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What Is the U.S. Department of Education?

The U.S. Department of Education is the agency of the federal government that establishes policy for, administers, and coordinates most federal assistance to education. It assists the president in executing his education policies for the nation and in implementing laws enacted by Congress. The Department's mission is to serve America's students-to to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

In 2007-08, the Department's elementary and secondary school programs served approximately 55 million students (pre-K through grade 12) attending some 100,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools. Department programs also provided a grant, loan, and work-study assistance to about 10 million undergraduate students. *

When Congress created the Department in 1979, it declared these purposes: strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual; supplement and complement the efforts of States, the local school systems and other instrumentalities of the States, the private sector, public and private educational institutions, public and private nonprofit educational research institutions, community-based organizations, parents, and students to improve the quality of education; encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents, and students in Federal education programs; promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information; improve the coordination of Federal education programs; improve the management and efficiency of Federal education activities, especially with respect to the process, procedures, and administrative structures for the dispersal of Federal funds, as well as the reduction of unnecessary and duplicative burdens and constraints, including unnecessary paperwork, on the recipients of Federal funds; and increase the accountability of Federal education programs to the President, the Congress, and the public. (Section 102, Public Law 96-88)

The Department's History

Although the Department is a relative newcomer among Cabinet-level agencies, its origins go back to 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the first Department of Education. Its main purpose was to collect information and statistics about the nation's schools. However, due to concern that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, the new Department was demoted to an Office of Education in 1868.

Over the years, the office remained relatively small, operating under different titles and housed in various agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and the former U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services).

Beginning in the 1950s, political and social changes resulted in expanded federal funding for education. The successful launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik in 1957 spurred nationwide concern that led to increased aid for science education programs. The 1960s saw even more expansion of federal education funding: President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" called for the creation of many programs to improve education for poor students at all levels—early childhood through postsecondary. This expansion continued in the 1970s with national efforts to help racial minorities, women, people with disabilities and non-English speaking students gain equal access to education. In October 1979, Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act (Public Law 96-88). Created by combining offices from several federal agencies, the Department began operations in May 1980.

In the 1860s, a budget of $15,000 and four employees handled education fact-finding. By 1965, the Office of Education had more than 2,100 employees and a budget of $1.5 billion. As of mid-2010, the Department has nearly 4,300 employees and a budget of about $60 billion.

*SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Data from the Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey for the 2007-08 school year; the 2007-08 Private School Universe Survey; and the 2007-08 National Postsecondary Aid Study. For the most current data visit

How Does the Department of Education Serve America’s Students?.

In fulfilling its purposes as declared by Congress in Public Law 96-88, the Department engages in four major types of activities.

1. The Department of Education—

establishes policies relating to federal financial aid for education, administers the distribution of those funds, and monitors their use.

Like most federal activities, the Department of Education programs must first be authorized by Congress through legislation that is signed into law by the president. The Department then develops regulations that determine exactly how a program will be operated. These regulations are published in the Federal Register for public comment and reviewed by Congress. Congress must also vote to appropriate the money that each program will receive annually.

The Department distributes financial aid to eligible applicants throughout the nation for early childhood, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education programs. Federal programs benefit all students, and special programs exist to serve individuals with disabilities, those who live in poverty, American Indians, immigrants, and those with limited English proficiency. Federal funds for education are distributed using three methods: a set formula, competition, and financial need determination.

By formula: Some programs follow a formula prescribed in the bill approved by Congress authorizing a program. Such a program might be set up so that qualified agencies receive an amount of money that is determined by the number of students meeting certain criteria in that state or school district. For example, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Department allocates money to the states to help them provide a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities based on the number of children reported by each state as having special developmental or educational needs.

By competition: Federal money also is awarded on the merit of competitive applications. Applicants are ranked in order of merit and the most qualified applications are awarded funds. Those eligible for such funding include state and local education agencies or school districts; education partnerships (programs jointly sponsored by education institutions and the private sector); colleges and universities; individual researchers; and community-based organizations such as nonprofit agencies.

By financial need determination: The third basis on which federal money is awarded is financial need. For example, postsecondary students applying for grants, loans and fellowships must prove family financial needs according to established guidelines.

2. The Department of Education—

collects data and oversees research on America's schools and disseminates this information to Congress, educators, and the general public.

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.

Research findings and statistics are disseminated to educators, policymakers, parents, researchers, and the general public in the form of reports and publications—both printed and online. Recent publications have covered the latest national assessments of educational progress in a variety of subject areas, innovations in education, the condition of education in America, annual reports on a variety of federal education programs, how to improve mathematics education, and many other pertinent education topics. In a typical year, the Department publishes hundreds of publications and millions of copies to meet the public's demand for information.

3. The Department of Education—

identifies the major issues and problems in education and focuses national attention on them.

The Department makes recommendations for education reform. The secretary advises the president in this regard and leads the Department in implementing the president's education policies in many arenas—from the preparation of legislative proposals for Congress to decisions about education research priorities. Of vital importance in formulating and implementing policies is the Department’s close work with a variety of advisory groups and organizations composed of citizens from all walks of life who have an interest and expertise in education and who provide significant ideas on key policies and programs.

In addition, the secretary brings national attention to education issues by giving speeches, writing articles for publication, addressing the media, and making personal appearances in schools and other education settings. The Department further highlights education issues by sponsoring and participating in national conferences and other similar activities, such as the Blue Ribbon Schools and Presidential Scholars award programs, the Teaching Ambassador Fellows Program, the Student Art Exhibit Program, and special events and ceremonies to honor teachers or students.

4. The Department of Education—

enforces federal statutes prohibiting discrimination in programs and activities receiving federal funds and ensures equal access to education for every individual.

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. 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. Specific examples of those whose rights are protected include homeless children with disabilities, individuals with limited English proficiency, women, and girls in athletic programs, and people in need of vocational rehabilitation.