Federal Education Legislation

Several major pieces of federal legislation affect early learning and PreK-12 education in the United States. First, as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Congress passed and President Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). This legislation continues to shape education policies in the states. Reauthorized eight times since it was first introduced, the most recent version was passed in December 2015 and was named the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESEA amendments of 1966 included—for the first time—legislation to address the educational needs of students with disabilities; these early efforts were a precursor to the current Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 2004.

Two additional pieces of federal legislation specifically address the needs of families with young children. The idea for Head Start was first introduced in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964—the program has its roots in Johnson’s War on Poverty—providing support for pre-school aged children of families in poverty. Nearly thirty years later, in 1995, the Early Head Start program was added to serve pregnant women and children from birth to age 3.  Finally, in 1990, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) was signed into law to help low-income families pay for child care programs; the ages of children in programs subsidized by CCDBG range from infancy through 12 years old.

Congress has also authorized two pieces of legislation that impact education data, research, and privacy. In 1974, President Ford signed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) into law, with the goal of providing parents with greater access to information and data collected about their children. A lesser-known piece of legislation passed by President Bush in 2002, the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA), was designed to streamline federal education data collection and research.


The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) is the major federal law authorizing federal spending on programs to support PreK-12 schooling.



The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the main federal statute that authorizes federal aid for the education of more than 6 million children with disabilities nationally.

Head Start

Head Start was designed as a comprehensive program focusing on education, health, and parental involvement.


The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the law that governs federal child care assistance for low-income families, is intended to protect the health and safety of children in child care and afterschool services.


The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in August of 1974 to protect the privacy of students’ information.


The Education Sciences Reform Act made the data collection capabilities of the U.S. Department of Education more robust with the creation of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).