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Which branch of government has the biggest role in shaping school policy and practice?

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This question is about how government shapes society's school policy and practice. Public education in the American system is financed and run by the federal system and state systems. Funding for schools comes from state property taxes, with federal funds for special programs.

The question is about branches of government, and is not an easy one to answer in short space because the educational system is run on multiple levels and is highly complex.

State government affects policy and practice primarily from legislative influence, as laws proposed and passed by the legislature affect school funding, but the executive can have a hand in withholding or providing funding. The judicial branch of state government has a much smaller role in school policy on the state level.

On the federal level, all three branches are involved in policy. A good example of this is the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which was pushed by the executive (Bush administration) to reform schools. Ultimately, No Child Left Behind had unintended consequences and many of its provisions were disbanded in 2015. Arguably, the legislative branch, which had bipartisan support in Congress and Senate, had the most involvement in passing NCLB, and the most involvement in disbanding it, although local and state activists and elected officials played a larger role in reform.

As for longstanding educational policy and practice, the federal judicial system has played a large and, debatably central, role in education. The reason for this are programs like school lunches, civil rights reform, and special education funding. Many of these policies developed from civil rights legislation, sweeping reform such as the War on Poverty (an executive and legislative program) that involved judicial review.

The most straightforward answer to this question is, the legislative branch of government has the most extensive effect on school policies simply because they pass the most laws and control funding. Regulations are controlled by the executive branch through the Department of Education, and defining the laws occurs through this branch, as well as the judicial branch.

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Under the Constitution, the federal government is actually granted very limited influence over education policy. However, under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, the federal government is allowed to pass some rules to regulate education policies. It was under the 14th Amendment that we made our greatest education policy changes, such as desegregation in public schools, which was a result of the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Congress also has the authority to pass legislation affecting education policies under the "Commerce" and "General Welfare" clauses of the constitution. It's under these clauses that Congress has passed many statutes that have been applied to education policy, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Under Title IX, Congress also passed The Equal Access Act of 1984, granting all students--young, poor, and minority--equal access to education. It's also under Title IX that such acts as the Elementary and Secondary Act were passed, an act President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for to try and breach some of the educational gaps between poor and middle class children ("The Role of The Federal Government in Public Education"). The act allocates funds to schools, plus establishes high standards for schools without establishing a national curriculum. It is under this act that President Bush pushed for his No Child Left Behind Law.

However, while major educational policy changes certainly can be initiated at the federal level, it's really the state and local governments that have the most power over implementing educational policies. Of course things vary per state, but many states leave educational policy making to the legislative branch of the state government. Such policies can include school funding, school health and safety standards, curriculum and graduation requirements, how to handle certain crimes like assault in schools, reporting child abuse, reporting student drug or alcohol use, and school labor laws. Most states will also create state boards of education who are responsible for creating legislation related to "certification of school personnel, curriculum, pupil attendance and transportation, and special education" ("The Role of the State Government in Public Education").
Hence, while the federal government under the legislative branch has passed some legislation that has heavily affected education policy, it is the state government legislative branches, especially the state boards of education, that play the biggest role in most education policies.

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