What Does The Education Secretary Do? (Duties And Powers)

Learn more about the duties of the Education Secretary and how the current occupant of the role, Betsy DeVos, has handled the position.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, before the Senate Appropriations Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, before the Senate Appropriations Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

What is the role of the Secretary of Health and Human Services?

The role of the Secretary of Education is to set policies for the provision of federal funding assistance to state education departments. The Secretary of Education is a Cabinet member who advises the president on matters of educational programming. What students learn, how they learn it, and the quality of care they receive in their public school environment, are all influenced by the federal Secretary of Education.

Theoretically, the Secretary is responsible for ensuring excellence in public education, as well as equal access to public education at primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. The Secretary of Education oversees the collection of data allowing analysis of student success by state. Additionally, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights addresses complaints of discrimination in schools and colleges, as well as investigations into sexual assaults on college campuses. The Secretary of Education is the administrator of federal student aid, determining how much federal funding to spend on Pell Grants, for example. Pell Grants provide funding for low-income students to attend post-secondary institutions with no obligation to repay the grant.

The Secretary is also the person who directs national focus onto key public education issues. This unique role in influencing policy at state and local levels has been designated a “bully pulpit.” If the Secretary of Education advocates a measure, state legislatures and district school boards are likely to at least discuss the idea. Under President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promoted the Common Core standards. Without any federal authority to require states to adopt the standards, Duncan was able to convince 42 states and the District of Columbia to adopt them anyway.

There is no constitutional basis for a federal role in education, but the federal government was helping states set up school districts as early as 1867. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was passed, under Dwight D. Eisenhower, in response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, and resulting fear that the U.S. was falling behind in science and engineering. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government added equal access to education as part of its agenda after civil rights and anti-poverty legislation was enacted. Finally, the Department of Education as a standalone agency was created in 1979, by Jimmy Carter. Carter intended the new separate agency to foster excellence in public education and ensure equal opportunity in public schooling.

From time to time, there have been efforts to abolish the Department of Education. As recently as 2017, Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced bill H.R. 899, proposing to terminate the Department.

Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:

Take Action To Protect Voting Rights With The ACLU Sign Now
Demand Equal COVID-19 Economic Support And Healthcare For African Americans Sign Now
Support The Switch To 100% Renewable Energy Sign Now
*Rantt Media may receive compensation from the partners we feature on our site. However, this in no way affects our news coverage, analysis, or political 101's.

Who is the current Secretary of Education?

The current Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, served as chairwoman of an enterprise and investment firm, and served as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party from 1996 to 2000, and from 2003 to 2005. Donald Trump’s nomination of DeVos as Secretary of Education was quite controversial. She had no experience with public schools: she had never been a teacher, school administrator or school board member; had never attended public schools; and had not had her children attend public schools.

Her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions raised significant questions about her qualifications. When asked whether the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be applicable to all schools, whether public or private, DeVos stated that she thought that the matter was one for the states to decide. She did not know the difference between proficiency (mastery) and growth (progress).

She would not commit to a position on whether guns should be permitted in schools—stating that a school in Montana might need guns to protect against potential grizzly bears. DeVos was confirmed only after Vice President Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in her favor after a 50-50 Senate vote. It was the first time a Vice President had been called on to break a tie vote on the confirmation of a Cabinet nominee.

To date, DeVos’s tenure as Secretary of Education has created a record reflecting, at times, a lack of knowledge—and, at other times, a lack of harmony between DeVos’s educational vision, and the Department’s accepted mission of fostering public educational excellence and ensuring equal opportunity in public schooling. DeVos has promoted the for-profit college industry despite its record of fraud. She strongly supports the use of school vouchers, which allow families to select which public or private school they wish their child to attend.

She has supported a presidential budget proposal that would have reduced the Department of Education funding by 13.5%, including $9 billion in cuts to after-school programs, career or technical education, and programs assisting with the hiring and training of teachers. She proposed a budget that would have provided $250 million in federal funding for school vouchers, but would have reduced overall education spending to levels prior to 2002.

