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Federal Schools and Colleges

Overview, Elementary and Secondary Schools, Institutions of Higher Education, Funding, Goals

The U.S. federal government operates, financially supports, or has chartered a number of schools and colleges to meet a variety of specific educational needs thought to be best addressed at the national level. Traditionally, elementary and secondary schools in the United States are primarily the responsibility of local school districts. Two-and four-year institutions of higher education are supported by state and local governments and by private entities. Private nonprofit and religious schools also play an important role in providing K–12 education, and there is a more recent rise in the number of for-profit businesses delivering education and educational services. In several instances, however, based on historical and geographical circumstances, the federal government complements these more customary means of providing education.


In elementary and secondary education, the federal government directly operates school systems serving children of personnel living on military bases, and systems serving Native Americans and Native Alaskans living on reservations and in native villages. Within higher education, the federal government provides substantial assistance toward supporting schools for deaf, African-American, Native American, and other students. Several institutions of higher education are also directly operated by the federal government, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, among others. In addition to operating schools directly, the federal government also provides numerous financial and other incentives aimed at advancing elementary, secondary, and higher education outcomes.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

Because of the large, diverse, and mobile nature of military deployment, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) program operates two elementary and secondary school systems for the children of military and civilian personnel. Children of department employees within the United States, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba are served by the Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS) system, while dependents living abroad are served by the Dependents Schools (DoDDS) system. Together, these systems enrolled more than 100,000 students in more than 200 schools in the year 2000. If these DoDEA schools were classified as a single state school district, it would rank among the twenty-five largest school districts, based on enrollment, in the United States.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, within the U.S. Department of Interior, also operates a sizable school system serving Native Americans. The federal responsibility for providing education for Native Americans has been established historically through a succession of laws, treaties, and court decisions. As a result, the Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP) directly operates nearly 70 schools, and provides grants and contracts to tribes to operate 116 additional schools. These schools enroll more than 50,000 students.

These military and Native American schools maintain curricula, standards, and educational goals that correspond to those found in local public school districts nationally. In addition, they also address unique educational aspects facing the populations they serve. Because military service requires frequent movement, for example, DoDEA teachers and counselors on military bases must be especially aware of how these numerous changes in environment and classmates may affect students academically and personally. In addition, DoDEA schools maintain a consistency of curriculum, which facilitates students' continuum of study and learning despite frequent geographical transfers. At the same time, each locality where students attend school also presents unique opportunities for them to learn local culture and language, which is encouraged in DoDEA schools. Within schools on reservations, efforts are made to maintain native and tribal cultures and languages as aspects of the curriculum. In fact, over the past decades and with the encouragement of the U.S. Congress and the OIEP, more and more schools on reservations are being operated by tribes and tribal school boards, rather than directly by the federal government, supported through the federal grants and contracts administered by OIEP.

Students from military families living off-base, or on bases with insufficient numbers to support a federally operated school, generally attend local public schools, as do children living on other federal land. These students often comprise a substantial share of the local community's school population, however. To compensate for the financial impacts incurred as the result of this federal presence, the federal Impact Aid Program provides funds to affected local school districts. The basis for this aid is that the federal employees, especially those who live on federal land or military bases, diminish the tax base that traditionally supports local school districts. Local revenues are lost, for example, because personnel living on federal property pay no property taxes, and often shop in stores on bases that generate no local sales tax revenue. Impact Aid also is provided to some school districts enrolling students who live in low-rent housing, and additional students who live on Indian reservations.

In addition to operating schools directly, or providing funds to schools directly affected by its presence, the federal government supports many educational programs and activities geared toward serving populations that have been, or are likely to be, at risk or underserved by traditional educational mechanisms. Federal funds partially support, for example, such students through Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (formerly the Education for All Handicapped Children Act), and the Head Start programs. Federal assistance is also provided to school systems in the commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands, and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both through their participation in programs funded partially by the federal government (including those for at-risk students), and through the Department of Defense schools and Impact Aid. Federal revenues for public elementary and secondary schools alone range from nearly 80 percent of all school funding in American Samoa, to 25–30 percent in the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico, and less in the Virgin Islands and Guam.

Institutions of Higher Education

Although the federal government does directly operate a number of educational institutions such as the military service academies, it more commonly facilitates the formation of, and provides significant funding support for, schools and colleges established under its auspices, while leaving their organization and management to the institutions themselves.

Two institutions of higher education directly chartered by Congress are Gallaudet University and Howard University, both in Washington, D.C. In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill authorizing Gallaudet University to grant college degrees. Efforts by Amos Kendall, an influential Washington writer and politician, led to the formation in 1857 of a school to serve deaf and blind children, officially known as the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind. Believing that the school should grant college degrees and open the opportunity for higher education to deaf students, Kendall and the school's first president, Edward Miner Gallaudet, presented their case to Congress. They noted that higher learning for deaf individuals was possible with sign language, and that sign language enabled such education to be on a par with that obtained through spoken language. The initial emphasis of this college was to train teachers to work in the growing number of state schools for the deaf, and since these schools were spread across the United States, the federal government was asked to support a postsecondary institution to provide this training. By 1865 the school served only deaf students in both a pre-college school and in the college (blind students were transferred to a state school for the blind). Gallaudet College became Gallaudet University in 1986, and maintains the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf on its campus.

