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Public and private school comparison

In what ways do public and private schools differ?


Below are a few selected dimensions that highlight some of the ways public and private schools differ.


Public elementary and secondary school enrollment rose from 49.5 million in 2010 to 50.4 million in 2015, an increase of 2 percent. Public elementary enrollment (prekindergarten through grade 8) increased 2 percent between 2010 and 2015 (from 34.6 million to 35.4 million), while public secondary enrollment (grades 9 through 12) was 1 percent higher in 2015 (15.1 million) than in 2010 (14.9 million). Enrollment in private elementary and secondary schools in 2015 (5.8 million) was 5 percent lower than in 2005 (6.1 million). In 2015, private school students made up 10.3 percent of all elementary and secondary school students.

Teachers and Other School Staff

For public schools, the number of pupils per teacher—that is, the pupil/teacher ratio1—was 16.0 in 2015. In comparison, the private school pupil/teacher ratio was 11.9 in 2015.

Public school principals tend to be older and have more advanced credentials than public school teachers. In 2015–16, some 19 percent of public school principals were under age 40, and 98 percent had a master’s or higher degree. In comparison, 43 percent of public school teachers were under age 40, and 57 percent had a master’s or higher degree. A lower percentage of public school principals than of teachers were female: 54 percent of principals were female, compared with 77 percent of teachers.

In 2015, there were 8 pupils per staff member (total staff) at public schools, compared with 10 pupils per staff member in 1980. At private schools in 2011–12, the number of pupils per staff member was 6.

High School Graduates

About 3,643,000 high school students are expected to graduate during the 2018–19 school year, including 3,285,000 public school graduates and 358,000 private school graduates.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2017 (NCES 2018-070), Chapter 2.

1The pupil/teacher ratio is based on all teachers—including teachers of students with disabilities and other special teachers—and all students enrolled in the fall of the school year. Unlike the pupil/teacher ratio, the average class size excludes students and teachers in classes that are exclusively for special education students. Class size averages are based on surveys of teachers reporting on the counts of students in their classes.

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