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New York’s schools need to spend better, not just throw more money at a system in crisis

It’s not about the money. Not in New York, not in Buffalo, not at this point. An ocean of cash is sloshing around in the state’s education system, enough to teach its students many times over. The problem is in how New York schools spend their enormous wealth.

Figures released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau give New Yorkers a head-smacking new look at what most of them already knew: New York’s per-pupil spending is far and away the nation’s highest. And, as other figures show – especially for big cities like Buffalo, Rochester and New York – neither students nor taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. They should be able to pay far less for far better results.

According to the census report, New York’s annual per-pupil cost of education is $19,818, nearly double the national figure of $10,700. Utah spends only $6,555. New York doesn’t have to aim to be the lowest – and given the high costs of everything in New York City, it wouldn’t even be possible – but it is fair to expect the state at least to be in shouting distance of the national average.

Not surprisingly, the state’s big cities lead the pack in per-pupil spending. Rochester and New York City, at $20,333 and $20,331, respectively, spend even more than the state average while Buffalo comes in just below, at $18,733 per student in 2013 – fifth-highest in the country.

Yet, the 2012-13 graduation rate for New York was just 76.8 percent compared to Utah’s 83 percent. That is to say, New York spent three times per student what Utah did while producing a graduation rate that was 7.5 percent lower.

Yes, there are notable differences among the states, including the percentage of students in urban schools, the diversity of the student populations and the number of English language learners. There is bound to be a gap in education costs in the states.

But this isn’t a gap, it’s a canyon, and New York’s overburdened taxpayers have no requirement to consider it as inevitable or even acceptable. Something has to change.

The likely reasons for the vast difference in costs clearly go far beyond issues such as population diversity, and include the high number of school districts in the state, labor laws that value union members over students and, at least in Buffalo’s case, leadership that veers between dysfunctional and incompetent.

The state’s enormous costs also show that the chronic complaints of underfunding by the state are off base. Even though the level of state funding declined when the Great Recession took hold, the fact is that New York’s schools are awash in money.

Funneling ever-increasing amounts of dollars to them to perpetuate the same broken system isn’t the solution to improving education in the state. If it were, New York’s graduation rates would be by far the nation’s highest, its students better prepared for college than any other state’s. But it isn’t so.

The answer is to restrain growth in spending and figure out how best to direct the money that is already available. The system is leaking. New York needs to find out where the steam is escaping and then figure out how to recapture and redirect it. That’s how to ensure that New York’s students get the education to which they are entitled and that its overburdened taxpayers get better value for the huge amount of money they are forced to pump into a broken system.