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, but the local governments actually determine educational policy. Early in our nation's history, lawmakers passed the 10th Amendment to the Constitution which is the basis for making education a function of the states. Each school district is administered and financed by the community along with that district's state government. School districts with higher socioeconomic levels tend to give more resources to their schools. Standards and quality of education consequently vary widely from state to state, town to town, and even district to district. However, federal and state government can still play some role in education policy, as this article explains.

Federal Authority

As stated above, the federal government has historically played a minor role in education, and in fact, the federal government did not issue any educational policy until the 1960s. The National Science Foundation published a report studying which educational techniques were effective that the Johnson administration used in its "Great Society" program. Federal involvement in education has only increased since then.

The federal laws with the most impact on education concern:

Education is not exactly a constitutional right, like free speech and assembly, but it is an important enough interest to warrant constitutional protection. Students are therefore protected against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or disability, or ethnicity through the 14th Amendment.

Every Student Succeeds Act

The federal government also influences education by allocating funding only to those school districts that follow certain federal guidelines. Roughly three percent of the federal budget is spent on education as of 2017 - a small proportion, of course, but in many years this amounts to billions of dollars. Most of this money goes toward assistance programs for children with disabilities. The rest of the money is distributed to school districts under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The federal government plays a role in evaluating each school district by administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), also known as the Nation's Report Card. Finally, federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education publish recommended teaching strategies and materials. States and local governments are free to adopt or ignore these recommendations as they see fit, although no funding will be awarded if the school district adopts these practices.

State Authority

The states are the entities primarily responsible for the maintenance and operation of public schools. The states are also heavily involved in the establishment, selection, and regulation of curriculum, teaching methods, and instructional materials in their schools. Consequently, each state has different standards and policies which may impact the quality of education offered.

Each state's constitution requires it to provide a school system where children may 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 authority to legislate in this area, or they can authorize officials to establish, select, and regulate curriculum.

State legislatures have also set mandatory requirements for students to graduate. In cases where state rules and regulations for courses do exist, 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, allowing local authorities to develop their own curricula based on the general state goals.

Additional Resources

Have Legal Questions About Education Matters? Contact an Attorney

Since government regulation is handled through a sometimes confusing web of federal, state, and local jurisdictions, it can be difficult knowing where to turn when you need legal help. Get answers to your questions and some peace of mind by contacting an education law attorney licensed to practice in your state. A local attorney can help you understand education laws, assist you with navigating through regulations, and represent you in negotiations with school administrators or even in court. 

Next Steps

Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.

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