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The Roles of Federal and State Governments in Education

When it comes to matters of policy, the public tends to look to the federal government to lead the way. However, local governments actually determine educational policy.

Early in our nation's history, lawmakers passed the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. This is the basis for making education a function of the states.

Each school district is administered and financed by the local community. The district's state government also assists with funding.

Standards and quality of education vary widely from state to state and even from town to town. Both federal and state governments play key roles in shaping the education system. This article will explore how these governments work together and separately to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn.

Federal Authority Over Education

The federal government has historically played a minor role in education. In fact, the federal government did not issue any educational policy until the 1960s.

The federal laws with the most impact on education concern:

Education is not a constitutional right like free speech and assembly, but it is an important enough interest to warrant constitutional protection. Students can't be discriminated against based on race, gender, religion, disability, or ethnicity. The 14th Amendment protects students from this type of discrimination.

The federal government plays a role in evaluating each school district. They administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP). This is also known as the Nation's Report Card.

Federal Agencies and Departments

Federal agencies and departments can impact education. Examples include the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education. The Department of Agriculture provides support for school lunch programs.

The U.S. Department of Education was created as a cabinet-level position. This department focuses on federal education programs, policies, and funding. Its goal is to ensure access to education for all Americans, including students from elementary school through postsecondary education. The department publishes recommended teaching strategies and materials for teachers.

States and local governments are free to act as they wish on these recommendations, but no funding will be awarded if the school does not adopt these policies.

Educational Acts Passed by Congress

Congress passes laws that shape the education system. The following are key acts and policies that have shaped the education system in America:

  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA): ESEA was signed into law in 1965 and was a big step for public education. This act gave federal funding to schools. Schools with low-income students benefitted greatly from this. Title I of the ESEA focuses on ensuring schools get the money they need. This helps students who may be falling behind.
  • Reauthorization of the ESEA: The ESEA has been reauthorized several times. It has been reauthorized with new names and changes to the rules. The most recent reauthorization was during the Obama presidency. It included changes to testing and teacher qualifications. This reauthorization also clarified how schools could use federal funding.
  • Higher Education Act (HEA): This act was passed in 1965. It focuses on postsecondary education, like college. It provides financial aid and other support to help students go to college. This Act has also been reauthorized with changes to meet the needs of students and colleges over time.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): This act helps students with disabilities access education like other students. It was originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law was passed in 1975.
  • No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB): This act was passed under President George W. Bush in 2002. NCLB focused on improving education standards and accountability.
  • Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): This act was signed into law by President Obama in 2015. It replaced the NCLB and is a reauthorization of ESEA. ESSA made some important changes to the education system. It gave the states more control over how they set goals and measure student achievement.

These acts work together to create a framework for education across the country. They make sure that schools have the support they need from the federal government and help to shape education policy in every state.

By looking at these acts, we can understand how the federal and state governments work together.

Supreme Court Cases Impacting Education

Court decisions have also shaped education. The cases often explore the balance between individual rights and societal needs. They also question how to ensure equality and access to education for all students.

The following cases highlight ongoing legal dialogue about education:

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): This was a landmark decision. The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The ruling overturned the previous “separate but equal" doctrine. It helped pave the way for the civil rights movement.
  • San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973): The case addresses the issue of funding inequalities between rich and poor school districts. The plaintiffs argued that Texas's school financing system was discriminatory. They argued it violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court disagreed. They ruled that education is not a fundamental right under the Constitution. They also ruled that states have the discretion in the funding of schools.
  • Plyer v. Doe (1982): The Supreme Court ruled that a Texas statute was unconstitutional. It held that denying public education to undocumented children was unconstitutional. States could not discriminate against children based on their immigration status.
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972): This case involved a clash of religious beliefs. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Amish parents. The court stated that their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion was more important than the state's interest in compelling school attendance beyond the eighth grade.
  • Grutter v. Bollinger (2003): This case involved affirmative action. The University of Michigan's Law School had an admissions policy. This policy considered race as one of the many factors to create a diverse student body. The Supreme Court upheld this practice. The Court ruled that educational institutions have a compelling interest in promoting diversity. The decision has guided higher education admissions policies. It also sparked debate over affirmative action. This case upheld the 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakkewhich determined that affirmative action was lawful.
  • Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina (2023) and Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College (2023): These cases also involved affirmative action. The Supreme Court later overturned affirmative action in these cases. This decision ended the 45-year legal precedent of race-conscious college admissions.

These cases have shaped American education policy. They continue to influence how educational opportunities are provided in the United States.

State Authority Over Education

The states hold the primary responsibility for the following tasks:

  • Maintaining and operating public schools
  • Establishing and selecting public school curricula
  • Regulating teaching methods and instructional materials
  • Deciding on educational funding and special education programs
  • Setting standards for teacher qualifications

Consequently, all states have different standards and policies. This can impact the quality of education available.

Each state's constitution requires it to provide a school system where children receive an education. Many state constitutions also contain express provisions for creating educational curricula. Some state constitutions even empower state authorities to select textbooks and educational materials.

Besides constitutional authority, state governments also have the authority to legislate in this area, or they can authorize officials to establish, select, and regulate curricula.

State legislatures have also set mandatory requirements for students to graduate. In cases where there are state rules and regulations for courses, they must be followed. Local school districts may, however, offer courses and activities in the instructional program beyond those required by state statute. 

Other states delegate more of their authority. They usually prescribe a model curriculum framework. This allows local authorities to develop their own curricula. They can base these curricula on the general state goals.

Some states provide vouchers that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. This is a subject of debate because it concerns both state and federal funding.

Have Legal Questions About Education Matters? Contact an Attorney

Education can involve a web of federal laws, state laws, and local laws. It can also include the U.S. Constitution. It can be difficult to know where to turn when you need legal help. A local attorney can help you understand education laws. They can assist you with navigating through rules and regulations. They can also help represent you in negotiations with school administrators. Or, if you need it, they can help represent you in court.

Get answers to your questions and some peace of mind by contacting an education law attorney licensed to practice in your state.

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