In the United States, the term “state school” is colloquial for state university, a college, or a university in a state university system. Instead, the term “public school” is used for elementary, middle, and high schools funded and/or run by a governmental entity. “Private school” generally refers to primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions that are not government-owned; in practice the term is generally used to refer to non-sectarian schools.
Elementary, middle, and high schools that are operated by a religious organisation are commonly called “parochial schools” (though, in practice, the term is generally used to refer only to schools operated by the Catholic Church or some other mainline denomination; the term “Christian school” is generally used to refer to schools operated by Evangelical, Pentecostal/Charismatic, or Fundamentalist Christian churches).
The role of the federal government in education is limited and indirect. Direct control of education is a power reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the Constitution does not explicitly or implicitly give the federal government authority to regulate education. However, any public or private school that accepts educational funding from the federal government, including participation in collegiate federal financial aid programs (such as Pell Grants and Stafford Loans), by accepting the funds or participating in a particular federal program, subjects itself to federal jurisdiction to the extent of that participation.
The United States Department of Education supervises the role of the federal government in education. Direct regulation of public, private and parochial schools is done by state and territorial governments, in Washington, D.C., by the District Government. Broad regulation of public schools is typically accomplished through a state education agency and a state department of education. There is usually a state superintendent of schools, who is appointed or elected to co-ordinate the state department of education, the state board of education, and the state legislature itself. Statewide education policies are disseminated to school “districts” or their equivalents. They are associated with counties, or with groups of counties, but their boundaries are not necessarily coterminous with county boundaries. The intermediate school districts encompass many local school districts. The local school districts operate with their own local boards, which oversee operations of the individual schools within their jurisdiction.
In most states, the county or regional “intermediate” school districts merely implement state education policy and provide the channels through which a local district communicates with a state board of education, state superintendent, and department of education. They do not establish county or regional policies of their own.
Local school districts are administered by local school boards, which operate public elementary and high schools within their boundaries. Public schools are often funded by local taxpayers, and most school boards are elected. However, some states have adopted new funding models that are not dependent upon the local economy.
Public schools are provided mainly by local governments. Curricula, funding, teaching, and other policies are set through locally elected school boards by jurisdiction over school districts. The school districts are special-purpose districts authorised by provisions of state law. Generally, state governments set minimum standards relating to almost all activities of elementary and high schools, as well as funding and authorisation to enact local school taxes to support the schools, primarily through real property taxes. The federal government funds aid to states and school districts that meet minimum federal standards. School accreditation decisions are made by voluntary regional associations. The first free public school in America was the Syms-Eaton Academy (1634) in Hampton, Virginia, and the first tax-supported public school in America was in Dedham, Massachusetts, founded by Rev. Ralph Wheelock. In the United States, 88% of students attend public schools, compared with 9% who attend parochial schools, 1% who attend private independent schools, and 2% who are homeschooled.
Public school is normally split up into three stages: elementary school (kindergarten to 5th or 6th grade), middle (“intermediate” or junior high school) from 5th, 6th, or 7th grade to 8th or 9th grade, and high school (9th or 10th to 12th grade).
The middle school format is increasingly common in which the elementary school contains kindergarten or 1st grade to 5th or 6th grade and the middle School contains 6th or 7th and 8th grade. In addition, some elementary schools are splitting into two levels, sometimes in separate buildings: elementary school (usually K-2) and intermediate (3-5).
The K-8 format is also an emerging popular concept in which students may attend only two schools for all of their K-12 education. Many charter schools feature the K-8 format in which all elementary grades are housed in one section of the school, and the traditional junior high school students are housed in another section of the school. Some very small school districts, primarily in rural areas, still maintain a K-12 system in which all students are housed in a single school. A few 7-12 schools also exist.
In the United States, institutions of higher education that are operated and subsidised by the states are also referred to as “public.” However, unlike public high schools, public universities charge tuition, but fees are usually much lower than those charged by private universities, particularly for students who meet in-state residency criteria. Community colleges, state colleges, and state universities are examples of public institutions of higher education. In particular, many state universities are regarded as among the best institutions of higher education in the US but usually are surpassed in ranking by certain private universities and colleges, such as those of the Ivy League, which are often very expensive and extremely selective in the students they accept. In several states, the administrations of public universities are elected via the general electoral ballot.