Education Law

Children in the U.S. are entitled to free public education. Education laws are in place at the federal, state, and local levels to protect this right. The laws also address many other issues, from discrimination in education to funding of schools.

What is Education Law?

Education law is the collection of laws, statutes, and policies that govern public schools and education in the U.S. Several important federal laws impact education, but many of the details of how education is provided and funded come from the state and local levels of government.[1]

Education laws address many issues, from civil rights to taxation and funding. They protect the interests of students but also taxpayers, the community, educators, and parents. Education laws and policies derive from federal law, court decisions, state constitutions, state laws, local laws, and local school board decisions and policies.

What Are the Federal Education Laws?

Most of the details of providing education are outlined in state constitutions and laws, but the federal government does play a role. Federal education laws are largely concerned with ensuring equal access in education, funding state programs, and creating opportunities:[2]

  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Passed in 1965, ESEA received reauthorization in 2015 with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESEA includes Title I, which provides local education agencies with funds to support low-income students. The law also offers grants for rural schools, Native American students, charter and magnet schools, English language learners, and professional development for educators.
  • Higher Education Act (HEA). HEA was also enacted in 1965. It includes several programs for helping individuals and families finance post-secondary education. The Pell Grant program, for instance, provides funding for low-income undergraduate students, and the Work-Study program subsidizes part-time work for students based on financial need.
  • Rehabilitation Act. (RA). Enacted in 1973, RA provides funds for vocational rehabilitation programs. These give students with disabilities vocational skills to support their ability to work and be independent.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress passed IDEA in 1975 to finance special education services to students through age 21. The law requires that schools provide a free, appropriate education to all students. In practice, this means that schools must provide students with disabilities accommodations and special services according to need.
  • Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA). AEFLA is Title II of the Workforce Investment Act from 1998. It largely provides funds for adults in secondary education and adults learning English.
  • Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (PCTEA). The PCTEA of 2006 provides funding for state career and technical education programs. This includes programs for both secondary and post-secondary students.
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA ensures students and their families have a reasonable right to privacy. Parents and legal guardians can access their children’s education records, but the law limits who else can access them.
  • Anti-Discrimination Laws. Parts of several federal laws address discrimination in education. The Civil Rights Act, for instance, bars discrimination in schools by race, color, or national origin. Other laws prohibit discrimination in education by sex, age, and disability.  

The federal Department of Education is the agency responsible for supporting schooling and education across the country. It establishes programs for federal financial aid, collects data on schools, supports education research, and prohibits discrimination in education.[3]

What Do State Education Laws Cover?

While federal laws cover broad issues of funding and discrimination, state laws provide the framework for establishing and maintaining schools. Every state has its own laws and policies governing education. These laws address a wide range of features of providing and maintaining education and schools, including:

  • The age range during which education is compulsory
  • Attendance requirements
  • Parental penalties for truant students
  • Homeschooling
  • Prayer in schools
  • Punishment of students
  • Privacy of school records
  • Special education
  • Number of days in a school year and extended school years
  • Homebound education services
  • Assessments and standardized testing
  • Charter schools
  • School vouchers
  • Accountability
  • Bullying
  • Curriculum requirements
  • Teacher preparation, licensing, professional development, and pay
  • Private and religious schools

What Can I Do if Education Laws Are Violated?

One of the most important things education laws do is protect student and family rights in education. Every state’s constitution requires the government to provide free, public education. Laws ensure that students with special needs get appropriate services and that no student suffers discrimination.

If these and other rights are violated, students and their guardians can take steps to remedy the situation. If you believe a staff member, school, or district has violated a law resulting in a violation of your rights, the first thing you should do is contact an education lawyer.

Many education lawyers specialize in representing students and their parents. They take on issues such as discrimination, privacy violations, denial of special education services, harassment or bullying, unlawful punishment of students, and more.

A lawyer can look at your situation, clarify your rights and the law, and determine if you should take legal action. They may be able to resolve the situation directly with a school or district. If not, they can give you other options, such as starting a lawsuit to sue for your rights or for damages.

Be sure to keep records of what has happened, communications with the school and staff, and any paperwork or documentation important to your case. It may be appropriate to talk to other parents, but your lawyer can help you decide.

Education laws are important for ensuring all students have access to an education and that schools are maintained and held accountable for the services they provide. When schools or staff violate the law or deny students their rights, parents and families can take legal action.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Education.
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  2. Congressional Research Service. (2019, January 23). A Summary of Federal Education Laws Administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
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  3. U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). About ED.
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