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Statistics in Brief:

Overview of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools and Districts: School Year 1996-97

October 1998

(NCES 98-204) Ordering information

Types of Public Schools

In the 1996-97 school year 86,058 public schools provided instruction to 45.6 million students in the United States (table 1).1 This was an increase of 1.7 percent over the previous year for students and 1.1 percent in the number of schools. Most of these institutions were regular schools (81,163). Regular schools often provide a range of special, vocational, and alternative programs in addition to their traditional curriculum offerings; however, in 1996-97 there were 3,895 schools that offered these specialized programs as their primary function. Among this group were 1,686 schools whose major function was to provide special education for students with disabilities and 335 schools identified as vocational. Some 2,874 schools were reported to offer other alternative programs (see technical notes concerning schools without students.)

The great majority of public school students, 98.2 percent, were enrolled in regular schools. An additional 0.5 percent were in special education schools, 0.4 percent in vocational schools, and 0.9 percent in alternative schools. These distributions were unchanged from the previous year. Georgia, Mississippi, and North Dakota reported no special schools. With 7.7 percent of its pupils enrolled in non-regular schools, Delaware had the greatest proportion of students in these specialized settings.

Schools and Community Size

Table 2 shows that while one in eight schools was located in a large city, one in six students attended large city schools. There were about the same number of schools in rural areas and the urban fringes of large cities: about one in four schools respectively. However, urban fringes accounted for twice as many students as did rural schools.

Among the 86,058 public schools with students in membership during the 1996-97 school year, 59.1 percent spanned the traditional primary grades, typically beginning with prekindergarten or kindergarten and going no higher than grade 8 (table 3); see Key Terms for complete definitions of instructional levels). About half (50.5 percent) of the nation's public school students were enrolled in these schools. An additional 17.2 percent of the schools covered the upper elementary and middle grades, and offered instruction to 19.5 percent of public school students.

High schools represented 18.8 percent of the schools reported, and enrolled 26.9 percent of the total number of students. About 4.9 percent of schools followed some other grade configuration, including schools that spanned all of grades kindergarten through 12 and those that were ungraded.

School District Grade Spans

In 1996-97 there were 14,990 public education agencies providing education services directly to students in the United States. Some of these were operated directly by states or federal agencies, or had a primary role other than that of administering regular educational services. However, the majority of public education agencies (14,422) were regular school districts providing education to children within their jurisdiction (table 4).

States vary in the organization of their regular education agencies. Hawaii and the District of Columbia each consist of a single school district. Sixteen other states reported 100 percent of their students in comprehensive K-12 districts. On the other hand, in Arizona, Illinois, Montana and Vermont less than two-thirds of the students were served in this type of school district.

Among the 14,422 regular school districts with pupils in membership, 3,161 were responsible for only the elementary grades, beginning with grades prekindergarten, kindergarten, or one and ending at grade eight or below (table 4). These districts enrolled 5.9 percent of the nation's public school students. An additional 548 agencies could be characterized as secondary school districts, with a low grade of 7 or higher and a high grade of 12. Some 2.3 percent of all students attended schools in these districts. An additional 171 districts had some other configuration. However, almost three out of four districts (10,542) provided instruction from the beginning of school through graduation. Fully 91.6 percent of all students were enrolled in these comprehensive school districts.

School District Size

School districts ranged greatly in size, as measured by the number of students in membership. A very few districts (24) enrolled 100,000 or more students while a larger number (1,725) reported fewer than 150 students (table 5). While small in number, the largest districts served a considerable portion of America's public school students. Although only 1.6 percent of districts served 25,000 or more students, fully 31.1 percent of students received their education in these largest districts. To show the contrast from a different perspective, almost half of the school districts in the United States had fewer than 1,000 students in 1996-97. At the same time, almost half of the public school students in this country attended schools in districts of 10,000 students or more.

Student Characteristics

Because participation in the Free Lunch Program depends on income, eligibility for this program is often used to estimate student needs. Eight states did not report free lunch eligibility data for at least 70 percent of their schools, so national totals could not be calculated. Within those states and schools that did provide this information, the proportion of students who were reported as eligible to receive a free lunch ranged from a low of 12.4 percent in New Hampshire to a high of 69.3 percent in the District of Columbia. In all, eight states reported that 40 percent or more of their public school students were eligible for free lunch (table 6).

