One can argue that the number of public schools in the U.S., or in any other country for that matter, reflects the country’s economic strength. After all, the United Nations has identified education as a bedrock of sustainable development.
In the U.S., education remains strong, lending to the new generation and the country as a whole a bright future. But how does American public education fare against education in other industrialized countries? A starting point is to get the numbers right.
There are 130,930 K-12 schools in the U.S. as of 2020, of which 13,452 are regular school districts (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2020). The country’s expansive educational infrastructure has made it possible for the U.S. to secure a rich learning experience for its future generations, regardless of class, age, race, religion and other socioeconomic and political beliefs. Nearly half of the school districts are funded by the state (46.8%), with the other sources coming from federal and local sources.
To get a better picture of this, this article will further discuss statistics behind U.S. public schools, detailing national, state-based, and institutional developments, and comparing the like with U.S. private schools.
The first American public school was founded on April 23, 1635, in Boston, Massachusetts, under the name [the] “Boston Latin School.” Home to well-known alumni, such as John Hancock and Samuel Addams, the secondary school served as a college preparatory class and was made exclusively for male students interested in studying the classics.
Over time, public schools were recognized for their role in making education accessible, affordable, and attentive to current events—and eventually became the model for academic progress in the United States.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
There are 97,568 public schools in the United States as of 2021, and the number can only grow as each school expects a large number of enrollees per academic year.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these enrollment rates have decreased as a result of the heightened restrictions, be they in-state or nationwide.
According to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Education, only 48.1 million students attended public schools in the past year, noting a difference of 1.1 million enrollees from 49.2 million in 2019 (EDI, 2020).
Based on the guidelines set by UNESCO, the United States lags behind the global standard on spending for education, as it only allocates 11.6% of public funds to schooling, compared to the international benchmark of 15%.
At a glance, K-12 schools allocate $640.0 billion to public schools, averaging at $12,624 per pupil. Additionally, federal, state, and local governments spend a total of $734.2 billion or $14,484 per pupil. The EDI(2021) further records the expenses as:
Between 2000 and 2016, statistics show that enrollment in K-12 public schools has increased in 32 states. However, since the pandemic stalled education, this trend began to decline, with 2019 recording the highest public school enrollment count (Admissionsly, 2021).
With the exception of the Midwest, over the years, enrollment has significantly grown in the Southern and Western regions (EDI,2021).
Among all the U.S. states, California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois make up the top five in public school enrollments, as education districts practically thrive within these communities (EDI,2021).
The number of public schools per state, as well as the percentages of student enrollment, are as follows:
Apart from public schools, the United States likewise founded private education systems, owing much of their governance, conceptualization, and expenditure to private corporations.
Established in Florida and Louisiana by Catholic missionaries in the 16th century, these institutions generally reflected the evangelistic prospects of ecclesiastical and civil authorities, such that American schools will preserve certain values and traditions over the years.
There are currently 32,461 private schools in the United States.
On the other hand, there are currently 97,568 public schools in the country, counting 6,408 primary schools and 30,160 secondary schools in 2021. As of now, enrollment has reached 50.6 million students.
Granted, private institutes tend to bring in lower enrollment rates—as opposed to their public counterparts—due to the exclusivity of their student demographic, be it religious or non-affiliated.
However, based on current developments, the enrollment gap between religions is gradually decreasing, likely due to the rapid globalization of faith systems, ideologies, and personal values among students.
As of 2018, it was found that most public school students enroll in the suburbs (EDI,2021). The breakdown is as follows:
Meanwhile, most private school students enroll in the city; The rates are as follows:
Public schools are supported by the government; thus, a generous $640 billion is allocated to these institutions. On the other hand, private schools depend on student enrollment for income; based on a report by Admissionsly (2021), industry revenue is expected to grow by 3.8% to $87.5 billion annually.
From these findings, it can be surmised that public schools generally cater to families of lower incomes as the former requires massive financial support from private companies and/or citizens to fully operate.
In a report from 2016, the NCES learned that:
In line with this, an interesting point is that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, most families coming from the highest income bracket—that is, people with earnings over $75,000—bring their children to public schools, leaving merely 11% of their demographic to private schools. Coming from this, it can be assumed that, while public schools do cater to lower-income backgrounds, the quality of education is not to be overlooked.