Only a few years after the Civil War ended, the need also became clear for the establishment of a comprehensive institution of higher education serving the four million freed slaves and several hundred thousand free African Americans in the United States. The initial plan was to establish a theology school–an effort led by members of the First Congregational Society, a prominent Washington, D.C., church. General Oliver O. Howard, at the time the Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau in the U.S. War Department, was a member of this group and supported the idea. Soon afterwards, the plan was expanded to create a school for both theological training and to train teachers. While not the first college for African Americans (there is some evidence that Cheyney University in Pennsylvania was the first), the comprehensive plan for the new university soon grew to include programs in the arts, sciences, medicine, and law. These efforts culminated in the signing of the charter for Howard University by President Andrew Johnson in 1867. Although the charter of Howard University indicated the institution was for all individuals, there was no doubt that the intent was to serve freed slaves and other African Americans.

Both Gallaudet University and Howard University were established in times when there was great debate about whether deaf individuals and freed slaves (and freemen) were capable of achieving higher education. At the start, both universities had an initial goal of training teachers for the growing number of deaf institutions and in schools where freed slaves were obtaining public education for the first time. Both universities, although chartered to grant degrees by the federal government and receiving substantial shares of their revenues from the federal government, are private, nonprofit institutions, governed by boards of trustees. While there is some federal review of their policies, they continue to maintain the independence to determine their own academic and strategic planning objectives. Both universities continue to be national in scope, are fully accredited, and enroll both undergraduate and graduate students from across the United States in unique educational, cultural, and social environments. The importance of these two federally chartered schools is similarly seen in their impact on the wider communities they serve.

Deaf education. Gallaudet University is the only institution of higher education for deaf and hard of hearing students in the world. As such, it is a center for the study of deaf culture, history, and language. It is also the only institution of higher education where all communication between students, faculty and staff is direct and in sign language. A great majority of deaf teachers for deaf children obtained their bachelor's degree at the university, as have leaders in business, science, the arts, and other endeavors. In 1988, spurred by a student movement, Dr. I. King Jordan was named the university's first deaf president, an event that further served to encourage deaf students around the world to raise their aspirations and expectations for their futures.

African-American education. Howard University sets a national standard for the education and aspirations of African-American students in the United States. Established nearly 100 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it has provided unique and diverse opportunities for African Americans in an era of segregation and discrimination. Howard University's mission continues to emphasize the history, culture, education, and societal role of African Americans, as well as other historically disenfranchised groups. Dr. Mordecai Johnson was named as the university's first African-American president in 1926.

Howard University is one of more than one hundred historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. These colleges and universities were all established prior to 1965, at which time Congress agreed to provide increased financial support to them, compensating for past lapses in federal aid. Subsequent Presidential Executive Orders strengthened the federal role in providing financial and educational support for HBCUs. Among the diverse group of HBCUs are Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M, Grambling State University, Hampton University, and Southern University. Similarly, the federal government continues its support for additional study by deaf students through funding for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Native American education. The first institution of higher education for Native Americans, Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College), opened on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona in 1968, more than one hundred years after the federal government's first impetus to assist the then educationally disenfranchised groups of deaf and African-American students. The founding of this first tribal college was supported by funds from the federal Office of Equal Opportunity, with federal funds continuing to play a crucial role in the ongoing success of this and more than thirty other tribal colleges in the United States. Most of these schools are two-year colleges, but a growing number are adding four-year and graduate degrees, with South Dakota's Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University being among the first to do so.

The educational environments and philosophies in these comparatively new tribal colleges are strikingly similar to those of their century-old counterparts serving deaf and African-American students. Chartered by tribal governments, these institution's curricula highlight native culture, language, and traditions. Academic and developmental programs are geared towards the specific needs of the indigenous student populations. The colleges not only serve those on each reservation, but also are resources for the entire reservation and for members of tribal communities nationally. Most tribal college presidents are Native Americans, further encouraging aspirations of future generations in higher education.


In addition to direct support to institutions of higher education, the federal government provides many other types of funding for students and organizations as well. Aid to individuals, for example, is given through student financial assistance programs, loans to individuals and families, work-study grants, and other incentives. Colleges and universities also receive aid through research and development grants, and additional federal funds support education at a variety of research facilities. In addition, an institution affiliated with the federal government but receiving no direct U.S. government funding, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School, offers programs geared towards the needs of federal workers and managers. Although this institution operates on a self-supporting basis, much of its funding is derived through federal agency tuition payments. Further, the government provides training for its senior executives at the Federal Executive Institute and Management Development Centers, as well as training opportunities at various public and private colleges and within federal agencies.


A more direct federal role in supporting schools and colleges within the otherwise state, local, and private educational mandate in the United States is presented here; however, in a broader sense, the federal role in education encompasses an extensive range of programs established to promote a wide variety of goals. These goals include improving academic achievement, expanding knowledge, providing equality of educational opportunity, collecting and disseminating education data, encouraging research and development, fostering health, advancing national security, and maintaining international relations. Viewed this way, spending for all types of educational activities accounted for approximately 10 percent of all federal expenditures in fiscal year 2000.


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