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The United States Department of Education


How much do you know about the Department of Education? 

Do you know what it does? How it’s run? 

Then again…maybe I should clarify what we’re talking about. Are we discussing the U.S. Department of Education? Or a state Department of Education? Do you know the difference between the two? 

If you’re like me, you might not have even realized states have a Department of Education!

In a recent 24 hour informal survey, 83% of respondents acknowledged that they didn’t know what the Department of Education does. 

43% of respondents didn’t realize that there was both a federal Department of Education and state Departments of Education, and 100% of respondents believed that a better understanding of the Department of Education would be beneficial. 

At the federal level, the Department of Education oversees the U.S. government’s education assistance to the states. It helps the President establish and implement his education policy and enforces Congress’s education laws.

At the state level, the Department of Education governs the public school system in that state. State constitutions and statutes outline the specific responsibilities of the Department of Education in each state. Similar to the state’s Board of Education, the state Department of Education’s duties vary widely. No single definition can comprehensively describe what the state Department of Education does because it depends on the state. Despite their differences, there are some similarities and some common responsibilities. 

Today, let’s take a closer look at the Department of Education’s roles at the federal and state levels. We’ll explore some of the common duties and how they interact with each other. 

State Departments of Education

According to StateUniversity.com, “The state educational authority (usually known as the state department of education…) gains its powers and responsibilities specifically from the state’s constitution and statutes.”

However, this article goes on to explain that state Departments of Education (DE) roles have evolved to become more distinct and influential. As local, state, and federal educational entities—and the courts—have become more involved and more organized in their roles in education, the states’ Departments of Education have become a source for information and policy.

State education departments provide several functions:

  • Assist in the development of educational legislation and offer an interpretation of this legislation on a practical level.
  • Ensure that legislative mandates relating to education are appropriately carried out within the state.
  • Observe the school systems in operation. The Department takes its observations to the legislatures and offers recommendations on changes and regulations. 
  • Serve as a mediator concerning controversies between school districts, local or regional educational agents, and agencies of the state.
  • Provide services that are performed better at a state level (for instance, teacher placement, library services, statewide testing, etc.)
  • Conduct long-term studies about education methods, planning, and programs.
  • Offer general information of the state’s education system (such as the latest statistics) to the general public, local school districts, the legislature, and the governor’s office.

The state DE acts as a liaison between the federal level and the local level. It offers stability and continuity for the school system state-wide when necessary. It provides services and information to offer schools, students, and their communities an improved educational experience.

Each state’s Department of Education has different responsibilities per its own constitution and legislative statutes. The federal Department of Education provides information about each state’s individual Department of Education. For state-specific information, you can use this page to select your state and find the website for your particular state’s DE.

The U.S. Department of Education

“The original Department of Education was created in 1867 to collect information on schools and teaching that would help the States establish effective school systems,” explains the U.S. Department of Education’s website. “While the agency’s name and location within the Executive Branch have changed over the past 130 years, this early emphasis on getting information on what works in education to teachers and education policymakers continues down to the present day.”

The following is Ed.gov’s summary of Congress’s stated reasons for establishing the U.S. Department of Education as we know it:

  1. To strengthen the federal commitment to equal educational opportunities
  2. To supplement and complement the efforts of states in education in every area
  3. To encourage the involvement of the public, parents, and students in federal education programs
  4. To enhance the quality and value of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information
  5. To improve the coordination of federal education programs
  6. To improve the management and efficiency of federal education activities, especially concerning the dispersal of federal funds, and more efficiently streamline access to federal funds by those who need it
  7. To increase the accountability of federal education programs to the President, the Congress, and the public. (Section 102, Public Law 96-88)

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) makes sure that American students have access to a good-quality education. The U.S. ED does this through four primary goals:

  • Data collection
  • Prevention of discrimination in education
  • Establishment of policies concerning financial aid and its dispersion
  • Identification of education issues

The “Do Nots”

According to ED.gov, there are a few things that the U.S. Department of Education does not do.

