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An overview of the U.S. educational system

Educational system



The educational system of the United States is based on the concept of local control. This basic position is at work in over 14,000 school districts across our nation, and each school district operates independently..
In other words, this independence factor of local control means that students in the U.S. receive widely varying educational experiences, and districts operate so independently, that there is a great deal of needless effort “reinventing the wheel”. 
On the other hand, many immigrant families, including Latinos, come from nations where there is a central, federal educational system.  This means that there is one curriculum, one set of established textbooks and one system for preparing teachers and evaluating student progress.
 Consequently, many immigrant parents are unaware of how very different the U.S. system is from the one they experienced in their home countries.  In addition, the U.S. is unique in that there are so very many different individuals and organizations that can make education policy.  Most parents and guardians are unaware of the power of school boards, and how the decisions that are made have tremendous impact on their children.
Policy Web of U.S. Education -one example: California
Starting off with a child or teenager in school…who are the people and the organizations that impact that student’s life?  Who makes the decisions that affect the student’s education? 

  • Clearly, parents or guardians are very important.
  • Next, the teacher or teachers that teach the child are key.
  • Then, the principal and other school administrators have an impact on the educational decisions.
  • Then, the Superintendent and District Office staff make decisions which impact the student in school
  • AND, most importantly, the School Board members are key decision-makers.  They are the ones with the power to make incredibly important decisions, ranging from who gets hired to teach, to what will be taught.  Voters elect school board members, but few parents realize how powerful the school board is, and parents also don’t realize that they are free to attend school board meetings and express their opinions. 

Next is the local COUNTY OFFICE of EDUCATION (COE). \
Depending on the different areas of the U.S., county offices vary widely in the amount of impact they have.  However, in most cases, school budgets, money, and many other legal and fiscal issues are handled by COEs.

  • Administrators at the COE affect the school by handling the school’s money.
  • The COE Superintendent may or may not be elected by voters, but he or she can impact policy.
  • County School Board Members also make decisions that directly affect schools, and these members are usually elected by voters.

Third is the STATE DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION.  Different states have different kinds of state departments of education, but usually:

  • These departments have considerable influence in schools, through various legal and educational quality mechanisms. 
  • Under the state departments of education a whole bureaucracy implements educational policy. 
  • Often, policy is made by governors, legislators, and sometimes, by state boards of education and state superintendents. 
  • Depending on the state, some state school board members are appointed and superintendents are elected. 
  • Consequently, voters can be very instrumental in making policy, because their votes elect individuals who then pass laws and regulations that directly affect students in public schools.

The next level of policy is at the federal level: the U.S. DEPARTMENT of  EDUCATION (USDE):

  • USDE is in charge of implementing funds provided by Congress, for the purpose of assisting special needs students who are disadvantaged or at risk of failure in schools.
  • The President of the U.S. selects the Secretary who heads the U.S. Dept. of Education. The position of Secretary of Education is not a particularly powerful one, but as the head of federal efforts in education, the Secretary can serve as an important spokesperson.  
  • The Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) was passed in 1994, and is part of the legacy of the Lyndon Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. Title I and other Title monies pay for supplementary services for children living in poverty, migrant children, Indian children, and a smaller fund for bilingual education, called Title VII.
  • Recently (January, 2002) Congress passed a new law emphasizing testing, accountability and other key policy decisions.  Under the Bush Administration the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) law was changed and became known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). The new law emphasized strict guidelines for standardized achievement testing to determine student academic growth. Congress and the Obama Administration are revising NCLB.

In between each deciding party there are “LOBBYISTS”.   Lobbyists can be extremely influential in making policy through their efforts to convince policy makers such as legislators and governors, to either buy or choose them or their products.  Test-makers, publishers, teacher unions such as the National Educators’ Association are all examples of powerful lobbying groups.
At the top of all policy making is the FEDERAL LEVEL– the President and Congress. 

  • A voter elected Congress makes the final decisions as to amounts and regulations for federal support of education. 
  • The President of the U.S. is also in a position to make education policy because of his veto power, as well as his ability to influence policy.
  • Within the U.S. Dept. of Education, the former Office of Bilingual Educaiton and Minority Language Affaires was changed to the Office of English Language Acquisition. For more information, please visit On the left side there is a section for “recursos en español”.


  • The U.S. Supreme Court has passed several decisions regarding the rights of immigrant English Learners.
  • Lau vs. Nichols is the landmark case of 1974, which stated that children who do not speak English must be provided access to an education that they can understand.
  • Plyler vs. Doe is the name of the decision whereby children residing in the U.S. are entitled to a K-12 public education, regardless of citizenship status.
  • Other cases, by district judges, have also influenced education policy: Castañeda vs. Pickard, Keyes vs. School District.

THE VOTERS have a very powerful voice in educational policy.
Voters elect officials.   At the local district, county, state, and national elections, voters in the U.S. have a very powerful impact on education.
In some states, there is an “Initiative” process that can result in a very few voters making educational policy for literally thousands of students.  (A recent case of this in California is the relatively small number of voters who actually bothered to vote in a primary election, and Proposition 227 was passed.  This proposition was an attempt to kill bilingual education in California through restrictive requirements.  Prop. 227 had an enormously negative impact on tens of thousands of English Learners in California, and a similar law was passed in Arizona.)
LOCAL COMMUNITY AND NEIGHBORHOOD ORGANIZATIONS.  Organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs can have a dramatic effect on students in schools, through the after school and sports programs they often provide.
And finally, there are the teacher-training UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES which prepare individuals to become teachers.  Next, there are TEACHER UNIONS   (American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association are two powerful teacher unions), and TEACHER TENURE (Most parents don’t realize that once a teacher has tenure- teaching at a district for two years and one day- the teacher’s job is secure.)
In conclusion, this information presented here  is an attempt to help parents and educators realize the complexity of policy in U.S. public schools.  The information is intended to illuminate this complexity, and to help parents grasp the importance of their meaningful involvement at all levels of their children’s schooling.  Most importantly, the community needs to realize the importance of exercising the right to vote.