Public Education in the United States, programs of instruction offered to children, adolescents, and adults in the United States through schools and colleges operated by state and local governments. Unlike the nationally regulated and financed education systems of many other industrialized societies, American public education is primarily the responsibility of the states and individual school districts.
The national system of formal education in the United States developed in the 19th century. It differed from education systems of other Western societies in three fundamental respects. First, Americans were more inclined to regard education as a solution to various social problems. Second, because they had this confidence in the power of education, Americans provided more years of schooling for a larger percentage of the population than other countries. Third, educational institutions were primarily governed by local authorities rather than by federal ones.
The most notable characteristic of the American education system is the large number of people it serves. In 2002, 86 percent of Americans between age 25 and 29 had graduated from high school, 58 percent had completed at least some college, and 29 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Expanding access to college education is an important priority for the U.S. government.
After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the founders of the United States argued that education was essential for the prosperity and survival of the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, proposed that Americans give a high priority to a “crusade against ignorance.” Jefferson was the first American leader to suggest creating a system of free schools for all persons that would be publicly supported through taxes. In 1779 he proposed an education plan that would have supported free schooling for all children in the state of Virginia for three years. The best students from this group would continue in school at public expense through adolescence. The most advanced of these students would go on to publicly funded colleges. Jefferson’s proposal was never enacted and his idea of selecting the best and brightest students for special advantage failed to gain widespread support. However, Jefferson’s plans for universal education and for publicly funded schools formed the basis of education systems developed in the 19th century.
Law, body of official rules and regulations, generally found in constitutions, legislation, judicial opinions, and the like, that is used to govern a society and to control the behavior of its members. The nature and functions of law have varied throughout history. In modern societies, some authorized body such as a legislature or a court makes the law. It is backed by the coercive power of the state, which enforces the law by means of appropriate penalties or remedies.
Formal legal rules and actions are usually distinguished from other means of social control and guides for behavior such as mores, morality, public opinion, and custom or tradition. Of course, a lawmaker may respond to public opinion or other pressures, and a formal law may prohibit what is morally unacceptable.
Law serves a variety of functions. Laws against crimes, for example, help to maintain a peaceful, orderly, relatively stable society. Courts contribute to social stability by resolving disputes in a civilized fashion. Property and contract laws facilitate business activities and private planning. Laws limiting the powers of government help to provide some degree of freedom that would not otherwise be possible. Law has also been used as a mechanism for social change; for instance, at various times laws have been passed to inhibit social discrimination and to improve the quality of individual life in matters of health, education, and welfare.
United States Department of Education
Education, Department of, executive department of the United States government, created by Congress in 1979 and officially established in May 1980. The department is administered by a secretary, who is appointed by the president, with the approval of the Senate, and who is a member of the cabinet.
Congress first authorized a Department of Education in 1867 to collect and disseminate information on education. About a year later it was abolished and its functions transferred to a new Office of Education in the Department of the Interior. This office became part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953. During its history, the Office of Education acquired responsibility for aiding public and private schools at all levels. For many years educators, led by the National Education Association, claimed that federal educational activities deserved membership in the cabinet. This goal was fulfilled with the establishment of the new department.
The major purposes of the Department of Education are to ensure equal educational opportunity for all and to improve the quality of that education through federal support, research programs, and information sharing. To this end, the department oversees a variety of financial-aid programs. These include support to states and local school districts to assist underprivileged and disabled students, provide vocational education, promote bilingual education, and oversee racial integration. For colleges and universities, the department provides money for programs in international studies, adult education courses, grants to improve instruction, assistance in building facilities, and financial aid to students. In addition, it enforces civil rights and conducts research and gathers educational information.
Famous Educational Laws Past and Present
Plessy v. Ferguson, landmark case of 1896 in which the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the legality of racial segregation. At the time of the ruling, segregation between blacks and whites already existed in most schools, restaurants, and other public facilities in the American South. In the Plessy decision, the Supreme Court ruled that such segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. This amendment, ratified in 1868, provides equal protection of the law to all U.S. citizens, regardless of race. The court ruled in Plessy that racial segregation was legal as long as the separate facilities for blacks and whites were “equal.” This “separate but equal” doctrine—as it came to be known—was only partially implemented after the decision. Railroad cars, schools, and other public facilities in the South were made separate, but they were rarely made equal.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, landmark court case of 1954 in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously declared that it was unconstitutional to create separate schools for children on the basis of race. The Brown ruling ranks as one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century. At the time of the decision, 17 southern states and the District of Columbia required that all public schools be racially segregated. A few northern and western states, including Kansas, left the issue of segregation up to individual school districts. While most schools in Kansas were integrated in 1954, those in Topeka were not.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
IDEA requires public schools to offer a free and appropriate education to all disabled children. The law also requires that all children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21 receive support services, such as counseling or physical therapy, regardless of the type or severity of their disability. According to the provisions of IDEA, schools must identify all children with disabilities. To do this school officials provide each child thought or known to have a disability with a comprehensive evaluation conducted by teachers, the parents, and appropriate specialists, such as a speech clinician or orthopedist.
IDEA also requires schools to give parents the opportunity to assist in the development and revision of their child’s education plan. The plan specifies goals for the student’s education, methods to achieve those goals, and services to be provided. Each student’s education plan is reviewed annually. To the maximum extent appropriate, a child with a disability must be educated with children who do not have disabilities. In addition, IDEA requires that older children with disabilities receive transition services to assist in the change from school to adult activities, such as employment, continuing education, and finding a place to live. IDEA provides federal financial support for schools to develop special education programs.
Other federal laws prohibit discrimination based on disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 bars discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public schools and any other federally supported programs. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ensures access for individuals with disabilities in all aspects of life, including education, the workplace, transportation, and telecommunications.
Americans with Disabilities Act
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legislation passed by the United States Congress in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and to guarantee them equal access to employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications. Unlike earlier laws that were much more limited in scope, the ADA forbids unequal treatment of people with disabilities in a broad variety of circumstances.
To obtain the protections provided by the ADA, a person must either have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment, or be regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include walking, speaking, breathing, seeing, hearing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing tasks that involve use of the hands. Several federal government agencies, namely the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), enforce different provisions of the ADA.
The impact of technology on occupations, the tendency of employers to set higher educational requirements, and the need for employees with specialized training have made vocational preparation imperative. Part-time programs are essential in order to provide occupational mobility among workers and to overcome the effects of job obsolescence.
In the U.S., vocational education programs are conducted in public secondary schools and community colleges and are financed in part by federal funds. Other programs are conducted by business and industry, labor organizations, the armed forces, and private vocational-technical schools. Programs in both public and private institutions are general in scope, providing training for several jobs in an occupational cluster; programs conducted by business, industry, and the armed forces usually focus on particular interests. Under the Vocational Education Amendments (1968), vocational programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Education.