Before Voting on the School Budget, Download This

The U.S. Census Bureau has released its education finance data for the 2005-2006 school year, with information available on revenues by source and expenditures by type for every school district in the United States. I’ve summed this information to create totals for the United States, New Jersey, New York State, the Downstate Suburbs, Upstate New York, and New York City, divided the totals by the number of students to get per student figures, adjusted the per student figures for the cost of living for the higher cost Downstate and New Jersey areas, and adjusted 2002 data for inflation for a comparison with 2006. The data is in two attached spreadsheet, one a summary by broad areas with a comparison with FY 2002, and the other with data for every school district in New York State in 2006. I suggest that New York State residents outside New York City download these spreadsheets, look them over, and think about them before voting on their school budgets.

When I first started compiling public finance data many years ago, what stood out was how low New York City’s elementary and secondary school spending was, as a share of the income of its residents, despite very high local taxes. As will be described briefly below and in more detail in the next post, however, New York City was already spending plenty of money in FY 2006 based on the national average, even before the “historic” (in ex-Governor Spitzer’s words) increases in state school aid over the past two years. High by national standards, the city’s spending remains far lower than in other parts of the state. That, however, is not because the city’s school spending is low, but because spending elsewhere in New York State — already high a decade ago — is now unreasonably high. So high, in fact, that one wonders what share of the money is actually going to education. Unreasonably high spending elsewhere in the state, rather than low spending in New York City, is now the biggest education finance problem for New York.

First a few notes in on the spreadsheets. In the “Census 2006 School Finance All Unit Output” spreadsheet, the data as originally downloaded from the U.S. Census Bureau is to the right, in thousands of dollars. To the left, the dollar values are divided by the number of students, also provided by the Census Bureau, to create per-student figures. The totals for the United States and New Jersey were created by summing the school districts in those areas together, and converting the totals from formulas to values so the data for the thousands of individual school districts could be deleted. The individual school districts and formulas remain for New York State, the Downstate Suburbs (Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Nassau, Suffolk), and Upstate New York (New York State minus New York City and the Downstate Suburbs). Following rows of data for these broad areas, and the four large dependent school systems outside New York City, data is provided for all school districts in New York State in county order. Thus, all the school districts in Albany County start the list, while those in Yates County end it.

For any row with an “*,” the actual figures have been adjusted downward for the cost of living to make them comparable with the national average. Education is a labor-intensive field, with the cost of labor accounting for virtually all of the cost of education. Because both general wage levels and the cost of living are significantly higher in Downstate New York and New Jersey than the national average, one cannot expect to hire teachers of equal motivation and quality at a national average wage rate there. As in the past, I have adjusted for this based on the average annual private sector pay per worker, excluding the high-paid Finance and Insurance industry in Manhattan, using data provided by the Bureau of Economic analysis (the 2006 data was released April 24th). Excluding Wall Street, the average private sector worker earned $60,016 in Downstate New York, $56,157 in New Jersey, and $45,682 in the United States. (Upstate New York was lower than the national average at $38,827). As a result, compared with the national average a dollar spend on education in Downstate New York is marked down to 76 cents, and a dollar spent in New Jersey is marked down to 81 cents. All per student figures for every school district in the Downstate New York have already been adjusted for this.

Because the formulas have been left so people can see them, any movement of the data (taking the data out for particular school districts or sorting school districts from high spenders to low) will wreck the information. The formulas behind the per-student figures should be converted to values before doing anything like that (copy, paste special, values).

The “Census Public School Finance Per Student FY02 FY 06” spreadsheet, which prints on two pages, shows data just for the broader regions, but with a percent and dollar value change from FY 2002 to FY 2006.

As the data shows, New York City’s total expenditure per child was $17,591 in FY 2006, or 61% higher than the national average of $10,918. Even adjusted for the higher cost of living here per child spending was $13,389 in New York City, or 22.6% higher than the national average. While I am in favor of investing in education, and believe that New York City has to spend more to make up for the educational support so many of its children don’t get at home (in addition to spending and paying more to account for the cost of living), that was enough. Enough that if any New York City child who shows up regularly does not get an education as good or better than anywhere in the country, it is because city residents are being ripped off by those controlling the government, not because there isn’t enough money. Particularly since New York City’s non-instructional spending is, and always has been low. New York City’s instructional spending per child, at $8,679 after adjustment for the cost of living, was 56.3% higher than the national average ($5,552), and about as high as the adjusted Downstate Suburbs ($8,676) or Upstate New York ($8,555). The instructional employees — the teachers and principals — now have all the money they ought to need.

If New York City had enough, perhaps more than enough, what is one to say of other parts of New York State? School districts in the Downstate Suburbs averaged $19,337 in spending per student, or nearly twice the national average. Even adjusting for the cost of living, spending in that area averaged $14,757, or 33.5% higher than the national average — even though the typical student body there is, overall, much more supported at home than New York City’s children. It should be possible to spend less in most suburban school districts and get superior results. While non-instructional spending and staffing has always been low in New York City it has always been high in the Downstate Suburbs, at $4,596 per student even after adjustment compared with $3,601 nationally. Non-instructional spending per student rose 14.7% in the Downstate Suburbs after adjustment for inflation from FY 2002 to FY 2006, and it was high to begin with. And the Downstate Suburbs should have been in a position to cut spending outside the classroom, because unlike New York City and Upstate New York, their collective enrollment has been rising over the past decade. Rising because the low level of spending in NYC in the past drove middle class parents out of the city and into the suburbs. From FY 2002 to FY 2006 enrollment in the Downstate Suburbs rose from 665,318 to 680,442.

