Department of Education

Fact Box

Department of Education

Formed on October 17, 1979
Preceding departments- United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, United States Office of Education
Headquarters- NA 
Secretary of Education- Arne Duncan
Employees (2007) 5,000
Annual budget (2014) $59.6 billion


The smallest of all the cabinet-level agencies, the Department of Education (ED) is responsible for supporting the education of American children and adults in schools and colleges across the country. Education is decentralized in the United States, meaning that the task of providing and running schools is left in the hands of state and local officials. The federal government’s role has largely been to provide federal monies to bolster programs that teach children how to read, promote science or help students attend college, among other things.

Although it is the smallest of all federal departments, the ED has been the source of controversy since its founding in 1980. Conservatives have blasted the department for decades, claiming it is intrusive and detrimental to the education of children. Liberals, while not always happy with the work of the department, have consistently defended the ED in the face of attempts by Republican administrations to weaken, if not outright disband the department. President George W. Bush used the department to implement a controversial education reform measure, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which has been the source of much criticism and debate. In response, President Barack Obama’s administration implemented a program to grant NCLB waivers to qualifying states, of which there have been more than 30 to date. President Obama and ED also launched Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competition that awards funds to states whose schools do the most to meet certain federal educational criteria.


The federal government’s first Department of Education (ED) was created in 1867—based on legislation signed into law by President Andrew Johnson—as a non-cabinet-level agency charged with collecting information on schools and teaching to help states establish effective school systems. Almost immediately, critics of the new agency emerged, voicing concern that local schools would be subjected to excessive control by the department. Consequently, by the following year, the ED was reduced to a minor office, ultimately buried inside the Department of the Interior. It was operated by four employees on a budget of $15,000.

With the passage of the Second Morrill Act in 1890, this small bureau was given the responsibility for administering support for the original system of land-grant colleges and universities. In 1939, it was moved out of the Department of the Interior and placed in the newly established Federal Security Agency (FSA), where its name was changed to the Office of Education.

During the World War I and World War II eras, federal education officials became responsible for providing federal aid to vocational education. The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act and the 1946 George-Barden Act focused on agricultural, industrial, and home economics training for high school students. The Lanham Act in 1941 and the Impact Aid laws of 1950 eased the burden on communities affected by the presence of military and other federal installations by making payments to school districts. And in 1944, the GI Bill authorized postsecondary education assistance that would ultimately send nearly 8 million World War II veterans to college.

In 1953, the Eisenhower administration abolished the FSA and transferred most of its functions to a newly created cabinet-level agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). The 1950s also saw federal lawmakers adopt the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. To help ensure that highly trained individuals would be available to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields, the NDEA included support for loans to college students, the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools, graduate fellowships, foreign language and area studies, and vocational-technical training.

As a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign and the Civil Rights movement, the Office of Education became responsible for implementing federal legislation to provide equal access for all people to education. This legislation included Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, and disability. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) launched a comprehensive set of programs, including the Title I program of federal aid to disadvantaged children to address the problems of poor urban and rural areas. That same year, the Higher Education Act authorized assistance for post-secondary education, including financial aid programs for needy college students. (It would be reauthorized numerous times, most recently in 2008.)

In 1974 the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was signed into law, which gave students access and some control over their educational records. That same year the Equal Educational Opportunities Act was passed, which outlawed racial segregation and discrimination in schools. The following year, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, establishing a variety of protections in public schools for children with disabilities. It evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which has been amended multiple times, most recently in 2004. In 1978, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment was established to protect the rights of pupils and their parents with regard to all programs funded by the ED.

In 1979, the Carter administration decided that education was too important for it to be part of HEW and established the cabinet-level ED to bolster its mission of supporting schools and educational systems around the country at the state and local level. It was not long, however, before the ED came under assault by Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan promised during the 1980 presidential election to eliminate the department as a cabinet post, but Democrats in the House refused to go along. Two years later, Reagan tried again to dismantle the ED by severing all funding, and again, Democrats thwarted the president’s effort. Unable to do away with the department, Reagan decided instead to appoint a Secretary of Education who was philosophically opposed to the agency’s mission. William “Bill” Bennett served as education secretary from 1985 to 1990, through the last years of Reagan and into the administration of George H. W. Bush.

Bennett was an outspoken critic of the educational establishment, which he called “the blob” for bloated educational bureaucracy. He advocated for teacher testing, performance-based pay, education accountability, ending tenure, a national exam for all students to take, and school vouchers to allow parents to send their children to private schools.

President Bill Clinton’s administration enacted its own educational reforms through the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, a reauthorization of 1965’s ESEA that addressed such issues as charter schools, impact aid, funding for immigrant and bilingual education, and safe/drug-free schools.

In the mid-1990s, after Republicans took control of Congress, the GOP targeted the ED, calling it an intrusion into local, state, and family affairs. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole promised to “cut out” the department if elected.

