Today in 1979: The Department of Education is created

October 17, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryIn order to become a lawyer, you need to go to law school.  But it needs to be a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Who made this determination?  The U.S. Department of Education (ED), the authority in recognizing valid educational accrediting agencies, has determined the ABA to be “the national agency for the accreditation of programs leading to the J.D. degree in the United States.”

And today, ED is celebrating a milestone: the department was created by the Department of Education Organization Act, which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1979, 35 years ago today.

Although ED is now 35 years old, it’s still relatively new, as far as cabinet-level agencies are concerned, with the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury being created in 1789 and the Department of Justice being created in 1870.

Nevertheless, the Department of Education has its beginnings far earlier than 1979: President Andrew Johnson actually created the first Department of Education in 1867 for the purpose of collecting information and statistics about the country’s schools.  Due to concerns that the Department would exert too much authority over local schools, however, the Department was demoted to the Office of Education, which was then absorbed by and transferred between various federal agencies until it ended up as part of the Federal Security Agency (which was upgraded to the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953).

Earlier in 1979, President Carter promoted creating a separate, cabinet-level Department of Education, transferring the large bulk of the Health, Education and Welfare Department’s education-related operations, as well as those of several other federal agencies, to the newly-created department.

To divine Carter’s purpose in creating a separate federal department for education, we need look no further than the purposes of the act stated within the text of the law itself.  The stated purposes are sevenfold, and they detail intents by the President and Congress to ensuring “equal educational opportunity for every individual,” as well as encouraging increased public involvement, and increasing the coordination and efficiency of federal education programs.

Despite the name, ED does not actually establish any educational institutions.  Instead, as stated on its website, it engages in four major types of activities, such as administering the distribution of funds and monitoring their use, data collection on U.S. schools, and enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws in programs that receive federal funds.  Also, as mentioned above, ED also determines which accrediting agencies it recognizes.

Even with its seemingly innocuous functions, ED isn’t without its detractors – both at the time of its creation and today.  The thrust of the argument from detractors throughout its history is that the department itself is unconstitutional because the Constitution does not mention “education” in its text on the structure of the federal government.

Their arguments didn’t stop ED’s creation at the time of the Act’s passage, and as the department and its functions have become ever more entrenched in the U.S. education system in the years since, these arguments seem increasingly less likely to have an impact on the existence of the Department of Education.

So, it seems, the Department of Education will continue on with its duties – including recognizing the ABA as the sole accrediting agency for U.S. law schools – for years to come.