And these are just averages. Looking district by district, one finds school districts like the Wantagh Union Free School district, which seems to get by on a cost of living- adjusted expenditure level of $10,934, or about the national average. This is more than offset by districts like Rockville Center, which for some reason requires $16,330 per student even after adjustment for the cost of living, or 50% more than the national average. Without adjustment, spending per student there is $21,445, or nearly $430,000 per class of 20 children. How many teachers do they have in such a class, and how much do they earn?

The Downstate Suburbs received less state education funding per student than New York City in FY 2006, a come down from some past years when (due in part to the STAR program) they collectively received almost as much — despite higher wealth and a less needed student population. More recently, with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit out of the way, New York City’s share of state school aid is being cut again. (More on that in a later post). But state education funding per student was high enough in the Downstate Suburbs that if their FY spending per student was at the level of New York City, their local taxes could have been 17% lower.

Once one discounts average Downstate spending for the cost of living, however, one finds that Upstate spending, at $14,848 per student, is slightly higher than in the Downstate Suburbs — 36% higher than the national average. (Indeed, for years the pattern has been that the average spending in the Downstate Suburbs and Upstate New York has been about, with New York City much lower — except that in all three areas spending is much higher, relative to the national average, than it was a decade ago). State and federal aid to Upstate New York was high enough in FY 2006 that the region could spend have spent the national average while cutting local school taxes by two-thirds.

Again, this is a regional average. Some school districts are much higher — such as Rhinebeck at $29,709 per student and Millbrook at $26,335 per student, represented by a State Senator who has spent his career claiming that New York City residents are robbing the rest of the state by insisting on getting too much of their own state tax dollars back. Somehow nearby Red Hood gets by with $14,211 per student — still more than in NYC if the cost of living is adjusted for. In some small school districts the cost of the central school staff (general administration) rises to absurd levels — $2,139 per student in the Windham, Ashland Jewitt Central School District which had 445 students, or $952,000 overall. The national average is $173 per student, the New York City average is $64 per student, or $48 after adjustment for the cost of living.

There are only a handful of school districts in New York State where total expenditures per student are lower than the national average, even with a cost of living adjustment: the Floral Park/Bellerose Union Free School District, Frontier Central School District, General Brown Central School District, Albion Central School District, Franklin Square Central School District, and Middle Country Central School District. A total of 646,818 New York State students attend school in districts where the average expenditure per student is lower than in New York City, up from almost zero not too long ago (when it would have made the most difference to my family). That is 36.5% of the students in the rest of the state. Most of those districts, however, lack both the difficult population the NYC schools must try to educate, and the residual costs of past under-funding. Still, there are school districts in the rest of the state that aren’t overstaffed, overpaid, and over-funded. That means that the other school districts are overstaffed, overpaid and over-funded to a greater extent than the averages for the Downstate Suburbs and Upstate New York suggest. Take a look for yourself.

In all parts of New York State, including New York City, much of the increase in spending (in excess of the inflation adjustment) from FY 2002 to FY 2006 has been in employee benefits, and much of the increase in employee benefits has been for retirees. New York State’s private sector workers will be toiling to provide goods and services to for the state’s education workers for one- to two-decades longer than those education workers are required to contribute anything in return, and the private sector workers will be receive much less generous and much more expensive employer-provided health care (if any) as well. Public employee pensions are continually increased by the state legislature, and public employee health care increases in cost automatically every year regardless of any contract. In addition, in the 1990s and early 2000s not enough money was contributed to retiree benefits, as elected officials became popular by deferring those costs to another day which subsequently arrived. .

In contrast, adjusted for inflation the wages per student of instructional employees barely rose from FY 2002 to FY 2006. (The national average was essentially unchanged.) Although in the Downstate Suburbs and Upstate New York, the average instructional employee wage per student was higher than in New York City, which in turn was higher than New Jersey which was higher than the national average. Schools in New York State, but particularly the parts outside New York City, should therefore have significantly higher paid teachers and/or significantly lower class sizes than the average for New Jersey, let alone the United States. Even, as of 2006, in New York City. If New York City’s class sizes are higher, or teacher pay is lower, it is because a higher share of NYC teacher’s time is spent somewhere other than in front of a classroom of children.

Also outside the classroom because of costs put off to another day — interest on debts, which at $382 per student in Upstate New York in FY 2002 was well above the national average of $285 in FY 2006. Debts are also above average Upstate, even though population stagnation has limited the need for new schools. (In New York City, the need to rehab schools to make up for past neglect has also led to high and increasing debt and more money diverted to interest payments).

New Yorkers want a quality education system for everyone (with the possible exception of children in New York City, absent a court order). The cost of living downstate is high, and it is necessary to pay more to provide public employees with an equal standard of living. And above and beyond that adjustment, New Yorkers would probably prefer that its teachers be better paid than average. In New York City, and some other school districts around the state, there are many disadvantaged children who will require additional support from the community to have a chance in life due to the inadequacies of the parents. All these are reasons to spend more than the national average on schools.

Even so, in FY 2006 school spending was arguably high enough in New York City, and too high — and too great a burden in the rest of the state. It isn’t reasonable to ask taxpayers in the Downstate Suburbs and Upstate New York to pay so much. It certainly isn’t reasonable to expect New York City taxpayers, who were denied the funding a decent level of funding for their own children in the past, to pay for such extravagance elsewhere. The entire administration of the New York City schools, from the central board to the community school boards, was wiped out in the Mayoral Control reorganization. That’s accountability. But the administration of the school districts in the rest of the state, and the state legislature which determined how much of the school dollar goes to the past and how much to the children, are equally deserving of such accountability — not because the education is bad, but because it is overpriced.