Elementary and Secondary Schools

SIC 8211

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes elementary and secondary schools offering academic courses, typically for kindergarten through grade 12. It includes both public and private institutions and comprises parochial schools, boarding schools, vocational high schools, and schools providing special services for physically and mentally handicapped students.

Industry Snapshot

About 49.4 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools in the United States in 2011, of which 34.9 million were in elementary school and 14.5 million were in secondary school. Private school enrollment totaled approximately 6 million, and an additional 1.3 million students were homeschooled.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 13,600 public school districts in the United States in 2010, home to 98,800 public schools and about 5,000 charter schools. In addition, there were approximately 33,300 private schools that offered classes from kindergarten through grade 12.

Historic statistics from the NCES showed a steady increase in enrollment from the 1990s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Enrollment in elementary and middle schools increased from 29.9 million in 1990 to approximately 35.2 million in 2009. Public high school enrollment grew from 11.3 million to about 14.8 million between 1990 and 2009.

At the end of the first decade of the 2000s and in the early 2010s, elementary and secondary education in the United States was characterized by a growing emphasis on technological access and mathematics to boost the educational quality and attainment levels of U.S. students and to prepare them for a future in a rapidly evolving technological work environment. For example, the NCES reported that in 2009, 85 percent of U.S. fourth graders were receiving at least five hours of mathematics instruction each week. However, as the public school system continued to be criticized, and alternatives such as charter schools and homeschooling were becoming increasingly popular.

Programs for the disabled served some 14 percent of students at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, up from about 8 percent in the mid-1970s. According to the NCES, in 2010 the percentage of public school students who were white dropped from 67 percent in 1990 to 54 percent in 2010, whereas the percentage who were Hispanic rose from 12 percent to 23 percent over the same time. In 2010 black students made up 15 percent of the public school population, and Asians and other ethnic groups comprised the remainder.

Approximately 5.5 million students attended private elementary or secondary schools in 2010, accounting for 10 percent of all students. About 39 percent of students who attended private school went to Catholic schools, and another 38 percent attended other religious schools. Twenty-three percent of private-school students went to nonsectarian private schools.

Charter schools were becoming more popular in the early twenty-first century, and in 2010, 1.6 million students attended U.S. charter schools, up from just under 340,000 in 1999. In order, white, black, and Hispanic ethnicities were the most represented in charter schools, with 37 percent of students white, 30 percent black, and 26 percent Hispanic.

The expenditures of public schools in the elementary and secondary grades were estimated at $543 billion in 2010, up from $338 billion in 2001. State and local governments provided an average of 47 percent and 34 percent of school revenues, respectively, and the federal government supplied about 9 percent. Other sources accounted for another 10 percent. Average per pupil expenditures amounted to more than $10,000 per school year, up from an estimated $6,400 in the early 1990s. The NCES predicted that per-pupil costs would rise to $11,900 by 2020.

All 50 states have compulsory education statutes requiring children to attend school. Although such regulations vary by state, in general, attendance is mandated to begin by a specified age (typically between 5 and 8 years old) and children are required to remain in school until a specified age (typically between 14 and 18 years old) or until high school graduation is achieved.

Enrollment in U.S. elementary and secondary schools increased 8 percent between 1995 and 2005 and was expected to increase an additional 5 percent between 2008 and 2020. The NCES reported that primary school enrollment increased 4 percent between 1995 and 2008, with an anticipated growth of 8 percent between 2008 and 2020. Enrollment in secondary school was up 19 percent between 1995 and 2008 and was expected to increase 1 percent between 2008 and 2010.

Organization and Structure

In the United States, schools are arranged into districts. Regular school districts are defined as those providing free public elementary and secondary education for the children living within them. Each school district functions under the auspices of a state-level regulatory agency and is responsible for the oversight and operation of the schools within its geographical boundaries. According to the NCES, there were 13,600 regular school districts within the United States in 2010, down from 15,358 in 1990. This decrease reflects school district consolidation and reorganization in order to achieve greater efficiency in the delivery of public school services. Over the long term, this trend has increased dramatically, since in 1930 there were more than 262,000 public elementary and secondary schools.

