FY 2015 Census Bureau Data on Public School Spending In New York: Robbed, Sneered At, Resented and Sued

If you live in New York State, there is a lawsuit that claims you have it too good. Your taxes are too low, despite being the highest in the country at the state and local level combined, and too much money is being spent on public services other than public schools, such as mass transit, social services, housing, parks, libraries, everything else. The lawsuit has been filed by the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), funded in part by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City’s teachers’ union, and the NYSUT, the New York State teacher’s union. It claims that New York State residents have stolen $billions for people working in New York’s schools each and every year for more than a decade. And that as a result we are getting what we deserve: schools that are so bad that at least in New York City and Syracuse, they violate the state constitution.

Of course the AQE is claiming it is suing “the state,” not the people who live in it.   But where would “the state” get the additional $billions that those working in education demand be spent on schools? From higher taxes and lower spending on other things, that’s where. The same place that the additional spending on schools that has happened in the past came from. And note that while the claim is that the schools are bad, there is no admission that perhaps that New Yorkers are being cheated by those who work for the public schools. Instead the assertion is the other way around – that those who work in the schools are being cheated by New Yorkers, because they aren’t being given the money they deserve. But how much are the schools getting getting? Let’s go to the Census Bureau’s public education finance data and find out.

First the lawsuit, which follows a lawsuit filed in the 1990s (Campaign for Fiscal Equity or CFE) concerning the New York City public schools. Back then NYC’s schools had vastly less spending per student, relative to other places, than they do today, but many of the same people are making the same arguments as if nothing had changed.


A lawyer for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a group that has waged a legal battle for more school funding, said the state hasn’t lived up to a 2006 court mandate to increase funding for New York City schools by $1.9 billion.

Former Governor Spitzer had agreed to increase spending on the schools to level far higher than that required by the courts after being supported by the teacher’s union in the 2006 election. He also agreed to a massive increase in NYC teacher pensions at the same time, with retirement at age 55 after 25 years of work instead of retirement at age 62 after 30 years of work. Then he resigned in a prostitution scandal.

Although New York City’s school spending has soared far beyond what the courts required in the 1990s, so has spending in the richest suburbs. It turns out the Campaign for Fiscal Equity wasn’t in favor of fiscal equity at all, and has never actually advocated it. Now the AQE, its successor, argues that because spending in the highest spending school districts in New York has increased further, NYC school spending has to soar even more. But once again AQE asserts that every school district should spend more yet again, still leaving NYC behind, and thus in need of even more money in the future.

Rebell countered that the only practical way to satisfy the original judgment would be to implement a statewide funding boost — otherwise “we’re going to have to have 700 trials,” he said, referring to the rough number of school districts in New York.   Judge Eugene Fahey questioned whether school spending wasn’t a “balancing act” for state legislators, who must also fund corrections, transportation and other needs. Rebell said education had a “special place” among others because it is guaranteed in the state constitution.

The court case was allowed to go forward, but only with regard to spending in New York City and Syracuse.


“The NYSER plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged deficient inputs and outputs with respect to New York City and, although in less detail, Syracuse,” Judge Rowan Wilson wrote for the majority in the decision. The court also ruled that the group could not claim that New York had failed to provide the funding called for under the 2006 Campaign For Fiscal Equity decision because “that litigation has ended.”

How deficient are the inputs?


In FY 2015, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, New York City spent $25,069 per student on its schools, about the same as the average $25,571 per student spent on average in the Downstate NY Suburbs, but far more than the U.S. average of $13,107 per student. Nearly double, in fact. Of course the average private sector worker, excluding Wall Street, earns 28.0% more than the U.S. average in Downstate New York, and this affects the cost of living and competition in the labor force. Even so, adjusted downward for the cost of living NYC still spent $19,586 per student, still about 50 percent more than the U.S. average.

