More than 50 million students in the United States attend public schools—primary and secondary schools that are open to all students free of charge and funded and overseen by the government. The growth of public schools in the United States brought equal educational opportunities to all American children, regardless of wealth, location, gender, or race.
Fast Facts about U.S. Public Schools
|Total Enrollment||50.1 million students|
|Number of Public School Districts||13,600|
|Number of Public Schools||98,800|
|Number of Full-Time Equivalent Teachers||3.3 million|
|Expenditures per Student||$11,810|
|High School Graduates||3.3 million students|
History of American Public Education
The oldest public school in the United States is Boston Latin School, opened in 1635, but public schools in America didn’t really start taking off until after the American Revolution.
In 1837, Horace Mann, widely considered to be the “father of public education,” was appointed secretary of the new Massachusetts board of education. Mann revolutionized public education in the state by creating a statewide system for training teachers, making school attendance mandatory, and introducing the concept of “age grading”—where students are assigned to and advance through different grades based on their age—something most people today take for granted.
Other states quickly adopted similar reforms, and Mann’s popularity resulted in a growing movement to build more public schools. By about 1870, every state had free elementary schools, and by 1900, the number of public secondary schools exceeded the number of private ones.
Oldest Public Schools
Types of Public Schools
There are three basic types of public schools: traditional schools, magnet schools, and charter schools. Traditional public schools have specific attendance boundaries and are governed by a local school district or school board.
Magnet schools are public schools that are governed by a local school district but have looser attendance boundaries in order to “attract” a diverse group of students. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from school districts through a state or local charter contract. Some charter schools are founded as cyber or online schools, where students receive their education online instead of in a traditional classroom.
Public schools are normally divided up into three levels: elementary schools (K-5), middle schools (6-8), and high schools (9-12). However, there can be a lot of variations of these school levels.
For instance, elementary schools are sometimes divided into “primary” (K-2) and “intermediate” (3-5), or middle schools can start as early as 5th grade and go as high as 9th grade or can be replaced with a junior high school instead. K-8 schools have also grown in popularity, especially among charter schools, and there are still K-12 schools in many rural areas, where students attend all grades in the same building.
Largest School Districts
Role of Government
Public schools are regulated by state governments. The state legislature and the state board or department of education make policy decisions that are then distributed to local school districts, which oversee the operation of the individual schools in their district.
In addition to executing state education policies, the local school board will have its own policies dictating curriculum, funding, taxation, teaching, and other procedures within the district.
The role of the federal government in public education is limited to funding, as it does not have the authority to regulate education on a national level. However, it can require schools or districts to meet certain educational standards in order to receive federal funding or participate in federal programs.
In recent years, there has been some controversy as the federal government attempts to use its influence to enact nationwide educational standards, such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core Standards.
The Bottom Line
By giving every child access to a free education, public schools really are the foundation of the American dream. Regardless of their backgrounds, all kids have the opportunity to get a good education, which can, in turn, lead to attending a good college and starting a successful career.