Choosing a school? You’ve got options.
Each spring, parents face one of the biggest decisions they can make for their child’s future: What school environment will their child spend about 1,000 hours in next year? Let’s dive in to school choice in California.
Making that decision with confidence starts with knowing your options; you may have more school choices than you realize. Understanding these options can help you find a school where your child grows and learns to the best of their ability. Remember, each child is unique. So, the “best” school for your child may be different than the “best” school for your neighbor’s child. That’s okay!
In California, you can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, homeschooling, and microschooling and mix-and-match learning.
If you’re looking for special education options, you can learn about what’s available in your state at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.
- Traditional Public Schools
- Public Charter Schools
- Public Magnet Schools
- Private Schools
- Online Schools
California Traditional Public Schools
First off, most children in California attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers like you. California spends an average of $14,985 per public school pupil each year.
Open enrollment is an important form of public school choice; open enrollment refers to whether a state allows parents to send their children to schools outside of their district. In California, parents of students assigned to low-performing schools may be able to transfer their children to another school based on the state’s limited open enrollment laws. In general, school districts in California can also set their own open enrollment policies, so parents can check with their local district to learn more. As a real-world example, the William S. Hart Union High School District only accepts transfers within its district for a few student groups, including victims of bullying, foster youth, and children of active military.
Parents can request that the school they select through open enrollment provides transportation assistance.
Different public schools may have different cultures and missions. For example, we recently spoke to Sonia Flores, the principal at California’s Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy, which was ranked in the top 50 public high schools in the United States. She told us that, while the school serves all students, its special mission is to support “students who are first in their family to go to college, or students who come from a low-income background who face obstacles that prevent them from being successful in a comprehensive high school setting.”
California Charter Schools
Secondly, families in California have another tuition-free option in charter schools. 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. In addition, public charter schools are accountable to authorizing entities, such as colleges or school districts, for results.
The first charter school in California opened in 1994 in San Carlos. Today, about one in nine of California’s public school students attend a charter school. The state has around 1,000 charter schools, which can be found in this school directory. Each charter has a particular focus and strives to fill a unique role in the local community. For example, this could be providing a STEAM program or a rigorous literacy program. When we interviewed the executive director of one of California’s largest charter schools, Granada Hills Charter School, we learned that the school serves students from 60 countries who, collectively, speak more than 40 languages!
One of California’s newest charter schools is California Republic Leadership Academy Capistrano, which focuses on classical education and leadership. For more info about California charters, check out The California Charter Schools Association.
California Magnet Schools
Depending on where you live in California, you may also be able to choose a magnet school. These free, public schools allow kids to focus on specific themes, like science or the performing arts. If your child learns best by diving deeply into a subject he or she is passionate about, a magnet school could be a good fit.
For the 2023 school year, there are about 400 magnet schools or programs in California. Districts with magnet schools include ABC Unified School District, Glendale Unified School District, Los Angeles Unified School District, the Napa Valley Unified School District, Pasadena Unified School District, San Diego Unified School District, and Vista Unified School District. A new magnet program advised by George Clooney and other Hollywood influencers opened in downtown Los Angeles in 2022. The school prepares students for jobs in the entertainment industry.
Learn more about how California magnet schools function and are funded at the California Department of Education.
California Private Schools
In addition, you can consider private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. There are about 3,815 private schools across the state of California, and these schools offer families unique learning environments. For instance, private schools may be religious schools, non-sectarian Montessori schools, or schools designed for children with learning differences.
The average tuition for private schools in the state is $15,147 for elementary schools and $20,808 for high schools. Tuition can vary quite a lot, and may be much lower in some cases. Unfortunately, in California there are not currently any state-run scholarships to help families afford private school tuition. Privately-run scholarships may be available.
California Online Learning
California doesn’t have an official state virtual school, but there are several free, full-time online learning options for students. In California, a fully online school is only allowed to serve students in contiguous counties, not students statewide. Because of this, some education management organizations operate multiple online schools to be able to serve students from across the state. Two of the biggest of these online school “networks” are California Connections Academy and California Virtual Academies.