“In creating the Department of Education, Congress specified that…the Department does not

  • establish schools and colleges;
  • develop curricula;
  • set requirements for enrollment and graduation;
  • determine state education standards; or
  • develop or implement testing to measure whether states are meeting their education standards.*

These are responsibilities handled by the various states and districts as well as by public and private organizations of all kinds, not by the U.S. Department of Education.”

As you can see, the U.S. ED has specific guidelines meant to limit their reach—an important fact given the ever-present debate over the amount of power the federal government should have in the education of America’s children. This debate dates back to the department’s very beginning. 

Ed.gov explains this: “Although the Department is a relative newcomer among Cabinet-level agencies, its origins goes [sic] back to 1867…However, due to concern that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, the new Department was [temporarily] demoted to an Office of Education in 1868.”  

The “Dos”

Let’s examine the main goals of the U.S. Department of Education in a little more detail.

1. Collects Data

The primary reason for establishing the U.S. ED was to collect data. Now, over 150 years later, data collection is still one of the Department’s main goals. 

The U.S. Department of Education tells us that it “collects data and oversees research on America’s schools and disseminates this information to Congress, educators and the general public.”

But what data is this? The ED website explains that as well: “The Department oversees research on most aspects of education; collects data on trends; and gathers information to help identify best practices in education, including teaching techniques that work. Employees of the Department, as well as contractors and grant recipients, carry out the research.”

When the ED concludes a bit of research, it disperses its findings to the appropriate individuals and groups in the hopes of continually improving the American education system.

2. Enforces federal statutes prohibiting discrimination in education

If an educational program or activity receives federal funding, it must meet certain standards to prevent discriminatory behavior. The U.S. ED has a responsibility to prevent discrimination and ensure that every student has equal access to quality education and education-related programs/activities.

“The Department enforces five civil rights statutes to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students, regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age,” ED.gov explains. “These laws extend to all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries and museums, and other entities that receive U.S. Department of Education funds.”

3. Establishes Policies Concerning Financial Aid

“The ED provides federal aid to different programs based on merit or individual financial need (www.ed.gov).” Learn.org informs us, “It also provides funds to unique populations, such as those of Native American descent and those with special needs and set regulations that determine how these funding programs will run. The money can go to different programs or specific individuals, including students applying for college.”

Providing funding around the country is a core part of the U.S. Department of Education’s responsibilities. This funding goes to various education-related needs such as:

4. Identifies Education Issues

The U.S. Department of Education also identifies the major issues and problems in education and then brings them to national attention

Learn.org tells us a little bit about what this means. “The U.S. Department of Education recognizes issues in education, makes them public and works to find potential solutions for them. This helps other education-related organizations decide which issues are the most important, so they can be researched and trends can be studied.”

The U.S. ED does this in several ways:

  • Making recommendations for education reform, which the Secretary of Education takes to the President. The secretary advises the President and then leads the department in implementing the president’s policies.
  • Working closely with a variety of diverse advisory groups and organizations which provide significant ideas on key policies and programs
  • Bringing national attention to education issues through the secretary via
    • Speeches
    • The publication of articles
    • Addressing the media 
    • Appearing personally in schools and other education settings 
  • Sponsoring and participating in national conferences and other similar activities

The United States Department of Education is an instrumental party in education reform, policy, and funding across the country. While its specific powers are relatively limited, their influence is undeniable. 

Common Goals

While they have different jobs and certainly different jurisdictions, the U.S. Department of Education and the various state Departments of Education share one common goal: to provide a quality education to as many American students as possible. They work together at all three levels—federal, state, and local—to accomplish this goal with a complex web of inter-departmental cooperation. 

For many, questions remain about whether the United States should have a federal Department of Education at all. At the top of their list of reasons is that the Constitution never mentions a federal role in education.

Now that you have a better idea about what this department does, what do you think?