New York City’s spending was and is particularly high on instructional (ie. teacher) wages and benefits. In FY 2015 NYC spent $14,874 per student on instructional wages and benefits. That’s $297,482 per 20 students. And $178,489 per 12 students. Compare these figures with your total wages and benefits. Moreover, in FY 2015 New York City teachers were in the middle of a long period of zero or low contractual pay increases as a result of the Great Recession. Under a deal signed by Mayor DeBlasio soon after he took office, this will be followed by a massive pay increase in FY 2018.   So instructional wages and benefits per student, per 20 students, and per 12 students are far higher today than this data will show.

New York City’s class sizes, moreover, are much higher than 12 or 20, but its student-teacher ratio is much lower.


That ratio was just 8.5 students per instructional employee in New York City in March 2015, down from 8.8 in March 2005. Far lower than the U.S. average of 10.4, down from 10.6, but still higher than the average for the rest of New York State at 7.6, down from 8.3.  Compare these ratios with the average class size in New York City.


A group of New York City parents and advocates fed up with increasing class sizes in the public schools filed a complaint on Thursday with the New York State Education Department, charging that the city has failed to comply with a 2007 state law requiring smaller classes.

Last school year, according to the Department of Education, the average class size across all grades was 26.2 students per class. But about one-third of all students in the city were in classes of 30 or more children, according to Haimson.

Like the rest of “school reform,” smaller class sizes merely turned out to be a ruse for more money, most of which went to the early retired and time and years spent of the classroom. With all the extra money taken off the top, there is no money left for it even at sky-high spending levels.

In the 1990s, it was found that the cash pay of New York City teachers was low compared with the rest of the metro area. But NYC teachers also spent less time teaching, less time with students, and more time in out of classroom assignments than teachers anyplace else. In experimental schools where the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contract was allowed to be ignored, class sizes were well below 20 with the same number of assigned teachers.

In the early 2000s, then Mayor Bloomberg agreed to a 20 percent increase in teacher pay, one that required an 18 percent increase in property taxes, in exchange for NYC teachers doing more teaching. But in his first contract Mayor DeBlasio restored all the out of classroom assignments and cut teaching time, so all that extra money was in effect for nothing.

As for Syracuse, that District spent $20,236 per student in FY 2015, far above the U.S. average of $13,107 but about the same as the average for all districts in the most urban counties Upstate, at $20,079, and in the mostly rural counties there, at $20,835. When you adjust for the higher cost of living downstate, the four regions of New York State have very similar public school spending levels per student, at $19,586 for New York City, $19,978 for the Downstate Suburbs, $20,998 for Upstate Urban Counties, and the Upstate Rural Counties at $20,835.

The same may be said of these area’s instructional wages and benefits alone, at $11,621 per student for NYC (after adjustment down), $11,978 for the Downstate Suburbs (adjusted down), $11,105 for the Upstate Urban Counties, and $11,522 for the Upstate Rural Counties. Syracuse was $11,327. The U.S. average was $6,046. All these parts of New York were spending almost double the U.S. average, per student, on teachers.


Spending throughout New York State is far higher than it is in the rest of the high-spending, affluent, education-oriented Northeast Corridor. The adjusted per student spending totals of $19,586 for New York City and $19,978 for the Downstate Suburbs compare with the similarly adjusted averages of $17,461 for New Jersey, $17,611 for Connecticut, and $14,001 for Massachusetts – all far in excess of the $13,107 for the U.S.

So New York City’s spending is not just high compared with low spending states. New York’s spending is also high compared with high spending states, just are its taxes compared with other supposed high tax states.  And so is New York’s spending on instructional wages and benefits in particular.


New York City’s public school spending per student is also relatively high on Operation and Maintenance of Plant (custodians) and Student Transportation. On these functions NYC spent $3,274 per student in FY 2015, more than double the U.S. average of $1,539. Even adjusted downward for the cost of living, NYC’s spending was still $2,558 per student, 66.2% higher than the U.S. average. Spending was also high in these categories in the Downstate Suburbs at $2,673 (adjusted down), $2,630 in Upstate Urban Counties, and $2,650 in Upstate Rural Counties. Far higher than the $2,295 average for New Jersey (adjusted down), $2,170 for Connecticut (adjusted down), and $1,701 for Massachusetts (adjusted down).

