A public school means different things in different countries:
USA and Canada
In the United States and Canada, public schools are schools that are paid for by the government. They are open to all students who live nearby without any charge. They are usually paid for through property taxes that are applied to everyone who owns buildings in the area around the school.
Public schools greatly expanded in the United States in the 19th century. Every U.S. state now has free public schools.
Some people think that public schools have done a bad job of education in the United States. One solution has been to give "vouchers" to parents that help them send their children to private schools. Critics say this takes money away that could go to improving public schools.
UK and Commonwealth
In the United Kingdom, public schools are independent fee-paying schools like Eton College. They are called 'public' because they accept students from anywhere – not just people living nearby in the school area. Some are boarding schools, where students can sleep and live at school during the school term. The public schools have an association called the Headmasers' and Headmistresses' Conference. Junior schools which prepare children for entry into public schools are called Preparatory schools ('prep' schools).
The term "public school", for what are actually private schools, is historical. It dates from the UK Public Schools Act 1868 which set the framework for seven leading English boys' schools, which were:
- Charterhouse School
- Eton College
- Harrow School
- Rugby School
- Shrewsbury School
- Westminster School
- Winchester College
Public schools have a very good record of getting their pupils into elite universities, such as Cambridge and Oxford. They educate the sons and daughters of the British upper and upper-middle classes. In particular, the sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their parents were on overseas postings. In 2010, over half of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at public schools. In 2009, annual fees were up to £30,000 for boarders.