About ED OVERVIEW
An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education
September 2010
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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 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 grant, loan and work-study assistance to about 10 million undergraduate students. *

When Congress created the Department in 1979, it declared these purposes:

  1. to strengthen the Federal commitment to ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual;
  2. to 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;
  3. to encourage the increased involvement of the public, parents, and students in Federal education programs;
  4. to promote improvements in the quality and usefulness of education through federally supported research, evaluation, and sharing of information;
  5. to improve the coordination of Federal education programs;
  6. to 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
  7. to 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 goes 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 http://nces.ed.gov.


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Last Modified: 02/27/2014