“New York State has ranked first nationally in school district spending per pupil for 15 straight years, a reflection of the state’s longstanding commitment to provide all students with the opportunity to excel as learners, workers, and citizens.” This boast appears in the Budget Briefing Book that Governor Kathy Hochul submitted to the state legislature last winter. The state’s last three governors, going back to 2008, have all made similar statements. If only this largesse had delivered higher achievement or greater educational opportunities for the state’s neediest students.
Unfortunately, results for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), as published in the recently released Nation’s Report Card, confirm that the state’s model has failed to deliver on its promises. And note, this assessment was true even before the disastrous Covid school shutdowns; the past three years have only made a bad situation worse.
Despite being a national leader in educational spending, New York ranks in the middle of the pack in reading scores among 52 jurisdictions (the 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and Department of Defense schools). New York’s fourth-grade student reading scores were not significantly different from those of students in 39 jurisdictions and better than those of four. In eighth grade, New York is roughly tied with 32 states and ahead of 16.
New York shows worse results in mathematics, for which Puerto Rico is included, along with the 52 jurisdictions described above. In fourth-grade math, New York is tied with 32 jurisdictions and significantly surpasses only four. In eighth grade, it is tied with 26 jurisdictions and tops 14.
Nor is New York distinguishing itself from most states when it comes to helping students from lower-income families. Considering the score gap between students eligible for federal lunch subsidies (lower-income families) and those not eligible, New York is statistically tied with the average across all public schools and is tied with 37 to 47 jurisdictions out of the 50 or 51 with which valid comparisons can be made.
According to the Citizens Budget Commission, New York State spends twice the national average per pupil—$32,757—not including Covid relief aid. Students and taxpayers are not getting what they deserve from that investment. Blame the state’s elected officials, who have stuck to the status quo for too long, boosting investment even as school quality stagnated and then declined.
The state’s charter schools, particularly in New York City, outperform its district schools for black and Hispanic youngsters, whose families flocked to these schools as the charter sector grew dramatically beginning in 2000. Yet, the state legislature has imposed a cap on the creation of new charters in New York City. The city’s largest network of charter schools, Success Academies (predominantly serving lower-income minority families), outperform all the state’s public school districts—even those serving affluent suburbs—on the state’s own annual exams. They and other charter schools accomplish these outcomes while spending less per pupil than traditional district schools.
Charter schools have the flexibility to design and modify programs locally, without the meddling of a district board or the State Education Department, though they can open only after filing a detailed education plan vetted and approved by one of two state authorizers. Nor are charters subject to the constraints imposed on district schools by collectively bargained work rules. Teachers in charters are free to affiliate with a union, but few have tried to do so.
With midterms approaching, and with three statewide officials, as well as the entire legislature, on the ballot, voters should know that improving New York schools is a matter of new models, not more money. Candidates seeking real solutions should support innovations such as charter schools, or public support for families to choose private and religious schools. Merely increasing spending in traditional district schools will continue to lead to the same result: mediocrity.
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