The U.S. Department of Education is the natural federal focus of the nation’s school leaders, as well as the lobbyists, researchers, and lawmakers involved in K-12 education. Yet it’s far from the only powerful federal agency that deals with important education issues.
The Education Department’s primary mission for elementary and secondary education is to ensure equal access to education and promote excellence in the field. It investigates potential violations of civil rights law, and reviews and monitors states’ work to hold schools accountable, among other responsibilities. (Miguel Cardona is President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the department.)
Yet from school meals and child care to guidance about discipline, a host of agencies work either independently or in conjunction with the Education Department to set policies and priorities for schools.
See President Biden’s cabinet picks below and learn how they are likely to affect K-12 education.
Biden’s pick to lead the Agriculture Department, former Secretary Tom Vilsack, held the same role in the Obama administration.
In his previous tenure, Vilsack played a key role in implementing and defending heightened nutrition standards for school meals that were championed by former first lady Michelle Obama. Those rules, which have been rolled back under the Trump administration, called for less sodium and fat and more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in school meals.
During the pandemic, the Agriculture Department has played a big role in addressing childhood hunger. It has granted waivers to make it easier for schools to serve free meals to students when their buildings are closed.
As schools that have remained in remote learning figure out when and how to reopen, and as concerns about families’ financial stability continue, the agency may revise or extend that flexibility to address the crisis.
The agency also oversees some efforts to expand rural broadband access, which has been a major concern during remote learning.
Biden has nominated Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to serve as commerce secretary. Raimondo, who has advocated to keep her state’s schools open during the pandemic, was also once considered a front runner for Health and Human Services secretary.
The Commerce Department perhaps most directly affects schools by overseeing the count and analysis of the U.S. Census. That population data is used to allot billions of dollars of federal funding, including Title I grants to educate at-risk students, money for free- and reduced-price lunches, and other programs.
School districts also use census data to help anticipate growth in enrollment, a factor in efforts such as building campaigns and setting attendance boundaries.
The Trump administration unsuccessfully fought in court to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count. It also truncated the timeline for finishing field surveys, leaving some education groups concerned about the accuracy of the resulting data. The Biden administration will be charged with reviewing, finalizing, and releasing the data.
“I believe that we need to take the politics out of the census, and we need to rely on the experts,” Raimondo said at a Jan. 26 confirmation hearing.
The Senate has confirmed retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin III to serve as defense secretary. His wife, Charlene Austin, has worked as an advocate for military families and the education of service members’ children.
The Department of Defense’s most direct role in education is its operation of 160 schools around the world.
Military families are often highly mobile, and their children may transfer schools more frequently as a result. The Pentagon may play a role in advocating for policies that ease that transition, like a requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act that schools track academic outcomes for students with military parents.
Federal Communications Commission
The FCC is an independent executive agency that is not part of the president’s cabinet. Biden has yet to announce his pick to lead the commission on a permanent basis, but picked commission member Jessica Rosenworcel to lead the agency on an acting basis. Rosenworcel has prioritized closing the nation’s “digital divide,” in which many disadvantaged students lack access to broadband internet and internet-connected devices, especially at home. She’s criticized the approach of the FCC during the Trump administration to these issues.
Perhaps the most prominent role the FCC plays in education is through its E-Rate program, which provides funding to schools and libraries to pay for internet connectivity and services. The service provides up to roughly $4.2 billion in annual funding.
Over the last several months, education lobbyists and others have put intense pressure on Washington to provide more funding for the E-Rate to support millions of students learning remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. However, so far, this additional funding has not been forthcoming, although Congress did provide additional funding for emergency broadband services in the COVID-19 relief packaged signed by President Donald Trump in late December.
Health and Human Services
Biden’s nominee to lead the department is California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. A former Democratic Congressman, Becerra previously served on the House education committee during his time on Capitol Hill.
