Problem

Alex is a rising senior in high school and has just started on his college applications. He has earned good grades in his classes, played on the varsity soccer team, and tutored younger students in his free time. He hopes to continue his studies at a four-year university. The only thing holding Alex back from the college of his dreams is the high cost of attendance. Luckily, as part of his college applications, Alex can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, letting the federal government know that he needs some help paying for college. When Alex is admitted to colleges, he will receive a letter telling him how much money the Office of Federal Aid can give him. 

Explanation

Direct student financial aid is one of the more visible aspects of the work done by the Department of Education. The Department of Education is a cabinet-level department of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. Through its many initiatives, it provides funding and support to students and schools. Its goal is to expand access to education for underserved student populations and improve the quality of education for all students. Students of all levels, from Pre-K to College, benefit from the monetary and academic support provided by the Education Department. 

The Department of Education

The Department of Education’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. The Secretary of Education oversees the entire Department of Education and serves as a member of the President’s Cabinet. They are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Additionally, there is a Deputy Secretary and an Under Secretary who oversee selected offices and initiatives. The Department is organized into several offices, each focused on a different aspect of education, led by Assistant Secretaries and Directors. 

The department is able to further its mission by providing funding. The Department manages direct federal financial aid for students through the Office of Federal Student Aid, and funds programs that improve the quality of education in schools through White House initiatives and other offices. 

The Department of Education includes the Institute of Education Sciences. The Institute collects and spreads knowledge by conducting research about America’s schools in order to focus national attention on educational issues. 

In addition, the department houses the Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for upholding legislation that prohibits discrimination in schools on the basis of sex, race, age, country of origin, or ability status. 

The History

The Federal Government has played a role in education since 1867 when President Andrew Johnson created the first Department of Education. Originally, the department’s role was to collect information about the nation’s schools, but it was demoted to an Office of Education in 1868 since people feared that the department had too much control over local schools. Federal education offices remained small and were housed within different larger agencies, including the Department of the Interior and the Department of Health and Human Services. 

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, sparking a nationwide push to fund science education programs so the U.S. could compete in the Space Race. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” policy led to the creation of educational programs for low-income students. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965 to provide funding to school districts with a large low-income population in order to close academic achievement gaps between poor and wealthy students. This act is still reauthorized every five years. 

Through the 1970s, people pushed to extend education to racial minorities, women, people with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language. All of these programs needed funding, so the federal education budget surpassed those of other larger departments. This led Congress to establish the current Department of Education in 1979 under the Carter administration. 

Several Republican Presidents have tried to dismantle the Department of Education because they believed that education was a state and local responsibility instead of a federal duty. However, during George W. Bush’s presidency, the Department of Education passed the No Child Left Behind Initiative, further expanding the role of the department. No Child Left Behind increased accountability by requiring schools to test students and report their results. If students were not meeting standards set by the state, schools were required to restructure and change their teaching until students met achievement standards. 

Why Care?

Although the majority of funding and support for education happens at the state and local level, the Department of Education still spends nearly $70 billion each year to run its programs. Federal education budgets are always contentious because some people do not believe the federal government should have such a large role in programs implemented at the state and local level. 

It is important to recognize how large of an impact the federal education agenda has on your ability to receive an education. Your school district may be reliant on federal funds to support students with disabilities or those who are learning English as a second language. Your teachers may be dependent on federal grants that support innovation and research in education, as well as professional development opportunities. As you begin to think about college, you may apply for federal grants, loans, or work-study programs in order to afford higher education. The college you attend may receive federal funding to strengthen its programs or support its research efforts. 

The Department of Education is a powerful tool that can be used to expand access to education to those who have historically been underserved. As politicians fight over the reach of the department, it is essential that you recognize your role as a constituent with a voice. You have the power to contact your members of Congress and share your thoughts on any legislation.

    Learn More

    1. “An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education– Pg 1.” Home, US Department of Education (ED), 14 May 2018, www2.ed.gov/about/overview/focus/what.html.
    2. “A History Of The Department Of Education.” NPR, NPR, 24 June 2018, www.npr.org/2018/06/24/623024822/a-history-of-the-department-of-education.
    3. Kosar, Kevin, et al. “Kill the Department of Ed.? It’s Been Done.” The Agenda, 23 Sept. 2015, www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/09/department-of-education-history-000235/.

    Think Further

    1. How do you see the impacts of the Department of Education in your own life? 
    2. How large of a role do you think the federal government should have in education? Why? 
    3. Can you think of an area of education where there are still inequalities? What could the Department of Education do to help solve this issue? 

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