Emergency Billions Pose Opportunity—and Risk—for NYS Schools

New York schools—which already spend more per-student than any other state and roughly double the national average—are to post publicly today plans for spending a huge pile of unexpected and unbudgeted cash.

Many students exited the Empire State’s shuttered schools during the just-completed academic year, with enrollment falling a steep 3.4 percent. But an aggressive teachers’ union lobbying campaign helped secure a $1.4 billion increase in Foundation Aid in April’s enacted state budget. Statewide, voters in May approved an average 4.2 percent per pupil increase in the 2020-21 local school district budgets.

That means $11.7 billion in federal emergency spending earmarked for New York school districts is now free to be tapped for other purposes. The aid is intended to help schools and students bounce back from the pandemic. But how to use the new dollars to accomplish that is left to local school districts to decide, under the federal guidance.

Nearly all New York school districts are getting some of the emergency cash, which must be spent by 2024. But the federal formula divvying it up heavily targets low-income schools, whose budgets will temporarily balloon: The $7 billion going to New York City schools is more than 20 percent of the system’s annual budget. Buffalo’s $289 million award is 30 percent of its school budget. Specific allocations for every district in the state are available here.

New York students’ consistently mediocre results on national tests and highest-in-the-nation per-pupil spending indicate that higher performance is not directly correlated with higher spending. These federal dollars represent a rare chance to experiment boldly.

How should schools respond to the opportunity?

One thing for schools to avoid: creating new fixed costs that they can’t sustain once the temporary dollars are spent. The lion’s share of existing school spending is for salaries and benefits. A new position creates an entitlement expense—including annually recurring health insurance and pension costs—which will endure long after a teacher or administrator has retired. Such benefit costs are rising as a share of school budgets as enrollments continue to steadily decline.

Nevertheless, earlier this week Niagara Falls City School Superintendent Mark Laurrie reportedly told the Buffalo News the district expects to use the aid to hire 51 new staff.

“It’s a great time to be an education major,” Superintendent Laurrie told the paper.

No doubt it is. But there is a better way for school districts to target the funds, at least 20 percent of which are to be used, “to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions.” It’s what parents with means did to prevent learning loss during the pandemic: hire private tutors.

Normally, it would be prohibitively expensive to layer the cost of mass tutoring atop existing school spending. But the Utica City School District, e.g., has $8,000 per student in one-time dollars to spend. That buys a lot of tutoring, which is, “among the most effective education interventions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation,” according to a recent paper authored by scholars at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute who argue that high dosage (three or more sessions per week) tutoring is the best way to address pandemic-related learning loss. Schools can enlist both existing staff and private tutors (who need not be certified classroom teachers) to start working with students this summer, to better prepare them for the fall.

This approach wouldn’t require new full-time positions, and it may not best suit newly minted education majors. But it would give public school students the best shot at making up the ground they lost due to school closures.

Tutoring is just one way to experiment without creating unfunded future cost burdens for school budgets. Stay tuned to these pages for more.

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