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In the U.S, most K–12 public schools function as units of local school districts, which usually operate several schools, and the largest urban and suburban districts operate hundreds of schools. While practice varies significantly by state (and in some cases, within a state), most American school districts operate as independent local governmental units under a grant of authority and within geographic limits created by state law. The executive and legislative power over locally controlled policies and operations of an independent school district are, in most cases, held by a school district's board of education. Depending on state law, members of a local board of education (often referred to informally as a school board) may be elected, appointed by a political office holder, serve ex officio, or a combination of any of these.
An independent school district is a legally separate body corporate and political. While the controlling law varies, in the United States most school districts operate as independent local governmental units with exclusive authority over K–12 public educational operations and policies. The extent of this control is set by state-level law. Litigation against school districts is common; law firms that specialize in school law handle such litigation and it is paid for by school board professional liability insurance. 
Independent school districts often exercise authority over a school system that is analogous to the authority of local governments like that of a town or a county. These include the power to enter contacts, eminent domain, and the power to issue binding rules and regulations affecting school policies and operations. The power of school districts to tax and spend is generally more limited. An independent school district's annual budget may require approval by the plebiscite (much of New York) or the local government. Additionally, independent taxation authority may or may not exist as 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 of schools, 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 studentdiscipline 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. As of 1951[update] school districts were independent governmental units in 26 states, while in 17 states there were mixes of independent school districts and school districts subordinate to other local governments. In nine states there were only school districts subordinate to local governments.
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. A 2010 study by economist William A. Fischel found that "two-thirds of medium-to-large American cities have boundaries that substantially overlap those of a single school district" with substantial regional and state variations in the degree of overlap, "ranging from nearly perfect congruence in New England, New Jersey, and Virginia, to hardly any in Illinois, Texas, and Florida." Older and more populous municipalities "tend to have boundaries that closely match those of a single school district." Noting that most modern school districts were formed by consolidating one-room school districts in the first seven decades of the 20th century, Fischel argues that "outside the South, these consolidations were consented to by local voters" who "preferred districts whose boundaries conformed to their everyday interactions rather than formal units of government" and that "[t]he South ended up with county-based school districts because segregation imposed diseconomies of scale on district operations and required larger land-area districts."
According to a 2021 study, the demographics of voters who elect local school boards in the United States tend not to align with the demographics of the students. This gap is "most pronounced in majority nonwhite jurisdictions and school districts with the largest racial achievement gaps."
There were 130,000 school districts in the country in 1930, with an average student population of 150. From 1942 to 1951 the number of school districts declined from 108,579 to 70,452, a decrease of 38,127 or 35%. Many states had passed laws facilitating school district consolidation. In 1951 the majority of the school districts in existence were rural school districts only providing elementary education, and some school districts did not operate schools but instead provided transportation to other schools. The Midwest had a large number of rural school districts.
Previously areas of the Unorganized Borough of Alaska were not served by school districts but instead served by schools directly operated by the Alaska Department of Education and by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools. The state schools were transferred to the Alaska State-Operated School System (SOS) after the Alaska Legislature created it in 1971; that agency was terminated in 1975, with its schools transferred to the newly created Alaska Unorganized Borough School District, which was broken apart into twenty-one school districts the following year.
School districts in the US have reduced the number of their employees by 3.3%, or 270,000 between 2008 and 2012, owing to a decline in property tax revenues during and after the Great Recession. By 2016 there were about 13,000 school districts, and the average student population was about 5,000.
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. Many high schools cover only grades ten to twelve; this type of school is sometimes referred to as a senior high school.
The word central in a district's name indicates that the district is formed from a consolidation ("centralization") of multiple districts and that the central district's operations are centralized relative to those of the previous districts.
The word community in a district's name indicates that the district is formed to serve a community of people with common interests and associations and with a community center.
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 the 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.
In Missouri, most district names include a C- (for "consolidated") or, more commonly, an R- (for "reorganized") followed by a number, commonly in Roman numerals.
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.
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 under 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 school 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.
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.[how?]
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 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 Germany, schools and teachers are predominately funded by the States of Germany, which also are in control of the overall education policies. On the other hand, school buildings are mostly run and funded by municipal governments on different levels of the municipal system (municipalities proper, districts), depending on the size and specialization of a certain school or the population size of a certain municipality. As with other fields of government, for more specialized schools, special government bodies ("Zweckverband") can be established, where municipalities, and not voters, are members; these are to a certain degree comparable to a school district. Other arrangements are possible: certain types of special schools in North Rhine-Westphalia are run by the Landschaftsverbände. There also exist private schools, mostly funded by the States, but run by private entities like churches or foundations.
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.
^"Local Government Handbook"(PDF) (7th ed.). New York Department of State, Division of Local Government Services. March 13, 2018. p. 93. Archived from the original(PDF) on May 27, 2020. Retrieved August 31, 2018.