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Statistics in Brief:

Overview of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools and Districts: School Year 1997-98

May 1999

(NCES 1999-322) Ordering information

Types of Public Schools

In the 1997-98 school year states reported almost 90,000 public schools. Most of these were regular schools, which offer a comprehensive curriculum and may provide a range of other programs and services as well. Considerably smaller numbers of schools focused primarily on special education, vocational/technical or career education, or alternative programs. Students in these specialized schools are often also enrolled in a regular school and reported in the membership of that regular school (see Key Terms for more information about school types).

Public Elementary and Secondary Schools in 1997-98

Schools with Students in Membership

In the 1997-98 school year 87,631 public schools provided instruction to 46.1 million students in the United States (table 1).1 This was an increase of about 1.2 percent from the previous year's 45,592,213 students and a gain of 1.8 percent from the 86,058 schools in 1996-97. Most of these 1997-98 school year institutions were regular schools (82,127). Among the total number of schools for whom student membership was reported were 1,764 schools whose major function was to provide special education for students with disabilities and 360 identified as vocational, technical, or career schools. Some 3,380 schools were reported to offer other alternative programs. While this is a relatively small number, there are one-sixth again as many of these schools as there were last year.

The great majority of public school students, 98.1 percent, were enrolled in regular schools. An additional 0.5 percent were in special education schools, 0.4 percent in vocational schools, and 1.0 percent in alternative schools. These distributions were unchanged from the previous year. Mississippi, New Hampshire, and North Dakota reported only regular schools. With 8.1 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, schools in cities' urban fringes accounted for twice as many students as did rural schools.

Primary, Middle, High Schools

Among the 87,631 public schools with students in membership during the 1997-98 school year, about 58.5 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 (50.1 percent) of the nation's public school students were enrolled in these schools. An additional 17.3 percent of the schools covered the upper elementary and middle grades, and offered instruction to 19.6 percent of public school students.

High schools represented 18.9 percent of the schools reported, and enrolled 27.1 percent of the total number of students. About 5.3 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 1997-98 there were 15,035 public education agencies providing education services directly to students in the United States. Some 608 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 (14,427) 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 K-12 school district. Sixteen other states also reported 100 percent of their students enrolled in comprehensive K-12 school districts. On the other hand, in Montana and Vermont less than one third of the students were served in this type of school district.

Among the 14,427 regular school districts with pupils in membership, 3,153 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 557 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 137 districts had some other grade configuration. However, almost three out of four districts (10,580) provided instruction from the beginning of school through graduation. Fully 91.8 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 (25) enrolled 100,000 or more students while a larger number (1,738) reported fewer than 150 students (table 5). While small in number, the largest districts served a considerable portion of students in America's public schools. Although only 1.6 percent of districts served 25,000 or more students, fully 31.5 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 1997-98. At the same time, about 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. Nine states did not report free lunch eligibility data for at least 70 percent of their schools, so national totals could not be calculated (see table 6). 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 11.3 percent in New Hampshire to a high of 55.6 percent in Mississippi. (The District of Columbia had an eligibility rate of 69.3 percent in the previous year, but did not report these data in 1997-98.)

Nationally, about one in every eight students was reported to have an individualized education program (IEP), meaning that they participate in special education services. The percentage of students with IEPs ranged from 4.1 percent in Michigan to 17.7 percent in Rhode Island.

About two-thirds of the public school students in the United States in 1997-98 were white, non-Hispanic and about one-sixth were black, non-Hispanic. American Indian/Alaskan natives were about one in four students in Alaska, while over two-thirds of the students in Hawaii were in the Asian/Pacific Islander category. 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 (87.0 percent) and Mississippi (50.9 percent). White, non-Hispanic students made up less than half of the student membership in six states, and 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 percentage point over the previous year.


Thirty-two states reported dropout statistics in agreement with the Common Core of Data's definition (see table 7). Among these jurisdictions, Louisiana and Nevada reported that more than 10 percent of students in grades 9-12 had dropped out during the preceding school year. Iowa, North Dakota, and South Carolina reported dropout rates among these grades at less than 3 percent. Fifteen of the reporting states, or about half, had dropout rates somewhere between 4.0 and 6.0 percent. Dropouts were more likely to be male than female. In Ohio and South Carolina at least three out of five of the grade 9-12 dropouts were male. In California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas, which have relatively high proportions of minority enrollments, 70 percent or more of the dropouts were minority students, that is, other than white, non-Hispanic.

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 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and use information reported by state education agencies.

Missing data. Not all states collect and report all of the data items on these surveys. NCES estimates, or imputes, some missing data at the state level if an item has been reported in the past. (Free lunch eligibility and dropout counts are not imputed.) If an item is not imputed it 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.)

Enrollments. 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 a regular school.

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 1,905 schools (28 of these were in the outlying areas) that did not report any students in membership for the 1997-98 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 vocational education school focuses primarily on vocational, technical or career 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 students across all the schools they 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 individualized 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. There were 1,589 such agencies in 1997-98; 608 of these reported students and 981 did not. This report excluded 378 regular school districts that did not report any students in membership for the 1997- 98 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.


This paper was improved by the suggestions of the reviewers, John Tai of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Frank Morgan and Holly Spurlock of NCES. Marilyn McMillen and Andrew Kolstad 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 of the U.S. Bureau of the Census and Yanfen Mu of Pinkerton.


1 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 Overview of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools and Districts: School Year 1996-97 (NCES 98-204). back

More information

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

List of Tables

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 1997-1998

Table 2. Number and percentage of schools with membership and percentage of students in membership, by community type: School year 1997-98

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 1997-98

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 1997-98

Table 5. Distribution of regular public elementary and secondary school districts and students, by district membership size: School year 1997-1998

Table 6. Selected characteristics of public elementary and secondary school membership as a percentage of school membership by state: School year 1997-98

Table 7. Number and percentage of students dropping out of grades 9 through 12 and percentage of dropouts who are male or minority, by reporting states: School year 1996-97

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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 e-mail at More NCES CCD publications are available at