In 1867, Congress established a national Department of Education to collect and provide information to promote school improvement. Education soon lost its cabinet level status, and federal education-related functions passed over time to a variety of agencies. The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of a federal role in education, and states have continuously argued that education is their responsibility. Until the mid-1960s, the role of the federal government expanded gradually, with the primary purpose being to pass funds from the national level to states, districts, and higher education.
In the 1960s, federal programs to reduce poverty and protect civil rights resulted in a dramatic increase in federal funding for education and regulations to ensure that the rights of racial minorities were protected. In the 1970s, the civil rights functions expanded to cover discrimination based on gender, disability, and language.
In 1976, then-candidate for president Jimmy Carter pledged to establish a cabinet-level Department of Education. With opponents fearing an expanded federal role in education and many interest groups concerned about a loss of influence, legislation establishing the department passed by the narrowest of margins in 1980. The new department encompassed education programs previously housed in the Office of Education and the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. However, many education-related programs—including those dealing with Indian education, school breakfast and lunch, pre-kindergarten child development, and research on learning and curriculum development—remained in other federal agencies.
In 1981, President Reagan proposed that the Department of Education be abolished. Although this effort was not successful, the debates made clear that there was little interest in changing the federal role in education, except to increase funding for existing programs. Efforts during the 1990s to initiate new federal programs that would significantly affect state and local authorities found little support.
In 2002, the role of the federal government in education, and thus the functions of the department, changed substantially with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB, the major source of federal support for public education, imposed requirements on districts and schools to ensure that all students make continuous progress toward achieving state standards and that all teachers are “fully qualified.” NCLB and other federal policies implemented from 2001–2006 further broadened the department’s influence by tying federal funding to state and local adoption of specific educational curricula and practices and by promoting the establishment of options to conventional public schools.
Despite significant growth in federal expenditures for public education since the establishment of the Department of Education, funds administered by the department account for only about 8 percent of total funding of public schools and for less than 50 percent of federal expenditures on education.
- Manna, P. (2006). School’s in: Federalism and the national education agenda. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
- Radin, B. A., & Hawley, W. D. (1988). The politics of federal reorganization: Creating the U.S. Department of Education. New York: Pergamon.
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