Federal Policy 101: Influence on Education

Most decisions about public education are made at the state level—by State Legislatures, Governors, State Boards of Education, Chief State School Officers, and State Education Agencies—and at the local level, by local school boards.

The federal government has two primary levers to shape education policy: money, in the form of federal education funding; and ensuring fairness, generally through mandates that focus on ensuring equity in education.


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the largest and most comprehensive federal law that authorizes federal spending on K-12 public education. In order to receive this money, states must continue to meet certain requirements. If a state doesn’t meet these requirements, the federal government can withhold federal funding. Each state’s legislature determines how the state will fulfill the requirements set by federal policy. This state law, with some direction from federal law, will place requirements on the state, local school districts, individual schools, and authorizers. The state education agency officially receives this money from the federal government and, as the funding recipient, has primary responsibility for verifying that the state is meeting these requirements.

Title I includes the most well-known requirements a State must meet to continue receiving the largest pot of federal education dollars: set challenging academic standards for core subjects; assess students annually on their proficiency according to these standards (commonly through standardized tests); let the public know how every school in the state is performing each year (commonly called the State Report Card requirement); and engage in activities to improve performance in low-performing schools. There are other requirements tied to other pots of money as well that address topics like teacher and principle quality, education of English learners and other special student populations, and education in some geographic areas.


Federal policy also guides what states, districts, and schools must do to ensure they are serving each and every student fairly and appropriately. This is commonly done through mandates, which apply regardless of whether the school receives federal education funds or not. Many of these mandates—such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—focus on educational equity for all students and are rooted in the equal protection clauses of the constitution. Federal mandates also address family privacy and the health and safety of students and school personnel