In an intra-district school choice plan, school assignment is not restricted to one particular school within the school district geographic boundary in which a child resides. Instead, families may choose from among more than one school within the district.
Some form of intra-district choice has always been available in certain school districts throughout the United States. School attendance areas are typically determined by local school boards. Some boards have allowed parents and students considerable discretion in selecting schools outside their attendance areas, while others have been strict in adhering to school attendance zones.
At the very least, most districts allow student transfers for extraordinary reasons at the discretion of the school board or district central administration. Transfer policies, however, should not be confused with intra-district choice.
There are three primary forms of intra-district choice: magnet schools, second-chance schools, and open enrollment.
Magnet schools are district-operated schools designed to "attract" a racially diverse student body and, as a result, are predominantly an urban phenomenon, often associated with court-ordered desegregation plans. These schools offer alternatives to the traditional curriculum available within districts and typically share three primary characteristics: (1) a curriculum designed around a specific theme or method of instruction (such as fine arts, math and science, environmental studies); (2) a selected student population and teaching staff; and (3) students drawn from a variety of attendance areas.
Most magnet schools have little difficulty attracting students from within the district, so much so that long waiting lines to attend the school are common. Admissions procedures for magnet schools vary from district to district. In some cases, it is first-come-first-serve; in others, seats are allocated for racial balance; and in still others, a lottery is used. In practice, many magnet schools have procedures for "selecting out" certain categories of students that do not fit into the school's mission.
What distinguishes magnet schools from other categories of intra-district choice is the decision by the district to limit choice to a small number of schools which have additional resources that other schools do not have and which are able to operate with more flexibility than other schools.
Second-chance schools gained acceptance in the 1960s and were designed for students who, for a variety of reasons, did not function well in traditional schools. These schools typically serve students who have dropped out of school or who are in danger of dropping out due to under-achievement, pregnancy, low skills, or drug or alcohol dependency. These schools seek to "rescue" students by providing an alternative to traditional schooling.
Second-chance schools differ from traditional educational programs in organizational structure, size, and curricular offerings. Typically these schools offer open, flexible alternatives to students who are more philosophically comfortable with open learning environments as well. Good second-chance schools usually have long waiting lists. Like magnet schools, however, interest in these programs has not significantly increased the number of second-chance schools. Therefore, these successful educational programs typically serve a relatively small percentage of the student population.
Although second-chance schools are often thought of as occupying separate facilities, they can and do exist within traditional school buildings. For example, the "school-within-a-school" approach to increase choice within government schools is an important alternative for many children and parents who do not want to leave neighborhood schools.
In intra-district open enrollment, families may choose to send their children to any school (offering the appropriate grade levels and with available space) located within their resident school district (or a region thereof in larger districts). In practice, most intra-district choice plans leave intact the existing "neighborhood" school attendance areas; that is, children of families in the school's "attendance zone" are assigned to that school unless their parents choose another school. In addition, students from outside a neighborhood may not displace resident students in neighborhood schools.
The amount of space available for students from outside the attendance area is usually very limited because districts continually redraw attendance areas to efficiently use available building space. Rarely do neighborhoods produce exactly the right number of children at each grade level to fill up the schools precisely.
Despite differences in organizational structure, size, curricular offerings, and institutional setting, intra-district schools-of-choice share some common characteristics. Most notably, each continues to operate under the authority and therefore control of the district's central administration. They depend on the district for their operating revenue rather than generating their own revenue based on level of enrollment. Rarely do these schools have control of their own budgets and thus are unable to spontaneously expand their capacity in response to greater enrollment demand. This explains why popular government schools-of-choice usually have long waiting lists. In addition, intra-district schools-of-choice are usually subject to the same rules and employee contracts that govern existing neighborhood schools. As a result, they have limited control over such personnel matters as hiring and firing.
Therefore, intra-district schools-of-choice are limited in their diversity and responsiveness to parental and student demand by their lack of organizational independence.