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In the U.S, most K–12 public schools function as units of local school districts, which usually operate several schools, and with the largest urban and suburban districts operating hundreds of schools. While practice varies significantly by state (and in some cases, within a state), most American school districts operate as independent local governmental units under a grant of authority and within geographic limits created by state law. The executive and legislative power over locally controlled policies and operations of an independent school district are, in most cases, held by a school district's board of education. Depending on state law, members of a local board of education (often referred to informally as a school board) may be elected, appointed by a political office holder, serve ex officio, or a combination of any of these.
An independent school district is a legally separate body corporate and politic. While the controlling law varies, in the United States most school districts operate as independent local governmental units with exclusive authority over K–12 public educational operations and policies. The extent of this control is set by state-level law.
Independent school districts often exercise authority over a school system that is analogous to the authority of local governments like that of a town or a county. These include the power to enter contacts, eminent domain, and the power to issue binding rules and regulations affecting school policies and operations. The power of school districts to tax and spend, however, is generally more limited. An independent school district's annual budget may require approval by plebiscite (much of New York) or the local government (Maryland). Additionally, independent taxation authority may or may not exist as in Virginia, whose school divisions have no taxing authority and must depend on another local government (county, city, or town) for funding. Its governing body, which is typically elected by direct popular vote but may be appointed by other governmental officials, is called a school board, board of trustees, board of education, school committee, or the like. This body appoints a superintendent of schools, usually an experienced public school administrator, to function as the district's chief executive for carrying out day-to-day decisions and policy implementations. The school board may also exercise a quasi-judicial function in serious employee or student discipline matters.
School districts in the Midwest and West tend to cross municipal boundaries, while school districts in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions tend to adhere to city, township, and/or county boundaries. As of 1951[update] school districts were independent governmental units in 26 states, while in 17 states there were mixes of independent school districts and school districts subordinate to other local governments. In nine states there were only school districts subordinate to local governments.
In most Southern states, school systems operate either as an arm of county government, or at least share coextensive boundaries with the state's counties. A 2010 study by economist William A. Fischel found that "two-thirds of medium-to-large American cities have boundaries that substantially overlap those of a single school district" with substantial regional and state variations in the degree of overlap, "ranging from nearly perfect congruence in New England, New Jersey, and Virginia, to hardly any in Illinois, Texas, and Florida." Older and more populous municipalities "tend to have boundaries that closely match those of a single school district." Noting that most modern school districts were forms by consolidating one-room school districts in the first seven decades of the 20th century, Fischel argues that "outside the South, these consolidations were consented to by local voters" who "preferred districts whose boundaries conformed to their everyday interactions rather than formal units of government" and that "[t]he South ended up with county-based school districts because segregation imposed diseconomies of scale on district operations and required larger land-area districts."
In New York, most school districts are separate governmental units with the power to levy taxes and incur debt, except for the five cities with population over 125,000 (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers, and New York City), where the schools are operated directly by the municipalities.
The Hawaii State Department of Education functions as a single statewide school district, unique among states.
According to a 2021 study, the demographics of voters who elect local school boards in the United States tends not to align with the demographics of the students. This gap is "most pronounced in majority nonwhite jurisdictions and school districts with the largest racial achievement gaps."
There were 130,000 school districts in the country in 1930, with an average student population of 150. From 1942 to 1951 the number of school districts declined from 108,579 to 70,452, a decrease by 38,127 or 35%. Many states had passed laws facilitating school district consolidation. In 1951 the majority of the school districts in existence were rural school districts only providing elementary education, and some school districts did not operate schools but instead provided transportation to other schools. The Midwest had a large number of rural school districts.
Previously areas of the Unorganized Borough of Alaska were not served by school districts, but instead served by schools directly operated by the Alaska Department of Education and by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools. The state schools were transferred to the Alaska State-Operated School System (SOS) after the Alaska Legislature created it in 1971; that agency was terminated in 1975, with its schools transferred to the newly created Alaska Unorganized Borough School District, which was broken apart into twenty-one school districts the following year.
In the 2002 Census of Governments, the United States Census Bureau enumerated the following numbers of school systems in the United States:
- 13,506 school district governments
- 178 state-dependent school systems
- 1,330 local-dependent school systems
- 1,196 education service agencies and (agencies providing support services to public school systems)
School districts in the US have reduced the number of their employees by 3.3%, or 270,000 between 2008 and 2012, owing to a decline in property tax revenues during and after the Great Recession. By 2016 there were about 13,000 school districts, and the average student population was about 5,000.