During the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the nation's five largest districts were New York City; Los Angeles Unified; City of Chicago Schools; and Dade County and Broward County, Florida. Large metropolitan cities were home to about one of every eight elementary schools but one of six students. Districts with student populations of more than 25,000 accounted for only 1.1 percent of the nation's school districts but served 30 percent of the nation's public school students. California and Texas led the nation in terms of the number of school districts, with each reporting more than 1,000 districts. The NCES estimated that public school enrollment would decrease in all Midwestern and Northeastern states except New Jersey. Some Southern and all Western states were expected to have enrollment increases, with Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, and New Mexico projected to show the greatest growth.

Different types of schools were established to serve students with different needs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 98 percent of the nation's public schools were regular schools. The remaining schools offered special services, such as vocational, alternative, or special education. Alternative schools often were operated in conjunction with regular schools and provided options for students whose needs were unmet in regular classroom settings. Special education schools provided adapted curriculum to meet the needs of students with such specific disabilities as physical, emotional, or mental impairments. The nation's vocational schools focused on providing education and training in semi-skilled or technical occupations. Regular schools often provided programs such as those offered at these different types of institutions in addition to their standard course offerings.

Background and Development

Education involves the process of transferring information from one generation to the next. Its origins are inseparable from the origins of civilization. Throughout history, humankind has been concerned with the process of maintaining culture, preserving mores, and stimulating minds. The ancients passed on religious information, early science instruction took the form of indoctrination in the magical arts, and oral literary traditions developed before words were ever written.

The roots of Western education can be traced to the ancient Greeks. Historians credit the Greeks with developing the study of science, art, literature, philosophy, ethics, and politics. Greek schools were designed to prepare the sons of Greek citizens for citizenship. This purpose was a departure from older forms of education that focused on specialized instruction, such as the training of skilled craftsmen, priests, or government officials.

The expansion of the ensuing Roman Empire paved the way for the development of education throughout Europe. Roman schools comprised three levels: elementary, secondary, and higher. Elementary schools taught reading, writing, morality, conduct, counting, and calculating. Secondary schools taught literature, language, astronomy, geometry, and ethics. Students in higher education learned rhetoric, mathematics, music, history, and law. The study of these subjects enabled students to lead effective public lives.

Christian schools, which date to the second century, were developed to teach new believers about the doctrines, discipline, and morals of the church. Other religious schools were developed to teach theology, philosophy, and science. As early as the fourth century, controversy arose concerning the conflict between the pagan influence in Roman schools and the teachings of the Christian church. Gradually, the pagan schools closed and the center of learning shifted to monasteries. Monastic schools were devoted to preparing students for careers with the church. Pupils were taught discipline and received instruction in such subjects as Latin, music, grammar, composition, record keeping, law, logic, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Advanced students also studied higher mathematics and science. The Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) was credited with revitalizing education. He opened schools for common children and ordered priests to offer free instruction to anyone who came to learn letters.

Following the Middle Ages, there was a rise in European universities where students could receive instruction in the arts, law, medicine, and theology. The Renaissance brought a revival of classical studies combined with Christian ideals. Formal education focused on cultivating the mind and the body. In the New World, colonists copied the European model but lacked established institutions and had to build a structure for education. Early opportunities were limited to apprenticeships, schools for practical instruction in mathematics and surveying, and instruction in reading and religion. College-bound students could arrange for training in Latin grammar.

Private schools in the United States developed during the eighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War, the nation turned its attention to the idea of public education. Legislation in 1785 required new townships to set aside land for public education. Massachusetts was the first state to pass a compulsory education statute. Enacted in 1852, the law required that children between the ages of 8 and 14 attend school 12 weeks per year and that 6 of the 12 weeks had to be consecutive. As the complexity of public education grew, states created positions for superintendents. By 1861, 30 of the states and organized territories had state-level school officials. During Reconstruction after the Civil War, education reform spread from the North to the South. During the 1869-1870 school year, 6.9 million students were enrolled in the nation's public elementary and secondary schools. The average school year was 132.2 days long, and the average number of days attended per pupil was 78.4 days. The system employed 201,000 people as supervisors, principals, teachers, and other nonsupervisory instructional staff. The average annual salary was $189.

At the end of the nineteenth century, primary education focused on the fundamentals of reading and mathematics and on the development of specific character qualities, such as honesty and patriotism. Industrial expansion and growing middle-class ambition brought with them increased interest in expanding participation in the educational process.

