What to Know About Public Schools

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While the majority of Americans send their children to local public schools, doing so is not a given for every family. The decision about whether to send your children to a public school is often a tough one, especially because public schools often get a bad rap. You might have heard that they are overcrowded or that they only “teach to the test.”

While some public schools could use improvements, for many of us, sending our kids to public schools means that they will be guaranteed a diverse, solid, and reliable education.

As you consider whether to send your children to public school, it’s important to separate fact from fiction and make an informed decision. We all want what is best for our children, and picking the place where they will spend their days learning and growing should be done thoughtfully and with care.

Let’s take a look at what you can expect from a public school, and what it might mean for your children.

History and Background of Public Schools

When America was founded, there was no guaranteed, compulsory public education. Most kids were either taught at home or were sent to small, private schools in their local towns. The United States Department of Education was founded in 1867, but it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that public schools began to proliferate more in America and become the norm for education.

In 1980, the Department of Education became a Cabinet-level agency. Currently, the U.S. Department of Education oversees about 18,200 school districts. Of those, approximately 98,000 are public schools, and the rest—32,000—are private schools.

Public schools are funded by a combination of state, local, and federal tax dollars, and are free for students to attend.

Popularity of Public Schools

The majority of American children attend public schools. Here’s how the statistics break down, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):

  • In 2015-2016, there were 132,853 schools in America (K-12)
  • In 2016-2017, there were 91,147 are traditional public schools
  • About 50.8 million students attend public schools, as opposed to 5.8 million students who attend private schools
  • During the 2019-20 school year, 3.3 million students are expected to graduate from public high schools, in contrast to 0.3 million from private schools

Public schools have been the most popular choice for schooling for many years, and statistics show that is not slowing down.

The NCES estimates that enrollment in public school in 2019 is 50.7 million, with a projected increase to 51.4 million by 2028. 

Classroom Dynamics

Public schools are extremely diverse in terms of academic approach and classroom dynamics. After all, there are tens of thousands of schools spread all across the country, some in densely populated cities, others in small towns. Most public schools reflect their local communities, which unfortunately means that public schools in more well-funded areas and will often offer more opportunities for students.

Federal funding for public education is offered to every school, but the majority of funding comes from local and state agencies. In many cases, local school funding is based on property tax contributions so that schools in wealthier areas are usually better funded than schools in poorer districts.

The inequities in public schools are vast: this is part of the reason why it can be difficult to make blanket statements about what classroom dynamics and learning environment are like in public schools.

However, public schools do have a few key characteristics that are nearly universal, especially when compared to privately funded schools.

Class Size and Pupil/Teacher Ratio

In general, public schools are larger than private schools, have larger class sizes, and less favorable pupil/teacher ratios. Unfortunately, public schools have gotten larger and student-teacher ratios have increased over the past decade.

As the NCES reports:

  • In 2016, public school size averaged a total of 528 students, up 8% from 2011
  • Public school enrollment decreased during the 1970s and early 1980s, but teacher hirings increased, which meant that class sizes were smaller than they are now
  • Since 2008, public school pupil/teacher ratio has increased, from 15.3 in 2008 to 16.0 in 2015
  • Private school pupil/teacher ratio is considerably smaller, at 11.9 in 2015
  • In the 2011-12 school year, average class size among public school was 21.2 for elementary, and 26.8 for secondary schools

Curriculum

Since public schools are funded by local, state, and federal governments, their curriculum is heavily regulated by these entities. This can have both positive and negative ramifications.

On the positive side, it means that in order to graduate high school, students must master core subjects such as math, science, social studies, and language arts. Private schools may not require students to meet these standards with as much rigor as public schools do.

On the flip side, there may not be as much flexibility in terms of curriculum. Teachers may feel that they don’t get as much time to try different teaching styles or teach creatively. Many teachers are instructed to “teach to the test” rather than delving into the nuances of their subject matter.

Again, there are many variations here, with some public schools taking a more progressive approach to curriculum, and some a more traditional, rigid approach. This is why it’s always worth researching and visiting your local public school before making a judgment on the school’s teaching philosophy.

Diversity and Demographics

Depending on the location and neighborhood from which the school draws its students, public schools are usually very diverse, which is one of their main attractions.

If you want your child to be exposed to children of different races, economic backgrounds, and religions, public schools are a great match for you.

According to the NCES, of the 50.7 million public school students enrolled in 2017, 24.1 million are white, 13.6 million are Hispanic, 7.7 million were Black, and 2.8 million were Asian. In addition, 0.5 million are Native American or Alaska Native students.

Special Needs and Gifted Children

It is often said that public schools are among the best places to send a child who has special needs. That is partly because there is federally designated funding for children with disabilities and other differences, such as autism and developmental delays. Passed in 1975, the Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students with disabilities get an equal shot at a quality and well-funded education.

IDEA offers federal funding for students with disabilities, but at the same time, the majority of the funding comes from state and local governments. Again, this varies based on location and the income of local residents. Still, most public schools are able to hire more specialized teachers for students with disabilities than private schools.

In terms of gifted students, public schools are not required by law to offer special programs to academically gifted children. However, some public schools do offer specialized programs for gifted kids; in most cases, the gifted children are taken out of class periodically to be challenged with higher-level academics.

Pros and Cons of Public School

Pros

  • Public schools are free for students, and even offer free lunch and breakfast for children who face economic hardship
  • In general, the student body in public schools is more racially and economically diverse than at private schools
  • Teachers and staff at public schools are required to have teaching degrees and certain levels of higher education, which may affect the quality of education your child receives
  • Public schools are located close to where you live, which allows you to become involved in your local community
  • Many public schools offer bussing and low-cost before- or after-care; some districts offer Pre-K

Cons

  • Public schools are usually larger, have larger class sizes, and less favorable pupil/teacher ratio than private schools
  • Public schools often have to adhere to “common core” standards and don’t offer teachers as many opportunities for creative or flexible teaching
  • Public school funding is partially based on the location and wealth of local communities, which means there are frequent inequities found in public school districts
  • Attending a public school usually means living within the school’s “zone”; this means there is less school choice than when considering private schools

A Word from Verywell

There are so many differences between one public school and another, even within the same school district. The best to find out if a particular public school is right for you child is to visit the school, schedule a meeting with the school’s staff, and talk to local parents.

Parents are usually happy to provide honest and detailed feedback about their experience with a school. You can join local online parenting groups if you don’t know any parents who have sent their children to your local school.

But even when you have all the data before you, making your final decision can be confusing. It’s best to go with your gut on this one.

What kind of environment do you think your child will thrive best in? Has anything you’ve heard about the school rubbed you the wrong way? Are private alternatives affordable? Can you picture your child in the school?

Ultimately, children are more resilient than we expect them to be and will thrive in whatever environment we place them in. And with the majority of public schools offering highly trained teachers, diverse populations, and opportunities for community building and involvement, you can’t go wrong.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. The Federal Role in Education. Updated May 25, 2017.

  2. National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics 2017. Updated January 2019.

  3. National Center for Education Statistics. School Choice in the United States: 2019. Updated September 2019.

  4. National Center for Education Statistics. Fast Facts. Back to School Statistics. Updated 2020.

  5. National Center for Education Statistics. Table 214.40. Public elementary and secondary school enrollment, number of schools, and other selected characteristics, by locale: Fall 2014 through fall 2017. Updated 2020.

  6. National Center for Education Statistics. Fast facts. Teacher characteristics and trends. Updated 2020.

  7. National Center for Education Statistics. The condition of education. Racial/ethnic enrollment in public schools. Updated May 2020.