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News Analysis: Legislator Asks The $22,231 Question

More than four-and-a-half hours into a legislative discussion of the proposed state budget for education, Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh finally asked the question taxpayers most want answered.

“As I’ve been looking at New York’s education spending compared to other states, don’t we have the highest per pupil spending out of all 50 states?” asked Walsh, a Republican from Ballston.

Shannon Tahoe, interim state education commissioner, said the state’s education is the most expensive in the nation at almost $20,000 a student. Walsh quickly corrected the interim commissioner with a more updated figure.

“Twenty-two thousand, two hundred and thirty-one dollars per student,” Walsh said. “And yet at least some of the reports I’ve looked at doesn’t rank New York number one. One of the reports I was looking at I think ranked Arizona number one and their per pupil spending is around $7,700 per student. How do you account for that? These budget requests are so large. What unique challenges does New York have that perhaps can explain to people why the costs are so high?”

Walsh herself may have needed an updated statistic. Last May, the Empire Center for New York State Policy released a report based on U.S. Census data showing per-pupil spending in New York state was $23,091 according to 2017 Census data.

The Empire Center reported noted that relative to personal income, New York’s elementary and secondary education spending of $52.36 per $1,000 ranked third, trailing only Alaska and Vermont, about 40% higher than the national average by this measure.

Excluding charter schools, New York’s public elementary and secondary schools had 2.6 million pupils and spent nearly $64 billion in 2016 — exceeded only by California, which spent about $76 billion on a public school system with 6.2 million pupils.

School spending in New York was driven primarily by instructional salaries and benefits — which, at $16,113 per pupil, were 117% above the national average of $7,406. New York’s spending for instructional salaries and benefits exceeded the total per-pupil spending of all but six other states.

In the category of “support services,” which measures the bureaucratic overhead of central and school administration, New York ranked sixth with spending of $6,480 per pupil, 51% above the national average.

“I think New York has many unique needs,” Tahoe said in response to Walsh. “I think our student population is much more diverse. I think we probably have many more English language learners and students with disabilities than any other state. There are high pension costs, health benefit costs for these teachers. I think that’s a large component of school districts’ budgets is their pension and benefit costs, and so that’s some of the challenges we face in New York state. I think too some school districts do a really great job of spending their money in appropriate places and others maybe don’t.

“I think some of the issue is that we expect more in New York state for our school districts. Our expectations are a lot higher with respect to how much we expect not just on the educational needs of the student but the whole social emotional aspect of a child and what our expectations are on the whole child in New York. I think that’s something that we celebrate, but it does cost more money, too. So I think all of those things together are part of the reason we have an increased cost in the state of New York.”

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