April 3, 2013

Charter vs. Magnet: Do You Know the Difference?

A quick look at choice in public education

by Robin Anderson for Navigator

Do you know the difference between charter schools and magnet schools? The two types have many things in common, but several key contrasts set them apart. Whether you are trying to decide between sending your child to a charter school or a magnet school, or just want to better your understanding of the two, read on to learn more.

The Similarities
First and foremost, know that both magnets and charters are public, tuition-free schools. They exist at both the primary and secondary school levels. Funding for both charter and magnet schools comes primarily from tax dollars. Both types are considered part of the districts in which they operate; however, unlike traditional public schools, students are not automatically zoned to either charter or magnet schools, and must apply to gain admission. Both charter and magnet schools often have a particular area of interest which serves as the core theme or focus of an individual institution. For example, they may concentrate on the fine arts or on science and technology. Both charter school and magnet school students are required to take state mandated tests and meet certain educational minimums.

The Difference
Charter schools are granted a charter, which is periodically reviewed and may be revoked if the school’s standards are not upheld. This allows them greater flexibility in many aspects of how they’re run, and who runs them. For example, charter schools may be operated by a particular group, a university, or even a for-profit corporation. They may have non-traditional hours, like options for evening or weekend hours, or classroom settings, such as a virtual learning environment. Charter schools hire their own teachers and staff, and not all charter school teachers are required to be certified. Charter schools are required to have open admission policies; if not enough room exists for all applicants, a lottery system is frequently employed to determine who’s allowed to enroll. Magnet schools are specialized schools created and run by the district in which they reside.

Magnet schools must adhere to their district’s rules for hours of operation and attendance in brick-and-mortar locations. Their teachers and staff are hired by the district, and all teachers must be certified. While they lack some of the flexibility of charter schools, magnet schools are frequently allotted additional funds (over other schools in the district, including charter schools) in pursuit of their educational goals. Admission to magnet schools is generally selective and competitive; depending on the school’s particular focus, criteria might include grades, performance ability, interest, and aptitude.

The Bottom Line
Both charter and magnet schools can offer innovative and unique approaches to learning. They may be worth looking into if a student’s particular educational interests or needs aren’t being met by the school to which he or she is zoned.


This article first appeared in Navigator, a thought-leadership blog hosted by Compass Learning that seeks to inspire and motivate educators to discuss and affect change in the education sector.

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