The real reason New York is Number 1 in school spending

Last week, we wrote about how, once again, New York’s public schools topped the list of per pupil spending according to a United States Census Bureau report.

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.

It’s a great read and we thank Bob for the opportunity to re-post it. Give his blog a read when you have a chance, too. It’s chock-full of good information.

From Bob Lowry, The Council Blog:

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.

Mandate relief panel goes quietly

A special panel set up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2011 designed to examine local mandates and areas to save municipalities costs has ended with no proposals.

“There weren’t any proposals to the mandate relief council in the last year,” state Sen. Jack Martins told the Albany Times Union on Monday after speaking at the state Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials.

While some small relief efforts (including the relaxing of rules regarding purchases by school districts) were enacted, larger mandates such as the Wicks Law and Triborough Amendment were not addressed, according to the Times Union.

From the get-go, Cuomo was in charge of this panel. According to Capitol Confidential, the governor controlled the majority of appointments to the panel and according to the legislation, the council would conclude on Jan.12, 2015 or “upon departure of the fifty-sixth governor, whichever comes first.”

Groups across New York state have been pushing the governor for mandate relief since he entered office in 2011. In June, a statewide coalition of groups representing businesses, local governments and schools joined together to express their dissatisfaction with the lack of mandate relief and called for six efforts that if enacted, would have helped ease the financial burden on schools and municipalities. They included: including:

  • Freezing step increases when contracts expire
  • Controlling construction costs
  • Providing portable pension benefits
  • Redefining compulsory arbitration
  • Capping health insurance costs
  • Prohibiting new unfunded mandates

In the past, Cuomo has proposed initiatives that, on the surface, appear to benefit students, but have had the potential to become new un/underfunded mandates for schools. One example is the statewide universal full-day pre-kindergarten initiative. The state is investing $1.5 billion over five years, but many educational experts, including former education commissioner John King claim that such a program would cost at least that much to operate each year.

“If you want to get to true universality you’re probably talking on the order of about $1.6 billion a year,” King said in an interview after testifying before the joint Assembly-Senate budget hearing on education spending.

While mandates increase accountability and in many cases improve educational quality, they can also limit flexibility and affect how districts spend money. Mandates not only focus on the education, health and safety of students, but they also encompass a wide range of daily school operations. These include:

  • Annual Professional Performance Reviews for teachers and principals
  • Common Core Learning Standards adoption, implementation and realignment of existing curriculum
  • Special education mandates for Individualized Education Plans, specialized
    instruction by appropriately certified professionals and related service providers, a CSE chairperson, 504 plans and more. The state has at least 200 mandates beyond federal requirements
  • Transportation of students with disabilities to their programs (up to 50 miles); private
    school and charter school students (up to 15 miles); and homeless students to current or prior district (parental choice)
  • Availability of and staff training on using automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) in school facilities
  • Purchase of graphing calculators for students taking intermediate-level and high school math and science assessments
  • Maintenance of a health record (including dental health) for every student.
  • Required collection of students’ Body Mass Indexes, including screening for eating disorders, and reports on the information to the state Department of Health

If you think that’s a long list, check out this more extensive listing of New York state mandates.

You can learn more about mandates and mandate relief in our Mandate Monday series that we launched in 2012.

Get out and vote today

Ballot being slipped into voting boxAfter months of political attack ads, debates and candidate promises, Election Day is here.

When New York voters head to the polls today, in addition to candidates for office, they will decide on a $2 billion Smart Schools bond referendum that, if approved, would provide each school district with funding for new educational technology and infrastructure improvements that could also include classroom space for prekindergarten programs.

Each school district would receive an allocation of the $2 billion Smart Schools that is proportionate to the district’s share of total formula based school aid in the 2013-14 school year, excluding Building Aid, Universal Prekindergarten Aid, and the Gap Elimination Adjustment. For example, if a district receives 2.0% of total State school aid, the school district’s Smart Schools allocation would be $40 million (.02 * $2,000,000,000). You can click here for a calculator of how much your school district would be eligible to receive.

If you haven’t educated yourself on the issues, take the time to do so. An educated voter is a democracy’s best citizen. We here at Ed Speaks encourage you to vote and exercise your civic duty. People tend to forego voting in the midterm elections. Let’s change that today. Polls are open until 9:00 p.m. tonight.

Hudson Valley schools to stand up for fair funding Sept. 30

FF_rally14_for webAfter a successful advocacy campaign last fall, school districts in the Hudson Valley are at it again.

