Schools and School Districts

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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School districts are quasi-municipal corporations created and organized by state legislatures and charged with the administration of public schools within the state. A quasi-municipal corporation is a political body created for the sole purpose of performing one public function. States divide up their school systems into districts because localized administration and policy making are more efficient and more responsive to community needs than one state-level bureaucracy.

A school district encompasses a specific geographical area with defined boundaries. In most areas, the head of the school district is called the superintendent. Each school district contains at least one school. Typically, a school district includes primary schools, also called grade schools, middle or junior high schools, and high schools. A school district's boundaries may be the same as the boundaries of a city. Multiple school districts may exist within larger cities, and in rural areas, a school district may encompass several towns.

Each state has numerous laws pertaining to public schools and school districts, but state statutes do not cover every educational concern. State legislatures delegate many aspects of public education to school districts. School districts have the power to fashion curricula and make rules and regulations that apply to the schools, school employees, and students within the district. School districts also have power over such matters as arranging for the construction and maintenance of educational buildings and facilities in the district. School districts may, in turn, delegate some of their powers to individual schools.

State and federal revenues pay for only about half of all educational costs. The rest of the burden for construction, maintenance, and improvement of school facilities, salaries, and other educational costs is borne by local government. Most states give school districts the power to levy local taxes for educational purposes. This taxing power is limited by the state legislature. If a school district wants to raise taxes beyond what the legislature allows, it may seek approval from the voters in the district in a REFERENDUM or proposition vote.

Most state legislatures require that school districts be governed by a school board, board of education, or similar body. School boards govern the school district's actions and can also take action on their own. School boards appoint

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superintendents, review important decisions made by the district's administrators, and fashion educational policies for the district. Most school boards are comprised of several members elected by voters who live within the boundaries of the district. In some states, school board members may be appointed by a state or local governing body or a designated government official.

School boards hold regular meetings that are open to the public. A school board must give notice to the public prior to the meeting. Notice generally is given through mailings or by publishing the time and place of the meeting in local newspapers. School board meetings give the public an opportunity to express opinions on educational policy.


The specifics of school tuition voucher systems vary from program to program, but generally such systems offer parents of schoolchildren a taxfunded voucher that is redeemable at the educational institution of their choice. The vouchers are issued yearly or at some other regular interval, and they pay for a certain amount of tuition fees each year at nonpublic and alternative charter schools. The most controversial programs allow parents to use the publicly funded vouchers to pay tuition at a sectarian, or religious, school.

Private school vouchers implicate at least two provisions in the U.S. Constitution: the Establishment and Free Exercise of Religion Clauses in the FIRST AMENDMENT. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Establishment Clause prohibits the federal government and the states from setting up a religious place of worship, passing laws that aid religion, and giving preference to one religion or forcing belief or disbelief in any religion (Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S. Ct. 504, 91 L. Ed. 711 [1947]). Private school vouchers have been challenged under the Establishment Clause because they involve a form of governmental support that may be used for religious-oriented activities.

Critics of private school vouchers have charged that taxpayer support for religious schools is a patent violation of the Establishment Clause. Critics also note that because vouchers do not cover the entire amount of tuition at a private school, the option of private school remains out of reach for the lowest-income students. Opponents of private school vouchers further claim that vouchers rob public schools of funds because funding is based in part on student enrollment. Finally, critics maintain that vouchers implicate other constitutional provisions, such as the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, because they provide taxpayer funds to institutions that may discriminate on the basis of race, religion, disability, or socioeconomic status.

Supporters of private school vouchers have argued that voucher systems are actually protected by the First Amendment. According to advocates, the First Amendment, with its guarantee of the free exercise of religion, protects vouchers because they give devoutly religious parents the same rights as less devout parents: public funding for the education of their children. In this view, educational systems without private school vouchers violate the First Amendment by discouraging religion and placing devout parents at a disadvantage. Supporters contend that vouchers merely provide some balance of rights between devoutly religious parents and less devout or nonreligious parents.

Other supporters of private school vouchers focus on the aspect of choice. Whereas public schools are increasingly perceived as inadequate and dangerous, private schools are viewed by many as offering safe, high-quality education. In response to these perceptions, legislators have offered private school vouchers as a means of escape from public schools. Supporters of private school vouchers assert that they offer potential...

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