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United States

In the United States, public schools are either school districts, which are independent special-purpose governments, or dependent school systems, which are under the control of state or local government. A school district is a legally separate body corporate and politic. School districts are local governments with powers similar to that of a city or a county including taxation and eminent domain. 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, school committee, or the like. This body appoints a superintendent, 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.

Not all school systems constitute school districts as distinct bodies corporate. A few states have no school systems independent of county or municipal governments. One prominent example is Marylandmarker, where all school systems are run at the county or, in the case of Baltimore Citymarker, the county-equivalent level. Other states, such as New Yorkmarker, have both independent school districts and school systems that are subordinate to cities[43266]. The Hawaii State Department of Education functions as a single state-wide school district. This is unique among the states, but the Puerto Rico Department of Education operates all schools in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, thus also functioning as a single school district.

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 (agencies providing support services to public school systems)


Although these terms can vary slightly between various states and regions, these are typical definitions for school district constitution:


  • An elementary school usually includes kindergarten and grades one through five (sometimes six). In some school districts these grades are divided into two schools.
  • A middle school usually includes grades six or seven through eight (in some places, the alternative terms junior high school or intermediate school are still used). Junior high school often referred to schools that covered grades seven through nine. Intermediate school is often used for schools that cover grades 3-5 or so when they are separated from elementary schools.
  • A high school usually includes grades nine through twelve and may include grades seven and above. There are many high schools that cover only grades ten to twelve, which are 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 there is one central administration that oversees the entire district.
  • 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.
  • The word joint in a district's name indicates that it includes territory from more than one county.
  • The word independent can have different meanings, depending on the state.
    • Kentuckymarker — Here, "Independent" districts are separate from county districts, the standard form of school district in the state. If a county has no independent district, its school district boundaries coincide exactly with its borders. As of 2007, the state has 54 independent districts scattered throughout the state, with major concentrations in Northern Kentucky and the Eastern Coal Fields 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 Schools centered on Cave Citymarker and Horse Cavemarker and the Corbinmarker Independent Schools. Note that some districts in the state are independent despite not having "Independent" in their official name, as in the Owensboromarker Public Schools and Paducah Public Schools.
    • Texasmarker — 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 Ohiomarker, 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, 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 based curriculum.

  • In Michiganmarker there are Intermediate School Districts largely at the county level. The local schools districts run the schools and most programs, but often bi-lingual aides and programs for the deaf and blind are run by the Intermediate School District.

International comparisons

Outside the United States, other jurisdictions often will have autonomous districts (or equivalent) authorities to represent various groups seeking autonomy, such as linguistic groups, or religious groups. The U.S. school districts, which tend to be based largely on geographical divisions, generally avoid these issues, as English is such a dominant language, and religion is largely excluded from public education by the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state and the widespread existence of private schools run by religious organizations. In much of the world, religious (confessional), linguistic, and other divisions, are a significant factor in organizing school districts or equivalent authorities.

In England and Wales, school boards were established in 1870, and abolished in 1902, with county council and county borough councils becoming the Local Education Authorities. [43267]

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 that 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 proximity to the school


See also


  1. Special Purpose Governments, Ohio State University. Accessed 2008-01-05.

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