A lesson in school spending: Hochul has a sound plan for a fairer system

New York State’s public education spending is tops in America at $26,571 per pupil, which is $12,224 more than the national average. That average — which, in case you haven’t noticed, doesn’t buy uniformly exemplary education for the kids across the Empire State — glosses over big differences between wealthy districts, which can afford to pump local property taxes into their schools, and less wealthy ones.

Last year, a Newsday analysis put the average per pupil spending on Long Island at more than $36,000 per student. New York City’s average is around $38,000 per student, in part because of a high number of kids here with special needs, including some who go to private schools on the public dime.

In her $233 billion budget, Gov. Hochul suggests modest changes to state education funding. Even as school aid under her budget proposal would grow by 2.4%, or $825 million, adjustments would calculate inflation-based increases differently and eliminate a “hold harmless” rule that guarantees no district will get less aid than it did in previous years, even if enrollment declined. According to one analysis, more than 300 of 700 districts would see their state funds go down under the new math.

Cue rabid resistance from teachers unions, of course, and legislators of both parties, who can’t countenance a cut of a penny from Albany, not even in wealthy districts where high home values and high property and school taxes can easily afford to pour millions of dollars into their local schools and where superintendents have astronomical salaries. And with those resources, those kids are doing well on achievement.

One inconvenient truth they refuse to reckon with is that enrollment is declining across the state. As recently as the 2017-18 school year, there were nearly 2.5 million kids in traditional public schools across New York. By 2021-22, that total had fallen below 2.3 million, as charter school enrollment and homeschooling grew. Families are voting with their feet.

A second inconvenient truth is that though the state’s Foundation Aid school funding formula is indeed progressive, sending less money to wealthier districts and more to poorer ones, wrinkles in the laws make it so that high-income districts often wind up getting more than need or fairness alone would dictate.

A 2022 analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission found that the state “directs $3.1 billion to 176 districts that already fund a sound basic education with local and regular federal resources,” and “another $10.5 billion is provided to districts in amounts exceeding what is needed to fund a sound basic education.”

Put another way, Albany already helps the rich get richer, so nobody should be caterwauling about minor fixes to funding formulas at a time when state budget gaps are on track to grow to nearly $10 billion by fiscal year 2028.

A last inconvenient truth is that state school aid has risen dramatically the last two years, with education spending now up to its highest level in state history. That’s despite those ongoing declines in enrollment.

No serious state budget can ignore the rising cost of Medicaid or education spending, which together account for more than half of all spending. Rather than picking apart the governor’s limited plans to tame those costs, legislators should offer their own ideas to ensure that tax dollars go where they’re needed — and not where they’re not. We won’t hold our breath.

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