A Brief History of the Department of Education

by Genevieve Carlton

Updated August 16, 2022 • 6 min read


In March 2021, the Senate confirmed Miguel Cardona as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

The 64-to-33 vote placed the former Connecticut education commissioner in charge of a $68 billion department with 4,400 employees.

Cardona has a solid education background. In the 1990s, Cardona returned to his own elementary school to teach 4th grade. He then became an elementary school principal and a performance and evaluation specialist for a Connecticut school district. He's now the 12th Secretary of Education.

But what does the Secretary of Education do? And why should teachers, college administrators, and students care about who occupies the role?

A Brief History of the Department of Education

When it comes to Cabinet departments, the Department of Education is relatively young. Congress promoted the ED to a Cabinet-level agency in 1980.

With the department's upgrade to the Cabinet, the Secretary of Education took on new significance, becoming 15th in the line of succession for the presidency.

Fun Fact

The Secretary of Education is 15th in the line of succession for the presidency.

Prior to 1980, the ED operated within both the Department of the Interior and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Originally founded as the Office of Education in 1890, the department initially only managed land-grant public colleges. In 1917, it began funding vocational education, too.

World War II brought an expansion to the federal government's role in education. For example, after the war, the GI Bill®️ sent close to 8 million veterans to college. The Cold War also brought new urgency to education funding, with Congress authorizing K-12 and postsecondary funding in the sciences, mathematics, and foreign languages.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the ED another responsibility: protecting equal access to education. Today, the department enforces federal laws against race, sex, and disability discrimination in schools.

Between 1908-1975, Congress considered over 130 bills to create a separate Department of Education. Opponents of the idea feared that a Cabinet department would give the federal government too much power, preferring education to remain under state and local control.

The first Secretary of Education, Shirley Hufstedler, took those worries into account when forming the department. Hufstedler prioritized federal cooperation with state and local education organizations. She also streamlined the process for receiving student aid and promoted education equity. As Hufstedler argued, "The education institutions of the U.S. must change in response to the changing needs of the country."

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed Terrel H. Bell as Secretary of Education and ordered Bell to dismantle the new department. Under Reagan, the ED largely focused on collecting education statistics, while budgets cut deeply into federal funding for education.

Fun Fact

There have only been 12 Secretaries of Education in U.S. history.

In the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, Secretary of Education Richard Riley pushed for nationwide standards for education. In 2001, under the Bush administration, the ED implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, which set accountability standards for states measured primarily through standardized testing.

Obama-era Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr. pushed for Common Core curricula, which set grade-level standards for students. States that adopted the Common Core standard had to design curricula at the local level that met federal benchmarks for English language arts and mathematics classes.

President Trump's Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, courted controversy during her four years in the cabinet. DeVos set a new record: She was named in over 450 lawsuits, accusing her of improperly denying student loan forgiveness applications, illegally funding for-profit institutions, and leaving students vulnerable to diploma mills.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, DeVos threatened to withhold federal funding for public schools that did not offer in-person education for the 2020/2021 school year. DeVos also ordered the ED to suspend federal student loan payments and waive interest on student loans during the pandemic.

What Does the Secretary of Education Do?

The Secretary of Education oversees the management and distribution of the federal budget for education initiatives. Federal education funding goes to elementary and secondary school districts, postsecondary institutions, and college students. The largest part of the ED's budget goes to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of Pell Grants and federal student loans.

The ED also operates the Office for Civil Rights, which protects students from discrimination or harassment in school. That office also investigates Title IX violations, like gender discrimination. In higher education, the Office for Civil Rights also investigates accusations of sexual assault on college campuses.

However, most public school funding comes from state and local governments, so what role does the federal government play in K-12 education?

Fun Fact

Passed in 1972, Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination in all educational programs that receive federal funding.

In addition to managing funding, the Secretary of Education also influences federal policy on education. "The position of Secretary of Education is, more than anything, an opportunity to be a bully pulpit to express the views of the president," says Harvard professor Paul Reville, who also told Business Insider, "The role is highly constrained."

The Secretary of Education plays a big role in determining how federal funding is distributed to schools across the country. That funding overwhelmingly goes to low-income schools.

The ED Title I program directs grant funding toward schools with students from low-income families. Schools can receive basic grants, concentration grants, targeted grants, and education finance incentive grants through the program. During the 2015/2016 school year, nearly 56,000 public schools received Title I funds, reaching over 26 million students.

In total, K-12 public school districts receive about 8% of their funding from the federal government, which includes ED funding and support from the Head Start and School Lunch programs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ED's funding became a contentious political issue. In July 2020, Secretary DeVos threatened to withhold funding from schools that did not return to in-person education for fall 2020.

In a Fox News interview, DeVos claimed, "American investment in education is a promise to students and their families. If schools aren't going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn't get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise."

The federal government did not withhold Title I school funding for the 2020/2021 academic year.

The Secretary of Education and Higher Education

State and local control over elementary and secondary education limits the role of the Secretary of Education. However, the secretary has more power in higher education. For example, the ED's Office of Postsecondary Education oversees grants designed to increase graduation rates and improve academic quality in higher education.

Even more critically for many college students, the Secretary of Education oversees the federal student aid program. In fact, the Pell Grant and direct student loan programs account for more than half of the ED's budget every year.

Even more critically for many college students, the Secretary of Education oversees the federal student aid program. In fact, the Pell Grant and direct student loan programs account for more than half of the ED's budget every year.

When college students fill out the FAFSA, the form goes to the ED. In fiscal year 2020, excluding the student loan program, the ED distributed $31.7 billion in student financial aid — plus nearly $77 billion in federal direct student loans.

As a result, the ED plays a major role in higher education funding — and in student loan forgiveness.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

Miguel Cardona took over the ED during a period of intense focus on the department. What will the top priorities be for Secretary Cardona, and what will ED policy look like under the Biden administration?

Cardona faces significant challenges related to the pandemic, the federal student aid program, and the ED's enforcement role. President Biden has already signaled Cardona's central role in administration decisions about student loan debt and the freeze on student loan payments.

  • In April 2021, President Biden asked Cardona to research whether the president can legally cancel student loan debt.
  • Biden asked the ED to extend the student loan pause through Sept. 30; Cardona will play a central role in deciding when to lift the pause.
  • Cardona will shape the department's policy on the Public Service Student Loan program, after the ED denied 99% of applications under Secretary DeVos.
  • He will also define the ED's enforcement responsibilities under Title IX –– particularly in the wake of DeVos's new policies on investigating sexual assault in schools.
  • Cardona may reinstate restrictions on for-profit schools, since DeVos repealed Obama-era policies that protected students from diploma mills.

As Secretary Cardona continues to influence ED policy, his choices will play a major role in higher education and the federal student loan program. As a result, it's a good idea for college students to pay attention to the process.

Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: Tim Robberts | Getty Images

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