What does the U.S. Department of Education actually do?

It’s been a few years since the backlash against the U.S. Department of Education was heard on Capitol Hill, while there’s been no real talk of its influence throughout the campaign and subsequent election of populist real estate magnate Donald Trump who promises to make America great again.

The department is, however, responsible for setting learning benchmarks for the next generation of Americans.

In December, Trump tapped Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Betsy DeVos to lead the $12 billion D.C. bureaucracy, whose experience highlights efforts to create school choice programs and a private charter schools.

With her confirmation hearing happening this week, let’s take a look at what the Education Department is in charge of:

Financial Aid

The ED is in charge of handling financial aid for students through government subsidy programs, most notably the Federal Pell grants and Stafford loans. The department also oversees programs implemented by past presidents, such as President Bush’s controversial “No Child Left Behind” policy and President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” a $4.35 billion competition that awards federal funding to states with schools that outperform federal criterium.

The department supports over 14,000 school districts and 56 million students attending more than 100,000 public schools and 34,000 private schools through a variety of loans, grants and work-study programs.

Educational research

The department is also responsible for employing researchers who collect educational data, and determine what is working (and what isn’t) in classrooms across the country. The studies stretch from early childhood learning, to postsecondary schooling.

The ED also explores ways to improve teaching techniques and education tools to assist learning in mathematics, English and other specific subject areas. Additionally, the department evaluates how income levels and equality of access to education impact communities.

The creates research and statistics available to teachers unions, parents and students through its Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, its Institute of Education Sciences and the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

Recent controversy

Partisan squabbling over the role the ED plays usually comes from the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has threatened to abolish the Cabinet-level department ever since Ronald Reagan.

Most recently, calls to cut the department out of the federal government have come from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (“I don’t think you’d notice if the whole department was gone tomorrow”), and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (“I do believe our children are better educated when it’s coming from the state”).

Liberals in Congress suggest that Common Core standards and other federal benchmarks will help guide American classrooms through a period of rapid globalization, while the U.S. currently ranks 14th in education worldwide.

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