ALBANY — New York state has hit a new benchmark in education spending, reaching an average per-pupil cost of $23,091 in 2017 according to the latest census data.

That’s closing in on twice the national average, even as the number of students is falling.

The data was highlighted this week by the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank that has long pointed to the state’s high education costs, which is a major burden for homeowners. “The education spending gap between New York and the rest of the U.S. has grown considerably wider overall,” noted E.J. McMahon, the Empire Center’s founder and research director.

New York’s per-pupil spending was 45 percent above the national average in 1997. As of 2017 it was 89 percent higher.

The latest numbers also come as local school district budgets, with a few exceptions, were  approved by voters on Tuesday.

Statewide, 98.4 percent of the state’s school districts passed their budgets, according to the state School Boards Association.

As voters have gotten used to the state’s property tax cap, which was passed in 2011, school budget passage rates have been high. The cap is 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. There are exemptions to the cap, however, such as capital or employee pension costs. Schools this year proposed average tax levy increases of 2.5 percent.

“This is not surprising, given that school boards proposed budgets that largely updated and strengthened educational programming, all while proposing very modest tax levy increases,” Tim Kremer, executive director of the School Boards Association said.

The Empire  Center noted that New York’s overall K-12 student population has fallen from its most recent peak of 2.9 million students in the 1999-2000 school year to an estimated 2.6 million this year. While there are pockets of growth in some cities and downstate, that isn’t enough to counter the sharp drops through much of upstate.

New York’s education spending in 2016 was almost $64 billion for 2.6 million pupils. By comparison, California spent $76 billion for 6.2 million pupils.

The biggest chunk of spending in New York is salaries and benefits, averaging $16,113 per pupil, or 117 percent above the national average of $7,406.

Much of the growth in spending is in salaries and other personnel costs, which for unionized school employees typically entails built-in longevity raises. Rising employee health insurance rates also have been cited as a cost driver.

Other studies have illustrated the rising trend as well. According to the Citizens Budget Commission, a spending watchdog group, overall school district revenues between 2006-07 and 2016-17, increased $20 billion, which was 41 percent. That was twice the inflation rate.

On a per-pupil basis, almost all of the state’s districts have gotten more money since 2007 with some getting as much as 183 percent more.

© 2019 Times Union

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

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