The politics of school spending in New York City is dominated by the skewed priorities of Democratic leadership in both the city council and state legislature. Leaders in both bodies and in aligned advocacy groups and the teachers’ union refuse to confront the reality of declining enrollment in the city’s traditional public schools and argue for even more spending on a shrinking number of students. This desire to throw money at the schools, while refusing to admit that parents are leaving the system, can be seen in the legislature’s requirement that the city, alone among all school districts, reduce class sizes, while maintaining or even growing the number of teachers. It is also found in the city council’s efforts to block the Adams administration from reducing the annual budget provided to individual schools. And it is even found in the city’s pre-kindergarten programs for three- and four-year-old students, an area where city enrollment has actually reached an all-time high. Yet a recent report reveals that the city has 30,000 empty pre-K seats—which might suggest a need to scale back. Nothing doing: advocates are calling on the city to encourage more parents to enroll their children.
My latest report, included in the Manhattan Institute’s brief on the city’s 2024 budget proposal, describes the unsustainable nature of the city’s school budget in the face of ongoing enrollment declines and the looming expiration of federal Covid relief funding. To improve the school system’s stability and to convince families that the city remains a viable place to raise and educate children, the system must get its spending in line with these new realities—and with the priorities of the communities it serves.
The Adams administration has taken small steps toward reining in the system’s spending. Its proposed 2024 budget would reduce spending by $231 million. This represents only a small drop in its $31 billion total budget, but at least it would stem the growth—which, over the last decade, has totaled $12 billion, or 63.7 percent. Yet even this slight reduction is being fought by the city council, with which the mayor must negotiate his budget. Council members argue that the city is awash in revenue, ignoring how $3.7 billion in temporary Covid aid will vaporize between the current budget and that of 2024–25. Unwisely, Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, used some of the Covid aid to start new programs, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten, which, again, now has an over-supply of seats. The city’s Independent Budget Office has estimated that maintaining current programs would require $1.1 billion per year in state and local funding to replace the Covid aid that will soon run out.
Education is labor-intensive; the Department of Education accounts for 46 percent of the city government’s headcount. The city is currently negotiating labor contracts with its unions, including the teachers’ union, with its nearly 100,000 members in the school system. The two contracts signed by the de Blasio administration cost Gotham approximately $630 million per year over 12 years; that trend is not sustainable.
Declining enrollment also means that building space is being used inefficiently in the DOE’s schools; usage is down from 96 percent to 83 percent over the last seven years. Those averages mask large differences across the five boroughs. Queens and Staten Island remain at or near full utilization, but Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn are each at about 77 percent. The city’s 32 school districts also vary in enrollment, and the city should consider pursuing the consolidation of its smaller districts. Meantime, due to de Blasio’s unwillingness to provide unused space to new and growing charter schools, the budget currently includes $123 million to pay for private leases for those schools. Insiders tell me that the city is spending closer to $200 million this year on those leases. That is an unnecessary burden being placed on taxpayers.
Services for students with special needs are a huge and growing portion of the budget. Estimates of the cost of these services indicate that the per-pupil spending for students with special needs is two to three times greater than that for the general education population. Twenty-one percent of the DOE’s students are deemed to have special needs. Despite this high rate of spending, the city has been unable to provide all special-needs students with the services mandated in their Individualized Education Plans (the legally mandated documents for all special-ed students). At the same time, the city is spending over $440 million per year on private tuition for students whose parents petitioned to require the city to pay for private schooling due to the DOE’s inability to provide all necessary services for their children.
While families can seek legal redress for their special-needs children, no such remedy is available to parents of non-special-ed students. Many families balked at de Blasio’s efforts to curtail gifted and talented programs. Despite earlier promises to grow those programs, Adams has allowed his appointed superintendent in District 2, Manhattan, to cease merit admissions to middle schools. Given the enrollment and financial stresses facing the system, the city should be more focused on constituent service and responsiveness to all families. No amount of extra spending on staff can offset the reality of people voting with their feet.