This article may not provide balanced geographical coverage on school districts in states across the U.S. (December 2010)
Although these terms can vary slightly between various states and regions, these are typical definitions for school district constitution:
- An elementary or primary school usually includes kindergarten and grades one through five or six. In some school districts, these grades are divided into two schools. Primary school is most commonly used for schools housing students in kindergarten through grade two or three in districts where the older elementary students are in intermediate schools (see below).
- A middle school usually includes grades six or seven through eight or nine. In some places, the alternative terms junior high school or intermediate school are still used. Junior high school often refers to schools that cover grades seven through nine. Intermediate school is also used for schools that cover grades three through five (or so) when they are separated from elementary schools.
- A high school usually includes grades nine or ten through twelve and may also include grades seven and eight. There are many high schools that cover only grades ten to twelve; this type of school is sometimes referred to as a senior high school.
These terms may not appear in a district's name, even though the condition may apply.
- A unified school district includes elementary and secondary (middle school and high school) educational levels.
- The word central in a district's name indicates that the district is formed from a consolidation ("centralization") of multiple districts and that the central district's operations are centralized relative to those of the previous districts.
- The word free in a district's name indicates that no tuition is charged to attend district schools. In New York, it is used in conjunction with union to indicate a district composed of multiple, formerly independent common school districts now free of restrictions placed on New York State's common school districts.
- The word union or consolidated in a district's name indicates that it was formed from two or more districts.
- In Missouri, most district names include a C- (for "consolidated") or, more commonly, an R- (for "reorganized") followed by a number, commonly in Roman numerals.
- The word joint in a district's name indicates that it includes territory from more than one county. By extension, a joint state school district, such as Union County–College Corner JSD, includes territory in more than one state.
- The word independent can have different meanings, depending on the state.
- Kentucky — Under Kentucky Revised Statutes § 160.020, an "Independent" district is defined as one whose jurisdiction does not cover an entire county. If a county has no independent district, its school district boundaries coincide exactly with its borders. Following the most recent closure of an independent district in 2019, the state has 52 independent school districts along with 120 county districts, with the most significant concentrations of independent districts found in Northern Kentucky and the Eastern Coalfield region. These districts are generally associated with a city, or sometimes with a cluster of adjoining cities. Unlike county districts, independent districts can cross county lines, as in the Caverna Independent School District centered on Cave City and Horse Cave and the Corbin Independent School District. Note that some districts in the state are independent despite not having "Independent" in their official name, as in the Owensboro Public Schools and Paducah Public Schools.
- Minnesota — Per Minnesota Statute 120A.05, "Independent" denotes any school district validly created and existing as an independent, consolidated, joint independent, county or a ten or more township district as of July 1, 1957, or pursuant to the Education Code.
- Texas — Here, "Independent" denotes that the district is separate from any county- or municipal-level entity. All of the state's school districts, with only one exception (Stafford Municipal School District), are independent of any municipal or county control. Moreover, school district boundaries rarely coincide with municipal limits or county lines. Most districts use the term "Independent School District" in their name; in the few cases where the term "Common School District" is used the district is still an independent governmental entity.
- In Ohio, school districts are classified as either city school districts, exempted village school districts, or local school districts. City and exempted village school districts are exempted from county boards of education, while local school districts remain under county school board supervision. School districts may combine resources to form a fourth type of school district, the joint vocational school district, which focuses on a technical skills–based curriculum.
- In Michigan, there are intermediate school districts (ISD), regional education service districts (RESD), or regional education service agencies (RESA), largely at the county level. The local schools districts run the schools and most programs, but often bilingual aides, programs for the deaf and blind, special education for the severely impaired, and career and technical education programs are run by the intermediate school district or equivalent.
- County-wide school districts are mostly commonly found in Mid-Atlantic and Southern states such as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Nevada and Utah also have mostly county-wide school districts, and Alaska has many borough-wide school districts. Hawaii operates its schools at the state level through its department of education.
- In Maine, there are regional school units wherein smaller districts were consolidated into RSUs in 2008 when state laws changed.
Outside the United States, autonomous districts or equivalent authorities often represent various groups seeking education autonomy. In European history, as in much of the world, religious (confessional), linguistic, and ethnic divisions have been a significant factor in school organization. This paradigm is shifting.[how?]
