The Difference between Charter Schools and Magnet Schools

There are all sorts of school options available: parochial, private, public, and home schooling. Even those options have choices within them. Let's take a look at the differences between two public school choices, charter schools and magnet schools, and the pros and cons of each.

Both are Public Schools, Aren't They the Same?

Yes, both can be considered public schools and both do not charge tuition. In fact, the similarities between the two have become blurred sometimes to the point that some schools use both names, as in the Community Magnet Charter Elementary School of Los Angeles. How they are operated and why they came about, however, are different for charter schools and magnet schools.

Magnet Schools. Magnet schools appeared before charter schools. They began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, originally as a way to desegregate public schools. To achieve racial balance, students were encouraged to attend from outside school neighborhood boundaries. Magnet schools would offer something above and beyond regular public school, and often would concentrate on a theme like the arts, math, or science, making them attractive to families from all over.

The Department of Education describes a magnet school today as having these characteristics:

  • Aims to eliminate or reduce racial or ethnic isolation by bringing together students from a variety of backgrounds.
  • Focuses on a specific academic theme.
  • Has no tuition.
  • Follows same laws and regulations of other public schools.
  • Administrators and staff are required to have state certifications.

Charter Schools. Charter schools began in the early 1990s. They are considered public schools, but are somewhat of a hybrid institution. Like other public schools, tuition is free and they can't discriminate based on race, gender, or disability. Also, like public schools, they are funded by the government and receive tax dollars, but they may also have private funding. Charter schools are independently run separate from school districts, however, and some are run by for-profit agencies. Instead of answering to a public school board of education, they are governed by a board of parents or community members, or private firms.

The Department of Education describes a charter school as having these characteristics:

  • Has been granted a charter, usually by the state legislature, or other designated authority.
  • Its governing body may be a group, organization, or corporation.
  • May have specific academic themes or serve particular populations.
  • Is granted more authority than other public schools, but has accountability and mission statements written into its charter.
  • The charter is periodically reviewed, and may be revoked.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2012-13 school year there were close to 13,500 public school districts with nearly 98,500 public schools. Of these, 6,100 were charter schools and 2,722 were magnet schools.

Pros and Cons of Magnet Schools

Magnet schools have been successful in having families enroll their children outside neighborhood school zones and have helped desegregate public education. Magnet schools offer specialized programs that challenge students more. The level of academic achievement is often greater, so students and teachers may be better motivated. Magnet schools have smaller classes and often offer hands-on learning that goes deeper than regular public schools can provide. Motivation is aided, because students are enrolled based on their interest in the magnet school's theme, not because they live in that neighborhood zone. Magnet schools often receive additional funding to help with their specialized programs.

Any cons of the magnet schools have little to do with the academic performance of magnet schools. The most common criticism of magnet schools is that the brightest students are removed from neighborhood schools, along with resources being taken from regular school programs for the magnet schools. Another criticism is that magnet schools are difficult to get into. Because interest is so high, many magnet schools base admission on a lottery system, which some feel is unfair. Most magnet schools also give preferential admission treatment to siblings of those who previously attended, again, something some feel is unfair.

Pros and Cons of Charter Schools

The pros of charter schools are small class sizes and high academic standards. Not being as tightly controlled as other public schools, there is more room for innovative approaches. Charter schools don't have to try to "provide everything for everybody." Many charter schools are created based on particular educational philosophies, so they will appeal to those who have the same views. The typical charter school is small, with the norm being around 250 students. For educators, charter schools have more flexibility in that non-certified teachers can be hired and salaries can be negotiated, unlike other public schools where certifications are required, and salaries are set by the state school board.

By far, the biggest criticisms of charter schools have to do with how charters spend their money. Some charters are for-profit and some of the tax dollars are paid to investors or stock holders. Some high profile charter school managers make $300,000 to $500,000 annually. Many charters are run by private institutions, so while their charters may be periodically reviewed, they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and have much less transparency with regards to how and where tax dollars are spent.

Like magnet schools, it can be difficult to get into a charter school. They also often have to resort to a lottery system for admission. From the educator standpoint, nearly 90% of charter schools do not have a union, which means there are no grievance boards and no collective bargaining.

Both Offer a Choice

Each has its pros and cons, but by providing schools that are based on choice and not location, both charter schools and magnet schools offer parents and students real alternatives to traditional public schooling. The question is whether the value of that choice is worth taking resources and money from other public schools.