"We are making the largest investment in education in our nation’s history."

Barack Obama on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 in a bill signing ceremony in Denver.

For the feds, yes, this is big school spending

As President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill, he said it marked a historic investment in education. 

"Because we know America can't outcompete the world tomorrow if our children are being outeducated today, we're making the largest investment in education in our nation's history," Obama said at a bill signing ceremony at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Feb. 17, 2009.

That's quite a claim — the largest ever?

It's true that a substantial chunk of the stimulus is targeted to education. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in this press release that the bill "provides more than $100 billion in education funding and college grants and tuition tax credits, as well as billions more for school modernization."

This chart from the Wall Street Journal indicates $115 billion of the $787 billion goes to education in one way or another. That includes, among other things, $22 billion for school construction and repair, $41 billion for states to balance education budgets, $650 million for computer and science labs, $17 billion for Pell Grants, and $14 million for Education Department spending oversight (which we dare say seems like money well spent in light of what precedes it). That money will be spent over the next two years, a spokesman told us.

For Obama to even be in the ballpark of being the largest ever, we have to assume that he was comparing the funding to prior spending by the federal government exclusively. It's important to realize that the vast majority of money spent on education in this country is spent by states and localities. Of the money spent at the elementary and secondary level, over 91 percent comes from nonfederal sources, according to the Education Department. Even $115 billion won't change that balance substantially.

So we'll assume that Obama meant the largest single investment by the federal government.

As we look back on the history of federal education funding, we find no single effort comes close, even after adjusting for inflation.

The New Deal contained little in the way of education spending. After the Soviet Union succeeded in placing the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to bolster math and science education — but that was a modest program by today's standards. Lyndon B. Johnson dramatically increased federal support for education with the Great Society programs, persuading Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1965 and Project Head Start. Those efforts marked a turning point in federal support for education, but experts in education budgeting told us they received just a few billion dollars — very little compared to today's education spending, even before the stimulus.

For example, the Elementary and Secondary School Act was funded with $1.3 billion initially, according to the book Depression to Cold War , which amounts to around $9 billion in current dollars. Head Start received less than $1 billion.

These programs have grown over time, so that the real competition to Obama's stimulus spending, several experts said, comes from the Education Department's annual budget from recent years. As this chart shows, it has risen steadily over the past 30 years, from $13.1 billion in 1980 (in 2007 dollars) to $23.2 billion in 1990 to $34.1 billion in 2000 to $73 billion in 2007.

Tom Skelly, director of budget service at the Education Department, said via e-mail that the stimulus money is "in addition to our 2009 regular appropriation that will be over $59 billion. So in the department alone, we will have about $160 billion in discretionary appropriations."

That's far higher than the department's budget has ever been. Other departments in the federal government also spend money on education through scholarship programs, school lunches and the like, amounting to total federal spending of about $170 billion a year. But there's no reason to believe those other programs won't continue this year as well, pushing total federal education spending to new heights.

"It is the largest federal investment in education," Skelly wrote of the stimulus money, standing behind Obama's claim.

It does appear that the stimulus money will push federal spending on education — both within the Education Department and across the federal government as a whole — higher than it has ever been. We find Obama's claim True.