Public Schools in the United States

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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 Enrollment50.1 million students
Number of Public School Districts13,600
Number of Public Schools98,800
Number of Full-Time Equivalent Teachers3.3 million
Student-Faculty Ratio15:1
Expenditures per Student$11,810
Drop-Out Rate7.1%
High School Graduates3.3 million students
College-Bound Seniors68.2%

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.

Public schools quote: "By about 1870, every state in the U.S. had free elementary schools."

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

Niche Grade
A+Boston Latin School1635BostonMassachusetts
DHartford Public High School1638HartfordConnecticut
CCambridge Rindge & Latin School1648CambridgeMassachusetts
B-Hopkins Academy1664HadleyMassachusetts
DAcademy of Richmond County High School1783AugustaGeorgia
C-Glynn Academy1788BrunswickGeorgia
AWestford Academy1792WestfordMassachusetts
D+Newburgh Free Academy1796NewburghNew York
N/AWoodstock Academy1801WoodstockConnecticut
C+Bacon Academy1803ColchesterConnecticut
A+Hampden Academy1803HampdenMaine
B-Columbia High School1814MaplewoodNew Jersey
C+Delaware Academy High School1819DelhiNew York
DThe English High School1821BostonMassachusetts
C-Portland High School1821PortlandMaine
N/AKentucky School for the Deaf1823DanvilleKentucky
B+Prattsburgh Central School1823PrattsburghNew York
DNew Bedford High School1827New BedfordMassachusetts
B-Keene High School1828KeeneNew Hampshire
D+Lahainaluna High School1831LahainaHawaii
B+Leon High School1831TallahasseeFlorida
DLowell High School1831LowellMassachusetts
A-Newburyport High School1831NewburyportMassachusetts
DWoodward Career Technical High School1831CincinnatiOhio
C-Cambridge Junior/Senior High School1834CambridgeIllinois

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 school quote: "Public schools are normally divided into K-5, 6-8, and 9-12."

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

School District
1New York City Department of EducationNew YorkNew York990,145
2Los Angeles Unified School DistrictLos AngelesCalifornia659,639
3Puerto Rico Department of EducationHato ReyPuerto Rico452,740
4Chicago Public SchoolsChicagoIllinois403,004
5Miami-Dade County Public SchoolsMiamiFlorida350,239
6Clark County School DistrictLas VegasNevada313,398
7Broward County Public SchoolsFort LauderdaleFlorida258,478
8Houston Independent School DistrictHoustonTexas203,066
9Hillsborough County Public SchoolsTampaFlorida197,041
10Hawaii Department of EducationHonoluluHawaii182,706
11Orange County Public SchoolsOrlandoFlorida180,000
12Fairfax County Public SchoolsFalls ChurchVirginia177,606
13Palm Beach County School DistrictWest Palm BeachFlorida176,901
14Gwinnett County SchoolsSuwaneeGeorgia162,370
15Dallas Independent School DistrictDallasTexas157,575
16Philadelphia City School DistrictPhiladelphiaPennsylvania154,262
17Wake County SchoolsRaleighNorth Carolina148,154
18Montgomery County Public SchoolsRockvilleMaryland146,459
19Charlotte-Mecklenburg SchoolsCharlotteNorth Carolina141,728
20San Diego Unified School DistrictSan DiegoCalifornia131,044
21Duval County Public SchoolsJacksonvilleFlorida125,429
22Prince George's County Public SchoolsUpper MarlboroMaryland123,833
23Memphis City School DistrictMemphisTennessee110,952
24Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School DistrictHoustonTexas107,960
25Cobb County SchoolsMariettaGeorgia107,291

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.

Public school control: "Public schools are regulated by state governments."

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.