U.S. Department of Education Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Because it is the responsibility of the Department of Education (ED) to establish and disseminate educational policy and to inaugurate and oversee federal funding designated for educational assistance, this department has direct responsibility both for identifying the needs of personnel to join the American workforce and developing means to train people to fill these needs.

Although public education in the United States has always been the responsibility of the individual states, the federal government first became officially involved in overseeing it, however minimally, on March 2, 1867. On that day, President Andrew Johnson signed into law a bill that established the Department of Education, a government agency without cabinet status headed by a commissioner of education, the first of whom was Henry Barnard. He served from 1867 until 1870 with a staff of three and an initial budget of $15,000.Education, U.S. Department of

The establishment of this department was controversial. Many people did not want their communities to lose control of their schools. Congress was not impressed by the new department and changed its name to the Office of Education in 1868, reduced its budget, and attached it to the Department of the Interior. In 1870, Congress again reduced its budget, this time to $5,000 a year. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, the Office of Education regained some respect from Congress during the sixteen-year tenure of a politically savvy commissioner, John Eaton. Many school districts had already ceded a modicum of local control to state control as some states established centralized departments to oversee education within their boundaries.

Gaining Cabinet Status

The government has taken an active role in promoting education. This 1930’s Work Projects Administration poster promotes adult education classes.

(Library of Congress)

Although the Office of Education served significant educational functions for more than a century, it did not have cabinet status, being rather an adjunct of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. During World War II, this agency gained prestige by becoming directly involved in developing programs to train people needed to staff vital wartime occupations. At war’s end, however, its staff of 500 was slashed to 286.

With increasing governmental involvement in enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring all people equal access to educational facilities, the Office of Education won back some of the luster it had achieved during the war years. Support built for a cabinet-level agency that would oversee education on a national level but would leave crucial educational decisions in the hands of state and local agencies.

On October 17, 1979, President Jimmy Carter, JimmyCarter, who led the initiative to support a cabinet-level department for education, signed a bill, the Department of Education Organization Act, passed earlier by Congress, that called for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Education. On December 6, 1979, Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler secretary of education. She was instrumental in the official creation of the Department of Education that opened on May 7, 1980.

Headquartered in Washington, the department has ten regional offices. Its early budget of $29 billion had reached $56 billion by 2007. In that year, the department had a workforce of approximately five thousand and administered more than two hundred programs dealing with the nation’s educational needs.

A major thrust of the department is to ensure that the United States has a well-trained workforce to meet the country’s industrial, commercial, and financial needs. Although local control of the nation’s schools presumably is preserved, the Department of Education has become increasingly involved in establishing minimal educational standards and in the competency testing that was part of the No Child Left Behind initiative of the George W. Bush administration.

Friends and Foes

Early impetus for a cabinet-level department to deal with education came from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s emphasis on building a great society that ensured all Americans equality of opportunity. The civil rights legislation that grew out of the Johnson administration mandated such equality. A strong central agency was needed to accomplish this ideal.

The advances the department made during Carter’s administration were threatened upon Ronald Reagan, RonaldReagan’s election to the presidency in 1981. Reagan advocated reducing the size of the federal government and attempted to dismantle the department but could not win congressional approval to do so. He managed instead to get theEducation Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981 through Congress as a compromise measure. This act increased the ability of state and local agencies to determine how they would use federal funds for education and diminished the power of the Department of Education.

Under the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, education regained the important national position it had held when Carter was president. The Department of Education remains a viable department that operates major units dealing with such matters as bilingual education, civil rights as they are affected by educational institutions, special education, education of the handicapped, vocational and adult education (including the reeducation of those whose skills are no longer in demand), and educational research and its dissemination.

Further Reading
  • Bell, Terrel. The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir. New York: Free Press, 1988. Memoir of Bell’s service as secretary of education from 1981 to 1984. Useful insights.
  • Bennett, William J. Our Children and Our Country: Improving America’s Schools and Affirming the Common Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Conservative view by a former secretary of education (1985-1988) of what American education should seek to achieve.
  • Boyer, Ernest L. College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. Plan by a former U.S. commissioner of education (1977-1978) for overhauling higher education in the United States.
  • No Child Left Behind: A Desktop Reference. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2002. A program-by-program look at the reforms created by the legislation.
  • Riley, Richard W. Design for Learning: Building Schools for the Twenty-First Century. Washington, D.C.: Department of Education, 1998. Blueprint for educational change by a former secretary of education (1993-2001).
  • Sniegoski, Stephen J. The Department of Education. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Although directed toward young-adult readers, this overview is thorough and readable.

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