When George W. Bush was elected to the White House in 2000, the Republicans did not try to erase the ED from the executive branch. Instead Bush took a page from Bill Bennett and implemented an ambitious and controversial program called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which utilizes standards-based reforms to measure how students are performing from kindergarten to grade 12. A key part of NCLB requires all public schools to implement standardized tests for all students to take—and if they don’t, they risk losing federal education funding. Overall, NCLB has provoked considerable debate and controversy. Critics have asserted that its testing mandate reduces student learning because of the temptation by teachers to lower achievement goals and “teach to the test.” President Bush, however, insisted NCLB’s testing data will shows which schools are failing to properly educate children and lead to improvements that will level the learning field for all students.

In 2007 President Bush signed into law the America COMPETES Act (reauthorized in 2010 by President Obama), which includes provisions that address goals for student achievements in mathematics, and teacher assistance in STEM fields.

In 2009 President Obama and ED launched Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competition that awards funds to states whose schools do the most to meet certain federal educational criteria, such as turning around low-achieving schools, creating conditions for successful charter schools, and improving teacher and principal effectiveness.

A decade since implementation of NCLB, the law has gotten mixed reviews, with critics decrying an overemphasis on testing that they claim has often proven ineffective and subject to manipulation. In 2010, President Obama proposed a plan to reform the ESEA and the widely unpopular NCLB. In September 2011, his administration implemented a program to grant NCLB waivers to qualifying states, of which there have been more than 30 to date.

Also in 2010, President Obama signed into law the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (HCERA), a sweeping reform of the student financial aid industry that saves $68 billion over 11 years by cutting out the middleman—lending institutions—from the loan process, thereby eliminating federal subsidies paid to banks and allowing students to get federal loans directly from the government by way of filing applications through their college’s financial aid office. Its other reforms included opening the Pell Grant program to tens of thousands of low-income students and further increasing the amount of the award, which will continue to rise annually beginning in the 2013-2014 academic year. Additionally, the law caps loan repayments at 10% of the borrower’s discretionary income.

Since 2010, the ED has hosted an annual Bullying Prevention Summit, a forum for panel discussions to present research, initiatives and strategies for bullying prevention at school, home, and online.

In December 2011, President Obama signed an Executive Order that called for the creation of an interagency working group—participants from the ED and the Department of the Interior—to work toward the improvement of American Indian and Alaska Native educational opportunities and the strengthening of tribal colleges and universities.

Under the Obama administration, the ED has—not without controversy—expanded its regulatory authority in such areas as gainful employment and reduction of student due process rights.

What it Does

The Department of Education (ED) supports the teaching of students from kindergarten through postgraduate school by providing funding for dozens of programs. With this funding comes a variety of federal rules and requirements that schools and colleges must meet in order to be eligible. The department’s elementary and secondary programs annually serve more than 14,000 school districts and some 56 million students attending more than 100,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools. Department programs also provide grant, loan, and work-study assistance to nearly 11 million post-secondary students.

The ED is charged with promoting student achievement, ensuring equal access to education and prohibiting discrimination. It also focuses national attention on key educational issues, assembles data on the nation’s schools, and disseminates educational research.

Key ED Offices:

Educational Levels

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education: The OESE oversees the quality of education received by students in elementary and secondary (high school) schools across the United States. This is done through their nine main programs: Academic Improvement and Teacher Quality Programs; Impact Aid Programs; Office of Indian Education; Office of Migrant Education; School Support and Rural Programs; Office of Early Learning; Office of Safe and Healthy Students; Office of School Turnaround; and School Achievement and School Accountability Programs. Through these programs, the OESE works to improve the quality of teaching and learning within elementary and secondary schools, as well as ensure equal access to services and ensure equal opportunity. An example of one of the OESE’s programs is the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program, whose purpose is to enhance the school readiness of young children, particularly those who are disadvantaged. In an effort to prevent these kids from encountering reading difficulties in school, the program seeks to improve the knowledge and skills of educators who work in high-poverty communities.

Office of Postsecondary Education: The OPE formulates and administers federal post-secondary education policy and programs. Aimed at creating equity in, and improving the quality of, higher education, the OPE initiatives generally fall into three areas of concentration: policy and planning, minority and disadvantaged students, and accreditation. The office also administers Federal Student Aid programs, grants for institutions serving low-income and minority students, and international education programs including the Fulbright.

Office of Vocational and Adult Education: OVAE responsibilities cover adult, post-secondary, rural, and vocational education. Its staff creates, manages and administers policies, programs and grants; commissions studies; and makes recommendations to the Secretary of Education, Congress, the President, and the public on how to bring about potential improvements in the quality of education and educational services. The four general areas encompassed within OVAE are: Adult Education and Literacy; Career and Technical Education; Center for Rural Education; and Community Colleges.