In postsecondary education, however, private nonprofit schools outnumber public schools at 55.79% vs. 31.33% share, respectively, suggesting a reversal in trend when it comes to getting a degree.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
It has been statistically proven that private school students obtain better scores in standardized testing.
However, from a study conducted in 2018, University of Virginia dean, Robert Pianta determined that a student’s academic success relies more on one’s family’s educational attainment and income, as opposed to the school system—be it private, public, or any other.
Furthermore, Indiana University professor Christopher Lubienski, adds that:
Whether it’s a public or private school is not necessarily the defining factor. Private schools tend to score better on tests…But we found that family background differences more than explain the difference between public and private school test scores (U.S. News, 2021).
Thus, it can be said that enrolling in a private school will not make a difference in a child’s studies, for even public schools offer a good education. Rather, the choice between these systems lies at the beholder’s consideration of social identity and financial stature.
With the abundance of public schools in the U.S., it is highly likely that the student population comes from different walks of life. The following are the different ways to define such demographics:
Given their ties with the government, public schools are known to provide more support to students in need:
Furthermore, 1.35 million or 2.7% of public school students are reported to be homeless, with the majority coming from elementary schools (EDI, 2021).
As enrollment rates soar in public schools, the leading minority makes up nearly half as much of White students (Admissionsly, 2021).
A sensitive issue, public schools in America are not without their racial tensions, as explained by Rita Kohli et al. (2017) in their paper “The ‘New Racism’ of K–12 Schools: Centering Critical Research on Racism.” Published in Review of Research in Education, the meta-analysis looked into 186 papers in a U.S. K–12 school context that examined racism.
“We built on a theory of the “new racism”—a more covert and hidden racism than that of the past,” the authors said. They grouped the findings into two main sections: “(1) research that brings to light racism’s permanence and significance in the lives of students of Color through manifestations of what we conceptualize as (a) evaded racism, (b) “antiracist” racism, and (c) everyday racism and (2) research focused on confronting racism through racial literacy and the resistance of communities of Color.” The authors call for “a more direct acknowledgment of racism, as we attend to the experiences and needs of K–12 students of color.”
Public primary schools offer students an open and well-supported starting point in their education, as being one open to diversity, community involvement, and life-long learning.
Starting out with 27.65 million K-8 students in 1980, enrollment in public primary schools began to increase since, and at a rate of 26.9%—peaking at 35.5 million students in 2018 (EDI, 2021).
However, after 2018, enrollment was expected to decline at a rate of 1.14%, which was believed to last until 2023. This is likely due to heightened restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected physical attendance nationwide.
Public secondary schools support students on their road to college, providing them with a more insightful, sustainable, and globally-charged perspective towards learning. Beginning at 11.34 million students, secondary schools soon gained 15.20 million more enrollees in 2018—the number was slated to increase by 2.32% in the incoming academic years.
With matriculation rising by 3.71% since 1990, the EDI (2021) reports that enrollment is higher in public secondary schools compared to public elementary schools, regardless of how few public school students reach this level.
Furthermore, graduation from public schools increased at a rate of 0.2% after 2018, with 3.62 million students expected to graduate by Spring 2020. Between 2016-2017, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) has risen to 85%, which indicates the highest measure of public school graduates since its original inception back in 2010-2011 (Admissionsly, 2021).
Although statistics on spending fall short of the international standard, United States schools are still considered among the best sources of education, as American school statistics show. It also helps that the country has a robust tech industry, allowing students to get the best educational apps for kids to augment their learning, especially during the pandemic.
Ultimately, the U.S. made it its mission to provide citizens with a world-class education—and the public school system is one way it made learning more affordable and accessible, over the years. As it continues to open its doors to new students, enrollment grew exponentially throughout the nation; in the primary and elementary levels, and across various socioeconomic demographics.
Its current concern now lies in its navigation of the COVID-19 aftermath, as academic institutions are faced with the challenge of bringing students back to school in a safe, orderly, and timely manner.