One state did not report the number of students with individual education programs (IEPs), who participate in special education services. Among the states for which this information was available, the percentage of students with IEPs ranged from under 5.0 percent in Michigan and Ohio to 15 percent or more in Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

About two-thirds of the public school students in the United States in 1996-97 were white, non-Hispanic and about one-sixth were black, non-Hispanic. American Indian/Alaskan native students comprised about one in four students in Alaska, while almost two-thirds of the students in Hawaii were in the Asian/Pacific Islander category. About one in seven students nationwide was Hispanic. More than one-third of the students were Hispanic in California, New Mexico, and Texas. Over half of the students were black, non-Hispanic, in the District of Columbia (87.3 percent) and Mississippi (50.9 percent). White, non-Hispanic students comprised less than half of the student membership in six states, but represented 90 percent or more of the students in five other states. At the national level, none of the racial/ethnic groups changed by as much as 1 percent over the previous year.


Twenty-nine states and Puerto Rico reported dropout statistics in agreement with the required definition (table 7). Among these jurisdictions, Louisiana reported that more than 10 percent of students in grades 9-12 had dropped out during the preceding school year. North Dakota, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico reported dropout rates among these grades at less than 3 percent. Fourteen states had dropout rates somewhere between 4 and 6 percent. Dropouts were more likely to be male than female. In fact, only in Utah were less than 55 percent of the grade 9-12 dropouts male. In seven states half or more of the dropouts were minority students, that is, other than white.

Technical Notes

The Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey and Public Education Agency Survey are annual state-level collections of information about the numbers and types of public schools and education agencies, the numbers and selected characteristics of students, dropouts, and numbers of staff. These two surveys also include directory information such as school and agency names, addresses and telephone numbers. The School and Agency Surveys are part of the Common Core of Data (CCD) collection of the (NCES), and use information reported by state education agencies.

Missing data. New Jersey did not submit any reports in 1996-97. The number of schools and agencies were carried forward from the prior year. Other data shown for New Jersey were imputed. NCES estimates, or imputes, missing data at the state level if an item has been reported in the past. The imputation procedure calculates a rate of change among all states that reported in the current and prior year. This rate of change is then applied to the nonreporting state's prior year data, to create an imputed current year value. If an item has never been reported, it is not imputed but is shown as "missing." When information is missing for one or more states, as is the case with counts of students eligible for the federal Free Lunch Program, NCES does not calculate national totals. (A state is considered to have missing data if an item is reported by less than 70 percent of the schools or agencies.)

Because some students may receive a public education outside a local school district or school (for example, in a state-operated residential school) the numbers of students on the school or agency reports are not used as the official state totals. The numbers of students shown in table 1 are taken from the State Nonfiscal Survey of the CCD. The percentages of students shown in tables are based on the School or Agency Surveys. It should be noted that this report, which includes only schools with pupils in membership, excludes a disproportionally high number of vocational schools whose enrollment is often attributed to regular schools. Schools and agencies without membership. Students can be reported for only one school; those enrolled in both a regular and special school are often accounted to the regular school. Including schools for which no membership was reported , there were 2,045 special education, 930 vocational, and 3,377 alternative schools in 1996-97.

There were 16,359 education agencies in 1996-97. Of these, 14,841 were regular school districts and 1,518 were agencies that typically offer research, administrative, or other support services to client districts. Some 419 of the regular school districts and 950 of the other agencies did not report students. The 14,990 agencies cited in the report exclude the 1,369 without students. Tables are limited to the 14,422 regular school districts with students.

Key Terms

A public school provides educational services to students, has an assigned administrator, receives public funds as its primary support, and is operated by an education agency. A single school may operate at multiple locations (for example, an urban "storefront school" for potential dropouts with a single principal responsible for programs at several addresses). And, two schools may operate at the same location, as is the case when a kindergarten-grade 12 facility has both an elementary and a high school principal. This report excluded 2,165 schools that did not report any students in membership for the 1996-97 school year.

Regular schools do not focus primarily on special, vocational, or alternative education, although they may offer these programs in addition to the regular curriculum. A special education school focuses primarily on special education, with materials and instructional approaches adapted to meet the students' needs. A I focuses primarily on vocational education and provides education or training in at least one semiskilled or technical occupation. An alternative education school addresses the needs of students that typically cannot be met in the regular school setting, and provides nontraditional education.