Fundamental changes in educational philosophy occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. A new attitude emerged, characterized by challenging of long-established traditions. In the early years of the 1900s, educational expansion occurred in the sciences, modern languages, and history. The process of scientific inquiry ushered in an era of questioning that included the close examination of ideas and customs. John Dewey made a significant impact on the development of educational philosophy in the United States. Dewey's many written works included The School and Society and Democracy & Education. Dewey espoused the notion that the purpose of education was not to prepare students for future life but that it was part of an ongoing experience leading to social progress and reform. A Deweyan teacher was not one who merely educated a child, but one who changed society. Dewey's principles were promoted by the Progressive Education Association (PEA), which was founded in 1919. The PEA dissolved in the mid-1950s because its aims had largely been adopted by mainstream educators.

Between World War I and World War II, U.S. educational establishments focused on expanding and providing universal secondary education. As a result, high school attendance increased from 915,000 during the 1909-1910 school year to more than 4.4 million in 1929-1930, and to 6.6 million by 1939-1940. The increasing numbers of students enrolled in secondary education during the 1930s led to an expansion in course offerings. High schools, which had traditionally offered classes intended to prepare students for higher education, added courses in general education, commercial and industrial arts, and home economics.

Following World War II and through the 1950s, the U.S. educational system was characterized by many changes. Rapid increases in enrollment occurred as children born after World War II began entering elementary schools. In 1954 the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision opened the way for racial integration. Curriculum changes reflected the intensified competition between Communist and Western nations, placing a heavy emphasis on scientific investigation and innovation. As a result, in 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) to encourage the study of science, mathematics, foreign languages, and technology.

During the 1960s, school enrollment continued to climb. As mainstream education focused on programmed instruction, alternate programs based on the Montessori method were revived. This educational philosophy was based on the work of Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian educator. Montessori believed that education should encourage spontaneity and activity and that children needed freedom to develop. Legislative initiatives also had an impact on education during the decade. In 1964 the NDEA was expanded to include English, social sciences, and reading. Congress also passed the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964 to expand the availability of educational opportunities in disadvantaged areas. In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The purpose of ESEA was to give federal support to schools located in low-income communities. ESEA made provisions for the funding of counseling, remedial education, and experimental classes. In subsequent years, ESEA was expanded to include help for migrant, neglected, delinquent, non-English speaking, and other children with special needs. During the 1960s the education establishment also returned to classes focused on preparing students for life experiences. Courses were provided in areas such as community involvement, job performance, citizenship, and family life.

Educators in the 1970s were challenged by rapid changes in society and technology. The prevailing educational philosophy was characterized by a "back to basics" approach. Critics charged that such an emphasis forced educators to focus on low-level skills and test children in accordance with minimum standards rather than striving to achieve excellence. Another challenge that decade was the expansion of special services for handicapped children. In 1975 Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The act required school districts to identify students with special needs and provide educational opportunities for them. The four most commonly identified disabilities were learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, mental handicaps, and emotional disturbances. In the 1976-77 school year, 8.3 percent of the nation's children were served by special programs. By 1993 the number had increased to 12 percent, and by 2000 the figure had increased minimally. The most significant increases were among children identified as learning disabled.

Although the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was intended to help foster educational opportunities for all students, it was criticized during the late 1980s and early 1990s as courts interpreted its provisions to mean that school districts were required to pay for educational and support services irrespective of a child's ability to benefit from any education provided. Critics of the courts' actions unsuccessfully claimed that the decisions placed an undue burden on school districts and that the cost of providing services for the severely disabled should be transferred to health care agencies.

During the early 1980s, a federal report titled A Nation at Risk analyzed the education system and concluded that schools were not doing an adequate job. The report led to the development of school reform efforts that continued into the 1990s. As a result, between 1982 and the early 1990s, 47 states instituted more stringent student testing practices, 42 implemented higher graduation requirements, and 39 established programs to test teachers. Changes were also made in vocational education philosophy. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 (Perkins Act) was aimed at restructuring vocational education through the integration of broad-based academic requirements. Because only 27 percent of secondary students completing high school with a major in a technical area ever worked in a related field, and because U.S. workers generally changed occupations four to six times during a lifetime, the narrow training given to students in vocational programs was judged inadequate. Critics claimed it provided only obsolete skills that were not transferable. Under the provisions of the Perkins Act, vocational programs were required to help students experience and understand all aspects of an industry with the aim that graduating students be prepared to take an active role in community development.

