Federal Spending Burst Nudges Up Uncle Sam’s Share

By Joetta L. Sack — February 13, 2002 4 min read

It’s the conventional wisdom among lawmakers, educators, and pundits: The federal government’s share of total K-12 education spending is about 7 percent.

That figure is used, depending on the speaker’s point of view, to a) decry Washington’s paltry contribution to the nation’s children and seek more, or b) argue that Washington, given its relatively small contribution, should tread lightly in asserting authority over local educators.

But that figure isn’t exactly accurate anymore, given the large increases the federal education budget has received in recent years. In fact, the federal share of education spending has been on something of a roller coaster since the creation of the federal Department of Education. And it gets even more complicated.

According to budget documents released by the department last week, the figure is actually creeping toward 8 percent—to be precise, it’s expected to be 7.9 percent for the 2001-02 school year, up from 7.1 percent for the 2000-01 academic year.

But that figure, still a small percentage of overall K-12 spending, is also misleading, some political and policy officials say. Because most federal education programs are targeted toward specific populations, federal spending in a given school or district can range from a small percentage to nearly all of a budget.

For instance, Santee Community School, on an Indian reservation in Santee, Neb., relies on federal impact aid for about 75 percent of its budget. Impact aid is the program that reimburses districts for federal activity that diminishes property-tax revenue, such as the presence of military bases (“Impact-Aid Districts Pay the Price When Federal Checks Come Late,” June 2, 1999).

Seven percent is “a deceptive figure, and that was a reality we ran into frequently when we were working on” the recently passed Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization, said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“It definitely varies, based on poverty and the size of the district,” said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based coalition of groups that lobbies for more federal aid to education.

The federal budget for discretionary Education Department programs, including postsecondary education, has grown dramatically in the past five years, rising by 85 percent, from $26.3 billion in fiscal 1997 to $48.9 billion in total spending for fiscal 2002. President Bush wants to increase that to $50.3 billion next year.

According to the department, federal spending is projected to account for $35 billion, or 7.9 percent, of the total $442.6 billion spent on elementary and secondary education for fiscal 2001, the budget providing federal money for this academic year. The state contribution makes up the largest slice of overall K-12 spending, with $198.2 billion, or 44.8 percent. Local funding makes up 37.9 percent, or $167.7 billion, and other sources contribute $41.7 billion, or 9.4 percent.

The federal share in fiscal 2000, meanwhile, was $30 billion, or 7.1 percent of the total $422.7 billion in education expenditures. In fiscal 1997, the federal contribution was 6.1 percent of the $351.3 billion spent.

But, even with the rising share in recent years, the proportion remains well below the 12 percent that the federal government chipped in for fiscal 1980, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Murky Debate

Still, there’s much debate over whether 7 percent is too much or too little.

Many conservatives use the 7 percent figure to decry what they perceive as a heavy-handed federal bureaucracy. They have argued that, in light of the small percentage of funding, the federal government should unload some of its regulations and mandates.

But during the ESEA reauthorization, the debate shifted from decreasing regulations to finding ways to hold educators and schools more accountable for the federal money they receive, as President Bush has urged. The new ESEA, known as the “No Child Left Behind” Act, requires annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and requires schools to improve student achievement.

“Definitely, education is primarily a state and local, and private, concern—it’s not constitutionally addressed at the federal level,” said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. However, she said, “knowing there already is a role at the federal level, and a growing amount of money, I’m glad they were able to put some money” into the ESEA accountability provisions.

Others, including many educators, believe the federal government should increase its spending to compensate for the regulations it places on schools, particularly in light of the new accountability mandates, and to further its commitment to helping disadvantaged students. Mr. Kealy says that, even given the large federal spending increases in recent years, schools have not had much relief because of rising enrollments, as well as new mandates to meet.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Federal Spending Burst Nudges Up Uncle Sam’s Share