New York City’s spending on school custodians and student transportation is far higher than the U.S. average even though NYC children are far more likely to walk to school or take city buses and subways than are children elsewhere, and are packed into far less school space each than the U.S. average.   NYC Student Transportation expenditures per student actually using school buses, and NYC Operation and Maintenance of Plant expenditures per square foot, are even higher relative to the U.S. average and nearby states than this data would suggest. Sky high spending on the politically powerful school custodians and private bus companies became an issue during the Bloomberg Administration, and there was some attempt to get a better deal. The DeBlasio Administration has reversed those reforms.

On the other hand, New York City’s per student spending spending on other non-instructional categories – school administration (principals), general administration (central staff), pupil support and instructional staff support is and always has been very low relative to the U.S. average, a difference some attribute to economies of scale in a district with 1 million students. But in the rest of NYC state, spending in these administrative categories is relatively high as well. So is employment.


In March 2015, the New York City schools had 33.9 students per full time equivalent non-instructional employee, well above the U.S. average of 24.2, in part because services such as Student Transportation and Food Services are contracted out. But the average for the rest of New York State was just 16.6, meaning the rest of the state had about twice as many non-instructional workers for the same number of students as New York City. Double.   The rest of New York State also had fewer students per non-instructional employee than the averages for New Jersey (24.2), Connecticut (21.8), Massachusetts (26.2), Maryland (24.2), Pennsylvania (22.8), Ohio (20.9) and Vermont (19.9).

Meanwhile, not only is total spending per student on NYC’s unionized, tenured district schools much higher than the U.S. average or the average for adjacent states, it is also far higher than per student spending on public Charter Schools within New York City.


The New York City Independent Budget Office, the nonpartisan government watchdog, recently issued a report with some startling findings: Students in public charter schools will receive a lot less public funding and support this year than students in district schools. How much less? The IBO found that the gap started at $1,100 per student if the charter school is co-located in a public school building and shot up to nearly $5,000 if it isn’t. And, the IBO found that the future is even grimmer—that gap will grow in 2017-18 and beyond as district expenditures rise by billions more a year.

Under a subsequent deal, per student spending on NYC Charter Schools will rise at the same percent as NYC District schools starting next year, locking in that gap in expenditures permanently.

As for Upstate New York, school spending in general and school spending on instructional wages and benefits in particular are far higher than in similar areas such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as higher than the U.S. average. The cost of living isn’t particularly high Upstate – except for state and local taxes – and overall wages per private sector worker are below the U.S. average.


FY 2015 total expenditures per student at $20,079 in the Upstate Urban Counties and $20,835 in the Upstate Rural Counties compare with an average of just $13,321 in Ohio and $17,476 in Pennsylvania, as well as the U.S. average of $13,107. Vermont is higher at $22,234 per student, but only because of a large number of school districts with few if any students. Vermont districts with fewer than 500 students averaged $26,539 in spending in FY 2015, while those with 500 or more averaged $19,082 – less than in Upstate New York, although close.

For instructional wages and benefits alone, the averages were $11,015 for Upstate Urban Counties and $11,522 for Upstate Rural Counties, compared with $6,170 for Ohio, $8,332 for Pennsylvania, $9,173 for Vermont – and just $8,735 for Vermont districts with 500 or more students. And $6,046 for the United States.

Despite this high level of spending, additional school districts in the rest of the state also sued demanding more money.


A judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit against New York that claimed the state was shortchanging students in eight small city school districts and denying their constitutional right to a “sound basic education.”  While calling the students’ performance “undeniably inadequate,” state Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor said the plaintiffs hadn’t proved the state has not met its obligation to them. 

The state’s largest teachers union called the decision “a blow to some of New York’s most vulnerable students.”  The lawsuit was filed in 2008 on behalf of students in Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica, cities challenged by high rates of poverty, students with disabilities and English language learners. 

