The US Secretary of Education is the head of the Department of Education, the federal agency that oversees matters related to education in the United States, from kindergarten to colleges and universities. Because education in the United States is not highly centralized, as it is in many other nations, the scope of the secretary's duties and powers is fairly limited, and the department itself is actually rather controversial. Some conservatives believe that the Department of Education represents unreasonable interference on the part of the federal government, and they would like to see it dismantled.
ED, as it is known colloquially, was established in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter split the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into two separate agencies, creating two Cabinet level positions: the US Secretary of Education, and the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. ED is the smallest cabinet-level agency, with far fewer employees and programs than other agencies at the same rank in government.
Each new president is responsible for appointing a Secretary of Education, with the president typically choosing someone who will support his or her goals for American education. The selection is subject to a Senate confirmation hearing, allowing senators and the people of the United States by extension a chance to reject candidates who might be perceived as unfit. As a cabinet-level official, the Secretary of Education is in line for the succession to the United States presidency, although since the position is ranked 16, it is unlikely that an Education secretary will ever be forced to step into the office.
As a member of the presidential cabinet, the US Secretary of Education is responsible for discussing policy matters relating to education with the president, and for proposing policies which will shape American education. He or she also keeps the president informed about issues in the American education system, ranging from dropout rates to the changing demographics of US colleges.
One of the most important roles of the Department of Education is in the keeping of statistics pertaining to education so that this data can be used to assess the state of education in the country and to identify areas that need improvement. ED also hosts the Department of Federal Student Aid, which provides financial assistance to college students, along with departments that deal with things like special education, English language learners, migrant education, and civil rights in the education field.