The U.S. Department of Education

I recently received a challenge from a friend of mine to write a post about the U.S. Department of Education – their policies and general existence. Since I should really know more about said department, I set about working to… uh, educate myself.

One of the problems I ran into quickly was that there is essentially no non-biased information available on the ED (ED = Education Department; DoE = Dept. of Energy). Nearly everyone who writes about education is fairly biased, as you may have garnered from my own work here. Most of the stuff I read was either very pro, very anti, or very bland. Even things like the General Accounting Office’s report on the ED get criticized, and the criticism gets taken apart, and the whole thing is a giant cluster where you can’t tell who’s being honest and who’s running for office or protecting their cash cow. So a lot of what I say here will be matters of general principle rather than responding to what the Department does right now.

One of the major arguments against the ED is that  it is inefficient, either by its very existence or internally. Arguments go both ways here; the department itself claims to give 99 cents on the dollar to its beneficiaries, while the aforementioned GAO study claims that there are serious inefficiencies when it comes to the student loan program.

Several GOP candidates this year have talked about “giving the money directly to the states,” thus cutting out the ED as a middleman. However, the ED doesn’t give public schools that much money overall. According to the department itself, “the Federal contribution to elementary and secondary education is about 10.8 percent” and “89.2 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources” for elementary and secondary education. So it’s a fairly small amount, percentage-wise. In terms of the department’s overall discretionary budget, “Title I Grants” (which are for local educational agencies, be they state departments of ed or regional school boards) take up about 21%, and IDEA grants (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, given to states) are another 17%. Those two large programs account for about $26 billion. Given the department’s own figures, a total of about $122 billion is contributed to local education by the federal government. Since I can’t find that in the ED’s discretionary budget (which is only about half that), the rest of it must either be coming from other departments (NSA, DoE, DoD) or from mandatory rather than discretionary funds.

The ED also gives a large amount of its budget directly to students: Pell Grants are another third of the ED’s budget at $23 billion or so. Student loans are not part of the budget, exactly; they make money when things are working right.

The Department of Education does not set curricula or develop standards; however, they do give money to local education agencies for such purposes. Because part of the ED’s mandate is to “identify the major issues and problems in education and focus national attention on them,” they are a major policy-driver through indirect means. The department’s choice of what a “major issue” is naturally shapes how states will write applications for Title I grants.

At this point in my research, I think this needs to be a two-part post. I don’t want to shortchange it, but I think there’s enough here to chew on (mentally speaking) for a day or two.

Useful links:


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on January 23, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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