Adjusted downward for the cost of living, per student spending in Mount Vernon was $19,729 in FY 2014, compared with $17,712 in Jamestown, $21,551 in Poughkeepsie, $29,415 in Niagara Falls, $17,587 in Utica, $22,606 in Port Jervis, $21,475 in Newburgh and $22,904 in Kingston. And the averages of $13,321 in Ohio, $17,476 in Pennsylvania, $19,082 in Vermont districts with at least 500 students, and $13,107 in the U.S.

Upstate New York and Downstate Suburban school spending and employment soared during the 1990s “everybody onto the payroll and into the pension system” policies of the administration of former New York City Governor George Pataki. While slashing aid to NYC schools, Pataki provided the rest of the state with the STAR program, which provided more state aid to those districts that spent more.   A huge number of well-connected people got school jobs that provided pensions, and retiree health care after just five years of work. Those pensions were repeatedly retroactively enhanced, notably in 2000, leaving the NY State and NYC teacher pension funds underfunded.


Now the Upstate New York school districts are having to pay for all those former school employees, now retired to low-tax Florida, despite falling enrollment, which has reduced their capacity to serve as a jobs program.   Perhaps something similar is going on in Vermont, which at least has 15.6% of its housing units as second homes, shifting the resulting high school spending burden to those whose primary residence is elsewhere.

With the large “Baby Boom echo” generation exiting school, total U.S. public school enrollment increased by just 1.0% from Fall 2004 to Fall 2014. Enrollment fell by 3.6% in New York City, 3.9% in the Downstate Suburbs, 9.5% in the Upstate Urban Counties, and 13.3% in the Upstate Rural counties. The decrease was 8.2% in Vermont, 10.0% in Ohio, 9.5% in Pennsylvania, 4.1% in Massachusetts, 2.2% in New Jersey, and 8.5% in Connecticut.

Perhaps those who work in New York State’s public schools are demanding that their neighbors become less well off because school spending per student has gone down, or not gone up, adjusted for inflation? Not according to the data. Spending per student was already very high in New York in FY 2005 and, adjusted for inflation it has gotten much higher.


Adjusted for inflation U.S. spending per student increased 4.3% from FY 2005 to FY 2015. With adjustment for the higher cost of living along the Northeast Corridor, the increase was 37.4% for New York City, 17.4% for the Downstate Suburbs, 18.0% for the Upstate Urban Counties, and 20.9% for the Upstate Rural Counties. Compared with 6.9% for New Jersey, 10.8% for Massachusetts – and 33.3% for Connecticut.


The biggest factor in soaring school spending is soaring spending on benefits, as the unfunded retroactive pension increases of the 1990s and early 2000s have given was to huge increases in taxpayer pension contributions.

For instructional workers, inflation-adjusted per student spending on employee benefits increased 28.0% natiowide. That compares with an increase of 67.9% for New York City, where there was yet another massive retroactive pension increase in 2008, and 64.2% in the Downstate Suburbs. Far more than the increases of 52.0% in New Jersey and 37.3% in Connecticut, states that had been underfunding their pensions previously, and 27.2% in Massachusetts. The increases were 63.8% for Upstate New York, compared with 16.4% in Ohio, 71.4% in Pennsylvania, and 31.7% in Vermont.

Public employees have long had far richer retirement and other benefits than the private sector workers who pay for them. Their unions have long argued that those rich benefits are in exchange for lower cash pay. So was soaring benefit spending per student offset by falling cash pay during the FY 2005 to FY 2015 period?


Actually, adjusted for inflation per-student instructional cash pay increased 0.2% in the U.S. from FY 2005 to FY 2015. It increased 17.7% in New York City and 12.2% in the Downstate Suburbs, compared with a gain of 3.2% for New Jersey, 16.0% for Connecticut, and 14.3% for Massachusetts.   For New York City, this is the increase from AFTER the 20.0% teacher pay increase in Mayor Bloomberg’s first contract, to BEFORE the huge backloaded pay increase in FY 2018 in Mayor DeBlasio’s first contract.

