U.S. Department of Education

The United States Department of Education (ED) serves as the federal agency charged with addressing education-related issues. Unlike the structure utilized in other nations such as Brazil, France, Germany, and Japan, the ED lacks plenary power to set nationwide educational policies. Even so, the department does exercise significant influence over crucial education matters, such as the awarding and distribution of federal funds, the implementation of federal policies, and the collection of data on educational practices and outcomes at all levels. Accordingly, this entry discusses the ED’s history and development, its place within the federal government, and the laws that outline and establish its duties.

Early Federal Influence on Education

Under the language of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government reserved no control over education. Indeed, according to the Tenth Amendment, “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Thus, the early structure of the federal government did not include an agency to address education.
The Tenth Amendment notwithstanding, the federal government has used various pieces of legislation to influence education law and policy while encouraging the creation of schools at all levels to promote curricula that support initiatives of national importance. For example, while still operating under the Articles of Confederation in 1785, Congress adopted a policy that reserved land in each township as an endowment for the development of schools. Likewise, the Northwest Ordinance, which was enacted in 1787, provided support to higher education by giving land to townships to establish a university for the territory that later became the State of Ohio. This serves as the first example of federal higher education policy.
Even after the adoption of the Constitution, the federal government continued to find ways of influencing education. Although the United States repeatedly refused to establish a federal university, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was created in 1802. Along with the other military academies, it fulfills a national mission by assisting with the training and maintenance of a standing army and other defense forces. Soon thereafter, Congress directed that 15% of the money earned from selling federal lands go to support schools in new states.
Focusing specifically on higher education, the federal government used the sale of land to encourage college and university development. In 1862, the first Morrill Act provided federal land to both new and existing states to sell and use the proceeds to support the creation or expansion of higher education. In addition, the federal government relied on the First Morrill Act to encourage greater emphasis on and access to certain curricular foci, such as mechanical arts, agriculture, military training, liberal education, and practical preparation, thus creating the land grant institutions. Later, through the Hatch Act of 1887, Congress expanded its support of higher education as a means of improving agriculture and food production by providing land grants to fund experiment stations and distribute new knowledge about growth and soil management techniques throughout the states. In many cases, the states used their land grant higher education institutions to house, manage, and deliver the services required under the Hatch Act. Later, the Second Morrill Act, passed as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, provided federal subsidies to further support agriculture research and teaching in higher education.

Formation of the Department of Education

Despite the Constitution’s lack of attention to schooling in any form, the federal government has operated an office to address educational issues for several years. The first rendition of the Department of Education began in 1867, after both President James Garfield and Congress recognized the need for the federal government to provide some educational direction for the growing nation. However, in 1868, this version gave way to the Office of Education, which lasted only one year. In 1869, the Bureau of Education came into existence and functioned as the main office for federal education information until 1930. All three of these early versions of the federal education office as well as the renamed Office of Education (1930–1939) functioned as part of the Department of the Interior.
While the name remained the same until 1980, the Office of Education shifted through many governmental departments, first moving from the Department of the Interior in 1939 to the Federal Security Agency. In 1953, the office moved to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). In 1972, the Division of Education increased the profile of the office within HEW. In 1980, education gained enough federal attention to become a separate cabinet department as the ED. In that same year, President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler to serve as the first secretary of education within his cabinet.