Problems with vocational education were also raised by critics who claimed that a shortage of skilled workers would render the United States unable to remain competitive in the global economy. Some educators advocated the development of a high-tech preparatory program that would include provisions for transition into the work world through apprenticeships or would prepare students for further study at two-year community or technical colleges.

In addition to the problems associated with low academic achievement, schools continued to face challenges related to drug abuse and violence. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the proportion of public and private high school seniors who reported ever using an illicit drug rose from 55 percent in 1975 to 66 percent in 1981. After 1981 that proportion fell to 41 percent in 1992 but rose to 48 percent in 1995. The proportion of high school seniors who had ever used cocaine fell from 17 percent in 1985 to 6 percent in 1995. Alcohol remained the most often used drug, although the number of seniors who said they had used alcohol within the prior 30 days decreasing from 72 percent in 1980 to 51 percent in 1995. Cigarette and smokeless tobacco use increased among those in ninth to twelfth grades for all categories. Alcohol, marijuana, and illegal drug use on school property increased for boys while it declined for girls.

At the beginning of the 1990s, efforts of the education establishment were aimed at improving learning opportunities for all children in the United States intensified. The number of high school graduates in 1997 and 1998 totaled about 2.7 million. Americans aged 25 and older holding high school diplomas or GED credentials increased from 69 percent to 82 percent between 1990 and 1997. The dropout rate at U.S. high schools fell from 14 percent in 1977 to 11 percent in 1997.

The 1990s were plagued by negative public perceptions about schools and inconsistent measurements of student achievement. For example, school records indicated that an increasing number of students were taking college preparatory classes in math, English, science, and social studies, with an increase from 37.9 percent in 1982 to almost 50 percent in 1996. Moreover, state governments placed a great deal of emphasis on increasing standards, indicative of the heightened primacy of scholastic assessment tests, both in evaluating school performance and for students entering colleges and advanced learning programs. However, educators argued about the effect of these measures. SAT scores remained flat through the 1990s, and were still far below their mid-1960s peak, despite the fact that students taking advanced-placement courses in high school increased from 5 percent of seniors in 1984 to 13.1 percent in 1997. Geography and history performance among students at all levels remained dismal by international standards. In mathematics, 9- and 13-year-olds demonstrated improved skills in numeric operations between 1977 and 1997, but performance remained flat for the remainder of the 1990s. Meanwhile, results of testing more complex mathematical skills among 17-year-olds continued to be disappointing between 1977 and 1997, by which time complex procedures and reasoning were only proficiently tackled by 59 percent of high-school 17-year-olds and adequacy in multi-step algebra was beyond the grasp of 93 percent of that age group.

Attempts to increase the quality of science education focused on curriculum changes. One program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, provided obligatory units of science in each grade progressing from basic measurements in ninth grade to abstract and theoretical studies in the higher grades. This proposal was intended to replace traditional science studies in which students, on an elective basis, enrolled in biology in tenth grade, chemistry in eleventh grade, and physics in twelfth grade. Under traditional science programs, statistics for 1994 graduates revealed that although 94 percent had taken biology, only 56 percent had taken chemistry, and only 24 percent had taken physics, although the average number of science courses completed in high school rose from 2.2 in 1980 to 3 in 1994.

Reading proficiency was another area of concern. The reading level among 9- and 13-year-olds improved markedly between 1970 and 1995, but little change occurred after 1980. By 1996 the reading level of high school 17-year-olds was unchanged from 1971, while writing levels had declined gradually. A U.S. Department of Education study in the late 1990s reported that only one in four students sampled across fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades met the Department's standards of writing proficiency for those levels.

Despite improvements made by African Americans and other minorities beginning in the 1970s, minority students continued to score below white students on many standardized tests and educational assessments. In 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results in reading suggested that minority groups were beginning to lose some of the earlier gains they had made relative to whites. The problem was heightened by the fact that minority students were statistically in the majority at 22 of the nation's largest 25 school districts. In such schools, classroom sizes tended to be large and the level of economic prosperity was markedly low. Moreover, studies revealed a positive correlation between students' levels of educational performance and the level of parents' education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, school reforms made under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act "seldom triggered the kinds of transforming that our schools need--particularly in economically disadvantaged communities."

