each district to set its own open enrollment policies. “Open enrollment” refers to whether parents can send their children to any public school, regardless of where it is located. Parents wanting to transfer their child to a different public school should contact their local school district to see if this is possible. For example, Albemarle County Public Schools generally requires students to attend their zoned school, but does allow transfers in some cases, such as for medical or emotional health, or because of a family move.

      Open enrollment is a valuable public school choice, increasing parents’ options and ensuring that zip code isn’t the sole determiner of their education. Find out more about public schools in your state at the Virginia Department of Education.

      Virginia Charter Schools

      Also, depending on where you live in Virginia, public charter schools may be another free option for you to consider. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are public, free, and usually have no requirements for entry. What distinguishes charter schools is that they have extra freedom to innovate with learning methods. Charters are accountable to authorizing entities for results. 

      Virginia passed charter school legislation in 1998. Today, Virginia has  seven public charter schools. Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a Spanish immersion program or offering a rigorous STEAM curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system is usually used to determine admittance.

      Virginia Magnet Schools

      Additionally, Virginia families have a third public school option in magnet schools. Magnet schools are free public schools that allow kids to narrow in on a specific learning track, such as an International Baccalaureate program or the performing arts. Magnet schools teach all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. These schools can be good options for children who learn best through their favorite subject. 

      Virginia has several magnet school options, including the well-ranked Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. School districts with magnet schools include Fairfax County Public Schools, Newport News Public Schools, York County School Division, Hampton City Schools, and more. Virginia magnet choices range from marine science to global studies and creative arts.

      Virginia Private Schools

      Families in Virginia can even consider private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. Private schools may offer a unique curriculum, smaller class sizes, or a faith-based tradition. Virginia’s more than 970 private schools come in all shapes and forms, from religious schools to schools designed for children with special needs.

      The average tuition for private schools in the state is $12,936 for elementary schools and $16,673 for high schools. In Virginia, a state-run scholarship program is available to students with family incomes below 300% of the federal poverty level ($79,500 for a family of four in 2021-2022) and students with special needs. Also, the federal government does allow parents to save for K-12 private school tuition using tax-preferred 529 savings accounts.

      Learn more at the Virginia Council for Private Education and Private School Review: Virginia.

      Virginia Online Learning

      Also, don’t overlook online learning! It offers a uniquely flexible learning environment that meets a variety of family needs. Whether your child wants to accelerate his or her learning or needs a quieter environment in which to focus, you may be interested in giving virtual school a try. 

      Virginia students can enroll in free, full-time online learning through Virginia Virtual Academy. Find out more about Virginia Virtual Academy in our interview with Head of School, Suzanne Sloan.

      Additionally, students in middle and high school may be able to take part-time or full-time online classes through their local school in partnership with the state’s virtual school, Virtual Virginia. Tuition is usually covered by the public or private school in which the student is enrolled, or the parents if the student is homeschooled.

      In some areas, districts have also developed their own online school programs. These include Prince William County Public Schools’ Virtual High SchoolFairfax County Public Schools’ Online CampusLoudon County Public Schools’ supplemental online coursesVirginia Beach City Public Schools’ Digital Campus, and York County School Division’s Virtual Academy. 

      Virginia students are actually required to take at least one online course or blended learning experience to graduate. To read more about online learning in Virginia, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.

      Virginia Homeschooling

      In all 50 states, families can also choose to homeschool, which allows for high levels of customized learning and flexibility. Homeschooling is the process of parents educating students at home.

      In Virginia, it is required that you provide notice of your intent to homeschool by August 15 or immediately upon choosing homeschool. A unanimous Virginia Supreme Court decision in June 2020 emphasized that this step is a simple notification rather than a request to the school board. This court decision also ruled that school boards cannot establish their own demands for homeschooling families. 

      The state does not require homeschooling parents to teach specific subjects but may require some amount of standardized testing depending on the homeschool option chosen. In general, children who are homeschooled may face roadblocks if they want to participate in public school sports in Virginia. However, you can always look for other sports leagues or co-ops near you.

      It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your public school so your student is not marked truant. If you decide to return to public school, your school will review your homeschool records and may administer tests for placement. 

      To learn more, you may wish to check out the Home Educator’s Association of Virginia and Home School Legal Defense Association – Virginia.

      Virginia Learning Pods

      Micro-schools, pods, pandemic pods, and learning pods all refer to the same concept: students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize.  Pods themselves can take a variety of legal forms, but in general they can be separated into two categories: self-directed pod (homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school) and learning support pod. It’s important to understand what kind of pod you are signing up for and the requirements that go along with it.  Learn more about learning pods.

      Self-Directed Pods:

      If your learning pod or micro-school is choosing its own curriculum and each family is directing their own children’s schooling, it likely qualifies as a homeschool in Virginia. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA.

      If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have parents or other teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it may qualify as a private school. You can read more about what Virginia classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.

      Learning Support Pods:

      If your child is enrolled in an existing online school or local public, charter, or private school, and uses that school’s curriculum under the supervision of an adult in a learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school. 

      Education Resources for Virginia Parents 

      For additional information about school choices in Virginia, visit these resources: 

      Virginia celebrates school choice week


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