On Sept. 30, school leaders, boards of educations and community advocacy groups from districts in Orange, Sullivan, Ulster and Dutchess counties, will seek to get the attention of local legislators in the Hudson Valley region by holding an advocacy event aiming to do away with the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The Regional Advocacy Event: “Fair Funding for Our Schools”, will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Middletown High School in Middletown, NY. The event, sponsored by the Hudson Valley Committee for Fair Funding for Our Schools, will feature Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.

The GEA was first introduced for the 2010-11 fiscal year by then-Governor Paterson as a way to help close New York’s then $10 billion budget deficit. Under the legislation, a portion of the funding shortfall at the state level is divided among all school districts throughout the state and reflected as a reduction in school district state aid. The GEA is a negative number, money that is deducted from the aid originally due to the district. And it means that many school districts have a gaping hole in their budget due to this reduction in aid.

Since the introduction of the GEA, New York schools have lost $7.7 billion in state aid.

“We have a long way to go to guarantee our children’s education will be funded fairly and adequately,” a statement reads on the Fair Funding for Our Schools website. “…Our collective efforts will put politicians on notice that we are unified and we aren’t going away.”

All area parents, community members, taxpayers, educators, and business leaders are invited to attend the event.

If you are planning on attending on Sept. 30, you can connect with us on social media that night and tell us what is happening from your perspective. Tweet us your photos and updates – @edspeaksny, #NYSchoolsinPeril

Ed Speaks has a number of advocacy resources available for you. Check them out here.

New York state coalition presses for mandate relief

Back in 2011 at a meeting with the Business Council of New York State, Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy intimated that a renewed focus on mandate relief would be a point of emphasis for the Cuomo administration.

The administration convened a committee to examine state mandates, but its final report didn’t lead to any specific action.

Now, a statewide coalition of groups representing businesses, local governments and schools have joined with Dutchess County Executive Marcus J. Molinaro to express their dissatisfaction that despite a number of reports outlining the desperate need for mandate relief, state leaders again failed to enact any meaningful mandate relief measures prior to the close of the 2014 legislative session.

“With the increasing fiscal peril our schools and municipalities are facing, it is disappointing that the 2014 legislative session ended without advancing aspects of the Let NY Work agenda,” New York state director, National Federation of Independent Business Mike Durant said. “These sensible, yet critical reforms would reduce property taxes and fiscal flexibility our communities and schools need.”

The coalition is pushing six mandate relief efforts that if enacted, would help ease the financial burden on schools and municipalities, including:

  • Freezing step increases when contracts expire
  • Controlling construction costs
  • Providing portable pension benefits
  • Redefining Compulsory Arbitration
  • Capping health insurance costs
  • Prohibiting new unfunded mandates

Almost every state report that has been released on the topic of mandate relief for schools has outlined a series of recommendations on how to achieve such relief. Each report builds on those before it; however, very few of the proposals have actually been enacted. Instead, the New York State Legislature, governor and Board of Regents, as well as the federal government, often enact new mandates that school districts must follow.

More often than not, these new regulations come underfunded or unfunded—meaning that school districts must cut existing programs or pass on the cost to local taxpayers.

“While schools and local governments have faithfully abided by the property tax cap, state lawmakers have failed to fully honor their promise to unburden schools from tax cap-busting state mandates,” executive director of the New York State School Boards Association Timothy G, Kremer said . “We’ve gone through yet another legislative session and missed the opportunity for significant mandate relief. State lawmakers must do more to help schools save taxpayer dollars right now.”

Click here to read the full article. 

Public schools hurting more in recovery than in recession

Via Ben Casselman of While the nation is slowly recovering from the economic recession, public schools are facing growing financial concerns, due in large part to a decrease in federal funding, and an overall drop in school funding in 2012 – the first time that has occurred in 35 years.

Casselman explains that U.S. public schools weathered the recession relatively well because federal stimulus dollars helped to plug the funding gap, offsetting the decrease in state funding. But between 2010-2012, federal per-student funding decreased 20 percent and has continued to drop since then. From the piece:

“The cuts are increasingly hitting classrooms directly. In the recession and the early stages of the recovery, superintendents were largely able to protect instructional expenses such as teacher salaries by cutting from other areas, such as administration and maintenance. But that has become more difficult over time. In the 2011-12 school year, classroom spending fell faster than overall spending.”

According to the piece, urban districts have been hit particularly hard by the federal aid cuts. Nearly 90 percent of big-city school districts spent less per student in 2012 than when the recession ended in 2009.