Many school problems were associated with economically disadvantaged students. According to statistics, tenth-grade students from districts with high poverty levels dropped out twice as much as those in schools in districts with little poverty. The U.S. Department of Education estimated that more than 50 percent of the students in schools with the nation's highest concentrations of poverty were judged to be low achievers. In schools with the least poverty, only about 10 percent of the students were judged to be low achievers. Because of the ramifications of poverty on education, 30 states were involved in lawsuits over disparities in education spending created by differences in local property taxes during the mid-1990s. In Alabama and Massachusetts, the courts ruled that disparities in school funding violated the states' constitutions.

In an effort to increase the quality of education for the economically disadvantaged, the Clinton administration in 1994 reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which was aimed at setting precise standards for poor students that matched those for their more advantaged counterparts. As a result, federal resources were directed to helping states implement these performance standards. Texas, for instance, achieved among the highest gains in National Assessment of Educational Progress performance and narrowed achievement levels between minority and white students.

Critics of such educational spending proposals argued that states with the highest per-pupil spending had the lowest test scores. Instead of increasing financial assistance to schools, these analysts recommended core changes in school structure and curricula. Social scientists attributed much of the white-minority differences in achievement not only to poverty but also to the lower average educational levels of their parents. Although it is difficult for schools to compensate for such disadvantages, there is evidence that extraordinary schools and teachers make a difference in how all students perform. Research on early intervention and one-to-one tutoring suggests that at-risk students can achieve far higher levels and that taking more challenging courses is related to higher performance and achievement.

Other influences on student achievement were computers and Internet access. By 1998, 89 percent of public schools were plugged into the Internet, an increase of 11 percent from the prior year and more than double the 35 percent of public schools connected in 1994. The increase demonstrated that elementary and secondary school systems were closing in on the Clinton administration's goal of connecting all schools to the Internet by 2000. Nonetheless, schools in impoverished areas remained the least likely to maintain Internet access.

In other technological developments, more than 90 percent of all elementary and secondary schools utilized computers in classrooms as opposed to only in a separate computer room, whereas the number of students per computer dropped from 45.3 in the 1985-1986 school year to 7.4 in 1996-1997. A growing number of schools also maintained local area networks (LANs), used CD-ROMs, and had satellite dishes. The Department of Education maintained the Star Schools Program, which provided education at a distance by using telecommunications to transmit video and interactive instruction, reaching about 1.6 million students.

School districts restructured through the 1990s. Some individual schools stepped up efforts to make the educational process more efficient and more profitable for students. For example, some schools experimented with having teachers move, or "loop," with students so students did not have to lose instruction time during the beginning of the school year as they adjusted to a new teacher.

In addition to efforts to make the educational system more profitable to students, a growing movement wanted to generate profits for the schools themselves. More than 200 for-profit schools were operating in 1999, enrolling about 100,000 students. Edison Schools, based in New York, was one of these franchises, generating $217 million in revenues that year. By 2000, more of these schools were going online to reach students. According to The Hauser Center at Harvard University, in 2011 about 116,000 students were enrolled in 93 "virtual" schools run by private management companies, up 43 percent from the previous year. One of the largest of these was K12 Inc., which had more than 65,000 enrolled students in 2011.

The trend for profitability in school systems was met with ethical concerns. While proponents of the trend argued that financial competitiveness would force schools to increase their efficiency and standards, essentially to offer a superior product to their competitors, critics feared that the profit motive inherent in such moves would drastically alter the type of education students received, inviting companies to base learning on economic interests and advertising.

The influence of commercialism in U.S. elementary and secondary schools was hardly limited to for-profit institutions, however. In order to obtain increased funding to compensate for tight budgets and to gain a competitive edge, schools sought investment from companies that wanted to sell their products inside the schools. ZapMe' Corp., for instance, donated computer equipment and software to schools in exchange for information about students that the company could use in marketing campaigns while the computers displayed advertisements in the corner of the screen for companies like PCGames.com, Amazon.com, and Lego. Channel One, a commercial-supported education channel introduced in 1991 that was broadcast in 12,000 U.S. schools, included advertisements for acne medicine, breakfast cereals, candy, and other youth-oriented products in addition to shoe and apparel brands, such as Nike and Gap.

