education overview


While K-12 public education is primarily the responsibility of the states, the federal government chips in over $90 billion in assistance a year (about 8% of all funding). Through that power of the purse, the federal government can shape educational policy by offering or withholding funding. Its strongest influence on K-12 general education is through President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind Act. The Act stresses standardized testing and requires that schools make progress toward getting all students on grade level. Where the federal government has had an even more direct role is in pre-K and higher education. The federal government funds pre-school for poor children through Head Start and offers a majority of the financial aid higher education students receive. Here is a general overview of education in America.

How many Students?

Students enrolled in pre-school:

  • 4.3 million (54% of all 3-4 year olds) NCES & NCES (2004).

Students enrolled in preK-12 public or private schools:

  • 53.5 million (89.9% public, 10.1% private) (2002 NCES -PDF)

Number of students enrolled in higher education:

  • 17.0 million (2002 NCES -PDF)

How much money

Total amount of money being spent on education at all levels in 2005:

  • $909 billion DOE

Department of Education's 2005 budget:

  • $71.5 billion (2.9% of federal budget) DOE

Other federal spending on education in 2005:

The federal role

Public education is generally – and historically - speaking a local job, but the federal government starting seriously tossing its chips into public school funding and policy in the 60's. (Since the Constitution doesn't give the federal government direct power over public schools, the only way it can get involved is by offering states money to voluntarily follow its programs.) Below is a snapshot of the laws and policies that put D.C. into the public school business.

No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind is the latest version of the 60's Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), commonly known for many years as “Chapter I” or “Title I.” The ESEA stepped into public education by funneling money to the nation's schools with the poorest students, charging those schools to help out lagging learners. It also provides funding for English Language Learners.

President Bush's update to ESEA, signed into law in 2002, is notable for several policies. It:

  • Requires standardized testing for all public schools;

  • Requires schools make progress toward getting all their students to read and do math on grade level;

  • Gives families options – to get tutoring services or to change schools – if their school isn't making progress;

  • Closes down schools that fail to make progress for each of five years in a row.

Head Start

The federal government has offered pre-school to poor children since 1964. While the program gets props from most politicians, many are pushing to add “No Child Left Behind” types testing standards when it is reauthorized.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The federal government took the lead in educating students with disabilities in the 70's. The federal government offers states large sums of money in return for providing students with disabilities specialized services and programs so they can fully participate in school.

Loans and Grants

The federal government remains the primary source of financial aid to university students, offering loans, which must be repaid, and grants, which are not repaid, to pay tuitions.

Facts pulled together with Adam Gleicher. Updated Summer 2005.

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