How are the Local, State and Federal Governments Involved in Education? Is this Involvement Just?

The American educational system is diverse and complex. It contains many types of schools, which interact differently with the government because each is different and diverse.  This FAQ will address four types of schools: traditional government-run schools, charter schools, independent schools, and home schools. It will examine the ways in which the government interacts with each type of school through funding, regulation, and oversight, and it will evaluate the justice of those interactions.

When determining whether or not the government’s interaction with schools is just, it is important to recognize two key facts. First, there is no such thing as a “completely neutral” education. All thinking and practice is shaped by basic beliefs and cannot be philosophically neutral, whether or not it is part of an organized religion. Government has the responsibility to recognize and treat equitably under law the wide range of philosophies, cultures, and animating beliefs inherent in a diverse society.

Second, we must also recognize that parents are primarily responsible for the nurture and education of their children. In a fully functional system, the government will help parents fulfill this role, and parents will have the freedom to pursue educational options that fit the individual needs and diverse capabilities of their children.

Traditional Government-Run Schools

The government interacts with its own schools (known as public schools) at the federal, state, and local level. Each level of government provides a different amount of funding to schools and requires varying degrees of accountability within the schools and school districts.


Most of the day-to-day operation of schools takes place at the state and local level. However, when Congress passes a federal budget each year, it sets aside enough money to fund about ten percent of government-run schools’ operating costs. However, this funding nearly always comes with rules and regulations. In order to receive the funding, schools must comply with various requirements from all three branches of government, because Federal educational funding comes from taxation. In 2013, the Federal government spent $72 billion on education, making it the third largest area of discretionary spending.

For example, in 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires government schools to test students annually in core subjects. This legislation, which was the most recent version (or reauthorization) of the law that has provided K-12 funding to schools since 1965, introduced a fundamental change to the existing law – it required accountability.  Students in schools that perform below their state’s established standards for more than two years must be offered free tutoring, after school programs, or the opportunity to continue their education at a higher-performing government school.

In addition, schools that fall below standards for more than two years in a row may be required to replace underperforming teachers, rework their curriculum, or restructure the internal organization of the school, among other measures. Constitutionally, the federal government cannot force states to comply with No Child Left Behind, but all 50 states cooperate in order to continue receiving federal education funds.

The educational reforms passed by Congress are regulated and enforced by the federal Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education collects data on government-run schools, evaluates their performance, suggests policy changes, and measures outcomes. 


State governments exercise primary accountability and oversight for government-run schools. Most state constitutions include basic provisions for education, giving state governments the authority to establish their own departments of education and to pass laws governing school practices. State governments often choose to delegate much of their authority to local school districts, but they can reclaim that authority.

A recent development in state educational oversight is the emergence of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core Initiative was developed by state governors in conjunction with state-level education departments and outside experts. Its adoption by states is one of several ways that states can qualify to receive Race to the Top competitive grants from the federal government.  In states that choose to adopt the Common Core State Standards, the state’s department of education must generate a set of benchmarks for student achievement in reading and math.

Most state departments of education choose to establish additional educational standards for other subjects including science, social studies, art, and foreign languages. Each state creates, implements, and enforces its standards differently, but standards generally provide a framework for states and districts to evaluate which schools are performing well, which would benefit from additional support, and which require disciplinary intervention. At present, 44 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to implement Common Core State Standards.

State-level funding for government schools varies widely, but on average, states provide for slightly less than half of schools’ operating costs. Most states draw this funding largely from income and sales taxes. 42 states and the District of Columbia also derive a portion of their education funding from state-run lotteries. This amount varies significantly from state to state and year to year.

However, funds from state lotteries replace taxpayer money rather than supplementing it, meaning that school budgets do not grow as a result of lotteries. Rather, taxpayer money that would have been used to fulfill the state’s education budget is redirected to other areas. Georgia and Tennessee use revenues from state-run lotteries to fund scholarships for high-achieving graduates who stay in-state for college, but they are rare exceptions to the rule.


State governments commonly delegate responsibility for the accountability and operation of government-run schools to local bodies, who decide exactly how schools will operate. In order to accomplish this, state departments of education create school districts. In some states, the geographic lines that determine counties, parishes, or boroughs also determine school districts. In most, however, school districts are drawn independently of other administrative boundaries. Each school district is governed by a school board, whose members are either elected by the public or appointed (usually by a mayor or city council).

