Higher spending no guarantee of higher results in schools

The media love to point out that spending more per-student has not resulted in improved outcomes (“Why New York schools spend so much for such mediocre results,” New York Post, May 24).  New York State, which spends more to educate students than any other state, serves as a case in point.

Despite an outlay of $22,366 per student – nearly twice the national average of $11,762 – students in the Empire State perform worse than average on the National Assessment for Educational Progress.  According to critics, this disconnect is evidence that increased expenditures do not assure better results.

But the issue is not quite as simple as it seems.  To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at school budgets.  About $8 of every $10 is used to pay for staff salaries and benefits. The purchasing power of salaries in most states has not kept pace with inflation.  As a result, teachers can’t be expected to produce better outcomes under the circumstances.  They’re barely hanging on.  For example, although New York City spends more than the nation’s other 10 biggest cities, the cost of living in New York City is also the highest.

Unions are blamed for driving up salaries while protecting underperforming teachers. That argument will be tested in the years ahead if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff in the Janus case, as it is expected to do.  I’ll bet weakening unions will do little – if anything – to improve student performance, which in the final analysis is what is most important.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

6 Replies to “Higher spending no guarantee of higher results in schools”

  1. There is an old saying: It is not how much money you spend, it is how you spend it. In Florida, the per pupil expenditure is $7,400. This past year the legislature raised spending by $0.47 per pupil. Florida is in the bottom 10% in pupil expenditure and teacher salaries.
    It is no surprise that student test scores and graduation rates are not very good.
    It still disturbs me that teachers and their unions are blamed for almost everything. The last time I checked, contracts are signed by two parties. If people want to blame someone, look at your school boards and/or your mayors.
    If New York has some extra money, please send it to Florida.


  2. mathcoach2: You are absolutely right that how money is spent is the crucial element. Far greater control is needed or else nothing will change. Scapegoating unions is so easy, but boards of education sign contracts. If Janus prevails in the case before the US Supreme Court, unions will be severely weakened. We’ll then see if they are still blamed for all the ills afflicting education.


  3. NYS is, in many respects relevant to school spending, two states — 1) NYC, Long Island (Nassau County and Suffolk County to the east of the city) and Westchester County (to the north of the city); and 2) upstate (including Albany, Binghamton, Rochester, Buffalo and hundreds of small towns). NYC and the suburbs are politically liberal, pro-education spending and affluent (although there are, of course, millions of very poor people in NYC); upstate is politically conservative, neutral on education spending and relatively economically depressed.

    My guess is that the NYC/suburbs area — where the majority of students live — spends a lot more than the national average per pupil and that the upstate area spends about the national average per pupil. NYC/suburbs is an extremely expensive cost-of-living area. Upstate is about average or slightly below average re cost-of-living.

    NYC has a huge number — probably more than a million — of low-SES students whose test scores will substantially depress the state average. Doubt that any relatively liberal/affluent state has as high a percentage of low-SES students. NYC likewise has a huge number of special needs students. Combining liberal attitudes, affluence and large numbers of special-needs students, there will be a lot of $ spent on special needs students in NYC (as well as in the NYC suburbs where there are fewer special-needs students but where the parents/voters demand and receive extensive special services for the special-needs students.

    I have no info re class size in NYS relative to national averages. I know from personal experience that class size in the LI suburbs is much smaller than in Washington, DC suburbs that have virtually the same SES profile as the LI suburbs. If, in fact, NYS has — on average — smaller class sizes than the national average, this could go a long way towards explaining the per-pupil spending figures. That is, that NYS teacher salaries/benefits are not, as implied by the Post article, 2x the national average.


  4. Labor Lawyer: Your comment resonated in me because I received an excellent education from K-12 in the same public school district on Long Island, N.Y. Classes were small, teacher salaries were attractive, and facilities were well maintained. Of course, that was decades ago. But judging from the news regarding education in the suburbs, I think things have not changed that much. What I remember most vividly is the paucity of students from low-income families. Not everyone was affluent by any means, but no students were homeless or on welfare either. Parents complained about taxes, but overall they believed they got their money’s worth.


    1. At my 50th high school reunion (Syosset HS) two years ago, an asst principal (who had been at the school since the 1970s) conducted a group tour of the building and spoke at length re what was going on in the town and the high school today. More racially integrated (particularly many Asians) than the 1960s + higher SES than the 1960s + no homeless/all single-family homes (same as the 1960s) + higher SAT scores/many more AP classes than in the 1960s + longer school day (added an additional academic period) than the 1960s + 60-yr-old building looked in excellent condition + town is still a magnet for families looking for suburban school district that imposes high school taxes but promises excellent schools.

      There are important albeit rarely noted structural differences between LI school districts and Virginia school districts. In LI, school districts are small (usually only one high school with its feeder schools) + the elected school board has taxing authority. In Virginia, school districts are county-wide (therefore usually large — Fairfax County has 20+ high schools) + the elected school board has no taxing authority but rather depends on the Board of Supervisors for an annual distribution from the County budget. These differences mean that in LI districts, voters know that their school tax $ will be spent locally — not on high school pyramids 20 miles away + voters who are pro-education-spending but anti-govt-spending generally can vote for pro-spending school board candidates while voting for anti-spending Board of Supervisor candidates. In Virginia, by contrast, these pro-ed-spending/anti-govt-spending voters will usually vote for anti-spending BOS candidates who, when elected, provide limited funds for the school district. Bottom line — on LI, moderate to conservative upper-middle-class voters can/will support high school spending while in VA, these moderate to conservative upper-middle-class voters never get the opportunity to vote for high school spending.


  5. Labor Lawyer: We both attended high schools on Long Island in towns not that far apart. You are quite correct that school districts there are very small, typically with one high school and a few feeder schools. As a result, residents see directly how their taxes are spent. School board members are in touch with families, which makes the families feel respected. Large school districts lack these characteristics.


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