Laws governing education are primarily statutory (written laws enacted by legislative bodies). There are some federal statutes that address certain aspects of education, but most management and regulation of education, from kindergarten through college, is left to the states. However, schools receiving federal assistance must generally comply with federal law, including laws that prohibit discrimination.
The state of Massachusetts enacted the country’s first compulsory school law in 1852. Now, every state has some form of compulsory education law. Most states require that children start elementary school by the age of six, while some mandate it for five-year-olds, and a couple don’t require it until a child reaches the age of eight. As a general rule, children must attend school until age 16, though some states require schooling until age 18.
Virtually every state allows parents and their children to be exempt from compulsory education under certain circumstances. The situations where such an exemption may be allowed include the following:
The U.S. Department of Education, instituted during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, serves in a mostly advisory role, limiting or granting access to federal education dollars based on compliance with accepted educational policies and federal laws. The functions of the Department are to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” The Department of Education does not establish schools or colleges.
Federal education laws passed by Congress tend to focus on providing funding, while leaving oversight of education to the states. The first major federal education statute, known as ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), was enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. That statute conditions access to federal education funds on compliance with certain anti-poverty laws. Some provisions of the Act require schools to provide certain levels of education to low-income students—others require programs for disabled children or bilingual students. In the years since ESEA was passed, major federal education laws have been efforts to ensure equal access for all students and to protect the rights of disaled students:
Although states set their own education policies and enact their own education laws, the federal government still has an impact, due primarily to the funds available for education from the federal government. In practice, the federal Department of Education has taken a mostly hands-off approach with the states, withholding funding only when there are clear violations of federal statutes or constitutional guarantees.
There is no language in the U.S. Constitution that guarantees a person the right to an education; however, the Supreme Court has held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires any state with public schools to ensure all children in the state have equal access to schooling. The Supreme Court opinion Brown v. Board of Education, which required integration of public schools, was based on the Equal Protection Clause. In addition, statutes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have been extensively used to ensure that students are not subject to discrimination based on race, gender, color, national origin, religion, or gender identity.
Unlike most other countries, the United States administers educational policy almost exclusively at the state level. The role of the federal government is generally limited to providing funds to schools and school districts that comply with federal mandates related to ensuring equal access to education, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, or socio-economic status.
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