Local governments play a key role in public education in the U.S. From kindergarten to community college, local governments, along with states, provide the primary funding for public schools, using money largely raised through state and local taxes. Local governments at all levels decide education policy, including county, city, town and district. Their task is to make critical decisions about funding and pedagogy, while serving as a channel between local communities and state education departments.
US public schools fall into two categories: dependent and independent. Dependent schools are run by towns, cities, counties and/or state governments. Independent schools fall under the exclusive, local control of school districts. School districts are essentially mini, local governments, with powers similar to counties and cities. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau tallied some 13,500 independent school districts; 178 state-dependent school systems; and 1,330 local-dependent school systems.
Local governments have the power to levy taxes to fund education, and can redirect school budgets to meet new priorities. They make decisions on a broad range of issues such as what courses to offer; how to set achievement standards; where to locate a new school; safety, health or traffic issues; and the role of a school in community life.
Various organizations and companies promote the participation of local government in education. Local government provides an opportunity for the direct involvement of parents and community members in school policy. Unlike federal and state authorities, local officials are positioned to know details that are important to local decision-making.
Property tax has long been the main source of funding for local governments, and thus for locally-funded schools. Financing education through property tax has come under intense criticism in at least 43 states, largely because it skews funding towards neighborhoods with high property values. Some states, such as California, have passed rules to ensure greater school equality across low and high income areas.
Since the 1970s, federal support for education has gradually declined, and local governments have increasingly turned to new funding streams. Sales tax, user fees and charges, and income taxes are becoming critical sources of revenue for local governments hoping to cover big expenses like education. Selling and leasing property, nonprofit fund-raising, and corporate contributions have also become funding sources.
At the community college level, considerable funding comes from local governments, but states tend to shoulder the bulk of the costs. From 2000 to 2001, according to the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, community college funding was distributed as follows: state governments (44.6 percent), local governments (19.5 percent), tuition and fees (19.5 percent) and the federal government (5.4 percent).
- U.S. Census Bureau: Governments Integrated Directory
- "The Key Work of School Boards Guidebook"; Katheryn W. Gemberling, Carl W. Smith and Joseph S. Villani; 2000
- Center for Governance, University of South Carolina: Local Government Funding System Reform Project
- “The Future of State Taxation"; The Future of the Property Tax; Steven M. Sheffrin; 1998
- “The Future of State Taxation"; Financing Public Education in the Twenty-First Century; William L. Waugh; 1998
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