What is it?
It might seem like something called the Department of Education would run schools across the country, but in fact, your state and local government make most of the decisions when it comes to how Americans get educated.
The number one thing the Department of Education actually does? Makes grants and loans.
Some of those grants go to states to teach K-12 students who are low-income or have disabilities, or to train teachers. If your child lives on a military base or other federal land, the federal Department of Education is funding their K-12 education. Still, most money for K-12 education – close to 90% – comes from state and local governments.
The Department also makes grants and loans to college students, and is responsible for making sure those loans get paid back.
A big chunk of the agency’s work is monitoring and enforcing laws on education. Here are a few of the big ones to know about:
This is mostly up to state and local officials, whether it’s how well students need to perform in order to move up a grade or graduate, what kind of rating a school gets, or how to improve schools that are failing. But there’s a federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that does put some responsibility in the federal government’s hands. The law requires students to take standardized tests in reading and math, and requires the lowest performing schools to close achievement gaps for low-income students and minority students. While the Department monitors this stuff, it doesn’t dictate how schools meet these requirements.
Various federal laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age. The Department of Education, through its Office for Civil Rights, enforces these laws in states, school districts, colleges, and even museums and libraries that get money from the Department. Any person who believes they have been a target of discrimination by an institution that receives Department of Education funding can file a complaint. The agency also keeps tons of data on whether all students have equal access to courses and resources, and whether there are disparities in student discipline and harassment.
Students With Disabilities
The Department enforces several federal laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities. It makes sure children with disabilities get a free and appropriate education, and that infants, toddlers, and older kids get special education and other services. It also makes sure that public schools don’t discriminate against kids with disabilities.
So Much Data
Like, so much. The ED keeps track of math and reading scores for 4th and 8th graders. It’s watching for gaps between how well low-income kids perform compared to wealthier kids. If you want to know how many high school students are graduating or dropping out, the ED’s got spreadsheets beyond your wildest dreams.
Why It Matters To You
Reading and Math
They’re good things to know! To track how well kids are learning in school, the Department of Education tests a sample of American K-12 students across the country every two years. The results of that test are known as the Nation’s Report Card. It’s often hard to compare students from different states because not all states use the same tests, assessments, and standards. That makes the Nation’s Report Card particularly useful.
Paying for College
Loans, the Work Study Program, and Pell Grants can help students who need help paying for college, and they all come from the Department of Education – sort of. Congress is actually the one that decides how much money is available for these programs and who’s eligible. The Department of Education is responsible for making sure students get the amounts they’re eligible for. Ever filled out FAFSA to see how much financial aid you’re eligible for? The Department of Education created that form and processed it once you submitted it.
Succeeding Without College
The Department of Education is one of several federal agencies thinking about how to create paths to good careers for all kinds of people, including things like apprenticeships and credentials. Funding for these kinds of programs mostly goes through the states, and comes through the Department of Education.
Discrimination Based on Sex
There’s a 50-year-old civil rights law known as Title IX, which says that no one can face discrimination on the basis of their sex when it comes to an education program that receives federal funding. The Department of Education is responsible for making sure schools, colleges, and other programs that receive federal funding are protecting students from sexual harassment and violence. The Department also says that Title IX protects LGBTQ people.
How to Make an Impact
I’d Like to Speak to Your Manager
The Department of Education is a federal agency which means it takes its marching orders from the President and Congress. That big plan to forgive a bunch of student debt? That was an executive order from the President. The Nation’s Report Card? Congress requires it. If you want the Department of Education to do something differently, take it up with your representative in Congress (it’s easy – here’s how!).
Vote All the Way Down
The people who control the Department of Education? They’re all elected. Voting for president and Congress are no-brainers. But power flows upward, too. When you vote for your governor, state legislators, school board, you name it, you’re voting for people who can use their power to influence officials at the federal level. So when you go to vote, vote for every office on the ballot!
Like most federal agencies, the Department of Education is required to follow a “notice and comment” period when it’s trying to make a new rule or regulation. Before the new rule goes into effect, companies, advocacy groups, lobbyists, and ordinary Americans can write in to share how the new regulation would affect them. You can search all for rules that federal agencies are considering or ones they’ve issued, open for comment, and check out our guide for help submitting your own comment!
The president appoints the head of the Department of Education, but that’s not the whole story. The Senate still has to confirm that person, known as the Secretary of Education. Did the president nominate someone who embodies your values? Ask your senator to confirm them! Did the president nominate someone you think is terrible? Ask your senator to vote against confirmation! You can call, write, or ask for a meeting. And keep the pressure up by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper!
On the Ground
In 2022, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the Washoe school district in Nevada $3.7 million grant to help prepare Native American students for college and careers. The funding came through the Native Youth Community Project Grant within the department’s Office of Indian Education.
Officials in 20 states filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court aimed at killing President Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan. The attorney general of Ohio called the plan a “power grab” by the federal government.
In Michigan, a group of charter schools sued the U.S. Department of Education over new rules for getting grant funding. The Department of Education wants charter schools to show that they’re located in neighborhoods without enough space in good schools and that they aren’t making racial and economic segregation worse. The charter schools says these rules are aimed to hurt them.
If you didn’t graduate high school and are hoping to receive federal student aid for a certificate program, you’ll need to take something called the “Ability-to-Benefit” Test. The U.S. Department of Education accused a for-profit college chain in Florida and Texas of helping students to cheat on this test – and then it cut off the colleges’ access to federal student aid.
The superintendent of the Granbury Independent School District in Texas quietly ordered librarians to remove books with LGBTQ+ themes. When a recording of the conversation leaked, the ED opened an investigation to find out whether this was an example of discrimination based on sex, gender, or sexual orientation.