Disputes over public education funding have long dominated New York State’s annual budget process. Urban school districts serving large disadvantaged populations claim they don’t get a fair share of state aid, while more affluent suburbs seek more state funding to offset their property taxes.

Upstate and down, rich and poor, districts of all types and sizes demand the same thing from Albany: more. Preferably much more.

By national standards, however, all New York school districts are well funded. In fact, in the nation’s PreK-12 financial race to the top, the Empire State has been opening a larger lead in recent years. This paper uses the most recent federal data to compare broad measures of public school spending in New York and other states—and to point to likely explanations for the differences.

Overview

As of 2014-15, New York led all states with PreK-12 spending of $21,206 per pupil —86 percent above the US average, according to Census Bureau data (see chart on page 2). The school spending gap between New York and the national average has widened considerably over the past 20 years, as shown below. This trend accelerated during the Great Recession, when state and local tax revenues were plummeting across the country. From 2007-08 to 2014-15, New York’s per-pupil spending increased 24 percent, which was more than double the national post-recession average.  

ever-upward-8261101

race-to-top2-5261427

New York’s public elementary and secondary schools spent about $59 billion to educate 2.6 million pupils in 2014-15. This was exceeded only in California, where public schools spent about $66 billion to educate 6.2 million pupils.1 Texas schools spent $44 billion to educate 5 million pupils, roughly twice New York’s enrollment.

New York has nearly 700 local school districts—the fourth most of any state. But census data show that the administrative costs associated with a large number of districts is not a major factor driving the difference in spending. In the category of “support services,” including central and school administration, New York ranked seventh with spending of $5,972 per pupil, which was 49 percent above the national average. But if New York had only spent the national average in the support category, it still would have ranked second among states in overall per-pupil spending (trailing only sparsely populated Alaska, which is fundamentally incomparable on this scale).

New York’s exceptionally high school spending is driven mainly by instructional salaries and benefits—which, at $14,769 per pupil, were 114 percent above the national average of $6,903 in 2014-15. New York’s per-pupil spending in this category—which measures total compensation only for staff interacting directly with pupils in the classroom, including teachers and teacher aides—was greater than the total PreK-12 spending of 42 other states. The 70 percent share of New York’s total school spending flowing to instructional salaries and benefits was the highest of any state’s, well above the national average of 61 percent. New York’s cost is exceptionally high because, as shown in the following table, the state combines the nation’s highest average teacher’s salary and relatively high staffing levels (reflected in a well-below-average average pupil-teacher ratio).

salary-ratios-3805062

distro-1965710

The table above compares spending by 678 New York districts to the distribution of spending totals reported in Census Bureau data for 13,459 school districts across the country. As the distributional breakdown shows:

  • All 678 New York school districts not only spent more than the national average but ranked within the top two spending quintiles—i.e., the upper 40 percent of 13,459 districts nationally.
  • The vast majority of New York school districts qualified for the nation’s top-spending quintile—meaning they spent more than 80 percent of all U.S. school districts.
  • Nearly one-third of New York’s school systems ranked among the highest-spending 5 percent.

Even New York’s lowest-spending school system (the General Brown district, in Jefferson County) spent 6.4 percent more per pupil than the national average. At the other extreme, 213 New York districts spent at least twice the U.S. average. (A complete list of New York districts’ per-pupil spending as reported in Census data can be viewed and sorted here.

Conclusion

Are New Yorkers getting education results commensurate with their education spending? Given the notorious lack of comparability among performance indicators for different states, that’s a hard question to definitively answer. However, there is scant evidence that New York’s schools on the whole produce dramatically better results. For example:

  • In the category of PreK-12 Educational Achievement, New York schools were assigned a grade of C- by Education Week’s 2017 “Quality Counts” report card on all 50 state systems.
  • In 2015, New York fourth and eighth graders scored at roughly the national average on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading tests. New York’s eighth grade NAEP mathematics scores also were close to the national norm—but its fourth grade math scores were below average.2
  • New York’s participation-adjusted average College Board SAT score ranked 23rd as of 2016.3

As debates and disputes over New York school funding continue—highlighted in a pending lawsuit challenging the “adequacy” of state funding for Syracuse and New York City4—the national data at least provide a broader perspective and a reality check on the issue.

Endnotes

  1. Public charter school enrollment and funding not included in any of the figures cited here.
  2. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/
  3. http://blog.prepscholar.com/average-sat-and-act-scores-by-stated-adjusted-for-participation-rate
  4. Miriam Aristy-Farar v. State of New York, https://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/Decisions/2017/Jun17/Jun17.html

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

You may also like

More Spending, Fewer Kids: Mapping NY School Budget Proposals

New York school districts are seeking voter approval of budgets that would raise their per-pupil spending by an average of more than four times t Read More

Excelsior Illusion

NY's Excelsior Scholarship program is regressive and wasteful Read More

New York public school enrollment: back to early 1990s, and still falling

When public schools across the Empire State open their doors for school year 2019-20, pupil enrollment will be at its lowest level in at least 30 years. Read More

Tax cap offers strongest shield to NY’s poorest school districts

Over the past seven years, New York’s cap on local property tax levies has generated billions of dollars in savings for homeowners and businesses, compared to previous trends. The cap has been especially effective in restraining school property taxes, which have long been the largest and fastest-growing component of New York’s tax burden. Read More

New York public school enrollment: back to 1989-90 levels, and still falling

When public schools across the Empire State open their doors for 2018-19, pupil enrollment will be at its lowest level in nearly 30 years. Read More

School Districts Pushing the Limit, 2018-19

Nearly half of the 669 school districts seeking voter approval for budgets on Tuesday, May 15 are presenting spending plans that would increase property taxes as high as the 2011 property tax cap law allows, according to an analysis released today by the Empire Center for Public Policy. Read More

Rebooting Smart Schools

The Smart Schools grant-making process has been sluggish and haphazard, reflecting the program’s overly broad standards and goals. Read More

School Districts Pushing The Limit

Nearly half of the 669 school districts seeking voter approval for budgets on Tuesday, May 16 are presenting spending plans that call for increasing property taxes as high as the 2011 property tax cap law allows, according to an analysis released today by the Empire Center for Public Policy. Read More

Subscribe

Sign up to receive updates about Empire Center research, news and events in your email.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Empire Center for Public Policy
30 South Pearl St.
Suite 1210
Albany, NY 12207

Phone: 518-434-3100
Fax: 518-434-3130
E-Mail: info@empirecenter.org

About

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.