In 2017, DeVos had supported a budget that diminished support to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and made a $3.9 billion reduction to Pell Grants, on which most HBCU students relied. She was subsequently invited to give the commencement address at historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Revealing the depth of her ignorance, DeVos called HBCUs “pioneers of choice,” apparently unaware that at the time HBCUs were established, black students were excluded from white post-secondary schools.

DeVos encouraged Trump in February 2017 to rescind protections allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that reflected their gender identity. In 2019, DeVos began a “back-to-school” tour by visiting a private religious school in Milwaukee, and visited Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School in Pennsylvania, which maintains a policy banning transgender students and staff.

In September 2017, she weakened Title IX protections against on-campus sexual assault and harassment, and in November 2018, established regulations requiring victims of sexual assault on campus to undergo cross-examination—despite the consensus of experts, educators and parents, that DeVos’s regulations would deter students from reporting incidents and allow universities to avoid accountability. The Center for American Progress has reported that under Secretary of Education DeVos, the Department of Education is nine times less likely to take action on Title IX complaints based on sexual orientation or gender than it was during the Obama administration.

In March 2019, Secretary DeVos attempted to delay an Obama rule protecting minority special education students. Her proposal was struck down by a federal judge. DeVos subsequently testified before a House subcommittee in defense of a proposal that would cut $7 billion from education programs—including all $18 million funding the Special Olympics; would reduce grants to states for special education by 26%; and would cut funding for blind students.

History of the Secretary of Education

Jimmy Carter selected Shirley Hufstedler, a former lawyer and federal appeals court judge, to be the first Secretary of Education. During her tenure, Hufstedler’s chief activity was focused on successfully shifting responsibility for federal education policy from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, to the new Education Department.

The second Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, served under Ronald Reagan. Bell was an interesting choice. He had devoted most of his life to education, yet his initial mandate from Reagan was to abolish the Department of Education. Bell not only declined to do so, he created a National Commission on Excellence in Education to collect evidence regarding declining student achievement.

At Bell’s request, the Commission published a 1983 report called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which concluded that measures must be taken to address perceived American educational mediocrity and lack of competitiveness with education in other countries. In 1984, Bell resigned. William Bennett was Reagan’s next Secretary of Education. He had a PhD in philosophy and a law degree, and had previously served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His initial direction from Reagan was to determine whether the Department of Education should be abolished or reorganized. Like Bell before him, Bennett became a vocal advocate for school reform.

Reagan’s last Secretary of Education—who stayed on to serve under George H. W. Bush—was Lauro Cavazos, the first Hispanic Secretary of Education. With degrees in zoology and a PhD in physiology, Cavazos had served as a professor, dean, and then a university president. As Secretary of Education, Cavazos tried to raise awareness that education was failing American students. He proposed to combat the problem of rising numbers of federal student-loan defaults by looking at those schools that had a majority of students fail to repay their loans. He chaired a Task Force on Hispanic Education that resulted in a presidential executive order to address excellence in Hispanic-American education. Cavazos also visited federally supported schools for American-Indians to begin assessing the quality of education being provided there.

Lamar Alexander, a lawyer, former governor of Tennessee, and president of the University of Tennessee, followed Cavazos under Bush. He was key in designing Bush’s America 2000 education plan, intended to set national educational standards. Alexander advocated the importance of strengthening music and the arts in education.

Richard Riley served as Secretary of Education for both of Bill Clinton’s presidential terms. Riley had been governor of South Carolina from 1978 to 1986, during which he had been heavily focused on education. His state administration passed the Education Improvement Act, overhauling South Carolina schools. As U.S. Secretary of Education, he supported the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program, establishing federal funding to help make telecommunications and information services more affordable to all schools and libraries, with a goal of universal access. Riley also promoted the necessity of technology in classrooms.

