Governor Cuomo is withholding 20 percent of state school aid allocations pending federal bailout negotiations. The decision has been met with alarm and objection from district leaders and New York teachers unions. Yet notably absent from pleas to maintain funding is any context for New York’s education spending.
Spending level comparisons cast doubt over warnings of looming calamity. Most significantly, if New York was a country in 2016—the most recent year for global education spending data—it would have boasted the highest per-pupil expenditure in the world, even after subtracting 20 percent of state aid.
Global comparison is instructive for context, as some might argue that domestic comparison lacks merit due to a national failure to properly invest in education. Indeed, “education reform” principled upon the notions that more money produces better outcomes and that education spending has declined in recent decades has become a rallying cry for progressive activists and their allies in the labor movement.
New York provides a counterpoint to linking expenditures to student achievement: Despite its highest-in-the-nation spending, the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) —popularly known as the nation’s report card—indicate that New York students fare no better or worse than the (unspectacular) national average in 4th or 8th grade reading or 8th grade math, but significantly lower than the national average in 4th grade math.
New York also belies the notion of underfunding. Data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reveal that if New York was a country in 2016, it would have spent more per pupil than any other. Luxembourg, the world’s leader on per-pupil K-12 spending and the world’s wealthiest country, would have fallen below New York’s spending by $2,000 per pupil. If New York schools had lost 20 percent of state aid that year, New York would have nevertheless surpassed all countries in per-pupil spending.
Meanwhile, New York would have expended 85 percent more than the G7 average of $11,100 per pupil and twice as much as Finland, a long-time union darling and reform model due to intensive teacher preparation and a comparatively modest focus on standardized testing.
Notably, the comparisons in the table above appreciably understate New York’s education spending relative to the rest of the globe. NCES data include capital outlays (e.g., construction or equipment) when estimating per-pupil expenditures by country. U.S. census data, however, do not include capital outlays when estimating per-pupil expenditures by state. In 2016, K-12 capital outlays in New York totaled $4.66 billion, or roughly $1,800 per student.
Stateside comparisons are no less gloomy. In the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent year with census data on education expenditures, New York spent $24,040 per K-12 pupil, almost doubling the national average of $12,612 and topping the next-closest state, Connecticut, by $3,405. That year, 39.6 percent of K-12 revenue in New York came from the state. If districts lost 20 percent of that revenue stream, per-pupil expenditures would fall to $22,136. In such a scenario, New York would still outspend Connecticut by 7.3 percent.
None of this is to say that districts can or will easily navigate a 20 percent reduction in state appropriations to schools. Sudden revenue drops challenge any organization. However, amidst a dire fiscal outlook facing New York, decision makers can look home and abroad for solutions to do substantially more with less.