Compulsory education in the USA begins at the age of five, when a child enters kindergarten. However, 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 USA. 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 in most cases, children will 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 very straightforward. As public schools in the USA 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 USA 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 USA for the 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

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 USA 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

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 USA 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 fostered in American private schools is better than that of public schools. Private schools in the USA do not have to 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 USA 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 very selective about the students that 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 USA 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 the USA. International schools can be found in all of the USA’s major cities, including New YorkBostonWashington 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 to this route.

Homeschooling in the USA

Homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular in the USA. 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 their student covers all the required subjects. Parents sometimes choose to teach the child themselves and others prefer to hire a private tutor. 

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