The cola wars, meanwhile, shifted their battleground to U.S. schools. Coca-Cola and Pepsi increasingly enjoyed "official drink" status at schools where the companies installed soda-dispenser machines in exchange for investing funds. This trend achieved a degree of notoriety in 1998 when an Atlanta high school student was suspended from school for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt on "Coca-Cola Day." Such reports raised the eyebrows of many educators, claiming that the influence of commercial enterprises had extended too far. San Francisco prohibited its city schools from contracting with beverage and snack companies, and other school districts followed.

Public schools also investigated the concept of charter schools. Charter schools were public schools set up to function independently of state regulation, except in regard to civil rights, health and safety, and financial accountability. Proponents of charter schools claimed that the concept provides administrators with the freedom to offer the types of programs best suited to their students. The nation's first state-sanctioned charter school, City Academy, opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in September 1992. Cleveland joined Milwaukee's six-year-old program of 1,700 students. In this program, the private schools were not allowed to choose their students, however. By 1999 more than 30 states had passed charter-school legislation, and about 720 such schools claimed 160,000 students. Nearly 35 percent of all charter-school students lived in California, followed by Arizona, with 15 percent, although Arizona had the highest proportion of its population enrolled in charter schools. According to studies, about 70 percent of charter schools were created to realize a vision of education that was alternative to that provided by the public-school system.

Homeschooling also became increasingly attractive during the 1990s and the early years of the first decade of the 2000s. The growth of homeschooling followed years of negative perception of the public-school system. While homeschooling traditionally was relegated to fringe religious groups, the practice became increasingly common and mainstream. Strong performance results as measured by SAT scores and other standardized test have given the practice wide recognition. The total number of home-schooled students in 2010 had reached around 1.3 million, according to the NCES.

School safety achieved a high priority in the late 1990s after a string of high-profile school shootings involving juvenile assailants. Public schools reported 6,093 expulsions for possession of firearms during the 1996-1997 school year, while 57 percent of public elementary schools reported at least one incident of crime or violence that required reporting to officials, including police officers, outside the school. Moreover, 10 percent of public schools reported at least one serious crime, which includes murder, rape, sexual battery, suicide, physical attack, fighting with a weapon, and robbery. Urban schools were twice as likely to experience incidences of violent crime. Following the large-scale shooting at a high school in Littleton, Colorado, legislators debated fiercely over a range of issues relating to juvenile violence and schooling, ranging from gun control to enhanced punishment of juvenile offenders to heightened disciplinary measures. Most broadly, the issue triggered a wave of zero-tolerance rules, including strong disciplinary action by school administrators for incidences in and out of school and for dress and speech deemed inappropriate.

Another challenge area for public schools was criticism of educators by some who claimed that by focusing on the needs of disadvantaged students they were failing to provide for the nation's brightest students. Proponents of special programming for gifted and talented students offered statistical evidence that the top-performing students in the United States were behind their peers in other countries, particularly in mathematics and science. In response, legislatures in 45 states passed laws either mandating gifted and talented programs or making provisions for state support of programs serving those students. However, not everyone accepted the premise that special programs should be provided for bright children, and critics called the programs elitist. As a result, although only 2 percent of the funds spent on K-12 education were spent on gifted and talented programs, funding in many states was in danger of being cut.

Debate over the implementation of school-choice programs grew increasingly heated beginning in the late 1980s. Many parents and politicians demanded public subsidies, such as school vouchers, to provide financial assistance to parents choosing private education. Proponents argued that such programs would afford parents greater freedom to provide their children with the highest-caliber education. Opponents, however, countered that vouchers and similar programs would not be able to cover the total costs of private education and would give greater leverage to the economically advantaged while gutting the public school systems relied on by the disadvantaged. The three types of school-choice programs in the late 1990s were intra-district, inter-district, and magnet. Magnet schools, sometimes in conjunction with one of the other types, offered specialized programs aimed at drawing students with particular interests, abilities, or characteristics.