“The cuts haven’t been evenly distributed. Most federal education aid targets two groups, low-income and special education students, who are overrepresented in urban school districts. As a result, urban districts have been hit harder by the recent cuts. (For the same reason, urban districts also disproportionately benefited from the stimulus.) Overall, 64 percent of the nation’s more than 14,000 school districts spent less per student in 2012 than in 2009, after adjusting for inflation. But 82 percent of urban districts cut funding; in cities with populations of 250,000 or more, 89 percent of districts cut funding.”

casselman-feature-schools-4New York public schools are all too familiar with this reality. Superintendents and school officials around the state have been outspoken with their displeasure of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, holding rallies and even taking their argument of funding discrimination to court. They’ve also expressed frustration with state’s tax levy cap.

Question: Are you surprised by how widespread the funding epidemic is?


Mohawk Valley residents stand together at “Fight for Our Valley Schools” education rally #NYSchoolsInPeril

Rally_ANew York state’s formula for funding schools is cheating Mohawk Valley students, and residents must demand a change.

That was the message delivered to almost 250 school board members, school employees, residents and students at the Fight for Our Valley Schools education rally sponsored by Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES on Thursday, March 6, at Herkimer College. Statewide School Finance Consortium Executive Director Rick Timbs, Herkimer Central School District Board of Education Vice-President Robert Mihevc and Herkimer Student Council President Daniel Adamek each delivered an impassioned message to the crowd painting a factual, but bleak picture of the plight facing the area’s schools.

“The truth is: You’re getting the short end of the stick,” Timbs told the audience.
Mihevc emceed the evening, welcoming attendees, introducing guests and offering his perspective of how state funding has negatively impacted his home district.

Throughout the evening, attendees texted friends and tweeted their support of the initiative.
After the event, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney spoke with many to listen to their concerns and to also encourage their involvement.

Numbers speak volumes

Timbs spoke for more than one hour, delivering a data-packed presentation that explained how New York’s school funding process deprives poorer schools of much-needed money while continuing to supplement the already strong academic and extracurricular programs of wealthier districts.

The problem begins with the simple fact that the Valley’s school districts lack the resources necessary to support their schools, he said. Using the state’s measure of a district’s wealth, the average New York school district is 1.1 times wealthier than Poland, the area’s wealthiest district, and 2.7 times wealthier than Central Valley, the area’s poorest district. He shocked the audience when he revealed that one New York school district is 52 times wealthier than the state average, making it more than 100 times wealthier than the average school in the Herkimer BOCES. Without sufficient resources to fully support their own schools, local districts rely more heavily on state aid than the average state school.

So, when the state began cutting school aid in 2009-10 to close the state’s budget deficit, it hurt Valley schools and its students worse than the average school. These cuts, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment or GEA, have totaled $42.1 million dollars over four years to the 10 Herkimer BOCES component school districts.

“If there wasn’t a GEA – if there wasn’t a cut – life would be a lot easier in schools,” Timbs said.

Timbs noted that the GEA hurts poorer schools more than it hurts wealthier schools because poorer districts lack a property tax base to make up for lost revenue. His data reveals that area schools would have to raise property taxes by 5 to 13 percent to offset revenue lost under the 2014-15 projected GEA, while wealthy districts would only need to raise taxes by less than 1 percent.

He also refuted claims that the schools will get more state aid than in past years as the state reduces the GEA. He explained that districts will receive more aid than last year, but still not as much as they were promised four years ago. According to Timbs, even the GEA restoration plan penalizes poorer districts. In 2013-14, the poorest districts received an additional $83 per pupil while the wealthiest districts received $220 per pupil.

Unable to further burden local taxpayers, local school districts have cut staff and program and spent their savings. He warned that districts can cut the same teacher once or spend their savings once; schools are running out of options.

Repeatedly, he asked the crowd if they were beginning to see a pattern.

More than state aid and the GEA

Timbs said two other state initiatives are crippling schools.

The tax levy limit, mistakenly called the 2 percent tax cap, takes even more money from Herkimer BOCES school districts.

“None of the districts in this auditorium can raise their budgets more than 1 percent and still stay within the (2014-15) 1.46 percent tax levy limit,” he said.

He also decried the unfairness of the STAR property tax exemption saying that the state has increased the exemption in wealthy districts. The increase lowers the taxes of those living in the state’s wealthier communities, despite the fact that these communities enjoy high incomes and schools with broad academic and extracurricular programs.

A call to action

Timbs closed by encouraging everyone to ask elected officials to end the GEA and to develop a school funding plan that ensures students in all areas of the state, regardless of community wealth, of the high quality education they deserve.

Herkimer High School Student Council President Daniel Adamek took the microphone to present a student perspective on school funding. During a special summer program in Vermont, he had the opportunity to meet with students from throughout New England. Those conversations led him to fully realize how little his school could offer compared to other schools.

He stood before the audience and recorded a brief video of himself saying, “Governor Cuomo, my name is Dan Adamek, and I have a message for you.” Then, he turned the video camera toward the audience who chanted in unison, “Save our schools, save our schools!”