Membership is the annual headcount of students enrolled in school on October 1, or the school day closest to that date. In any given year, some small schools will not have any pupils. And, in reporting to the CCD, states assign students who attend more than one school to a single school rather than prorating membership across all the schools students attend.

Instructional levels are calculated from the lowest and highest grades for which students are reported in a school. Primary schools are those with a low grade of prekindergarten through grade 3 and a high grade of up to 8. Middle schools contain a low grade of 4 to 7 and a high grade ranging from 4 to 9. High schools have a low grade of 7 to 12 and must extend through grade 12. All other grade configurations, including schools that are completely ungraded, are grouped under the heading of "other."

Free lunch eligibility is the number of students in a school who apply for and are eligible to receive free lunch under the National School Lunch Act.

A dropout is a student who was enrolled at any time during the previous year, is not enrolled at the beginning of the current year, and has not graduated or transferred to another school.

The race/ethnicity categories used in the CCD are those approved, at the time these data were collected, by the federal Office of Management and Budget. They are mutually exclusive.

IEP counts are reported at the school district level and reflect the numbers of students with individual education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)- Part B.

School locale code is assigned on the basis of the school's mailing address. The locale code categories are:

Large city-central city of a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) or consolidated MSA (CMSA); with a population of at least 250,000.

Midsize city-central city of an MSA or CMSA; with a population less than 250,000.

Urban fringe of a large city-any incorporated place, Census-designated place (CDP), or non-place territory within a CMSA or MSA of a large city and defined as urban by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Urban fringe of a midsize city-any incorporated place, CDP, or non-place within a CMSA or MSA of a midsize central city and defined as urban by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Large town- an incorporated place or CDP with a population of at least 25,000 and located outside a CMSA or MSA.

Small town-an incorporated place or CDP with a population between 2,500 and 24,999 and located outside a CMSA or MSA.

Rural-any incorporated place, CDP, or non-place territory designated as rural by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Regular school districts are agencies responsible for providing free public education for school-age children residing within their jurisdiction. This category excludes local supervisory unions that provide management services for a group of associated school districts; regional education service agencies that typically provide school districts with research, testing, or data processing services; state and federally operated school districts; and other agencies that do not fall into these groupings. This report excluded 419 regular school districts that did not report any students in membership for the 1996-97 school year, a condition that can occur when a small district has no pupils or contracts with another district to educate the students under its jurisdiction.

For further information about this Statistics in Brief or related publications and data sets, contact Lena McDowell at (202) 502-7396 or electronic mail at More NCES CCD publications are available at //ccd.


This paper was improved by the suggestions of the reviewers, Charlene Hoffman, Andrew Kolstad and Frank Morgan of NCES; Sue Gandy at the Georgia Department of Education; and Krista Schneider of the American Federation of Teachers. Robert Burton of NCES provided valuable technical guidance, while Beth Young ensured the quality of the information and the analyses. The tables were prepared by Michael Freeman and Sheryl Jones of the U.S. Bureau of the Census and Bob Shain of Pinkerton.

Table 1. Number of public elementary and secondary schools with membership and percentage of students in membership, by type of school and by state: School year 1996–97

Table 2. Number and percentage of schools with membership and percentage of students in membership, by community type: School year 1996–97

Table 3. Percentage of public elementary and secondary schools providing instruction and percentage of students in membership, by specified level of instruction and by state: School year 1996–97

Table 4. Number of regular public elementary and secondary school districts providing instruction and percentage of students in membership, by grade span and by state: School year 1996–97

Table 5. Distribution of regular public elementary and secondary school districts and students, by district membership size: School year 1996–97

Table 6. Selected characteristics of public elementary and secondary school membership as a percentage of school membership by state: School year 1996–97

Table 7. Number and percentage of students dropping out of grades 9 through 12, and percent who are male or minority among reporting states: School year 1995–96


[1] See Key Terms. Although the outlying areas and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (overseas) are included in the tables, national totals are limited to the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Comparisons are based on the Overview of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools and Districts: School Year 1995-96.

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For more information about this Statistics in Brief or related publications and data sets, contact Lena McDowell at (202) 502-7396 or electronic mail at More NCES CCD publications are available at //ccd.

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