New York public schools top the nation's class for costly failure

POLITICS: New York public schools top the nation’s class for costly failure

Gov. Hochul proposes to increase public-school funding by $825 million next year.

But school districts and the teachers union are angry because her budget would stop guaranteeing districts won’t get less funding than they did the year before — even if they are serving fewer students. 

“Why are we funding a program for kids who aren’t there?” Hochul rightly asked. 

New York’s public-school enrollment dropped by 180,000 from 2002 to 2020.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public schools lost another 160,000 students.

It makes sense to stop giving schools money for these students.

But the state Senate and Assembly would continue giving cash to districts for students no longer there.

New Reason Foundation research raises more questions about whether New York’s public schools effectively use their taxpayer funding.

The study found that between 2002 and 2020, before the massive infusion of federal COVID-19 aid for schools, New York led the nation in inflation-adjusted public-school spending, going from $18,054 to $30,723 per student.

Despite losing more than 6% of their students, the state’s public schools added thousands of new staff. 

Taxpayer money is increasingly shifted to pay these employees’ rising benefits, including pensions and health insurance: New York’s education-benefit spending grew by 141% from 2002 to 2020 and now costs the equivalent of $7,000 per student, the highest in the nation.

With such spending, parents and taxpayers might expect New York to have world-class public schools.

But its National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores barely budged from 2003 to 2019, ranking in the bottom half of states in the four reading and math assessments Reason Foundation examined.

Worst of all, the state’s fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores actually fell. 

The news was also bad for low-income students, whose scores stagnated.

New York’s low-income fourth graders ranked 41st in the country in math, behind students in states like Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia, where far less money is spent on public schools. 

New York’s poor returns on its K-12 education dollars show public-school funding doesn’t guarantee results.

How dollars are spent is more important, which Florida can offer a lesson on. 

The Sunshine State ranked 43rd in the nation in spending growth since 2002 and spent $19,000 per student less than New York in 2020 but still got impressive results, ranking in the top 10 for student improvement in all four NAEP exams. 

Not only that — Florida’s low-income fourth graders ranked first in the nation in both reading and math, fueled by large gains from 2003 to 2019.

A critical difference: Florida’s public schools must compete for students, while New York’s have little incentive to improve.

When Florida parents are dissatisfied with public schools, they can take their funding to a private school by participating in one of several school-choice programs. 

Around 1.7 million of Florida’s students — or nearly half of all K-12 students —  participate in some form of school choice.

There are more than 700 charter schools to choose from, and parents can enroll their children in any public school thanks to a robust open-enrollment policy, which allows students to transfer to any public school with open seats.  

In comparison, New York is one of only 18 states without a private school-choice program, and its charter-school law sets an arbitrary cap at 460 charters statewide. 

New York also has one of the most restrictive open-enrollment laws in the country and allows public schools to charge tuition to transfer students, effectively allowing wealthy suburban public schools to block low-income transfer students.

New York’s public schools receive more money per student than any other state.

Despite massive enrollment losses in recent years, Gov. Hochul’s plan would still boost overall state education funding by $825 million.

The only ones who should complain about public-education funding are students and parents, who aren’t getting nearly enough for what’s spent.

Aaron Garth Smith is director of education reform at Reason Foundation and author of the new study Public education at a crossroads: A comprehensive look at K-12 resources and outcomes.

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