What does the US Secretary of Education do?

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017, a controversial and contested appointment by new US President Donald Trump.


OMB: National Priorities Project

What does the Secretary of the Education Department (ED) do?

  • She oversees federal assistance to education. According to the ED, “the Department’s elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 16,900 school districts and approximately 50 million students attending more than 98,000 public schools and 28,000 private schools.”  The ED also “provides grant, loan, and work-study assistance to more than 13 million postsecondary students.”
  • She oversees a budget expected to be almost $70 billion in 2017.
  • She enforces the civil rights and privacy of all students.
  • She collects data on US schools.
  • She oversees the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act which replaces the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. This act requires that students be “taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.”
  • She advises the President on matters related to education.

Education is not mentioned in the US Constitution.  It has traditionally been the responsibility of states and localities.  Even so, the federal government has become increasingly involved in US education.  About 8% of total spending on education in the US comes from the federal government, but not all of that comes from the ED.  For example, Head Start and subsidized lunch programs are funded by other departments of the federal government.

The ED defines its primary goal as “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

DeVos, 59, is a multi-millionaire through inheritances from her father.  She married another multi-millionaire, the son of one of the founders of Amway.  DeVos attended private schools, including a conservative Christian high school and college. She has supported vouchers for children in public schools to allow them to attend the schools of their choice, including religious schools.  She also backs charter schools.

Why has Betsy DeVos’ appointment been contentious?  Many of those who opposed her choice say she is against public education and would use her office to undermine it.  They point out she did not study education in college nor has she worked in the field of education.  Most of her educational experience comes as an outspoken advocate for school choice and a a financial contributor to education efforts she likes.

Those supporting her choice point out her vocal support of school choice, her funding of private education, and her ongoing and generous support of Republican candidates.

In the past, Secretaries of Education have had little impact on curriculum.  Yet federal law, such as the No Child Left Behind law, has impacted curriculum, spurring a more rigorous curriculum developed by the states called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The CCSS is controversial with some states adapting their curricula to its standards and others abandoning or ignoring it.  President Trump has said that he opposes the Common Core.  DeVos has served in organizations which support it.

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