Key Facts About The U.S. Public Education System

Girl at deskPublic education in the United States is primarily a state and local responsibility. States set policies for the operation of schools, such as graduation requirements and teacher-certification rules. Local school districts operate schools and in many cases set policies over curriculum and instruction. The Federal government provides support for special populations, such as students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and English learners; conducts research; and enforces civil rights laws in schools. Overall, the Federal Government provides about 9 percent of the funding for K–12 education; districts provide 36 percent, and states provide 44 percent. About 9 percent comes from other sources. Recent boosts in Federal investments are causing a slight increase in that pattern, with early estimates indicating a bump in Federal contributions to roughly 10.5 percent. It is unclear whether those increases will remain constant in the future.

Although the U.S. Constitution does not mention education, virtually all state constitutions establish education as a basic right. To carry out that charge, each state has established its own education system. State education agencies (SEAs) distribute Federal funds to school districts and implement state and Federal policies. The authority and reach of the SEA varies depending on state law. The state education system is operated through local education agencies (LEAs), more commonly referred to as school districts, counties, or divisions, to operate schools and set policies for their operations. Subsequently, in this module the term “school district”, or simply, “district” will be used. Currently, there are roughly 14,000 districts, many of which have their own authority to raise and spend funds.

Resources and instruction vary within school districts. Many districts have established special programs in particular schools, and the level of teachers’ experience and knowledge varies from school to school. As a result of this dispersal of authority and differences in the level of resources available in a community, there are substantial variations in schooling from school to school, from district to district, and from state to state. The curriculum that is taught, how learning is assessed, and the materials and teaching resources available to students can vary widely. Military families experience this perhaps more than most other families, moving from one school district to another, often in different states.