Predictably, the public reaction was negative. And why wouldn’t it be? When a report just presents the figures and doesn’t dive into the reasons why New York is in such a unique financial position compared to the other 49 states, you get narrowed view of reality.
Fortunately, Bob Lowry, Deputy Director for Advocacy Research & Communications for the New York State Council of School Superintendents (quite the title, Bob) is paying attention.
In a recent post on his Council Blog, Lowry details that there’s more to New York’s spending than meets the eye, including such factors as how labor-intensive education is, the value New Yorkers place on public services, and the reality that if you want extraordinary opportunities for students, it’s going to cost money.
Today, the Empire Center for Public Policy reported on new Census Bureau data finding that, once again, New York leads the nation in per pupil spending on its public schools.
Seldom does anyone stop to ask why New York schools spend at the levels they do.
One reason is that New York is part of a high cost region. All but two of the top ten per pupil spending states are located in the northeastern quarter of the nation.
Related, New York is high cost in many things, not just education.
For example, New York has the third highest average weekly wages for all workers, trailing two other northeastern states (Connecticut and Massachusetts). Education is labor intensive; if labor costs are high in general, it should be no surprise that education spending would be high.
In contrast to other economic sectors, unionization is nearly universal in New York public schools. Unions exist to protect and improve employee compensation. A 2012 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranked New York in the top tier of state on teacher union strength and first in teacher union resources and membership
A second reason for New York’s high education spending is that New Yorkers do value public services, not just public schools.
For example, New York has far more state park sites than any other state and is third in total state park acreage, behind Alaska and California – not including the Adirondack Park.
Despite a large private higher education sector, New York maintains two of the nation’s largest public university systems – the State and City Universities of New York.
New York ranks third in total state and local government spending per capita, behind two sparsely populated western states (Alaska and Wyoming).
Third, another way to answer the question, “why is New York’s education spending higher than other states?” is to look at the composition of spending.
In general, New York employs more staff and pays them better than other states – at least partly for reasons described below. But New York’s cost for employee benefits is especially high: per pupil spending on benefits for instructional employees is 169 percent above the national average. The two major benefit expenses are for pensions and health insurance. The number of employees and extent of benefits contribute to these costs.
But another factor in benefit costs is that New York makes a stronger effort than most states to assure appropriate funding of pension obligations. Pensions and Investments ranked New York’s Teachers Retirement System one of the nation’s top 10 pension funds, public or private. New York ranks among the top 10 states in funding ratios for its retirement systems.
In contrast, New Jersey has habitually underfunded its pension system, skipping payments altogether in at least four years since 2001. New Jersey has been charged with fraud by the Securities Exchange Commission for misleading bond investors about funding of its pension obligations. So has Illinois.
Fourth, citing a statewide average masks as much as it reveals. New York is home to public schools that provide truly extraordinary opportunities and those opportunities are expensive.
Niche, an education review website, recently reported on the nation’s best public school districts – eight of the top 10 are located in New York.
Year after year, New York public schools account for a quarter to a third of the national semi-finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition which honors high school students undertaking sophisticated research projects.
On the other hand, New York ranks poorly on some measures of equity in school finance. New York is one of 10 states receiving a grade of F from the Education Law Center for education funding relative to student poverty – the ratio of per pupil spending in high versus low poverty schools.
Fifth, it’s worth asking who decides how much should be spent on schools. It is not solely school board members, superintendents, and school business officials who decide, and there is no evidence in any event that those leaders are less competent or more covetous than counterparts in other states.
Outside the “big five” cities, school budgets are approved by voters. Since the advent of the statewide budget voting day in 1998, voters have approved an average 92 percent of school budgets on the first vote. Surveys routinely show New Yorkers opposing School Aid cuts and prioritizing support for schools.
Finally, state policy plays a role in determining how much schools cost to operate. New York has rules not found in other states and they drive costs.
No other state has a Wicks Law requiring multiple prime contractors on public construction projects or a “Scaffold Law” making employers essentially automatically liable when a construction worker is injured on the job, even in cases of personal negligence. New York also has more extensive special education mandates than most states.
No state we have found has a mandate exactly like New York’s Triborough Law which provides that all provisions of an expired collective bargaining agreement remain in place until a successor agreement is negotiated.
Other states assure benefits are continued if a collective bargaining agreement expires – a reasonable accommodation given prohibitions against strikes by public employee unions. But no other state we have found assures continuation of “step” increases – automatic increases in pay tied to years of service. The cost is more than just in pay increments. The assurance of automatic pay increases even under expired contracts undermines districts in attempting to negotiate cost saving changes to labor agreements.
Most mandates have some merit, but all have costs – in money, time or both. Assign someone a project, attach conditions to how they may perform the work, and those conditions will affect the outcome.
Keeping all current school mandates in place and complaining about school costs is like tying a person’s shoes together, then complaining he or she doesn’t run fast enough.
Ultimately the task for both school leaders and state officials is to produce the learning opportunities our students need with the resources our taxpayers can afford. That work requires honesty about the factors that influence the cost of providing those opportunities.