By the early years of the first decade of the 2000s, weak economic conditions resulted in business closures, massive workforce reductions, and decreasing tax bases throughout the United States, leading to state budget shortfalls. During the prosperous years of the 1990s, a number of states had begun funding schools through income taxes instead of property taxes. This trend ultimately hurt many of the nation's school districts. According to the January 19, 2003, Chicago Tribune, "The lingering national economic downturn, which last year resulted in trims to administrative expenses and loss of extracurricular activities, now is forcing districts to make severe cuts that directly affect the classroom." The newspaper cited figures from the National Conference of States Legislatures showing U.S. school district shortfalls of $49 billion at the start of the 2002-2003 academic year. A year later, Business Week reported that state spending on schools would grow just 2 percent in 2004, compared to 7.5 percent growth in 2000.

Amid these conditions, some school districts sought ways to reduce costs and maintain operations. For example, by early 2003 nearly 28 percent of school districts in Oregon were considering reducing the number of school days on their academic calendars, including Portland where schools were moving to four-day school weeks. This also was the case in some areas of New York, where Governor George Pataki proposed education budget cuts of 8.5 percent. The New York Times reported that this would result in potentially devastating cutbacks of $1.24 billion for the state's elementary and secondary schools. In some states, districts were limited by the fact that four-day school weeks were not legal or could jeopardize already falling levels of state funding.

In addition to considering shorter academic years, schools implemented other cost-cutting measures. In Oklahoma, teachers and students cleaned their own classrooms after custodians were eliminated from the payroll. Janitorial budget cutbacks in Hawaii resulted in potential toilet paper shortfalls, effectively causing schools to choose between basic essentials and needed educational resources like textbooks. Nationwide, schools also were looking at ways to decrease energy costs in both new and existing facilities. In March 2003, Buildings reported that estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy put school energy expenditures at more than $6 billion annually. The publication indicated that schools could save $1.5 billion of this amount each year by improving operations, designing better buildings, and relying on renewable technologies that were more efficient.

Although resources were increasingly strained, the nation's elementary and secondary schools faced unprecedented challenges in providing quality education. In July 2002, the Associated Press reported that 9 percent of U.S. schools did not meet established state academic standards although President George W. Bush had signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). According to the U.S. Department of Education: "The Act is the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since ESEA was enacted in 1965. It redefines the federal role in K-12 education and will help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers. It is based on four basic principles: stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching methods that have been proven to work." NCLB allowed children in schools that fail to meet academic standards established by their state to move to another public school without incurring excessive transportation costs.

Responses to NCLB included concerns that it was an unfounded mandate and that states needed more flexibility in administering the plan. In 2004 Utah, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and New Mexico all attempted to legislate exceptions to NCLB, but were unsuccessful because of concerns about losing federal funding. In 2005 several states, school districts, and chapters of the National Education Association joined together to sue the federal government under the 1995 Unfunded Mandate Reform Act, claiming that NCLB caused schools to abandon successful programs and adopt measures they could not afford.

NCLB used standardized tests to measure school performance, with results appearing on a report card for the school rather than for the student. Pressure to show improvement led to cheating by teachers and administrators across the country, according to reports in 2004. Test-givers were discovered to have given tests and answers to students in advance, allowed extra time to complete the tests, and changed answers.

By 2006 the required testing caused over 70 percent of schools nationwide to reduce instructional time in other subjects to concentrate on skills targeted by NCLB tests. The requirements of NCLB included annual tests in math and reading for grades three through eight, with 2013 set as the year that all students would be tested in all grades. In 2005 President Bush announced plans to expand this testing through the 11th grade. However, because of controversies surrounding the implementation of NCLB, the plan was not expected to receive strong Congressional support.

Other developments in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s included the growing success of charter schools. Although measurements of student performance did not clearly show higher marks than regular schools, the popularity of charter schools increased. In 2004 there were 405 new charter schools, making it a strong growth year. Debate increased over the issue of teaching "intelligent design" and evolution in public schools. In Atlanta, Georgia, a lawsuit by parents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked that the Cobb County school board remove stickers from textbooks that said evolution was "a theory, not a fact." A Pennsylvania school board was sued for requiring science teachers to include intelligent design in lessons about evolution.

