EDITORIAL: State lawmakers must address high cost of education

Residents arrive to vote at Johnstown High School on May 21.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Residents arrive to vote at Johnstown High School on May 21.

State government this year has pretty much discarded any guise of fiscal responsibility, the tax-and-spend equivalent of ripping off your mask after a long day at work, running into the parking lot and breathing fresh, clean air.

With all the limitations on personal movement, the decline in tax revenue, the economic challenges faced by businesses and residents, and all the other fiscal restraints presented during the covid epidemic, you’d think our state leaders would have learned something about making do with less.

But instead, they went the opposite way and opened up the door to more spending.

The state budget this year increased $18 billion, to a record $212 billion, boosted by an influx of federal money that helped erase the pre-covid state deficit and allowed school districts and municipalities to resume their free-spending ways after months of pencil-biting budget tightening.

But while the covid crisis might be short-lived (hopefully), the late-covid spending spree will have permanent, long-term implications for generations of New York taxpayers — at least those who decide to remain here. And it has to be addressed.

New York’s battle to retain residents is well known, with the state losing about 1.5 million residents to other states over the past decade or so, the most in the country. At least some of that outmigration has been attributed to the state’s high taxes.

That degree if outmigration has already helped cost New York a congressional seat, and therefore influence over federal legislation and funding. It also means a loss in federal aid (which the state will have to make up), economic development and talent — the so-called “brain drain.”

One of the biggest sources of the state’s high taxes is education. And it’s there where state lawmakers should look to make changes.

We know, we know. You don’t want to hear it. Schools are underfunded if anything, and they need greater investment, not less.

And the education system —teachers, administrators and students — were stressed enough by the covid crisis. Why target education spending now?

Well, school spending is like a flood. At first the rise in water level is barely noticeable. Then it rises an inch, then another inch. And by the time it stops raining, you’re sitting on your roof waiting for the Coast Guard to come by.

That’s where New York is at.

Sure the state could continue to fund its spending growth by taxing big earners and businesses and by nickel-and-diming the rest of us by bumping up fees and taxes.

But it’s clear New Yorkers have reached the breaking point.

And education spending is a big contributor.

According to a Census Bureau report issued last week, New York spends $25,139 to educate each student in the state. That’s about $3,000 more than the next closest state, Connecticut, and almost double the national average of $13,187.

Yet in terms of student performance, New York ranks anywhere between eighth and 15th in overall performance (depending on the survey) and consistently at or near the middle of the 50 states in reading and math.

Other than the data being updated, none of this information should come as a surprise to most New Yorkers.

The question is: With spending increasing without a complementary increase in performance, when are we going to do something about it?

New York lawmakers need to finally start taking a serious look at why New York taxpayers are spending so much more than other states on education but not getting top results.

Everything should be on the table, from teacher training and education, to social and mental health issues, to salaries and facilities.

On the spending side, they might start with salaries, both for teachers and administrators.

According to the National Education Administration, New York’s teachers are the highest paid in the country, an average of $87,069.

That’s well above the national average of $65,090.

Certainly we don’t want to go back to the bad-old-days when teachers were vastly underpaid.

But lawmakers at least should look at why our state pays so much more in teacher salaries than other states, what are the driving forces, and what can be done to rein those salaries in to save taxpayers money.

Of course, powerful teachers unions play a big role. But maybe there’s more that can be done to reduce mandates on hiring or to empower school boards to have stronger negotiating positions.

Let’s also look at administrator salaries.

A recent report in The Gazette showed that 11 Capital Region school superintendents are paid more than $200,000, with average salary in the seven-county region reaching $170,000.

The national median salary is $165,200, which means we fall, as usual, on the high end of the curve.

Lawmakers also need to look at the distribution of state aid to ensure it’s going to the districts where it’s most needed.

This year, the state allocated a record $29.5 billion in aid, an 11% increase.

The state did take the opportunity to fix a problem it had ignored for a decade-and-a-half by increasing Foundation Aid to poor schools by $1.4 billion and phasing in the rest of the neglected aid over three years.

Restoring Foundation Aid was a good start to addressing the problems of small districts, but it came on top of, not in lieu of, other spending.

The state also added $105 million to expand or introduce publicly funded pre-kindergarten statewide.

We understand the benefits of pre-K, but can state taxpayers afford it?

While we can blame state lawmakers, the governor and unions for the spending levels, taxpayers also need to take some responsibility.

While they don’t approve the state budget, citizens do vote on their local school budgets, which have been creeping steadily upward even with a 2% tax cap.

On Tuesday, New Yorkers approved 99.3 % of local school budgets (680 out of 685), representing an average increase in per-pupil spending of 4.2%.

If you hate high taxes, stop voting for them.

We understand that education is a complex issue with many challenges.

We understand no one group can share all the blame for how much spending has gotten out of hand.

And we understand that there are plenty of other reasons for high taxes in New York beyond education spending that need to be addressed.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be looking at the high spending and taxes in a vacuum.

We just know that New Yorkers are drowning in taxes, and school spending is a big part of the reason.

At some point in the very near future, the state has to seriously and directly address it through an honest and thorough examination of how we educate our students and how we pay for it.

Why not start now?

 

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial stated that New York experienced a net decline in population. New York’s population actually increased slightly over the past decade. 

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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