Schools are always a big topic for home buyers, especially those who are relocating to the Raleigh / Durham area. One of the biggest sources of confusion is the difference between magnet schools and charter schools and who’s eligible for what! How do they differ from public schools? Are they a good option for your family?

I reached out to an expert for some guidance, Libby Taylor of, and asked her to write a guest post for us with all the pertinent information! And although her specialty is Wake County, all the school districts in the Triangle offer some combination of magnet, charter, and traditional public school settings. 

The Wake County School Landscape Can Be Daunting

Wake County currently has 191 public schools, 54 magnet schools, and 24 charter schools, in addition to 76 private schools. On the one hand, it’s great that Wake County offers so many choices for parents; on the other hand, it can be overwhelming and confusing. 

I work with parents every day who are looking for the best options for their children’s education. Some have lived here for a while; others are new to the area or planning to relocate by the next school year. And while there are certainly magnet schools and charter schools in other parts of the country, NC is sixth in the country for the number of magnet schools if offered. 

Here are the most common questions I get asked! 

Q. What is a magnet school and how does it differ from a charter school? Why do they exist? 

Magnet schools are schools that are organized around a theme, such as science, technology,  fine arts, career and technical education. Most magnet schools came into being as a way to diversify schools and make a wide range of educational opportunities available to all students, not just those who lived in certain neighborhoods. They are part of the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) and still have their own base area, but because of their theme students can apply from outside their base area. 

Magnet schools provide the same curriculum as all other public schools, but do so through the lens of their particular focus. 

Charter schools, on the other hand, are public tuition-free schools but operate under the state and not WCPSS. They still follow the same state standards in education but can design their own curriculum and instructional models. They are governed by their own board of directors, although the charter is granted by the state and the state does exercise oversight over the schools. Both can be found on the NC School Report Cards.

Many charter schools are much smaller schools which appeal to many parents. Some charter schools have specializations like magnet schools do, but some don’t. 

Q. How do you get into magnet schools and charter schools? 

Magnet schools have a priority based application system, similar to what people might call a weighted lottery. Applications are done during the winter for admissions the following academic year. However if a magnet school is your base then you don’t need to apply. 

Families with siblings already at the magnet school have a higher priority as do students who are already in a magnet school, so for example, an elementary school in a magnet program has an easier path to a magnet middle school and then a high school. 

Charter schools provide admission through a lottery process, also done in the winter for the following academic year. After the number of available seats are filled, schools usually maintain a waitlist from which they add students if spaces become available. The number of seats available each year varies as the size of the overall grade level population rises and falls. Siblings do get priority. 

Q. Can I apply to more than one charter school or magnet school? 

Yes, you can apply to as many charter schools as you want in order to increase your chances of getting into a school that you believe is best for your child. 

For magnet schools, you may not have all of them available to you, depending on where you live. You can view your choices on the WCPSS web site using your home address to see your options for both your base school as well as magnet schools.  You can typically apply to up to 5 schools on the magnet application. 

Q. What about transportation to charter and magnet schools? 

Most charter schools do not provide transportation. There is no guarantee of transportation, although in many cases, transportation is offered by WCPSS to magnet schools in your region. There are different levels of transportation, so you may be offered express busing, where you drive your student to a central location to be picked up by the bus, or neighborhood busing, which is the more traditional method of stopping at various points in the neighborhood. Most bus stops are designed to be no farther than 2/10 mile from your address.

The good news is that Wake County’s public schools are well-regarded, so if you miss out on the magnet or charter options, your child still has a great opportunity for a good educational experience. 

Libby Taylor is founder of SchoolUpWake, an independent consulting business that provides families with the knowledge, research, and clarity they need to make the best K-12 school choice for their children. She brings a wealth of knowledge to this endeavor, with a career in education that includes both teaching in the public schools and providing professional development to teachers.