Using the case of education, we consider how global cultural and economic forces affect national education spending policies. Our analysis includes both an historical analysis of the construction and transformation of ideas about education at the global level and a statistical assessment of the implementation of conflicting approaches to state education funding within countries. In the historical analysis, we show how the idea of free education, although institutionalized in international law, was subject to powerful challenges from international financial institutions, which advocated user fees for public services, including education. Ultimately, the principle of free education prevailed despite the financial clout behind the opposing view. Using data from poor- and middle-income countries from 1983 to 2004, we also show that the presence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) advocating child rights was linked to an increase in the levels of state funding for education. This suggests that embeddedness in global discourses, as evidenced by country-specific linkages to INGOs, is critical in making governments more accountable for supporting institutionalized ideas concerning education.