In the United States, public education is the publicly funded formal schooling of children and teens. Public education covers kindergarten through twelfth grade. This is commonly abbreviated as K12. Students typically start kindergarten at age five and graduate from twelfth grade at age seventeen or eighteen. All children living in the United States have legally guaranteed access to public schooling.
The right to a free public education is protected by the individual constitutions of all fifty US states. The Supreme Court confirmed that this right extended to the children of undocumented immigration status in Plyler v. Doe (1982). In addition, all states have compulsory education laws mandating that children must attend school until a certain age. This age is set at sixteen or eighteen in most states. Nationwide, there were approximately 50.8 million K12 students in the United States in 2019. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predicts that total will climb to 56.8 million by 2026.
Federal K12 Policy
The US public education system gives state and local governments most of the authority over public education. However, the federal government has legal and financial responsibilities regarding public education. In 2015 President Barack Obama (1961–) signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. State governments and local-level district school boards must create curricula that meet the federal standards defined in the ESSA. Similarly, curriculum decisions made at the local level must conform to standards defined by state law.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative has shaped US public education policy since 2009. Common Core State Standards define a set of distinct and uniform guidelines. The standards establish capabilities that students should have upon completion of each grade level. The federal government encouraged states to adopt the standards and provided financial incentives to states with standards in place.
Arguments for the standards include educational continuity from one state to another. In addition, they would inform colleges or employers across the country and internationally that any student with a US high school diploma is proficient in certain areas. Criticisms of Common Core standards include that they bring all states down to the level of states with low academic achievement, contribute to public education being fixated on standardized testing, limit teacher autonomy, or do not meet international educational standards.
The Role of Public Education
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) describes public education as a way to prepare students for the future. Public education helps students join the workforce and enter college but also helps them realize their potentials and become productive citizens.
The American public has varying views on the basic purpose of public education. The annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools found in 2019 that 53 percent of parents and adults viewed academics as the top priority for a public-school education. Only 20 percent of those polled believed that the main purpose of public education should be preparing students for the workforce. Conservatives, white Americans, and rural residents were more likely to view work preparation as a main priority. Teachers and Asian-Americans were more likely to prioritize the preparation of students to participate in public life as a fundamental purpose of public education. The majority of those polled believed that public education should prepare students academically and for the workforce.
Public Vs. Private K12 Education
The public K12 system is typically subdivided into multiple categories that reflect the various grade levels of students. In the broadest sense, these categories include two subdivisions: elementary school and secondary school. Elementary school covers kindergarten through eighth grade. Secondary school covers ninth through twelfth grade. Schooling stages can also be divided into elementary, middle school, and high school. Beyond traditional academic subjects, most public schools also offer technical and vocational programs intended to help students develop job skills.
Private education is the primary schooling option available outside of the public system. The vast majority of US private schools charge annual tuition fees because they do not qualify for public funding except through applicable tax credits. The main reasons for choosing to attend private school include prestige, high quality of academic programs, specialized focus on particular subject areas, and religious affiliation.
Alternative Education Models
Charter schools and online education are other schooling alternatives. A charter school is a publicly funded school that operates independently. Charter schools are created under the authority of a charter granted by a government body. Charter schools often have religious affiliations and specialized academic programs designed to meet the needs of particular groups of students. Internet technology has also made online elementary and secondary schooling possible. Online education can be offered by a specific institution with the recognized authority to issue diplomas to graduating students. Online schooling can also be pursued independently as a way to prepare students for the General Equivalency Development (GED) high school equivalency examination. There is significant debate over how much public funding charter schools and online schools should receive.
Homeschooling is one of the most widely practiced alternative education methods. In this option, parents or licensed educators provide structured curricula in the student’s domestic environment. Homeschooling programs are meant to deliver academic programs similar to those associated with the grade level that corresponds with the student’s age. Though charter schools and homeschooling are the most common alternative models, there are also nonstandard options available to particular student populations. Examples include schools for teen mothers and schools for juvenile offenders.
Learning Conditions and Classroom Supports
Students with effective K12 teachers perform better at all grade levels and in postsecondary education. Those with ineffective teachers are at a measurable academic disadvantage. Funding rollbacks and budget cuts can be serious impediments to a teacher’s ability to provide valuable classroom instruction.
Overcrowded classrooms, inadequate and obsolete technologies, outdated textbooks, and crumbling school infrastructure are other commonly cited problems with public school systems across the country. Such conditions are common in public schools across the country.
K12 Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In spring 2020 the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic disrupted the K12 public education system. To slow the spread of the virus, states closed schools. By the end of the 2019–2020 school year, at least 124,000 public schools had closed. The school closures forced educators and students to transition from face-to-face instruction to virtual learning. The shift put more of a strain on parents to provide care for their children during the school day and support them with online learning. The school closures had an even more adverse impact on low-income families. Many low-income students relied on free meals at school and lacked access to the technological tools needed for remote learning.
In the fall, most states left the decision to reopen schools up to individual school districts and local health authorities. Hundreds of school districts chose to start the school year remotely. Others put in place a mix of online and in-person instruction. Some school districts chose to resume full-time in-person instruction, but some schools closed after teachers and students tested positive for the virus.