Some school districts combine the two selection methods, appointing some members while holding elections for others. Nationally, ninety-six percent of school boards are elected by a popular vote. Each school board appoints a superintendent, typically an experienced school administrator, to act as C.E.O. of all the schools in their district. Local school boards are also responsible for establishing curricula, hiring personnel, and deciding when schools should be closed, consolidated, or constructed.

Together, Federal and state governments typically provide slightly more than half of government school funding, but school boards are responsible for funding the rest of their budgets.  They do this by collecting property taxes on all of the homes and businesses within their district or by allowing the city council to do so on their behalf. As a result, the amount of funding available to any given school district reflects a complex set of variables including local tax rates, exemptions, and the overall affluence of the community.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are an alternative form of government-run school. They can be established by parents, local governments, or private organizations such as businesses and nonprofits. Anyone who wishes to start a charter school must apply to an authorized chartering entity for a charter—a document that authorizes a school to operate under a specific contract for a certain period of time and establishes the school’s responsibilities and purpose.

After receiving approval, charter schools are freed from many government regulations and may adopt their own curriculum, operating processes, and pedagogy.  In return for this freedom from regulations, their performance is monitored, and if they fail to achieve, they will be closed. States and localities fund charter schools on a per-pupil basis.

Parents may choose to send their children to a charter school as an alternative to the local government-operated school. Charters are not allowed to discriminate between applicants based on race, income, academic ability, or any other factor that would not affect a student’s ability to attend a government-run school. When a charter school receives more applicants than it can admit, it is legally required to choose students randomly, usually through a computerized lottery system.

A state can choose to give economically disadvantaged students slightly higher weight in its lottery system, but federal law allows no other form of preference. Rather than answering to a local school board, charter schools are usually accountable directly to the state charter authorizer, which evaluates their budgets, procedures, and outcomes.

Charter schools are undeniably growing in popularity. The Recovery School District in New Orleans, Louisiana, recently became the first district in the nation to replace all of its traditional public schools with charters.   The District of Columbia now serves over 43% of their students through charter schools.

Independent Schools

Independent schools, which are established by associations, parents or individuals, operate independent of direct government control. Independent school administrators manage their schools according to a diverse array of pedagogical, philosophical, and religious persuasions. They may create curricula, hire teachers, and operate in manners consistent with their core values. Within the limits of the law, independent schools may choose which students to accept. Independent schools typically pay for their expenses by charging tuition and by raising funds to offset these costs through scholarships.

Although the government does not run independent schools or provide them with funding, it plays a key role in regulating them. Each state creates standards for student achievement in core subjects such as reading and mathematics. In order to operate legally, independent schools must demonstrate that they offer students adequate instruction in these key areas. Independent schools demonstrate this through an accreditation process. Six regional bodies as well as several independent agencies offer peer evaluation services through which independent schools can receive accreditation.

Home Schools

In home schools, parents themselves keep full authority over their children’s education. Parents may choose to develop their own curriculum, purchase a pre-designed program, or send their children to a variety of classes at government-run schools, independent schools, community colleges, and a variety of cooperative learning programs.

Many families combine these approaches, creating a personalized educational experience for each child. Laws governing home schooling vary from state to state, but generally home schools can choose to receive accreditation directly from the state government or indirectly through a local home school organization. Some states view home schools as a form of independent school, while others view them as an entirely different type of institution. Depending on individual state policies, home schools may receive extensive or little government oversight.

Families choose to home school their children for a wide variety of reasons. Justice requires that whatever their reasons, philosophical, pedagogical, religious, or pragmatic, parents who choose to home school their children and who meet appropriate curricular standards should receive government funding to help pay for books, materials, tutoring, and other associated costs. In this regard, government should treat home schools as the equals of independent schools and both types of government run schools.


Justice, in the context of education, must include equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity should come in the form of diverse schools and in parents’ ability to exercise their responsibility to determine which schools their children will attend. Currently, accredited independent schools are allowed to operate, but their lack of government funding puts them at a major disadvantage. Because parents must pay independent school tuition as well as property taxes, government subsidizes conformity and financially discriminates against educational diversity. 

As a result, independent and home schools are often completely inaccessible to lower-income families without some sort of scholarship system. For these families, equality of opportunity is a foreign concept.

In order to achieve public justice, the government should provide equal levels of funding to all accredited schools, regardless of philosophical, pedagogical, or religious orientation. Only then will authentic educational diversity become possible.

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