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Government Spending on Education in the United States: A Historical Perspective


Government Spending on Education in the United States: A Historical Perspective

The funding of a robust public education system has become increasingly important to Americans over the past century. The future success of younger generations is dependent on their educational experience, which includes not only the curriculum they are taught in the classroom but also the atmosphere and learning environment in which they spend a majority of their days. The ideal classroom is a place where students are able to express themselves and excel; these goals can’t be reached if schools are not fully equipped to help students succeed. From books to software and computer programs, food and furnishings, afterschool and extracurricular programs, athletic programs and equipment, and training for staff and teachers, there are many factors that must be addressed in order to provide students and staff with the fundamental tools they need to learn, teach, and grow.

A Brief History of U.S. Government Spending on Education

At the beginning of the 20th century, total government spending on education was a mere one percent of GDP. Over the next three decades it steadily increased, reaching four percent of GDP during the Great Depression before leveling out at three percent at the beginning of World War II. During the war it dropped back down to 1.25 percent, then recovered in the 1950s to once again reach three percent of GDP. From then on, spending on education was a roller coaster, increasing and decreasing according to the economic climate and other factors. In 1953 education spending hit a low of 2.6 percent, but by 1976 it had risen to 5.7 percent; it  dropped again in the eighties,  falling to 4.7 percent in 1984. Spending began to increase again later in the decade, leveling out in the 1990s at 5.3 percent and growing to, reach a high of 6.1 percent around the turn of the century. As we’ve learned, however, over time what goes up must come down, and when the U.S. was struggling with a slowing economy during the Great Recession, spending on education once again declined.[i]

us edu spending

Local and State Education Spending

The U.S. provides services to approximately 50 million students attending more than 98,000 public schools and 28,000 private schools in nearly 17,000 school districts; that’s a lot of campuses to maintain and children to teach. It’s no wonder that the majority of state and local spending goes to education services. In total, the United States spent $67.1 billion on education in fiscal year 2015, with a projected budget of $70.7 billion for 2016.[ii] 

Most education funding comes from local and state districts. The largest education budget for 2015 was $20.5 billion for the New York City school district, which also happens to be the largest school district in the United States, serving 1.1 million students attending more than 1,800 schools. The City of Los Angeles came in second for education spending, with more than 700,000 students and a budget of $24.3 million; in third place is Chicago (District 29), with more than 400,000 students and a budget of $8.8 million. Dade County, FL came in fourth for education spending in 2015, with more than 360,000 students and a budget of $7.9 million; in fifth place is Broward County, FL, home to more than 250,000 students and an education budget of $7.4 million.

Ultimately, the majority of education funding originates from local governments. Local spending on education averaged only 1 percent of total spending at the beginning of the 20th century, but by 2009 it had grown to 4.3 percent, before declining to 3.1 percent in 2015. State education spending started out at an average of 0.2 percent of total state budgets in the 1920s and continually increased until the 1980s, at which point it dropped by 0.2 percent before rising 0.5 percent by 2010. Since then, state education spending has declined and is currently an estimated 1.58 percent of total state budget spending. Very little education funding comes from the federal government: at the start of the 20th century federal spending on education was about 0.05 percent of total spending. This figure jumped to 0.3 percent in the 1930s, then declined, before increasing again during World War II, reaching more than 1 percent of GDP. It peaked at 1.2 percent in 1979; today spending is less than 1 percent and is expected to drop to 0.68 percent by 2020.[iii]

In Conclusion

As local school districts focus more on the quality of education students receive, governments at all levels need to step up and provide more tools and resources to ensure that students can be successful in their pursuits. President Obama has been focused on getting more people into college, but to be effective this kind of support needs to start at the beginning of students’ educational journey; they need to be confident that what they experience in school will help them excel in daily life, no matter what their situation may be. If schools are not provided with adequate resources, how can society expect teachers and students to achieve even the smallest of goals? There’s a reason why state and local governments provide the majority of education funding: they are the regions that are most impacted by a student’s success or failure, and they understand intimately the importance of fostering a student’s ability to learn and to provide them with the fundamentals needed to succeed in life.

Moving forward, depending on how the U.S. economy performs, education spending at all levels will continue to fluctuate, but one thing is for certain: the need to invest in future generations will always be there.

Danielle Calamaras | BidNet.com



[i] n.p. US Education Spending History from 1900. A Century of Education Spending. usgovernmentspending.com. web. 23 Dec. 2015

[ii] n.p. Budget Office – U.S. Department of Education. Ed.gov. n.d. web. 23 Dec. 2015

[iii] n.p. Education Spending by Government Level. US Education Spending History from 1900. Usgovernmentspending.com. web. 23 Dec. 2015

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