California has more than 30 online charter schools, giving every California student a fully online option. California Pacific Charter Schools is a free online choice for students in more than a dozen California counties. Meanwhile, Method Online School serves southern California students, and Compass Charter Schools serves Los Angeles, Yolo, San Diego, and surrounding areas.
K-12 students in Ventura, San Bernardino, Kern, and Orange counties can also consider IQ Academy-Los Angeles. While much of the learning is facilitated by technology, this learning program offers in-person field trips and meet-ups as well. Students in grades 9-12 needing additional academic support to overcome obstacles may wish to consider Insight Schools of California.
Additionally, some districts have created their own online schools, like Davis School for Independent Study, Elk Grove Unified School District’s Virtual Academy, and Vista Virtual Academy. Students in the district or who have received an interdistrict transfer can apply. Los Angeles Unified School District’s Virtual Academy served nearly 18,000 students during the 2021-2022 school year. In response to the appetite for online options, the district created six new theme-based online schools for the 2022-2023 school year. Each online program has a unique focus, such as computer science or leadership and public service.
When considering your options, you may also want to keep in mind that the University of California’s Scout Program allows highschoolers to take part-time online courses and earn credit for a fee. To read more about online learning in California, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile and California Parents for Public Virtual Education.
You can also choose homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home. In California, the state requires notice of your intent to homeschool between October 1 – October 15 of each year if you are homeschooling as a home-based private school. It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your current school so that your student is not marked truant.
If you choose to homeschool, you are required to teach courses commonly taught in public schools, but specific standardized tests are not required if you are homeschooling as a home-based private school. In general, children who are homeschooled may face roadblocks if they want to participate in public school sports or activities in California, but other sports leagues may be available.
California may have funding assistance available if you homeschool through a charter school program. Check out the California Homeschool Network and Home School Legal Defense Association – California for more resources about homeschooling specific to California.
We recently spoke to the Cox Family, a California family that found that homeschooling was the best fit for one of their three children. As mom Erica Cox put it, finding the right school for your child requires being open to thinking outside the box: “If you want your kid to be a successful student, you need to find the right type of school and environment for them to thrive in. Don’t assume because it works for one [student] it will work for the others.”
California Microschools and Mix-and-Match Learning
Today, many California families are mixing and matching school options to come up with new ways to personalize education. Microschools are one of these ways. A microschool refers to students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Microschools can take a variety of shapes and legal forms, from homeschoolers coming together at an enrichment center to a private school committed to small classrooms. What microschools share in common is a commitment to small-group learning, close-knit relationships, and emphasizing children as individual learners.
Here are just a few examples of the many microschools and innovative learning choices in California:
Silicon Schools “funds the creation of new schools that foster innovation and personalization to discover the next generation of schools in America.” Their grantees include several microschools and other innovative educational initiatives.
Chronos Academy, a microschool in Larkspur, evolved from a cohort program for homeschoolers to a private school with intentionally small classes.
The Players Academy, a network of full-time learning centers that offer hybrid learning for student athletes, is opening locations in Rancho Cordova, West Sacramento, and Walnut Creek.
In Oakland, the Oakland REACH offers virtual learning hubs to help students receive support and academic and social enrichment.
Global Village School is a homeschool/private school hybrid that was founded back in 1999. The school focuses on self-directed distance learning, social justice, and sustainability.
The Open School is a small, self-directed school for creative learners. The Open School has a campus in Santa Ana and a virtual program for non-local families.
Ellemercito Academy is a Los Angeles-based microschool focused on experiential, place-based learning.
Angeles Workshop School is a student-led private school in Los Angeles serving up to just 20 students.
Brightworks in San Francisco is a small school that seeks to foster students’ advocacy and love of learning through project-based experiences.
The Los Angeles Microschool Network is a resource-sharing network for Catholic schools that serve less than 150 students.
There are at least four Wildflower Montessori microschools in California, in San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, and Pittsburg.
Remember, microschooling is more a mentality than a specific legal distinction in most cases. Often, a family participates in a microschool while legally homeschooling, or being enrolled in a private or online school.
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