HHS oversees the $10.7 billion Head Start program, which provides early-childhood health, nutrition, and education services. (By dollar amount, Head Start would be the third-largest K-12 program at the U.S. Department of Education.) The department also oversees Medicaid, which is the third-largest source of federal funding for K-12 public schools.
HHS also is the home of Child Care and Development Block Grants ($5.9 billion), Preschool Development Grants ($275 million), Children’s Mental Health Services ($125 million), the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative ($72 million), and the Child Care Access Means Parents in School initiative ($55 million).
The department’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also been involved in studies, guidelines, and other issues related to schools, students, and COVID-19. Biden’s pledge to rely closely on health officials to guide the federal government’s response could strengthen coordination between the CDC and education officials.
Biden nominated Alejandro Mayorkas to serve as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and he was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 2. The Cuban-born attorney grew up in California, and he later served as the deputy secretary of the agency in the Obama administration.
Homeland Security most directly affects schools through its enforcement of immigration laws that apply to educators, students, and families.
In an inauguration day order, Biden pledged to “preserve and fortify” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides certain legal protections to people who came to the country as undocumented immigrants when they were children.
Trump had fought in court to strike down DACA, which protects an estimated 9,000 educators.
In his previous role as the Obama administration’s director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mayorkas helped put DACA in place.
Housing and Urban Development
Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development is Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. A member of the House education committee, Fudge was a primary House champion of legislation to advance school diversity and integration.
During the Obama administration, HUD released a rule that state and local governments receiving funding under fair housing legislation must work to combat discrimination. The Trump administration rescinded this rule, but the Biden administration could reinstate it.
In 2016, HUD Secretary Julián Castro, along with the leaders of the Departments of Education and Transportation, wrote a joint letter explaining that with respect to education, state and local education officials should develop strategies with the goal of “providing equal access to high-quality schools and increasing the diversity of the community served by these schools.”
Biden’s nominee to lead the department is Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. If confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American cabinet secretary. Teach For America called Haaland a “long-time friend” of the organization’s New Mexico affiliate in response to the news that Biden would nominate her.
The Department of the Interior’s biggest role in education is overseeing the Bureau of Indian Education. This $1.2 billion agency provides elementary and secondary as well as postsecondary programs for American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.
The Bureau of Indian Education has made recent headlines for the wrong reasons. In 2020, a federal watchdog group found that the bureau shortchanged students with disabilities. Former Montana schools chief Denise Juneau, now the Seattle district superintendent and a member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes, declared bluntly in 2018 that the agency is “broken.” And also in 2018, the Education Department withheld money from BIE schools because the bureau had not complied with portions of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Biden has nominated U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland to serve as his attorney general. Garland, previously nominated to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice by President Barack Obama, has a strong connection to education: He’s tutored students at a Washington elementary school for two decades.
Alongside the Education Department, the Justice Department plays a key role in enforcing and interpreting laws that protect students’ civil rights.
Biden has pledged to reinstate Obama-era civil rights guidance the Trump administration rescinded or replaced, including documents related to racial discrimination in school discipline, sexual assault and harassment, and the rights of transgender students in schools.
The president has nominated former Obama officials who helped draft that guidance to key roles in his administration.
Biden nominated former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg to serve as transportation secretary, and he was confirmed on Feb. 2. Buttigieg, who is married to a former teacher, ran against Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
If confirmed, he will likely play a big role in shaping and promoting a massive federal infrastructure plan. Biden has said he will include school facilities in that proposal, fulfilling a long-term goal of some education groups that say outdated school facilities have made it more difficult to bring students back to classrooms during the pandemic. The bill may also include broadband infrastructure, which is a concern for many rural schools.
The agency may also play a role in helping public transportation systems weather the pandemic and its aftermath. Dwindling state and local revenues have already sparked service reductions in some major cities, where students often rely on public transportation to participate in school choice programs or attend competitive programs in neighborhoods away from their homes.
This article has been updated to reflect Senate confirmation of Pete Buttigieg and Alejandro Mayorkas, and also to reflect Medicaid’s role in K-12 schools.