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Editorial: An unequal spending equation on education

It comes as no surprise, but it’s worth taking a moment to note it, anyway: In 2017, New York’s public school spending hit a high of $23,091 per student, more than any other state and 89% higher than the national average.

For that cost, state residents got education outcomes that were decidedly OK. The Big Five districts – Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York – are still having significant difficulties, but in 2018, about 80% of public school students in New York graduated on time, according to the State Education Department. Of the 50 states, U.S. News & World Report ranked New York in 22nd in educational quality. It could – and should – be better.

But here’s the thing: When the state consistently spends that much more than everybody else, and when the gap between New York’s spending and the national average continues to widen, don’t the state’s students and overburdened taxpayers have a right to expect something much better than not so bad? And if they don’t get that, don’t they have a right – and a responsibility – to demand answers?

That’s where New Yorkers are today. The problem is worse today than it was last year and, if past is prologue, will surely be worse again next year. It’s an educational version of a perpetual motion machine.

Several factors contribute to New York’s educational conundrum. Primary among them is that the State Legislature and governor – it doesn’t seem to matter of which party – annually boasts about the new year’s significant increase in school funding, without regard to the fact that other states do as well or better while spending less and without any reliable measurements to ensure that the money is producing results.

Education is complex, especially in a city like Buffalo, where poverty is endemic and where large refugee populations require special attention. That makes it expensive and in an increasingly competitive world, few would argue that New York would be better off by cheaping out on preparing today’s young people to be tomorrow’s productive citizens. It’s an obligation most people take seriously, even if we complain about the costs.

The problem occurs when costs grow out of proportion to comparable states and to the results they produce. That’s the case in New York.

As a new report from the conservative Empire Center shows, the education spending gap has grown ever wider over the past 20 years. Spending in New York was 45% higher than the national average in 1997, 65% higher 10 years later and 89% higher in 2017. That’s unsustainable, as the state’s out-migration demonstrates.

While New York’s population has crept up every 10 years since 1980 – though never by more than 0.62% and recently by only 0.07% – it is growing more slowly than other states. The consequence is that, over recent censuses, both Texas and Florida have surpassed it in population, reducing New York’s congressional representation.

It’s hard not to believe that school taxes contribute to that phenomenon. As more New Yorkers decamp for less costly precincts, those who remain are left to pay an ever-rising tax burden. It’s also among the reasons that student populations are declining, a fact that contributes to the state’s increasing per-pupil education costs.

Some of this problem is driven by the undertow of New York City, where costs are severely higher than in Western New York. The city spent $25,199 per pupil in 2017, driving up the state average. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting, the city is at least getting some bang for its buck: Graduation rates and test scores are higher than they are here.

It’s hard to make spending go down anywhere, but especially in New York, where politics is driven by special interests, including teachers unions. We get that. And we don’t want to be Alabama, which spends less per pupil than most states and placed 50th in the U.S. News survey.

But New York needs to stop bragging that it has once again increased education spending by record amounts when it doesn’t seem to help much. Instead, it should focus on ensuring that parents, taxpayers and – oh, yes – students are getting what they should from that spending.

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