Elementary and Secondary Education Expenditures

State and Local Backgrounders Homepage

Spending on elementary and secondary education includes the operation, maintenance, and construction of public schools (kindergarten through high school, or “K–12”) and excludes spending on institutions of higher education. It also includes spending on other educational facilities and programs provided through the school system, such as libraries, technical-vocational training, school lunches, guidance counseling, and some adult education.1

How much do state and local governments spend on elementary and secondary education?

In 2016, state and local governments spent $625 billion, or more than one-fifth of direct general spending, on elementary and secondary education.2 Elementary and secondary education was the second largest source of direct general spending at the state and local level in 2016. It was the largest source from 1977 to 2015. Considering only state and local funds (i.e., no federal transfers) K-12 education is still the largest spending item. 

Nearly all (91 percent) elementary and secondary education spending goes toward operational costs, such as salaries and benefits for public school employees engaged in instruction; administration; guidance counseling; textbooks; and other auxiliary services operated through the school system, such as transportation to schools and lunch programs. The remaining 9 percent is spent on capital outlays, such as school construction and renovation and some equipment purchases.

How does state spending differ from local spending?

Local governments spend more of their budgets directly on elementary and secondary education than states. In 2016, 40 percent of local direct general spending went to elementary and secondary education compared with only 0.5 percent of state direct general spending.

That's because K–12 education services are typically delivered to students directly by local school districts (or sometimes other local entities, such as municipalities or townships).3 In 2016, 99 percent of K–12 state and local direct spending occurred at the local level. All state and local K–12 spending occurred at the local level in 29 states. In only Alaska, Hawaii, Kentucky, and New Jersey did state governments deliver over 5 percent of direct K–12 spending. Hawaii is an outlier because the Hawaii State Department of Education operates public schools directly and 100 percent of its direct educational spending occurred at the state level.

However, while localities directly spend the money, most spending is financed through state and federal funds. In the 2014–15 school year, the federal government provided 8 percent of total revenues for elementary and secondary education ($55 billion), states provided 47 percent ($294 billion), and local governments provided 45 percent ($306 billion).

The share of elementary and secondary education revenues coming from state aid has increased over time. In 1972, states’ share of elementary and secondary education revenues was only 38 percent, but it grew to 49 percent by 1987. This increase has been attributed to court decisions, or the threat of court decisions, beginning with the California Supreme Court’s 1972 Serrano v. Priest  decision, which mandated states increase equity and adequacy in their education finance systems.

How have elementary and secondary education expenditures changed over time?

In 1977, state and local governments spent $283 billion on elementary and secondary education (in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars). In 2016, they spent $625 billion.

However, between 1977 and 2016 other state and local spending grew faster than elementary and secondary education. In 1977, 26 percent of direct general expenditures went to elementary and secondary education compared with 21 percent in 2016.

How and why does spending differ across states?

Differences in per capita and per pupil spending highlight important variation in spending on K–12 education across states. Nationally, state and local governments spent $1,923 per capita on elementary and secondary education in 2016.  At $3,798, the District of Columbia spent the most per capita on elementary and secondary education, followed by Wyoming ($3,445), Alaska ($3,190), New York ($3,126), and New Jersey ($3,006).5 State and local governments in Arizona spent the least on elementary and secondary education at $1,142 per person, followed by Idaho ($1,218), Florida ($1,325), North Carolina ($1,359) and Tennessee ($1,395).

Data: View and download each state's per capita spending by spending category

Per capita spending is an incomplete metric because it doesn’t provide any information about a state’s demographics, policy decisions, administrative procedures, or residents’ choices.

States whose governments spend the most per capita on K–12 education tend to have higher labor costs or employ more teachers per student, but they are not necessarily home to the most students.  New York, for example, has relatively few school-age children as a share of total population, but the state has more teachers and staff per student than nearly any other state. It also pays them more, resulting in higher spending despite fewer kids.6

Some states that spend the least per capita on K–12 education have the most kids and high enrollment in public schools. For example, a large percentage of Arizona’s population is school-age children, and many of them are in public schools, but the state has fewer teachers per pupil and lower salaries than other states, translating to low per capita spending.

Per pupil spending can provide a more nuanced picture because it reflects spending on students that are enrolled in the public K–12 educational system, but it does not provide complete information about policy decisions, class sizes, or labor costs.

Overall, the United States spent $12,360 per pupil in 2016.7 The District of Columbia ($30,780), New York ($22,902), Wyoming ($21,100), New Jersey ($19,237), and Vermont ($18,681) topped the list in terms of high per-pupil spending (most of which also topped the per capita list). Per pupil spending was lowest in Idaho ($6,966), Arizona ($7,066), Utah ($7,325), and Oklahoma ($8,469).

Interactive Data Tools

How do school funding formulas work?

How has education funding changed over time? 

School funding: Do poor kids get their fair share?

What everyone should know about their state’s budget


Further Reading

Making Sense of State School Funding Policy
Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg (2017)

Assessing Fiscal Capacities of States: A Representative Revenue System–Representative Expenditure System Approach, Fiscal Year 2012
Tracy Gordon, Richard Auxier, and John Iselin (2016)


1 Data are from the census expenditure functions E12, F12, G12, and K12. 

2 Direct general spending refers to all direct spending (or spending excluding transfers to other governments) except spending specially enumerated as utility, liquor store, employee-retirement, or insurance trust. Unless otherwise noted, all data are from the US Bureau of the Census, Survey of State and Local Government Finance, 1977–2016, accessed via the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Data Query System, January 9, 2019, http://slfdqs.taxpolicycenter.org. The census recognizes five types of local government in addition to state government: counties, municipalities, townships, special districts (e.g., a water and sewer authority), and school districts. All dates in sections about expenditures reference the fiscal year unless explicitly stated otherwise. 

3 School districts can function as independent government entities or as fiscally dependent agencies of their parent government. For example, New York State is home to a mix of independent and city-dependent school districts. The five largest cities in New York all manage a fiscally dependent school system. New York City, for example, manages a dependent school system under its Department of Education.

4 See Sheila E. Murray, Kim Rueben, and Carol Rosenberg, “State Education Spending: Current Pressures and Future Trends,” National Tax Journal vol. LX no. 2, 325–345. The authors use data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

5 DC is often an outlier because, although it functions as a state and a locality, it most closely resembles a central city in terms of its population and economic activity, much of which comes from nonresidents. Its ranking among states should be interpreted within this context.

6 For an analysis of components of state and local spending using 2012 data, see the Urban Institute’s interactive tool, “What everyone should know about their state’s budget.

7 State & Local Government Finance Data Query System. https://slfdqs.taxpolicycenter.org/index.cfm. The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. Data from U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances, Government Finances, Volume 4, and Census of Governments. Date of Access: (09-Jan-19 10:52 AM); US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2017, Table 203.20, School Year 2014-2015 (updated May 2018). https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_203.20.asp.

8 Calculation from the US Bureau of the Census, Survey of State and Local Government Finance, 1977–2016, accessed via the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Data Query System, October, 2017, https://slfdqs.taxpolicycenter.org/index.cfm; US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary/Secondary Education,” 1990–91 through 2015–16; and State Public Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1980 through 2027, last updated January 2018.