Public Schools

In an address to educators in 1948, the statesman Adlai Stevenson said, “The most American thing about America is the free common school system.” The concept of providing free public education to all children was born in Boston in 1635 with the establishment of a public institution that still exists today as the Boston Latin School. By the time of the American Revolution, free public schools were quite common in the northern colonies; in the South, schooling was done primarily at home until after the Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, public education was available to children across the country. Then, as now, the quality of education varied, sometimes dramatically, from region to region. Today, public school curricula are regulated by state and local governments.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), there were 14,568 public school districts in the United States in academic year 1998–99. There are approximately 89,500 public schools in the United States; nearly 63,000 of those schools are elementary (kindergarten through sixth grade). The rest are mostly secondary (middle and high schools), although a small number of schools go from kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12). These schools employ some 2.7 million teachers and serve more than 53 million students.

Public schools are funded primarily by state and local sources; the federal government historically has provided less than 10 percent of public education funding. Each school district has a board of education or similar administrative group to oversee the schools’ performance; each state has an education department that sets academic standards for the school districts to follow.

The public school experience varies widely from district to district. A large city such as New York or Los Angeles has to address the education of hundreds of thousands of students with extraordinarily diverse needs. A small rural school district may have only a few hundred students who all come from a similar background. Affluent suburban communities with more local funding may pay higher salaries to attract the best teachers; this makes for strong suburban school districts but leaves poorer areas underserved. State governments do try to redress this imbalance (by giving more funds to poorer districts, for example) but often they meet with limited success.


Inside Public Schools