Federal K-12 Policy & Funding

Overview

Federal K-12 Policy & Funding

While states and local school districts control day-to-day operations in classrooms and provide most of the funding to schools, the federal government’s importance in both areas should not be discounted. It plays a significant role in promoting educational equity and protecting students' civil rights, and has influenced everything from school accountability systems and academic standards to school safety and the education of students with disabilities.   

While states and local school districts control day-to-day operations in classrooms and provide most of the funding to schools, the federal government’s importance in both areas should not be discounted. It plays a significant role in promoting educational equity and protecting students’ civil rights, and has influenced everything from school accountability systems and academic standards to school safety and the education of students with disabilities.   

The federal government is not directly responsible for what’s taught in classrooms and other elements of day-to-day life in schools. But Uncle Sam carries more weight when it comes to how public schools are held accountable. And federal aid provides significant support for state and local efforts, although the rules and regulations attached to that money aren’t always popular.  

The federal role in education was dramatically expanded in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The cabinet-level U.S. Department of Education was established in 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president. 

An ‘Outsized Influence’

On average, the department provides roughly 10 percent of K-12 funding each year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, with the rest coming from state and local coffers. (That said, the share is significantly higher for public schools that serve largely low-income students.) And in some respects, the federal government has an outsized influence relative to its financial contributions.  

Sometimes, federal education policy has been marked by significant bipartisan cooperation. However, that political harmony often breaks down over issues like school choice, teacher evaluations, and federal mandates for school improvement.   

The biggest single pot of Education Department aid for K-12 is the Title I program, which provides more than $16 billion to schools that serve students from low-income families. The second-largest program provides about $14 billion per year for special education programs. However, some federal aid affecting education and children comes from other federal agencies, such as early learning through the Head Start program and free and reduced-price meals for students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  

The Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan measure signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015, is the latest version of the ESEA, the main federal law for K-12 education. In some ways, the law repudiates the aggressive approach taken by the Obama administration to several policy issues. Yet the legislation maintains a federal requirement for annual tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school that was a signature provision of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. These tests still provide the foundation for many K-12 accountability systems. 

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How Does Federal Education Funding Work?

Here’s a slimmed-down rundown of how the federal funding process for education works.

Each federal fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30 of the following calendar year. This schedule, in theory, dictates the basic federal funding schedule. 

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A Sampler of Major K-12 Programs

Below is some information about a few of the largest Education Department programs for K-12 education and their funding levels as of fiscal 2020, unless otherwise noted. The names Title I, Title II, and Title IV refer to sections of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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Key Elements of the Every Student Succeeds Act

The Every Student Succeeds Act is the main federal K-12 law for education. It is the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, and received bipartisan support in Congress. 

Want an easy way to have ESSA explained? This Education Week video provides highlights of the law.

Here’s some more history behind ESSA and what it does.

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A Glossary of Terms

A few of the terms below are phrases. A few are acronyms. Some might think they’re all jargon. But you might see them kicking around when federal education policy and funding are discussed. 

Comparability

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Answers to 3 Questions on Civil Rights and Federal Education Policy

1. Is the main federal K-12 law a civil rights law?

This question about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can provoke all kinds of different answers and provide a good history lesson. Some, such as former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., say the answer is yes. His argument is that ESEA is intended to prevent discrimination against disadvantaged students and children of color in the education system, and should be used to promote their advancement.

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How Will Your Community Benefit From the New $81 Billion in Pandemic Relief for Education?
Webinar

How Will Your Community Benefit From the New $81 Billion in Pandemic Relief for Education?
Experts explain ins and outs of new aid flowing to schools and universities, and how to track it

More than $81 billion in new stimulus aid is coming to schools and universities as part of the new federal COVID relief measure. Get a quick introduction to tracking the money that will flow to the schools you cover in this EWA webinar.

Two policy experts explain:

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