He invited everyone to visit a newly launched, student-run website Students for Fair Funding at

“We must tell our government that quality education is a human right – not a privilege reserved for the rich,” Adamek said.

Click here to visit the Herkimer BOCES website and learn more about advocacy efforts that you can get involved in.

Tonight: Herkimer regional advocacy event

Tonight, school leaders, boards of education and community advocacy groups from districts in Herkimer, Fulton, Hamilton and Otsego counties, will participate in a regional advocacy event called “Fight for Our Valley Schools.”

The evening will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Herkimer College’s Robert McLaughlin College Center.

The event features guest speaker Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, who will explain how the state’s current funding formula is depriving the area’s students of the high quality education they deserve. Since the GEA’s inception, the state has withheld almost $43.7 million from the 10 component schools that make up Herkimer BOCES.

If you cannot attend in person, you can follow the event’s official Twitter account: @herkimerboces, or keep an eye on our Twitter account, @edspeaksNY, as we’ll be re-tweeting some of the highlights from the event.

AQE & the Campaign for Fiscal Equity find constitutional violations in study

During the week of February 24-28th, the Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a project of the Education Law Center, visited 14 school districts across the state to begin documenting educational resource deficiencies resulting from the state’s failure to meet its obligations under the New York State Constitution.

In a press conference yesterday afternoon, the two organizations released their findings, explaining that they found “substantial and compelling evidence” of failure by Gov. Cuomo and the legislature to provide the resources necessary for all students to receive a “sound, basic education,” as guaranteed by the New York constitution.

“Despite often extraordinary efforts by local school leaders and educators the State’s failure to provide adequate educational resources has impeded districts’ ability to provide all students a “sound, basic education,” a statement from AQE and CFE said.

From western New York to Long Island, AQE and CFE met with superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents who shared evidence regarding the educational impacts of the state’s under-funding of their schools. Among their findings:

  • Class sizes have risen to over 25 and in some cases over 30.
  • All of the school districts have cut staff in some cases as much as 20% — despite the fact that in many districts student enrollment has actually grown.
  • Some of the most dramatic cuts have been to academic interventions for students not performing at grade level including severe cuts to summer school and to state mandated tutoring.
  • School libraries have been closed, cut hours or have no librarians.
  • Guidance counselors are substantially overloaded and there is a shortage of social workers and school psychologists.
  • Some elementary schools offer no art or no music, foreign languages and elective courses have all been cut—with some districts replacing academic courses with study halls.

Click here to read the full report 

“The State’s school funding cuts are causing severe educational harm to New York’s school children, especially in high need, underfunded city and rural districts” Executive Director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity David Sciarra said. “The resource deficits in some districts are so palpably inadequate as to deprive children of their constitutional right to a sound basic education.”

With the two houses of the state legislature preparing their education budgets – to be voted on March 12 – AQE and CFE are preparing for a potential school funding lawsuit if the state does not live up to its constitutional obligation this year.

POV: The math just doesn’t add up #NYSchoolsInPeril

This Point of View was submitted by Queensbury Central School District superintendent Dr. Douglas Huntley and Board of Education president Raymond Gordon.

Points_viewFor New York’s public schools, the math does not add up: More than 70 percent of school districts, including Queensbury, are currently receiving less state aid than they did five years ago. Queensbury alone has lost $16 million in promised state aid since 2009-10. Now, the governor’s 2014-15 budget places new mandates on schools while maintaining an aid-reduction tactic known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

With state projections of a $2.2 billion surplus, it is time to make schools whole by honoring the government’s commitment to educating its children.

In recent years, school districts such as Queensbury had to cut personnel; reduce programs, services, reserves, fund balance; and increase class size to remain fiscally solvent. Additionally, the board limited the local tax levy increase to an average of 1.47 percent over the past five years. We have already lost 85 teaching, support staff and administrative positions. This cannot continue without serious deterioration to the quality of education.

The property tax cap came with promises of relief from the mandates driving up the cost of education. Unfortunately, mandate relief has yet to be realized in any significant way. In fact, the New NY Education Reform Commission appointed to examine issues related to education funding, among other things, actually proposed many initiatives, or mandates, similar to those proposed by the governor. While initiatives like pre-K and a $2 billion technology plan sound intriguing, it seems ill advised to spend huge amounts on new programs when existing programs must be cut due to inadequate state funding.

We call on the N.Y.S. Legislature to restore the funding lost to the GEA and to ensure any new education initiatives do not become more un/underfunded mandates for schools.

Raymond Gordon, President, Queensbury Board of Education
Douglas W. Huntley, Ed.D., Superintendent