The cash pay per student increase was 6.3% for Upstate New York, compared with 0.8% in Ohio, 3.2% in Pennsylvania and 11.0% in Vermont.


Adding it up, total instructional compensation (wages and benefits) per student increased by 6.2% more than inflation in the U.S. from FY 2005 to FY 2015. It increased 32.9% in New York City and 24.9% in the Downstate Suburbs, compared with a gain of 11.6% for New Jersey, 20.1% for Connecticut, and 16.5% for Massachusetts. The total instructional wages and benefits per student increase was 21.4% for Upstate New York, compared with 4.6% in Ohio, 19.8% in Pennsylvania and 15.6% in Vermont.

Other politically powerful NYC unions scored too, particularly after Mayor DeBlasio took office.


Per student spending on operation and maintenance of plant increased 4.1% more than inflation in the U.S. from FY 2005 to 2015, but the increase for New York City was 47.1%. That is far higher than the increase of 13.6% for the Downstate Suburbs, 12.1% for New Jersey, 20.6% for Connecticut, and 4.9% for Massachusetts. The increase was 8.6% for Upstate New York, compared with 2.4% in Ohio, 9.0% in Pennsylvania and 25.8% in Vermont.


Per student spending on student transportation increased 9.7% more than inflation in the U.S. from FY 2005 to 2015, but the increase for New York City was 41.0%. That is also higher than the increase of 19.0% for the Downstate Suburbs, 37.2% for Connecticut, and 33.9% for Massachusetts. New Jersey cut its student transportation spending per student by 16.4%. The increase was 27.6% for Upstate New York, compared with 13.9% in Ohio, 24.9% in Pennsylvania and 33.1% in Vermont.

The overall changes in school spending per student, adjusted for inflation, are summarized in these two charts.



The specific claim of the AQE and the UFT, however, is in on revenue side. These organizations demand that those outside the schools be made worse off to make up for the fact that the state government isn’t spending enough on schools. Perhaps because state taxes are too low (except on retired public employees such as teachers, whose pension income is exempt from state income taxes). Perhaps because spending too high on other things (such as the New York City subway (although state tax contributions to the MTA Capital Plan was zero for decades as school spending soared, forcing the agency to go $37 million in debt and skimp on maintenance).


The data shows, however, that even after a downward adjustment for the cost of living, state revenues per student in the New York City schools equaled $7,773 in FY 2015, well above the U.S. average of $6,238. Despite their affluence the average for the Downstate Suburbs was only slightly below the U.S. average at $6,031. State funding per student Upstate, at $10,457 in the Upstate Urban Counties and $12,439 in the Upstate Rural counties, was massive.

Add in federal funding per student (slightly above average per student Upstate and below average Downstate), and the average school district in the Upstate Rural Counties could have had $13,549 in per student revenues without a single dollar of local taxes. Nearly as much as the total school revenue per student for the U.S. as a whole, at $13,474. State funding per student for the city of Syracuse was $14,909, and that city also received $3,321 per student in federal revenue, for a total of $18,230 per student in non-local revenues. Nearly as much as the $18,854 in per student revenue in Pennsylvania, without a single dollar of local tax.


Like per student expenditures, per student revenues increased by far more than inflation from FY 2005 to FY 2015. Looking at state revenues alone, the increase was $6,238 per student for the U.S., $7,723 for New York City, $6,031 for the Downstate Suburbs, $10,457 for the Upstate Urban Counties, and $12,439 for the Upstate Rural Counties, compared with $7,331 for New Jersey.

In New York City, city residents have been forced to come up with more money in state taxes for schools – though not as much as the schools are demanding if city residents want schools that aren’t so bad they violate the state constitution – in a difficult economic decade – one that has been even worse elsewhere than it has been here.


