While state schools are to be found in virtually every country, there are significant variations in their structure and educational programs. State education generally encompasses primary and secondary education (kindergarten to twelfth grade, or equivalent), as well as post-secondary educational institutions such as universities, colleges, and technical schools that are funded and overseen by government rather than private entities. The education system, or lack thereof, prior to the establishment of government-funded schools impacts their role in each society. In many instances there was an established educational system which served a significant, albeit often elite, sector of the population; these systems were often funded by religious institutions. The introduction of state schools in some cases was able to build upon this established system, while in others both systems have continued to exist, sometimes in a parallel and complementary relationship and other times less harmoniously.
State education is inclusive, both in its treatment of students and in that enfranchisement for the government of public education is as broad as for government generally. It is often organized and operated to be a deliberate model of the civil community in which it functions. Although typically provided to groups of students in classrooms in a central school, it may be provided in-home, employing visiting teachers, and/or supervising teachers. It can also be provided in non-school, non-home settings, such as shopping mall space.
State education is generally available to all. In most countries, it is compulsory for children to attend school up to a certain age, but the option of attending private school is open to many. In the case of private schooling, schools operate independently of the state and generally defray their costs (or even make a profit) by charging parents tuition fees. The funding for state schools, on the other hand, is provided by tax revenues, so that even individuals who do not attend school (or whose dependents do not attend school) help to ensure that society is educated. In poverty stricken societies, authorities are often lax on compulsory school attendance because child labour is exploited. It is these same children whose income-securing labor cannot be forfeited to allow for school attendance.
The term "public education" when applied to state schools is not synonymous with the term "publicly funded education". Government may make a public policy decision that it wants to have some financial resources distributed in support of, and it may want to have some control over, the provision of private education. Grants-in-aid of private schools and vouchers systems provide examples of publicly funded private education. Conversely, a state school (including one run by a school district) may rely heavily on private funding such as high fees or private donations and still be considered state by virtue of governmental ownership and control.
State primary and secondary education often involves the following: