What does the Secretary of Education do and why we should care

The appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has no doubt caused some controversy and parental concern—particularly after a tumultuous first few weeks which included the reversal of the so-called “bathroom ban,” an interview in which she seemed ambivalent about her department’s future, and a protest at the only public school she has visited thus far. This week she called historically black colleges and universities “real pioneers” of school choice and faced backlash since many pointed out many of the schools were founded because black students were not allowed to attend segregated white schools.

I suspect that many people—parents and those without children—may not have been too familiar with the Department of Education or its leader prior to DeVos’ appointment. Here, I’ll try to break down the roles and responsibilities of DeVos and her department, and how it may affect your children—particularly now that Congress is considering a bill that could dismantle the department entirely. Before Congress created the Department in 1979, it operated on a smaller scale under different names and agencies.

What is the Secretary of Education responsible for?

The Department of Education “establishes policy for, administers and coordinates most federal assistance to education. It assists the president in executing his education policies for the nation and in implementing laws enacted by Congress.”

As secretary, DeVos leads the Department of Education and serves on the president’s cabinet. She is responsible for advising the president on federal education policies and educational programming.

Does the Department affect my child’s day-to-day school experience? Can the Secretary of Education mandate what or how we teach in the schools?

The short answer: Yes. While individual states are primarily responsible for public education, the federal government contributes about 8 percent of federal funding to education. Take for example recent federal legislation like the former No Child Left Behind Act and now the Every Student Succeeds Act. It provides federal government funding to help ensure that all children in America are provided with high academic instruction. This act also outlines monitoring and communication of standards to parents and families, as well as provides families with access to high quality preschools.

Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides federal funding to schools "with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards." While poverty is a big risk factor for children, education and academic success is a big protective factor.

How does the US Department of Education work to accommodate children with disabilities?

Federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is essential for ensuring that all children—including those with disabilities—receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). IDEA requires schools to provide services to children with disabilities that impede their educational performance and are found eligible for special education services. Per this mandate, schools must educate all children regardless of disability and ensure that students make adequate progress.

IDEA outlines services for children 0 to 3 years with a demonstrated need, such as hearing, speech and language services; assistive technology; or physical therapy. It also sets standards for the achievement of children ages 3 to 22 and guides how special help and services are made available in schools to address their individual needs.

While all presidential cabinet positions are essential and important, the Secretary of Education is the only position that has direct oversight for what our children learn, how they learn it, and how they are cared for in the environment in which they spend a majority of time. It’s important to understand DeVos’ role in how our children will be shaped moving forward.

To stay informed about any changes at the US Department of Education, visit www.ed.gov and click on “Subscribe to email updates.”


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