The Secretary of Education for George W. Bush’s first term was Rod Paige. He had been superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, as well as dean of the Texas Southern University’s College of Education. While Secretary of Education, Paige assisted in creating the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which established standards-based testing of students. Margaret Spellings, a former lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards and Bush’s White House advisor on domestic policy, followed Paige as Secretary of Education for Bush’s second term. She strove to continue the implementation of No Child Left Behind by allowing states to participate in pilot programs that provided more flexibility. She also created a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, charged with recommending a national strategy for post-secondary education.

During both of Barack Obama’s terms, Arne Duncan served as Secretary of Education, until 2016. Duncan had been CEO of the Chicago public school system for seven years. As Secretary of Education, Duncan oversaw the controversial 2012 Race to the Top initiative, which encouraged states to compete for federal educational grants. He promoted the Common Core State Standards initiative, which attempted to create unified expectations for what primary and secondary students should know and be able to do in each grade. His Department of Education offered conditional waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements, to states that agreed to apply Common Core standards as well as evaluate teachers based on student test scores.

John King served as Secretary of Education for Obama’s last year. King had a master’s in social studies teaching, and a doctorate in educational administrative practice. He had worked as a social studies teacher at a Boston charter school, and was a founder of Boston’s Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. While Secretary of Education, King created regulations supporting the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which recommitted the federal government to ensure equal opportunity for public school students.

List of previous Secretaries of Education

Name Dates of Office President
Shirley Hufstedler 1979-1981 Jimmy Carter
Terrel H. Bell 1981 – 1984 Ronald Reagan
William J. Bennett 1985 – 1988 Ronald Reagan
Lauro F. Cavazos 1988 – 1990 Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush
Lamar Alexander 1991 – 1993 George H.W. Bush
Richard Riley 1993 – 2001 Bill Clinton
Roderick Paige 2001 – 2005 George W. Bush
Margaret Spellings 2005 – 2009 George W. Bush
Arne Duncan 2009 – 2015 Barack Obama
John King Jr. 2016 – 2017 Barack Obama
Betsy DeVos 2017 – Present Donald Trump

The Rantt Rundown

The Secretary of Education is the head of a federal department with great influence over educational policies in state and local governments as well as on a national level. The Secretary is also a presidential Cabinet member. In both of these roles, the Secretary of Education can wield a significant level of control over how students are educated nationwide, through the establishment of criteria for distribution of federal funds and by advising the president with regard to the current important issues and proposed solutions in American education.

The earliest Secretaries of Education, even when directed to abolish the Department of Education, established quite firmly that school reform was necessary to raise national standards of education. The next Secretaries—from Lauro Cavazos under George H.W. Bush, to Arne Duncan and John King under Barack Obama—endeavored to implement legislation intended to achieve the necessary school reform. While every reform idea may not have been good, it was nevertheless intended to fulfill the Department’s mission of fostering excellence in public education and ensuring equal opportunity to students.

It is troubling that the appointee to the post of Secretary of Education in the current administration breaks the line of those with good intentions and sometimes good ideas. Betsy DeVos appears to hold public schooling in strong disfavor, which gives her little motivation to continue the Department’s efforts to improve public education. Additionally, she seems to find no value in ensuring equal opportunity to public education for students. Rather, she has attempted to diminish the rights of minority students, student victims of on-campus sexual assault and harassment, students with special education needs, LGBTQ students, and even students who happen to be blind.

Secretary of Education DeVos’s record to date emphasizes the importance of confirming only nominees for the head of the Department of Education that have experience in education in some capacity and respect for the need for high-quality public education—as well as clear knowledge of the federal laws protecting equal opportunity in public schooling for all types of students—as minimum qualifications. Rather than abolishing the Department of Education, DeVos simply has acted as if the Department’s role has nothing to do with public education or federal educational rights. The saving grace is that, so far, most of DeVos’s initiatives have been unsuccessful.

Rantt Media and ZipRecruiter

Rantt 101 // Cabinet / Education / Executive Branch / Government