In France, the system of the carte scolaire was dismantled by the beginning of the 2007 school year. More school choice has been given to French students; however, priority is given to those who meet the following criteria:
- students with disabilities
- students on scholarships or special academic merit
- students who meet "social cohesion" criteria (essentially to diversify the school population)
- students who require specialized medical attention from a hospital
- students who want to study a course offered only by the school
- students who have siblings that attend the school
- students who live close to the school
In Italy, school districts were established in 1974 by the "Provvedimenti Delegati sulla scuola" ("Assigned Laws [to the Government] about the school"). Each district must contain a minimum of 10,000 inhabitants. The national government attempted to link the local schools with local society and culture and local governments. The school districts were dissolved in 2003 by the "legge finanziaria" (law about the government budget) in an attempt to trim the national budget.
In Hong Kong, the Education Bureau divides primary schools into 36 districts, known as school nets, for its Primary One Admission System. Of the 36 districts, districts 34 and 41 in Kowloon and districts 11 and 12 in Hong Kong Island are considered the most prestigious.
- Lists of school districts in the United States
- List of the largest school districts in the United States by enrollment
- State education agency
- School division (Virginia)
- Unified school district
- School district drug policies
- School Improvement Grant
- School catchment area
- "School Districts" (Archive) U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved on June 20, 2015.
- "State and Local Government Special Studies: Governments in the United States 1951." Property Taxation 1941. U.S. Census Bureau. G-SS-No. 29, March 1952. p. 2 (Google Books RA3-PA56).
- Fischel, William A., or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.967399 The Congruence of American School Districts with Other Local Government Boundaries: A Google-Earth Exploration, SSRN (April 1, 2010).
- "Local Government Handbook" (PDF) (7th ed.). New York Department of State, Division of Local Government Services. March 13, 2018. p. 93.
- Linda Jacobson, Report Faults Hawaii's Statewide School District, Education Week (December 10, 2003).
- Jan Zulich, Hawaii's School System Is One of a Kind, The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 70, No. 7 (March 1989), pp. 546-549.
- Kogan, Vladimir; Lavertu, Stéphane; Peskowitz, Zachary (2021). "The Democratic Deficit in U.S. Education Governance". American Political Science Review. doi:10.1017/S0003055421000162. ISSN 0003-0554.
- Burnette, Daarel II (2016-02-17). "Consolidation Push Roils Vermont Landscape". Education Week. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
- "State and Local Government Special Studies: Governments in the United States 1951." Property Taxation 1941. U.S. Census Bureau. G-SS-No. 29, March 1952. p. 1-2 (Google Books RA3-PA55 and PA56).
- Barnhardt, Carol. "Historical Status of Elementary Schools in Rural Alaskan Communities 1867–1980." Alaska Native Knowledge Network (ANKN), University of Alaska Fairbanks. Retrieved on March 13, 2017.
- USA Today published March 13, 2012, page A1,"Property taxes start to decline"
- Niskayuna Central School District: District History
- "Answer Man: What's 'R' mean in school district names?". Retrieved 10 March 2017.
- Kentucky Revised Statutes § 160.020.
- Kentucky Revised Statutes § 160.010.
- Honeycutt Spears, Valarie (February 12, 2019). "Kentucky will have one less school district with this decision to close and merge". Lexington Herald-Leader. Lexington, KY. Retrieved October 26, 2019.
- "120A.05 – 2014 Minnesota Statutes". mn.gov. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- Special Purpose Governments, Ohio State University. Accessed 2008-01-05.
- "Find archives & local records". powys.gov.uk. Archived from the original on July 2, 2001. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- "Text of the DPR n° 416 del 31 maggio 1974 ("Assigned Laws about the school")" (in Italian). 1994 [31 May 1974]. Retrieved 2016-03-30.
- "L 289/2002: Text of the law n° 289 del 27 dicembre 2002 ("legge finanziaria 2003")" (in Italian). 2003 [27 Dec 2002]. Retrieved 2016-03-30.
- "POA2020 Choice of Schools List by School Net for Central Allocation". Education Bureau. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
- "四大名校網範圍" [Four famous school network scope]. Hong Kong Economic Journal. 15 July 2013. Archived from the original on July 18, 2013. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
- Yan, Wenfan (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). "A Comparison of Rural School Districts" (Archive). The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania General Assembly. September 2006.
- "How Small Is Too Small? An Analysis of School District Consolidation" (Archive). Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) (Fiscal and policy advisor of the California Legislature). May 2, 2011.