We are number one. Again. Why?

Friday, May 27th, 2011 at 11:18 am by

On Wednesday, the U.S. Census Bureau released Public Education Finances: 2009, reporting on nationwide school district spending and revenues for 2008-09 school fiscal years.

Among the report’s findings:  New York ranks first among the states in per pupil spending.  Again.  Historically, we have typically ranked in the top three each year, and have been first for the past five years.

The New York Times focused on the finding stressed by the Census Bureau:  that increases in school spending had slowed in 2008-09.

The New York Post, on the other hand, contrasted the state’s rankings on spending and outcomes.

I am quoted in the Times’ story.

Discussing the reported slowing of spending increases, I said, “I think they are responding to economic and political realities.  There’s been this recognition that times are different.”

Much of what the reporter and I discussed was what has been happening with school spending in the time since 2008-09, the year covered in the Census report.

I stressed how the rate of spending increases has declined in each of the last three years, as reflected in this chart.

I also said that our members have been concerned for some time about the sustainability of education costs, particularly for pensions, health insurance, and special education, and given the loss of “turnover savings” in teacher salaries due to the cresting of retirements which had helped offset past overall cost increases.

Why does New York rank first?

One reason is that we are a high labor cost state in general.

Recent federal Labor Department data showed New York having the highest average weekly wages of any state. Education is labor-intensive.  So it should not be surprising that New York ranks high in education costs.  But is true that school costs are further above the national average than are overall weekly wages.

Another reason is that we do have some public schools which provide exceptional opportunities for students and there are costs for those opportunities.

New York routinely produces a disproportionate share of top competitors in the Intel Science Talent Search.  Nearly a third of the national semi-finalists in the 2011 competition attend public high schools in New York State.

Also, earlier this week, Newsday reported that “Two of every five public high schools on Long Island rank among the nation’s best in terms of giving students access to advanced courses, a new survey finds.”

Another report issued this week illuminates one of the other factors driving New York’s high education costs.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute (not affiliated with New York’s Fordham University) reported on Shifting Trends in Special Education.

The report finds that nationwide, the number and share of public school students with disabilities has declined since 2004-05.  But not in New York.  We ranked third among all states in special education identification rate (17.36 percent) having increased our identification rate by 2.05 percentage points between 2000-01 and 2009-10 — the fourth biggest increase of any state.

The Fordham report also found that we rank seventh among the states in the ratio of special education personnel to students with disabilities, and fourth in per pupil special education spending.

The implication of these last points is that, of the high overall per pupil spending reported by the Census Bureau, New York is spending a high share on special education.

The Census Bureau’s school finance report includes comparisons of per pupil expenditures by category.  New York ranks above the national average in most categories, but furthest above (239 percent), in benefits for instructional employees.

How schools can manage costs for special education and employee benefits are among our leading concerns with proposals to cap property tax increases.

Our estimates are that in each of the past two years schools cut all other costs on balance to fund pension and health insurance costs while holding down overall spending and tax increases.

On the Post’s cost/performance comparisons…

One of the points we have stressed is that any single measure — for costs or performance — oversimplifies reality.  New York is hugely complex, in ways positive and negative.

One recent report concluded that we have the widest disparities in spending between high and low poverty districts.

As noted above, we have some of the finest public schools in the nation.  We also need to improve high school completion rates, and to ensure that a high school diploma signifies that a young person is prepared to succeed in college or a career, and to go on learning.

Still, Education Week, the national newspaper of record in education, found New York to be a leader in several areas in its most recent annual “Quality Counts” report:

  • Percentage of students passing Advanced Placement classes – 3rd
  • Overall education policy and performance – 2nd
  • Raising graduation rates – 4th
  • Closing gap between low income and other students in 4th grade reading results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – 1st
  • Closing gap in 8th grade mathematics on the NAEP – 1st

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