Federal law calls for “a fair, equal and significant opportunity to obtain a high quality education,” but that opportunity is denied to millions of children, especially low-income children. (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 6301, federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)) Despite our nation’s soaring declarations on equality in our founding documents and our heritage of equal rights advocacy and laws, damaging disparities remain in educational opportunities.

While poverty and extreme poverty suppress achievement for many children, federal education policy largely ignores poverty. Federal policymakers also appear to have turned their backs on racial or economic integration, which raises achievement and creates other national benefits.

Federal funding is only about 9% of the money schools use, but federal policies have changed state education policies and local schools, and the impact is growing, especially via:

  • Narrower curriculum and a test-and-punish attitude from ESEA, since 2002
  • Mandates that can disrupt education under federal grants, e.g. SIGs (School Improvement Grants) and “Race to the Top” (RTT), in 2010, 2011 and beyond, and
  • Mandates that can close or disrupt education in low-wealth communities, through federal waivers of ESEA (aka NCLB), taking effect in 2012 and beyond

ESEA Reauthorization: Debates over the ESEA, due to be reauthorized in 2007, are in stalemate. ESEA provides the largest single portion of federal funding for education, about $15 billion a year. Education Justice, Education Law Center, and many other education advocacy and stakeholder organizations are weighing in on ESEA debates and other aspects of federal education policy. For more, see the ESEA page.

The most recent version of ESEA uses a test-and-punish approach that moves schools away from teaching critical thinking skills, creativity, and a full-range of subjects, such as the arts, social studies, and physical education, and pushes schools to focus more on test prep. Learn More

Two of the key federal laws that establish students’ rights are:

State Responsibility, Federal Help

Historically, the states are responsible for public education, and education is a “positive right” in all 50 state constitutions. Also, until recently, local control over school decision making was prevalent in many states. In the last two decades, control has shifted dramatically to the state level and to the federal government.

In 1965, as part of the “war on poverty,” Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with the goal of bringing equal educational opportunities to low-wealth communities by supplementing state and local funding for their schools. While opportunity in these communities improved and achievement gaps narrowed, the equal opportunity goal has not been reached.

Ironically, federal “NCLB waivers,” are now being used to target 15% of schools in each state—in lower-wealth communities—for unproven changes, such as closure, turning them over to for-profit corporations, or firing many of their faculty. The waivers seem to require these actions.


Federal Education Laws

A few of the major federal education laws are:

Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA): Since its 2001 revisions, ESEA is known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). This version of ESEA has drawn much criticism, and the controversy over how to remake the law has delayed its reauthorization. Learn More

Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) requires schools to provide education in students’ own languages and access to English learning opportunities, and sometimes allows claims in federal court to ensure these opportunities. Learn More

Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) requires states and schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. It also provides certain ways for students and their families to seek redress in administrative proceedings and, sometimes, federal court if these services are denied. Unfortunately, federal funding for IDEA is much less than the 40% promised.

Higher Education Opportunity Act governs federally funded student loans, numerous programs promoting college and graduate school opportunities, requires colleges and universities preparing public school teachers to meet certain goals, and mandates certain data reporting.

Numerous other federal statutes profoundly influence education, such as laws on education for Native American children and military children. Also, funding for Head Start and Child Care can help state and local efforts to provide high quality early education. Learn More



Please visit the Resources page to learn more.