Targeted Groups

Office of English Language Acquisition: Known in its entirety as the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students (OELA), the office replaced the former Office of Bilingual and Minority Language Education. The name change aptly reflects a shift in policy—from an emphasis on bilingual instruction to a more “English only” approach to integrating non- or limited-English-speaking students into the federal school system. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) established new, steep standards for student and school achievement with periodic testing—which, according to critics, combines with the English only approach to marginalize students in need of English instruction. The OELA is responsible for administering programs and activities under Titles III and V of the NCLB Act, including the distribution of $1 billion in federal grant funds to institutions of higher education, state education agencies, districts, schools, and community-based organizations.

Office of Indian Education: The OIE administers the Indian Education Program of the NCLB of 2001. Although NCLB does not change the agency’s original 1972 mandate to facilitate greater educational opportunities for American Indians and Alaska Natives, it attempts to provide greater accountability in the use of federal funds. The primary function of the OIE is to design and oversee a comprehensive system for administering Indian formula and discretionary grants; prepare and track performance indicators of grant program’s efficacy and help carry out national evaluations of OIE programs; provide leadership for Department of Education-wide policy coordination and help formulate policy and guidance; and develop and implement a system for maintaining open communications with the National Advisory Council on Indian Education (NACIE) and other educational organizations.

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services: The OSERS works to improve the lives of children and adults afflicted by disabilities through research and development grants distributed at both the state and regional levels. The three main components of the OSERS are special education, vocational rehabilitation, and research. Its three offices include the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), which focuses on developing programs for disabled children from birth to age 21; the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), which conducts programs that support people with disabilities; and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), which supervises 28 grant programs that help individuals with physical or mental disabilities find employment and live more independently.

Research and Evaluation

Institute of Education Sciences: The IES is the primary research arm of the Department of Education, comprised of four national centers devoted to supporting and disseminating scientific research related to education. IES’s work uses randomized trials in evaluating educational methods. These trials involve the comparison of results between an experimental group, which is taught using the new method under study, and a control group, which is taught using traditional methods. The idea behind the IES is to boost this sort of research while reducing political influence on that research. The four national centers fund, evaluate, and disseminate such research, while the National Board for Education Sciences (NBES) advises the IES director on the agency’s policies, priorities, and procedures. The Institute works with the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the What Works Clearinghouse, which is designed as a resource for educational decision-makers in selecting programs and practices based on scientific research. The IES also evaluates programs and grants for the 2001 NCLB.

Office of Innovation and Improvement: The OII was created in order to help manage the spending of money created by the NCLB. In addition, the OII decides how to distribute the funds of its grant programs, ranging from charter schools to dropout prevention, and it coordinates the public school choice and supplemental education services. When distributing these funds, the OII hopes to improve student achievement, increase parental awareness and keep the education system up to date. The OII is also responsible for administering earmarks, which are funds allocated by Congress to be spent on predetermined projects.


Federal Student Aid: The FSA provides financial assistance to students pursuing all types of education, from vocational school to post-graduate education. Most students receive assistance in the form of loans direct from the federal government, to be repaid after completion of education. The FSA also has grant programs, with eligibility based on financial need, and work-study programs in which the program pays part of the wages of student workers. Students can apply for any FSA program through the consolidated Free Application for Federal Student Aid available on-line. In FY 2011, the FSA processed 21 million such applications and assisted more than 15 million students.

Office of Safe and Healthy Students: Public concern over school safety has increased over recent decades due to fatal shootings and other violent acts. OSHS was created to address school safety concerns that face students. The office administers drug and violence prevention programs for students in elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education and related programs that promote the health and well being of students. Due to budget cuts over the years, various programs have been dropped, including those pertaining to alcohol abuse reduction, mentoring programs, character education, school counseling, mental health integration, and physical and civic education.

Where Does the Money Go?

According to, the Department of Education (ED) has spent more than $30.2 billion this decade on 125,640 transactions with private contractors. The top five types of products or services purchased by the ED between FY 2003 and FY 2012 were building operations ($8,433,431,549), financial services ($2,861,956,910), debt collection ($2,347,361,046), educational services ($1,430,336,053), and financial support and management ($803,022,060). The top five recipients of ED contracts are:

1. Management & Training Corporation                     $2,522,456,343          

2. Xerox Corporation                                               $2,059,997,333          

3. Accenture Public Limited Company                       $1,086,737,128          

4. Onex ResCare Acquisition LLC                              $1,006,560,156          

5. Westat Inc.                                                           $836,516,747

The ED’s FY 2013 budget request includes spending of $1.77 billion toward salaries and expenses, which includes $367 million in mandatory funding for Not-For-Profit (NFP) and New Perkins Loan Program Servicing costs in the Student Aid Administration. That division is expected to receive $3 million from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for management of the Health Education Assistance Loan (HEAL) Program. The ED also expects to spend more than $1.1 billion on student aid administration. In FY 2012, the ED provided $217 billion in grants, loans, and work-study assistance to help students pay for post-secondary education.

Data on Department of Education