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How Much Does the State Spend on Your Kid’s Education?

Quite a bit, according to a new report from the New York State Business Officials called “The Education Dollar.”

We know this. New York State’s per pupil expenditure historically toggles between first, second, and third place nationally. This year we’re #2, or $19, 529 per pupil, second to the District of Columbia which wins the prize at $20,530. (New Jersey is an also-ran in third place at $18,523; on the bottom rung is Utah at an implausible $6,432.) The average cost per pupil across the country is $11, 841,

But the report, which covers 2004-2014, gets into far more detail than simply per pupil costs, providing historical context, fiscal trends over the last decade, and analyses of the intersection of politics and school finance. Here are a few highlights.

  • During the academic year 2013-2014 the combined federal, state, and local resources spent on New York State’s 679 public school districts serving 3 million students (1.2 million in NYC) was $60 billion.That year per pupil spending was $21,812 per pupil, so spending has actually gone down.
  • “The disparity between high need and low need districts,” write the analysts,”has remained virtually unchanged over the last five years.”

In other words, districts that serve poorer students with greater needs still spend far less than districts with wealthier, less needy students. The average discrepancy is $5,541 per student, or 20%This kind of fiscal inequity, long-studied but ineffectively remedied, is at the heart of various efforts to fairly fund NYS’s schools and reflective of wealthy districts’ ability to compensate for low state aid through local property taxes. From the report:

  • “The considerable reliance on local funding results in large spending disparities among school districts, and has long been considered a school finance challenge to providing equal educational opportunities for all school children.”

The largest cost driver is teacher pension costs, which rose an extraordinary 181% over the recent decade studied in the report. The second biggest cost increase was tuition for special education students at specialized schools, which rose 94%. The rate of students classified as eligible for special education services didn’t change: it remained steady at 13%. However, while spending for general education rose 15% over the last six years, spending on special education grew 26%. As the analysts put it later in the report, schools spend two and a half times more on special education students than they do on general education students.

The third biggest cost driver was health care for teachers and other staff members, which rose 72%.

How does that cost per pupil break down?

  • “The education dollar is spent mostly on salaries of instructional staff, which together with their fringe benefits account for 77 percent of every education dollar. The remaining 23 percent is spent on operation and maintenance of school buildings(six percent), debt service for school construction (five percent), student transportation (five percent), non-instructional fringe benefits (three percent), central administration including board of education expenses (two percent) and other,including expenses for tuition of resident students attending other school districts (two percent).”

The report concludes by recommending that NYS “meet its constitutional and legal commitments to fund public schools” and to do it in a more equitable way. On the other hand, the analysts acknowledge that the biggest cost drivers — pensions, special education, health care — are state and federally-mandated. Perhaps, they suggest, money could be saved on transportation costs and construction. Hmm. Doesn’t seem much wiggle room there.

What do you think?

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