Quick Guide to Types of K-12 Schools

“What schools are in the attendance zone for that neighborhood? Wait, we’re not guaranteed the school up the street? What the heck is an innovation school??”


I asked all those questions while researching neighborhoods and schools before moving to Colorado. I spent a LOT of time on the internet that spring. The variety of options in Denver Public Schools (DPS) alone quickly overwhelmed me. In fact, DPS was recently recognized in a Brookings study for having the most school choice of any school district in the country. There were types of K-12 schools I hadn’t even heard of (and I was a teacher!)


The U.S. school system used to be pretty basic and easy to understand – public vs. private. However, in the last few decades, more K-12 options have cropped up. This can make it harder for parents to pick a school for their children. (Or even understand the latest news about education!)

[click_to_tweet tweet=”In the last few decades, more schooling options have cropped up. Confusion makes it harder for parents to pick a school for their children. ” quote=”In the last few decades, more schooling options have cropped up. Confusion makes it harder for parents to pick a school for their children. “]


The U.S. school system is also a complicated beast due to federalism. Federalism is the sharing of powers between the federal, state, and local governments. In fact, all three levels of government have some control over education. So, while there are many similarities between US schools, they can vary wildly from state to state.


The federal government requires all schools that accept federal funding to provide an appropriate education for students with special needs, show all students’ academic progress through standardized testing, and protect students from discrimination based on their gender, race, nationality, or religion.

Types of K-12 Schools

Public Schools

This is the traditional school many of us grew up with. The school district must accept and teach all children living within the district’s boundaries. A local (usually elected) school board controls the school district and it is funded through local real estate taxes. Though run locally, state governments have a lot of power over school districts which include: academic standards, state testing, graduation requirements, teacher licensing requirements, and labor laws.


Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are public schools with a special focus (think science, arts, etc) that accept students from the entire district. As a public school, magnet schools are free for residents and must teach all students. School districts created magnet schools in an attempt to desegregate.

Some have a lottery process to get in, while others require that students apply. Magnet schools usually receive extra funding either from the school district or an outside group to pay for “extras” related to its theme. (Ex – A STEM school might receive private funding for lab equipment.)


Innovation Schools (Colorado only)

An innovation school is a public school that is run by the school district. Innovations schools are freed from certain policies and state laws, related to curriculum, length of the school day, and collective bargaining agreements. The purpose is to allow the school to create and implement an innovative program to improve student achievement.

The innovation charter is written by the school community, voted on by teachers, and must be approved by both the school district and the state. Since they are public schools, they must accept all students, including special needs students. Depending on the school district, students may live within the attendance zone and/ or choose the school through a lottery process.


Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that are NOT run by the local school board. Instead, a board or other organization runs the charter; charters are free from certain district policies, including some labor policies. They are free for residents to attend and enroll students from the entire school district. Since charter schools are public, they must accept all types of students, including special education students. However, there are questions about whether some charters discriminate in admissions against special needs students.

Charter schools receive most of their funding from the school district, though they often receive outside funding as well. Many charter schools, like magnets, have a theme or a distinctive style. Depending on the state and/ or local district, the school may admit students through a lottery or a formal application process.


Private Schools

Private schools are privately run and funded, usually through student tuition and fees. Most are either independent, run by their own governing board, or affiliated with a religious organization, such as the Roman Catholic Church. Since most do not take federal funds, they are not required to accept or provide services for special needs students. Private schools create their own academic standards and graduation requirements. Students must apply to be admitted and may have to take an admissions exam. Acceptance can be very competitive for highly-rated schools.



Growing greatly in the last few decades, homeschooling is when children are educated in the home, usually by a parent. Homeschooling varies greatly from state to state. In most cases, parents must inform the state they are homeschooling, pick a curriculum, report attendance, and show student academic progress. Homeschoolers are not required to follow state academic standards or take state exams. Parents choose to homeschool for many reasons, including religion, dissatisfaction with local schools, to accommodate a child’s learning needs, to have a  more flexible schedule, or to teach a particular curriculum. 


Hopefully, this will help you pick the right school for your child!

What still confuses you about K-12 schools? Let me know in the comments below! 

Related Posts: 15 Education Terms that Trip You UpHow to Make the Most of Short Parent-Teacher Conferences, What NOT to Say When your Child Fails

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