How Public Schools Work

How Public Schools Operate

Public schools are operated at the state level through departments of education, and locally by school districts and publicly elected or appointed school boards. Approximately 15,000 different school districts operate in the United States, and most are run by counties. Because there is very little federal oversight, curricula in one state can differ from those in other states.

Students generally go to the public school in the district in which they live; however, with the growth of charter and magnet schools, students are now being offered more options. Public schools generally accept everyone who wants to go there, regardless of their income or skill level.


Here are a few quick statistics about public schools:

  • Number of children enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools (2007-08): 49.6 million
  • Estimated public elementary and secondary schools (2005-06): 97,000
  • Number of charter schools (2005): 3,519
  • Number of students enrolled in charter schools (2004-05): 887,000
  • Number of teachers employed in public elementary and secondary schools (2007-08): 3.2 million
  • Average expenditure per pupil (2007-08): $9,969

Who Pays for Public Schools?

Spending on elementary and secondary school students has risen dramatically throughout the past several decades. Back in 1959, schools spent only $2,101 per student. In the 2007-08 school year, by comparison, schools will have spent nearly $10,000 per student. The projected annual total spending on public elementary and secondary schools for the 2007-2008 year is $489.4 billion.

Property taxes pay for most of the cost of public schools. Although public schools get a very small percentage of their funding from donations and parent and student fundraising efforts, by far the greatest proportion of the money comes from state and local governments. The federal government contributes less than 10 percent of the cost.