A new reward for school failure?

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

roosevelthsThe Yonkers school district will be the first to get a special added state aid handout from a $100 million “Upstate Distressed Schools Fund” announced over the weekend by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Assuming the fund is approved as a supplemental appropriation in some end-of-session bill provision (which, as of this morning, had yet to surface), Yonkers will get enough money to close a $28 million budget gap that would otherwise force mass layoffs and program cuts, according to school officials. The specific sum earmarked for Yonkers was not specified in the governor’s press release.

The new dollop of state cash for cities with large numbers of officially designated “failing” schools will come on top of the $75 million already targeted to the state’s worst-performing school districts in a 6.1 percent school aid increase as part of the 2015-16 state budget.

Yonkers is actually a good example of why such a program is questionable: it not only has multiple failing schools—it also managed to make a $55 million “accounting error” (as state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins described it), which was discovered a year ago. If you bungle your educational mission and your bookkeeping, it seems, you are extra special.

But it’s not as if public schools in the City of Gracious Living have been shortchanged:

  • Yonkers ranked seventh in spending among the nation’s 500 largest public school districts as of 2013, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The Yonkers total of $18,934 per pupil was 77 percent above the national average, behind only Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth, New Jersey; Boston, Massachusetts; and Rochester and New York City.
  • Yonkers public schools look under-funded only when compared to New York’s $19,818 per pupil statewide average, which is swollen by higher spending in New York City and, especially, in extraordinarily well-funded downstate suburban districts. Yonkers is the lowest-spending school system in Westchester, where other districts spent an eye-popping average of more than $26,000 per pupil in 2013, as measured by the Census Bureau. But other Westchester districts finance schools mainly with much higher local property taxes than those levied by Yonkers, a “fiscally dependent” school district in a city that—unique among all New York jurisdictions outside New York City—has its own resident income tax.
  • With about 17 percent of Westchester County’s public school district enrollment, Yonkers will collect 37 percent of all the state school aid directed to Westchester schools in the coming school year ($262 million)—not counting the new special aid of (presumably) at least $28 million announced by Cuomo.
  • Yonkers is more than competitive when it comes to teacher compensation. As of 2013-14, the median Yonkers teacher salary of $119,064 was seventh highest out of the 99 Mid-Hudson region districts reporting salary data to the State Education Department. The salary for Yonkers teachers in the lowest pay quintile, $76,660, also ranked seventh.

In announcing the “upstate” program at Yonkers City Hall, Cuomo said:  “Yonkers has a crisis in education — that is clear. We will fix this problem for this year.”

However, while added cash will plug the city’s school budget deficit (temporarily), it should be clear by now that more money alone won’t solve the bigger educational quality problem in Yonkers or other “distressed” New York cities.

As Cuomo himself pointed out in his 2015 State of the State message:

The education industry’s cry that more money will solve the problem is false. Money without reform only grows the bureaucracy.

He had it right the first time. It will be interesting to see whether the appropriation language for the distressed schools fund will contain any reform stick to go with the added financial carrot.



- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.