What Does the Department of Education Do?

What Does the Department of Education Do?

Photo by Christopher Penn

The United States Department of Education is a federal agency that is responsible for establishing and administering education policy at the national level. It also coordinates the dispersal of most federal education assistance. It is a Cabinet-level agency and is headed by the Secretary of Education, who reports directly to the President. The Department of Education is referred to as ED or DoED (since DOE is an acronym for the Department of Energy).

The majority of education administration is carried out at the state and local levels, including the establishment of schools, development of curricula and creation of requirements for admission and graduation. The majority of school funding (about 88 percent for primary and secondary schools) comes from state and community sources. Since it is not a major funder or administrator of school systems, the Department of Education focuses on filling gaps in state and local support for education, as well as responding to national crises in education.

According to Ed.gov, the overall mission of the Department of Education is to promote achievement in U.S. schools and prepare the nation for global competition by promoting academic excellence and ensuring equal access to education resources. In this capacity, the department makes recommendations for education reform to the President and assists in preparing legislative proposals that are presented to Congress by the White House.

In order to determine areas where education support is most needed, research and data collection are two of the main tasks carried out by the Department of Education. When areas of need are identified, the department brings them to the attention of the president and Congress. The department also uses its research to define education goals. Once goals have been defined, they are used to determine how federal education funds will be dispersed.

The Department of Education uses the national media to draw attention to education issues and gain support for its goals. ED uses articles and speeches to promote its education messages. It also sponsors education programs and initiatives like Blue Ribbon Schools and No Child Left Behind. In addition to working closely with the President, the Secretary of Education promotes education goals by making personal appearances in schools and other public settings. A glance at Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s schedule will give some idea of the extent of the department’s outreach.

Besides conducting research and focusing national attention on important education issues, the DoED is responsible for enforcing federal laws that pertain to education. This often means protecting the civil rights of students who are denied equal educational opportunities due to race, color, national origin, gender, disability or age.

ED is by far the smallest of the 15 Cabinet agencies in terms of staffing but has the third largest budget (only the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services have larger budgets). The department has about 5,000 employees, with 3,600 located in Washington, D.C., and the other 1,400 working in 10 regional offices located throughout the United States. In 2007-08 (the last year for which ED figures are available), approximately 55 million students in grades pre-K through 12 were served by the Department of Education. These students attended about 100,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools. Support in the form of financial aid was provided to about 10 million college and university students in undergraduate programs as well.

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