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The Government's Role in Public Education

Updated: Mar 15

Discussing the history behind the federal government's role in bolstering public education budgets.


President Joe Biden’s 2022 spending proposal included $102.8 billion (a 41% increase) in discretionary spending for the Department of Education. Former President Donald Trump, in contrast, believed the department to be an obtrusive force that overstepped its legal authority. He also signed the Education Federalism Executive Order, requiring a reevaluation of the role of the federal government and a 13.5% budget cut to the national education budget. 


How can we better understand this ideological tug-of-war between the federal government, the states and opposing political parties within the public education sector?


Let’s take a look at the history of government in education for some answers. By not explicitly mentioning public education, the Tenth Amendment left the authority to create and oversee schools in the hands of the states and the federal government’s role in education remained minimal. 


However, the impetus for change came with the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision and the desegregation of schools. Legal precedent was set, and the government’s role formally expanded with the establishment of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 


The ESEA followed hot on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and sought to promote a mission of educational equality for all students while offering school funding on a conditional basis. This law requires reactivation every seven to eight years and has become broader in scope with each cycle. The most notable reforms have been No Child Left Behind, Obama’s Race to the Top competitive federal grants structure and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act which seeks to somewhat roll back governmental overreach.


This brief overview makes several things clear. There is an established government precedent for educational oversight, a continuing ideological battle between Conservative and Liberal political forces and a constant reevaluation of how much power the government should have. 

Financially, the role of the government remains small as only 8% of school budgets flow through the Department of Education. Yet, ideologically and politically, the influence the federal government has on education is prevalent and will continue to be renegotiated by future presidential administrations.


Sources


Pelsue, Brendan, and Simone Massoni. “When it Comes to Education, the Federal Government is in Charge of ... Um, What?” Harvard Graduate School of Education, 29 August 2017, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/08/when-it-comes-education-federal-government-charge-um-what.


Superville, Darlene. “Trump order seeks to limit federal role in K-12 education.” AP News, 26 April 2017, https://apnews.com/article/453f30f6d9a64071b3b4515c67354743.


Ujifusa, Andrew, et al. “Biden Pitches 41 Percent Spending Increase for Education Next Year on Top of COVID-19 Aid.” Education Week, 9 April 2021, https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/biden-pitches-41-percent-spending-increase-for-education-next-year-on-top-of-covid-19-aid/2021/04.

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