Do We Spend More Money on Education or Police Departments?

With a $1 trillion shortfall for U.S. education and millions in handouts from the military to police departments, it's a good question.

by AC Shilton
Collage of a young boy that is learning and a policeman

The protests across the nation have laid bare American priorities of security, defense, and order — evidenced in police officers in head-to-toe tactical gear, behind mine-resistant armored vehicles, and surrounded by buses and police vans filled with handcuffed protestors. Of course, investments in social justice would never be as visible — education, penal reform, and affordable health care for all can’t be carted out on the streets in a display of power. But these protests are a signal to their absence, against a government that invests in military hardware for its police officers rather than books for its children. Want proof? Follow the money.

According to the Urban Institute, in 2017, American state and local governments spent $115 billion on policing. If you add in the cost of incarcerating the people police arrest, the total comes out to $194 billion. On average, a city spends $354 on police for every citizen — unless you live in D.C. or New York, where those numbers shoot up above $900 and $500, respectively.

To be clear, the armored vehicles rolling through the streets in cities everywhere were likely gifted to police departments from the U.S. military, thanks to something called the 1033 program. Authorized by Bill Clinton, rolled back by Obama, and then brought back by President Trump, the 1033 program allows police departments to request surplus military gear. The value of this equipment is stunning — as is seeing it used against the very people who paid for it.

Take a look at Alabama, which sits up top in the U.S. alphabetically and in the middle, population-wise: Since 1996, Alabama police departments have received $78,534,297.32 in planes, helicopters, rifles, and mine-resistant vehicles. How is there so much stuff to dole out? After 9/11, U.S. military funding increased 50 percent. In fact, the average American has paid $23,386 in taxes to support the military and its war efforts since 2001. All that spending has translated to a lot of extra mine-resistant vehicles, which local police now own.

When you zoom out over the past 30 years, police spending has grown by 445 percent, according to the Justice Policy Institute. This funding boom is happening even though, according to the FBI, violent crime has steadily decreased since the 1990s. How much we spend on police is even more staggering when you look at it at the city level. In Oakland, California, according to budget reporting conducted by The Center For Popular Democracy, 41.2 percent of city spending goes to policing. In Minneapolis, 35.8 percent of the city budget is for police.

The funding for education looks much different. For one, U.S. education performance has been declining. A 2017 Brookings Institution analysis found U.S. students scored 36th out of 39 countries on the math part of an international exam called the PISA — and our investments are in lockstep with it. While school funding has slowly climbed in the past few years, some states still aren’t investing as much as they did before the 2008 recession. At a moment when public school systems across the country are forecasted to have up to $1 trillion in budget shortfalls, it’s hard not to look at the advanced military gear in police officer’s hands, then look at your kids’ school supply list and think, are we doing this wrong?

Right now, the U.S. does spend more on education than on policing. Elementary and secondary education are the second-largest expenditure for state and local governments, according to the Urban Institute. Comparing state education budgets is tricky, because funding for schools can come from state and local budgets, plus different areas have different costs of living, which affect teacher salaries. But it’s worth at least looking at school budgets versus police budgets to get a glimpse of where American priorities sit.

In Utah, which, according to Census Bureau data compiled by, spends the least amount per pupil, with 29 percent of the state budget going to education, while 5 percent goes to law enforcement. A proposal to cut as much as $382 million from Utah’s school budget is currently being debated, with items like fine arts education, special education programs, and class size reduction initiatives on the chopping block. Utah falls 22nd in the nation when it comes to k-12 education, according to U.S. News and World Report’s annual school rankings. Cutting the state’s $1 billion budget for police by 30 percent would save the state of Utah from having to make a single hard decision on its schools.

Massachusetts, which ranks first in education, according to U.S. News and World Report, has allocated just under $6 billion for its schools in 2020. That’s $869.57 dollars per Massachusetts’s resident. The state comes in 8th in highest spending per pupil. When it comes to policing, meanwhile, Massachusetts spends $1.2 billion, or about $174 per its 6.9 million residents. Utah, by comparison, has only has 3.16 million residents.

Violent crime is down across the nation. Education is in need — especially as the COVID-19 crisis continues and schools are forced to drastically adapt. Should we invest less in education? Of course. Could we move money from policing over to education? Looking at the surpluses and need, it’s a tempting proposition:

  • In Atlanta, the 2017 city budget allocated $218.3 million for policing. Taking away just 20 percent of that—or $43,660,000—could buy enough basic Chromebook laptops ($189 apiece) to change the school system’s ratio from 2 computers for every 3 students to one computer per student.
  • On June 1, 2020, the Oklahoma City police chief presented a budget proposalfor his department that clocked in at a cool $204 million. Taking away 20 percent of just this one city’s police department budget would pay for a part-time art teacher ($20,000 annually) at every single one of Oklahoma’s public schools—all 1,867 of them. This would be particularly noteworthy because Oklahoma has drastically slashed its funding for arts in schools, with 28 percent of Oklahoma students having no access at all to art classes during the 2017-2018 year.
  • The Metropolitan Police Department of D.C. has the largest budget per capita of any department in the U.S. In 2018, the department was allotted $509,105,108. That same year, D.C. public schools received $856,800,000 in funds. In 2018, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute reportedthat D.C. public schools was underfunding its schools by $942 per pupil. To raise the departments’ funding enough to provide for its 48,000 students adequately would have taken less than a 10 percent sliver from the police budget.
  • This is not just an urban problem. Rural towns are spending huge amounts on policing too. In Halifax County, Virginia, the 2020 sheriff’s office budgetis $3,195,594, plus nearly another $3 million for the jail. The recreation department and the library get $212,000 and $200,000 each. Taking just 1 percent of the police and corrections budget in Halifax County would multiply the budget for improvements at a local county park but a factor of eight. That’s a lot of swing sets and walking paths.
  • Oakland spends a more significant percentage of its budget on policing than any other city in America. In 2017, Oakland threw $242.5 million at policing. There are 50,000 students in the Oakland Unified School District. If you cut Oakland police spending by 20 percent, you could send every last kid in the district to a week of summer sleep-away camp.