Despite prior recognition that students in the United States were falling behind and efforts to remedy the situation, by the end of the first decade of the 2000s, little had been resolved. A 2008 study found the percentage of 17-year-olds with basic reading skills had dropped from 80 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 2005. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 25 out of 30 internationally.

In addition, while NCLB remained in place, the controversy surrounding it remained. "Teaching to the test" became the unhappy mantra of many teachers and school administrators because rewards and sanctions were directly linked to test results. States set very different standards by which to test. For example, in 2007, 90 percent of Mississippi's fourth graders tested in the "proficient" category on the state reading test, but only 22 percent achieved "proficient" scores on the national reading test. As states struggled to comply with NCLB guidelines and meet increasingly higher proficiency goals, frustrations increased, and some states considered pulling out of the program and forgo federal funding. Some studies, such as the 2005 book NCLB Meets School Realities: Lessons from the Field, suggested that the costs states incurred implementing NCLB, such as staff development, certification upgrades, choice-related transportation, and private tutoring, outweighed the amount of federal funding that states received.

The economic recession at the end of the first decade of the 2000s put financial pressure on the primary and secondary school system as state and local funding, primarily based on tax revenues, shrank. On average, in 2007 states spent $9,666 per student per year. New York had the highest per student rate, averaging $15,981 per pupil, followed by New Jersey with $15,691 and the District of Columbia with $14,324. The states with the lowest per-student expenditures were Utah, Idaho, and Tennessee with spending rates of $5,683, $6,625, and $7,113, respectively. The effects of the recession on local school districts was highly dependent on the district's tax base, the economic and real estate market make-up within the district, and the distribution of apportioned funds. For example, Louisiana received the highest proportion of federal funding (17.6 percent) whereas New Jersey received just 4 percent of its school funding from federal sources. Hawaii had the highest level of state-level funding (89.8 percent) and Nebraska had the lowest (31.7 percent). In Illinois, 58.9 percent of school funds came from local sources, making them the highest locally funded schools in the nation, compared to Hawaii with 1.6 percent of local funding.

Current Conditions

Although there was a wide range of opinions about what should be done about the U.S. school system, by the early 2010s, most agreed that something had to be done. As noted by Jeb Bush in an article for The Miami Herald on May 30, 2012, "Few dispute that our nation's educational system is failing. We spend more on education than practically any other nation in the world, and yet our return on investment is disturbingly inadequate." Bush went on to say, "One in four American students fails to graduate from high school within four years of entering [and] Far too many of those who do graduate are ill-prepared for the demands of college and career." Some solutions proposed included keeping school control at the state or local level, spending more on teachers' salaries than on updated technology (or the opposite), and following other countries' examples where students are excelling, among others.

The question of the best way to fix the schools was also a political issue and was primarily divided along party lines. Generally speaking, conservatives tended to support school vouchers to allow students the choice to go the primary or secondary school of their choice. Liberals generally opposed vouchers, claiming that they would undermine the present public school systems, leaving them irreparably weakened. Although President Obama came out against vouchers, he also strongly supported charter schools. However, there were still too few charter schools to have a significant impact on the overall U.S. primary and secondary educational system. According to the NCES, in 2010 there were about 5,000 charter schools in 2010 with an enrollment of 1.6 million students. The NCES reported that 20 percent of charter schools had less than 25 percent of students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 16 percent of public schools, suggesting that charter schools served fewer low-income students.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, 8.3 million people were employed in elementary and secondary schools. About 1 million were secondary school teachers and 1.6 million were elementary school teachers. The average annual salary of an elementary school teacher (except special education) was $51,300, whereas high school teachers earned an average of $53,230. Salaries of others working in elementary and secondary schools ranged from $138,730 for chief executives to about $20,000 for cooks and dishwashers. Teacher assistants, which comprised about 12 percent of employees in schools, earned an average of $25,490 a year.

Job prospects for teachers were good to excellent through the mid-2010s, depending on the location, grade level, and subject matter. Many teachers were expected to begin reaching retirement age during this time. In addition, turnover is often high in poor, urban schools, making these schools most often the best in terms of job prospects. Some subject matters also more in demand included mathematics, science (particularly chemistry and physics), bilingual education, and foreign languages. Social studies, general education, and physical education tended to be more competitive due to the high number of certified applicants.

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