31 January 2017

New York State: Schools Way Out of Control

Stephen Kershnar
Education Spending and the Middle-Class-Parent Test
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 23, 2017

            New Yorkers who just paid their taxes have got to be wondering why they let their schools spend beyond any sense of decency.   

            Consider the spending orgy. Emma Brown writing in The Washington Post report that in 2013, the U.S. states’ education spending averaged $10,700. This is generous. In contrast, New York spends $19,800, $9,000 more per student than average. This is outrageous.

To see this another way, consider that in 2013, New York school districts spent $59 billion on the public elementary-secondary school system. Only California spent more ($66 billion) and it has nearly twice as many people. All this spending accomplishes little. Nationally, the Education Week Resource Center found that New York’s schools are at best average when compared by math and reading proficiency in the 4th and 8th grades. 

Even in this big spending state, Dunkirk and Fredonia hold their own. A 2016 Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data found that per student Dunkirk spends a piggish $25,200 per student. Fredonia is less piggish, but still plenty piggy, at $21,500 per student.

Someone has to pay for all this spending, which unsurprisingly leads to a weighty tax burden. The U.S. Census Bureau (again using 2013 numbers) found New York to be among the select few states that spend more than $55 on schools per $1,000 in personal income.

            New Yorkers’ generosity can be seen in that fellow citizens in effect give the average family with two children $40,000 a year. This gift is rarely accompanied by gratitude. When was the last time you heard a mother of three children thank her fellow citizens for the nearly $60,000 in benefits her family was given? You are more likely to hear her complain about some benefit she thinks her children are entitled to, but didn’t receive. When the complaint comes from an unwed mother without real income, this is a bit much.    

            Here is a rule of thumb for when school spending is an unjust burden on taxpayers. If most middle class parents would not spend their own money for a school with all the bells and whistles, it is wrong to force others to do so. On this test, if most middle class parents would not pay an extra $9,000 a year for a school that has gym, shop, art, music, drama, etc., then taxpayers shouldn’t be made to do so. The same is true for afterschool drama, music, and sports programs or for the army of extra administrators as well as the nurses, guidance counselors, psychologists, and so on that drive up school costs. The underlying idea here is that if the person who most loves a child and stands to benefit from her success does not think a school with all the fixings is worth the money, neither should taxpayers.  

            Even if the amount of money spent on schools were reasonable, it is worth considering whether more of the spending should focus on core subjects, specifically, English, history, math, and science. It is an interesting question whether the array of programs and employees lessen the focus on the most important subjects.
A common objection to the above line of criticism is that regardless of whether they have cheap parents, the discretionary programs benefit children. Because children should be our priority, the spending is worthwhile.

One problem with this objection is that it is unclear whether these programs would disappear if they weren’t in the public schools. Many children do not receive free or subsidized food and yet eat well. Similarly, many sports and arts programs would exist in the private sector were they not paid for by taxpayers. Travel teams in soccer, hockey, and wrestling and private dance studios are often very well coached and run, and are at least as good as their public school counterparts. If the concern is for the poor, then they could be subsidized directly in the way that Medicaid, food stamps, and free school lunches do so. Surely, this is more efficient than making taxpayers pay for recreational activities of doctors’ and lawyers’ kids.  

            A second problem with this objection is that not every benefit is worth the cost and it is far from clear that outside of the core curriculum, government-school programs in states like New York and California are worth the cost. Were the money spent on such programs returned to taxpayers or, perhaps, spent by the government elsewhere, it would do quite a lot of good. Whether it would do more good than the current spending on discretionary programs in government schools is an empirical question and not that one can be answered merely by citing a benefit to students.

            The real problem with the spending level, though, isn’t whether it is displacing private programs or making the world a better place, it’s the sheer weight of school taxes. Were New York to have excellent schools, rather than mediocre ones, taxes would still be too damn high. People have their own projects in life. They want to have children, buy houses, invest in their own businesses, give to charities, or work fewer hours. Forcing them every year to hand over thousands of hard earned dollars for other people’s children is unreasonable, especially when the money is spent guidance counselors, golf coaches, school psychologists, additional administrators, and so on. Many people would rather spend their money on themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For some people, their property tax burden costs as much as their mortgage. For some retirees, taxes painfully cut into their income. For all but the wealthy, property taxes in New York are obnoxious. The fact that parents of school age children seem to ungrateful for how hard their neighbors had to work to pay for their children to go to a school with all the bells and whistles just pours salt into the wound. 

New York needs to reduce school spending to a decent level. 

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