Public elementary and secondary school spending in New York rose to $26,571 per pupil in 2020-21, according to the latest Census Bureau data—setting a new record high even as pupil performance was falling amid the disruption of in-person learning due to pandemic restrictions.

New York’s K-12 spending once again topped that of all states and the District of Columbia—fully 85 percent above the national average of $14,347 per pupil. In dollars-per-pupil terms, the education spending gap between the Empire State and the rest of the country has more than tripled over the past 20 years, as shown below.

As measured by federal data, New York’s $1,053 increase in per-pupil school spending over the 2019-20 level represented something of a pause in advance of massive state “foundation aid” increases to school districts, which began to flow the following year. With New York’s total public school enrollment continuing to decline, its K-12 education outlays have surged since 2021-22. New York’s latest school property report cards, covering districts outside the state’s five largest cities, point to spending levels of nearly $32,000 per pupil in 2023-24—and the big cities are likely to spend at least as much if not more.

The Census Bureau’s annual Elementary and Secondary Education Finance data for 2020-21 reflect a continuation of several long-standing patterns in New York school spending as compared to education finances in other states:

  • New York’s high spending level was driven primarily by instructional salaries and benefits—which, at $18,402 per pupil, were 111 percent above the national average of $8,728, the census data show. New York’s spending in this category (i.e., money in the classroom) exceeded the total per-pupil school spending of all but six other states and the District of Columbia.
  • In the category of “support services,” which measures the bureaucratic overhead of central district and school building administration, New York ranked sixth with spending of $7,713 per pupil, which was 49 percent above the national average. However, if New York had only spent the national average in the support category, it still would have ranked first in overall per-pupil spending among the 50 states—undercutting any claims that New York’s high spending is due simply to the administrative costs of maintaining nearly 700 school districts.
  • New York’s below-average increase in spending (4.1 percent compared to the U.S. average of 6.3 percent, lower than all but three states), mainly reflected the Cuomo administration’s decision to use a one-shot injection of $1.1 billion in federal CARES Act aid to temporarily finance a portion of the state school aid increase in 2020-21. Most other states appear to have used the CARES Act money to supplement rather than supplant their own funding in 2020-21.
  • Relative to personal income, New York’s elementary and secondary education spending of $47.95 per $1,000 ranked third, slightly behind Alaska and Vermont, about 40 percent above the national average by this measure.
  • Excluding charter schools, New York’s public elementary and secondary schools had 2.43 million pupils and spent nearly $70 billion on current operations in 2019-20—exceeded only by California, which spent about $83 billion on a public school system with 5.5 million pupils.
  • New York City’s spending of $29,931 per pupil was second highest among the nation’s 100 largest school systems, exceeded only by the much smaller Boston public school system at $31,397. Los Angeles, second only to New York City when measured by enrollment, spent $18,179 per pupil, and Chicago spent $18,216.

As shown in the comparative table below, New York State also continues to spend considerably more than neighboring northeastern states with similarly powerful public education lobbies and high living costs. On a per-pupil basis, New York’s public school expenditures in 2020-21 were 17 percent higher than Connecticut’s, 20 percent higher than New Jersey’s, and 30 percent higher than Massachusetts’.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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