From 2005 to 2015, total New York City school expenditures per student increased by 32.7% more than inflation, and instructional compensation per student increased by 32.9% — including a 17.7% increase in wages and salaries, and a 67.9% increase in benefits.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Employment and Wages data), on the other hand, total U.S. private payroll per worker increased by just 7.6% more than inflation from 2005 to 2015, a gain concentrated among the richest and far lower for most. For those working in Downstate New York the increase was 16.6% for those working in the Finance and Insurance sector, and 4.9% for other private sector workers – including all those one percenters outside finance. This is data for wage and salary workers.

Per capita income data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which includes the growing number of freelance and contract workers and the rising share of adults in retirement, is even more gloomy. Per capita income increased 9.6% in Manhattan from 2005 to 2015, adjusted for inflation, as the last pockets of non-wealthy people continued to gentrify. But despite “gentrification,” inflation adjusted per capita income fell 8.5% in the rest of New York City, nearly matching the 9.0% national decrease. Per capita income for the U.S. was $48,112 in 2015 according to the BEA, and while Manhattan was sky high at $156,708, the rest of NYC was below average at $40,928.

The BLS and BEA wage and income data are arithmetic means, and are thus pulled up by the high incomes and pay packages for those at the top. American Community Survey on the median pay per worker shows the average worker living in NYC got even poorer relative to the soaring per student costs and teacher compensation in the NYC schools. The median earnings of NYC workers fell 3.5%, adjusted for inflation, from 2005 to 2015. The decrease was 14.3% for high school dropouts, 14.7% for high school graduates, 9.6% for those with some college, 2.1% for those with bachelor’s degrees, and 2.3% for those with graduate or professional degrees.

Is there anything, other than their own entitlement, that explains how those advocating on behalf of those working in the New York City schools can demand more money even as ALL the promised improvements of “school reform” are done away with one by one?

There is only one comparison the Alliance for Quality Education and United Federation of Teachers will allow to be discussed. The comparison between spending in the New York City schools and spending in massively rich, exclusive, wasteful school districts such as Chappaqua, where Governor Cuomo, former Senator President Clinton, and former Senator Clinton live.


In FY 2005, with figures adjusted upward into $2015, New York City spent $18,614 per student, but Chappaqua spent more, at $19,406. Thus the demand for more spending in New York City.

So in FY 2015, New York City spent $25,069 per student, far more than the $19,406 in Chappaqua in FY 2005. But guess what? Chappaqua’s spending also increased to $28,929 per student in FY 2015. Thus the assertion that those who work in the New York City schools are being cheated out of $billions.

So if you don’t think the class sizes, teacher effort, or anything else about the NYC schools is as good as it ought to be, their view is you can just shut up and pay up. We get resentment, lawsuits, the end of “school reform” era increases in expectations, and absolutely no pushback by our elected officials at that sky-high level of spending.   And the assertion that if the schools are doing a bad job, that just proves they deserve even more money.

Meanwhile for NYC Charter Schools, years of funding freezes didn’t lead to any reduction in expectations. If they fail to attract students, or are judged to be inadequate despite attracting students, they are shut down and their teachers, administrators and other workers lose their jobs. And Charter Schools keep being pushed to do an even better job for even more challenging and disadvantaged students.

There is one group of students for which the New York State courts have taken an entirely different approach – the disabled.   If parents claim that the NYC schools are inadequate for their children’s needs, that doesn’t mean the schools get more money to do no better (or even worse) that before. It means that the parents get a voucher for private education services. The city used to try to fight against that type of litigation. But under the DeBlasio Administration, those vouchers have been handed out as readily has parking placards for NYC teachers. Because the NYC teachers would prefer those children be elsewhere.


As Chalkbeat reported in July, roughly 4,100 students with disabilities were funded by the city to attend private school last year, 42 percent more than in 2011. And fewer families had to fight lengthy battles for that funding: The city settled 49 percent more cases without going through a legal hearing than they did in 2011.

As for the other students, no such choices. And as for those who advocated for higher school spending and teacher pay 20 years ago, back when it was low, we’ve been robbed, sneered at, resented and sued. Including me.

One can only hope that opponents or higher school spending elsewhere in the country don’t pay attention to New York. Because what New York shows is that it is pointless at best, and unjust at worst.