Purpose of the Department of Education

For the most part, the primary duty of the Department of Education is to enforce federal education policies as specified and enacted by Congress. Accordingly, the actual tasks assigned to the ED have transitioned over the years to address contemporary federal initiatives as they develop.
As established in 1867, the Office of Education was intended to collect information on schools and teaching in order to improve learning throughout the states. Later, the various renditions of the agency became responsible for upholding federal legislation related to education. Under the Second Morrill Act (1890), the renamed Office of Education gained responsibility for distributing federal funds to land grant colleges and universities. Likewise, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 and the George-Barden Act of 1946 (also known as Vocational Educational Act) gave the Office of Education the task of overseeing vocational, agricultural, home economics, and industrial training within U.S. educational facilities, with special emphasis on secondary schools.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, the federal government charged the office with distributing federal money to school districts to ease the impact of the war effort under the Lanham Act (1941). Various statutes provided impact aid to districts with populations that were substantially enlarged by the attendance of children of federal employees— such as those whose parents are in the military— but which lost school tax revenues due to the federal government’s being exempt from property taxes. Another well-known aid to higher education institutions to support the enrollment of veterans in postsecondary schools was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G. I. Bill. In response to the cold war, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 made the Office of Education responsible for ensuring that children and adults received training needed to help the nation remain internationally competitive. This training focused on science, mathematics, foreign languages, and technical fields in all levels of education.
During the civil rights era of the mid-20th century, the Office of Education (later the Department of Education) was assigned to address issues involving discrimination in education. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the office expanded its activities to include enforcement of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka (1954, 1955) by working to get educational institutions at all levels to end the practice of racial segregation. Indeed, the Department of Education played a significant role in many desegregation suits. Yet, it was subject to criticism both because it did not enforce Title VI of the act by denying federal funds to school systems, colleges, universities, and states that did not end segregation and because it did not initiate litigation against institutions that failed to comply with the law.
In addition to racial discrimination, the Department of Education oversees compliance related to sex and disability discrimination. As specified under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the ED works to ensure that girls and women get access to the same educational and athletic opportunities as their male counterparts. Likewise, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA, assign the department the task of addressing the treatment and educational opportunities available to students with a wide range of physical, mental, and learning impairments. As it was with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Department of Education has become party to several lawsuits due to the need to define and enforce the proper implementation of laws related to sex and disability discrimination.
Updated regularly, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), now the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 also direct the activities and functions of the Department of Education. While some elements of these laws reiterate initiatives originally specified in other legislation, these acts provide additional duties to the department. Generally, these laws grant the department a role in ensuring school accountability, dispersing educational research information, and distributing financial resources to assist in educating economically and academically disadvantaged students. In postsecondary education, the ED approves accreditation agencies, awards research grants and service contracts, monitors crime reporting, and supervises the distribution of federal student financial aid, including student loans, Pell grants, and work-study funding.

Oversight of Higher Education

As illustrated by the various laws, the responsibilities that the U.S. Department of Education has with respect to higher education have changed throughout the years. In 2008, Congress passed a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that both altered and reiterated various federal priorities for higher education. As dictated by the act, the department continues to distribute federal student aid from the government to institutions where eligible students enroll and attend. In addition, the ED helps determine institutional eligibility to accept federal aid by monitoring campus compliance with various laws and policies, such as crime reporting and limiting student default on student loans.
Outside of direct aid, the ED distributes program and research funds to institutions. This includes funds awarded to colleges and universities through competitive grants for academic research as well as service initiatives sponsored and encouraged by the federal government. Likewise, the department oversees the federally sponsored TRIO Programs, which include GEAR-UP, McNair Scholars, Talent Search, and Upward Bound. Targeting various age groups, these programs focus on increasing student preparation, participation, and success in postsecondary education.
Finally, the department serves as an education data collection and distribution agency for the federal government, higher education institutions, and the general public. As required under specific laws, the ED collects and updates information about institutional size, enrollment, and academic scope; costs associated with attendance; crime rates; and other campus facts. Much of this information assists the department in monitoring the overall status of the higher education community as well as individual institutions. More recently, the ED has started to package and distribute information on postsecondary schools to the general public, especially students who are preparing to go to college and their parents. In September 2008, the department launched a Web site, www.college .gov, that seeks to provide students with realistic information regarding what they need to do and can expect in college.
Saran Donahoo

See also Americans with Disabilities Act; Federalism; Loans and Federal Aid; Morrill Acts; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; Stafford Act; Title IX and Sexual Harassment
Further Readings
Field, K. (2008, August 8). A bill that took longer than a bachelor’s degree. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(48), A1–A12.
Lane, J. (2007, November/December). The spider web of oversight: An analysis of external oversight of higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(6), 615–644.
Morgan, P. M. (1981). Academia and the federal government. Policy Studies Journal, 10(1), 70–84.
U.S. Department of Education. (2008). About ED. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/about/landing.jhtml?src=gu
U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Higher education update. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/plan/index.html
Legal Citations
Agricultural College Act (Second Morrill Land Grant Act) of 1890, ch. 841, 26 Stat. 417, 7 U.S.C. §§ 322 et seq.
Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), 349 U.S. 294 (1955).
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 107-110 (2002).
George-Barden Act of 1946, remaining sections codified at 20 U.S.C. §§ 1241 et seq.
Hatch Act of 1887, 7 U.S.C. §§ 361(a)–(i).
Higher Education Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 110-315 (2008).
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq (2004).
Lanham Act, 54 Stat. 1125.
Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, ch. 130, 12 Stat. 503, 7 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq.
National Defense Education Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-864, Title I, § 101, 72 Stat. 1581 (1958).
Northwest Ordinance of 1787, 1 Stat 51.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a) (1973).
Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (G. I. Bill), 58 Stat. 284.
Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917, ch. 114, 39 Stat. 929 (1917).
Title VI, Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.