In the United States, public schools belong to school districts, which are governed by school boards. Each district is an independent special-purpose government, or dependent school systems, under the guidelines of each U.S. state government and local school boards. A school district is a legally separate body corporate and politic. School districts are local governments with powers similar to that of a town or a county including taxation and eminent domain, except in Virginia, whose school divisions have no taxing authority and must depend on another local government (county, city, or town) for funding. Its governing body, which is typically elected by direct popular vote but may be appointed by other governmental officials, is called a school board, board of trustees, board of education, school committee, or the like. This body appoints a superintendent, usually an experienced public school administrator, to function as the district's chief executive for carrying out day-to-day decisions and policy implementations. The school board may also exercise a quasi-judicial function in serious employee or student discipline matters.
School districts in the Midwest and West tend to cross municipal boundaries, while school districts in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions tend to adhere to city, township, and/or county boundaries.
Not all school systems constitute school districts as distinct bodies corporate. In most Southern states, school systems operate either as an arm of county government, or at least share coextensive boundaries with the state's counties. In Maryland, most school systems are run at the county level, but the Baltimore City system operates separately, at a county-equivalent level. Other states, such as New York, have both independent school districts and school systems that are subordinate to cities. The Hawaii State Department of Education functions as a single statewide school district. This is unique among the states, but the District of Columbia Public Schools operates district public schools in Washington, DC and the Puerto Rico Department of Education operates all public schools in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, thus they also function as single school districts.
In the 2002 Census of Governments, the United States Census Bureau enumerated the following numbers of school systems in the United States:
- 13,506 school district governments
- 178 state-dependent school systems
- 1,330 local-dependent school systems
- 1,196 education service agencies and (agencies providing support services to public school systems)
Although these terms can vary slightly between various states and regions, these are typical definitions for school district constitution:
- An elementary or primary school usually includes kindergarten and grades one through five or six. In some school districts, these grades are divided into two schools. Primary school is most commonly used for schools housing students in kindergarten through grade two or three in districts where the older elementary students are in intermediate schools (see below).
- A middle school usually includes grades six or seven through eight or nine. In some places, the alternative terms junior high school or intermediate school are still used. Junior high school often refers to schools that cover grades seven through nine. Intermediate school is also used for schools that cover grades three through five (or so) when they are separated from elementary schools.
- A high school usually includes grades nine or ten through twelve and may also include grades seven and eight. There are many high schools that cover only grades ten to twelve; this type of school is sometimes referred to as a senior high school.
These terms may not appear in a district's name, even though the condition may apply.
- A unified school district includes elementary and secondary (middle school and high school) educational levels.
- The word central in a district's name indicates that there is one central administration that oversees the entire district.
- The word free in a district's name indicates that no tuition is charged to attend district schools. In New York, it is used in conjunction with union to indicate a district composed of multiple, formerly independent common school districts now free of restrictions placed on New York State's common school districts.
- The word union or consolidated in a district's name indicates that it was formed from two or more districts.
- The word joint in a district's name indicates that it includes territory from more than one county. By extension, a joint state school district, such as Union County–College Corner JSD, includes territory in more than one state.
- The word independent can have different meanings, depending on the state.
- Kentucky — Here, "Independent" districts are separate from county districts, the standard form of school district in the state. If a county has no independent district, its school district boundaries coincide exactly with its borders. Since 2013, the state has 53 independent districts scattered throughout the state, with major concentrations in Northern Kentucky and the Eastern Coal Fields region. These districts are generally associated with a city, or sometimes with a cluster of adjoining cities. Unlike county districts, independent districts can cross county lines, as in the Caverna Independent Schools centered on Cave City and Horse Cave and the Corbin Independent Schools. Note that some districts in the state are independent despite not having "Independent" in their official name, as in the Owensboro Public Schools and Paducah Public Schools.
- Minnesota — Per Minnesota Statute 120A.05, "Independent" denotes any school district validly created and existing as an independent, consolidated, joint independent, county or a ten or more township district as of July 1, 1957, or pursuant to the Education Code.
- Texas — Here, "Independent" denotes that the district is separate from any county- or municipal-level entity. All of the state's school districts, with only one exception (Stafford Municipal School District), are independent of any municipal or county control. Moreover, school district boundaries rarely coincide with municipal limits or county lines. Most districts use the term "Independent School District" in their name; in the few cases where the term "Common School District" is used the district is still an independent governmental entity.
- In Ohio, school districts are classified as either city school districts, exempted village school districts, or local school districts. City and exempted village school districts are exempted from county boards of education, while local school districts remain under county school board supervision. School districts may combine resources to form a fourth type of school district, the joint vocational school district, which focuses on a technical skills–based curriculum.
- In Michigan there are Intermediate School Districts (ISD), Regional Education Service Districts (RESD), or Regional Education Service Agencies (RESA) largely at the county level. The local schools districts run the schools and most programs, but often bilingual aides, programs for the deaf and blind, special education for the severely impaired, and career and technical education programs are run by the Intermediate School District or equivalent.
- In Maryland school districts are broken up by county.
Outside the United States, autonomous districts or equivalent authorities often represent various groups seeking education autonomy. In European history, as in much of the world, religious (confessional), linguistic, and ethnic divisions have been a significant factor in school organization. This paradigm is shifting.
In France, the system of the carte scolaire was dismantled by the beginning of the 2007 school year. More school choice has been given to French students; however, priority is given to those who meet the following criteria:
- students with disabilities
- students on scholarships or special academic merit
- students who meet "social cohesion" criteria (essentially to diversify the school population)
- students who require specialized medical attention from a hospital
- students who want to study a course offered only by the school
- students who have siblings that attend the school
- students who live close to the school
In Italy, school districts were established in 1974 by the "Provvedimenti Delegati sulla scuola" ("Assigned Laws [to the Government] about the school"). Each district must contain a minimum of 10,000 inhabitants. The national government attempted to link the local schools with local society and culture and local governments. The school districts were dissolved in 2003 by the "legge finanziaria" (law about the government budget) in an attempt to trim the national budget.
- London School Board
- Education areas in New South Wales, Australia
- School districts in Canada
- Education districts in Queensland, Australia
- Lists of school districts in the United States
- List of the largest school districts in the United States by enrollment
- State education agency
- School division (Virginia)
- Unified school district
- School district drug policies
- School Improvement Grant
- School Catchment area
- "School Districts" (Archive) U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved on June 20, 2015.
- USA Today published March 13, 2012, page A1,"Property taxes start to decline"
- "120A.05 - 2014 Minnesota Statutes". mn.gov. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- Special Purpose Governments, Ohio State University. Accessed 2008-01-05.
- "Find archives & local records". powys.gov.uk. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- "Text of the DPR n° 416 del 31 maggio 1974 ("Assigned Laws about the school")" (in Italian). 1994 [31 May 1974]. Retrieved 2016-03-30.
- "L 289/2002: Text of the law n° 289 del 27 dicembre 2002 ("legge finanziaria 2003")" (in Italian). 2003 [27 Dec 2002]. Retrieved 2016-03-30.
- Yan, Wenfan (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). "A Comparison of Rural School Districts" (Archive). The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania General Assembly. September 2006.
- "How Small Is Too Small? An Analysis of School District Consolidation" (Archive). Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) (Fiscal and policy advisor of the California Legislature). May 2, 2011.