- Purchase the complete Expat Arrivals USA Guide (PDF)
Compulsory education in the US begins at the age of five, when a child enters kindergarten, but most children attend pre-school from the age of three or four. While kindergarten falls under the public education system, and is therefore free, pre-schools are run privately and parents will be expected to pay fees.
Naturally, the schooling system varies quite considerably from state to state in the US. Generally, in most school districts, the system is divided into three levels:
Elementary school – Kindergarten to Grade 5
Middle school – Grade 6 to Grade 8
High school – Grade 9 to Grade 12
In most states, it's compulsory for children to attend school until at least the age of 16, but children will usually continue their education until they graduate. In other states, schooling is mandatory until the end of high school.
Public schools in the USA
Expat students will be eligible to attend a public school in their local area. The registration process is usually quite straightforward. As public schools in the US are largely funded by property taxes, expats will find that schools in wealthier suburbs are likely to have better facilities.
While public education is generally free, there are some fees associated with public schools, including the purchase of books, equipment and uniforms. These fees vary from state to state and between schools themselves.
While the standard of public education in the States varies dramatically, there are a number of advantages for expat parents who opt to utilise this system. Firstly, costs are minimal and a lot less than the cost of a private or international school education. Secondly, as school placement is determined by geographical location, the public school system allows children to attend a school close to home, meaning they tend to have more interaction with local children in the neighbourhood.
For expats planning on relocating to the US long term, having their children attend a public school is likely to allow them to mix with a wider, more varied and representative sample of American children.
Charter schools are public schools that operate on a performance-based contract with the local school district. They have more flexibility and are beholden to fewer rules and regulations from the state. This enables them to provide a more individualised education.
Charter schools in the US are a popular option and waiting lists can often be lengthy. Many charter schools operate admission lotteries to ensure that the allocation of resources is fair.
Magnet schools are free public elementary and secondary schools that focus on a particular area of the curriculum such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), Performing Arts, International Studies or World Languages. These schools do, however, still cover all subject areas.
Most magnet schools in the US do not have entrance criteria, but instead embody a belief that all students have interests and talents that families and educators believe are better cultivated at a magnet school with a more focused subject base. There are a few exceptions to this, however, such as schools specialising in a skill-based subject area such as music.
Private schools in the USA
Generally, the standard of education in American private schools is better than that of public schools. Private schools in the US needn't conform to government educational directives and therefore teachers have more flexibility and opportunity to customise the curriculum and implement a variety of teaching styles.
Because of the higher fees charged by private schools, these institutions tend to afford greater extra-curricular opportunities to their students. They can also offer greater support to students with special needs.
Unlike public schools, securing a place at a private school in the US is not determined by geographical location. Children from outside the local area may be granted a place at the school and private schools often have boarding facilities.
Expat parents hoping to send their child to one of the more popular US private schools should be aware that competition for places can be stiff and schools can be highly selective about the students they accept.
In certain states, there are also private schools that are religious institutions. If a child meets the entry requirements for a school with a religious affiliation, parents will find that fees at such schools are considerably cheaper. Some religious schools are willing to accept students from other faiths.
International schools in the USA
The majority of expats who only plan to stay in the US for a few years opt to send their children to international schools as these schools follow curricula from their home country, allowing for a smoother transition into life in America. International schools can be found in all of the USA’s major cities, including New York, Boston, Washington DC and Los Angeles.
Expats hoping to send their child to an international school should be aware that the most highly acclaimed schools have long waiting lists, and so applications should be made well in advance. Fees at international schools can be extremely high, so expats should make sure that their budget can accommodate this expense before committing.
Homeschooling in the USA
Homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular in the US. Parents who choose homeschooling for their children often do so because of the flexibility it offers. Some feel that homeschooling provides a more natural atmosphere for children, where study and play can be adjusted to suit the individual needs of each student.
When it comes to homeschooling, state regulations vary and parents are advised to consult the state’s curriculum to ensure that they cover all the required subjects. Parents sometimes choose to teach the child themselves and others prefer to hire a private tutor.
Special-needs education in the USA
America's education system is well equipped to provide for students with learning and developmental disabilities. There are multiple federal laws in place to ensure that children with disabilities have fair access to quality education at no cost, regardless of state.
Both public and private schools usually have special programmes in place to support students with learning difficulties. In cases where a person’s disability is too severe for them to benefit from mainstream education, there are special education facilities that are able to offer students with a special-needs programme tailored to meet their specific requirements.
Tutors in the USA
Whether a child has fallen behind in maths class or is in need of additional support to excel in their college entrance exams, there are plenty of private tutors in most American cities.
It’s wise to start by asking the child’s school or other parents in the area for a recommendation. Alternatively, one could utilise the services of established tutoring companies. These companies offer an array of packages from subject-specific intensive programmes to one-on-one home tuition and small group sessions.
Enlisting the services of a private tutor is an excellent opportunity for students to address any gaps in their knowledge, excel at a certain subject, or simply build confidence in their new environment.
►Colleges and Universities in the USA provides useful information for parents moving to the USA with older children
"In Miami, there are public, charter, magnet and private schools, pretty much like in the rest of the United States. The choice of a school is very personal."
Read more about French expat Emmanuelle's life in Miami, FL.
Are you an expat living in The USA?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to The USA. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
Expat Health Insurance
For anyone starting a new life abroad, ensuring access to good quality healthcare is essential. Cigna Global are specialists in providing international health plans for expats, ensuring you have access to quality care and support whenever you need it. Cigna’s health plans can be tailored exactly to meet the individual needs of you and your family.
Sirelo has a network of more than 500 international removal companies that can move your furniture and possessions to your new home. By filling in a form, you’ll get up to 5 quotes from recommended movers. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.