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private vs charter

Charter Schools vs. Magnet Schools

Many people know that both magnet and charter schools are alternatives to traditional public schools, but it can be difficult to discern exactly what’s different about them … and what’s the same. We’re here to make the process easier for you with this simple breakdown:

In a Nutshell

Magnet schools exist within the traditional public school system and offer a particular academic focus alongside the standard curriculum.

Magnet schools are open to all students within a school district or designated metro area, regardless of address. Like traditional public schools, magnets are accountable to the local school board and to the state, and are held to the same standards as traditional public schools.

More: Is a Magnet School Right for Your Family?

Explore magnet schools in your area

Charter schools are public schools that are independent of school districts and instead contract directly with state or local boards.

As public schools, charter schools are open to all children in a designated metro area, do not require entrance exams, cannot charge tuition, receive public funding and must participate in state testing and federal accountability programs.

However, charter schools are privately run. While most are nonprofit, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about 15% get funding from for-profit entities, making them for-profit schools, which magnets are not. Charter schools are also exempt from most state regulations and instead adhere to — as the name suggests — a charter, or a legislative contract.

More: What is a Charter School?


Explore charter schools in your area

Comparing Charter Schools and Magnet Schools

Magnet schools and charter schools have many things in common, but there are also a few key differences. Here’s a side-by-side breakdown of how they compare:

Category Magnet Schools Charter Schools
Category Costs
Magnet Schools No tuition to enroll
Charter Schools No tuition to enroll
Category Funding
Magnet Schools Publicly-funded
Charter Schools Funded on a per-pupil basis with government funds, sometimes with independent funds as well
Category Government Regulation
Magnet Schools Regulated by the state and subject to the same standards and requirements as traditional public schools
Charter Schools Independently run, but must meet standards outlined in their charter in order to secure state funding
Category Teacher Certification
Magnet Schools All teachers must be certified by the state
Charter Schools Teachers don't necessarily have to be certified, but this differs from state to state
Category Curriculum Flexibility
Magnet Schools The curriculum has a focus such as STEM, the arts, or world languages
Charter Schools Curriculum is flexible, but the school is held accountable to a performance contract
Category Application Process
Magnet Schools Lottery is typical, though some schools require an entrance exam, interview or audition
Charter Schools May be a lottery or application, but students do not have to take an entrance exam
Category Selectivity
Magnet Schools Cannot legally discriminate against students
Charter Schools Cannot legally discriminate against students

The most striking similarities between magnet and charter schools is that they’re both free to attend, and neither requires those who apply to live in a specific neighborhood or area.

They’re particularly different, however, in who they answer to. Magnet schools are held accountable by the state and the local school board, just like public schools, but charter schools aren’t. They are accountable to their own charter.

When it comes to funding, there are similarities and differences. Magnet schools are funded by the state. Charter schools receive state funding as well, but may have other sources of funding, too.

Controversy Surrounding Magnet and Charter Schools

Another key point to note is that both magnet and charter schools are met with some element of controversy. Magnet schools were founded in part to curb racial segregation in schools, though there’s debate as to whether or not they still fulfill that mission.

Criticism of charter schools exists as well, but for different reasons. Since charter schools and public schools compete for public funding, some believe charter schools siphon funds for public schools, undermining the public education system. Additionally, since charter schools can be run by for-profit organizations, some criticize those charter schools for co-mingling education and business.

Basic Statistics

Interestingly, the number of magnet school students compared to the number of charter school students in the United States is relatively close. However, there are significantly more charter schools than there are magnet schools, suggesting that class size in charter schools tends to be smaller.

Number of elementary and secondary magnet schools in the U.S.
3.5 million+
Number of magnet school students in the U.S.
Estimated number of elementary and secondary charter schools in the U.S.
3.1 million+
Number of charter school students in the U.S.
Source: Magnet Schools of America and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Want to learn more about the magnet and charter schools in your area?

Want to learn more about different kinds of schools near you? Here are links to additional articles that break down differences between them:

Author: Ali Trachta

Ali is the former Content Writer/Editor at Niche. She's a content strategist and award-winning writer, as well as a former editor at LA Weekly and NEXTpittsburgh. As a mom of one who's lived and worked all across the country, she's glad to have once again found her niche in her hometown of Pittsburgh.