While states and local school districts control day-to-day operations in classrooms and provide most of the funding to schools, the federal government’s importance in both areas should not be discounted. It plays a significant role in promoting educational equity and protecting students’ civil rights, and has influenced everything from school accountability systems and academic standards to school safety and the education of students with disabilities.
The federal government is not directly responsible for what’s taught in classrooms and other elements of day-to-day life in schools. But Uncle Sam carries more weight when it comes to how public schools are held accountable. And federal aid provides significant support for state and local efforts, although the rules and regulations attached to that money aren’t always popular.
The federal role in education was dramatically expanded in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The cabinet-level U.S. Department of Education was established in 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president.
An ‘Outsized Influence’
On average, the department provides roughly 10 percent of K-12 funding each year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, with the rest coming from state and local coffers. (That said, the share is significantly higher for public schools that serve largely low-income students.) And in some respects, the federal government has an outsized influence relative to its financial contributions.
Sometimes, federal education policy has been marked by significant bipartisan cooperation. However, that political harmony often breaks down over issues like school choice, teacher evaluations, and federal mandates for school improvement.
The biggest single pot of Education Department aid for K-12 is the Title I program, which provides more than $16 billion to schools that serve students from low-income families. The second-largest program provides about $14 billion per year for special education programs. However, some federal aid affecting education and children comes from other federal agencies, such as early learning through the Head Start program and free and reduced-price meals for students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan measure signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015, is the latest version of the ESEA, the main federal law for K-12 education. In some ways, the law repudiates the aggressive approach taken by the Obama administration to several policy issues. Yet the legislation maintains a federal requirement for annual tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school that was a signature provision of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. These tests still provide the foundation for many K-12 accountability systems.
Updated March 2021.