Funding fight

New York spends more per student than any other state. A new study suggests it should spend more.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity gather in 2016 before their 150-mile walk from New York City to Albany.

Education advocates have insisted the state has skimped on funding its schools. But New York State already has the highest per-student funding rate of any in the country — could moving that number up make a difference?

The answer is yes, according to a new study of over 600 districts across the state — the first of its kind to look at the recent effects of increased school spending in New York. The researchers found that increased per-student spending led to higher math and reading scores on state tests.

The findings add new evidence to a heated debate that has raged for decades about whether the state’s schools are adequately funded, an issue that actress Cynthia Nixon has made a pillar of her underdog campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Set to be published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, the study takes advantage of a provision in the state’s funding formula known as “Save Harmless” that allows districts to maintain their funding even if they lose students. Since many districts across the state have suffered enrollment declines, they have boosted the amount of money they spend per student. (New York City was excluded from the study because of its unusually large size and technical issues matching its data with other districts.)

By comparing districts that lost students — resulting in more money spent per remaining student — with those that saw smaller declines, the researchers were able to isolate the effect of the funding increases. Using data from 2007 through 2015, they found that a $1,000 in increase  per student corresponded with an increase of one-seventh of a grade level in math and one-ninth of a grade level in English. (On average, districts spend just over $23,000 per student across the state, a 15 percent increase since 2007.)

“The fact that we find positive effects of increased spending even in New York State, which boasts the highest per-pupil spending in the country, suggests that resources are important even above some adequacy threshold,” wrote co-authors Philip Gigliotti and Lucy Sorensen, both affiliated with the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany.

Their research is the latest evidence linking increased school spending to positive outcomes for students, including graduation rates, lifetime wages, and college attendance. State-level studies in California, Massachusetts, and Ohio have also found benefits of increased spending. On the flipside, Great Recession spending cuts appeared to have negative consequences on students.

The new evidence bolsters the case of education advocates in New York who have argued the state owes schools billions of dollars under a 2006 legal settlement that found the state needed to pump more money into schools so they could offer a “sound basic education.” That has been a centerpiece of Nixon’s campaign for governor, and her education plan calls for $7 billion in new funding. For his part, Cuomo argues that education spending has increased under his watch and that the overall amount of funding is not the key issue.

“It’s not about how much money we spend,” Cuomo said earlier this year. “We spend more than anybody else in the United States of America. It’s who gets the funds and what is the racial equity, the geographic equity?”

Still, the authors note that their findings come with some caveats.

First, their study focuses on districts that lost enrollment, mostly in upstate New York. That means their findings could be less relevant among districts that have seen enrollment hold steady or even increase.

Second, there could be factors associated with declining enrollment that the study doesn’t account for. While the authors control for changes in student demographics associated with the enrollment declines, other factors that could contribute to changes in performance, such as student motivation, are more difficult to measure.

Third, it’s hard to know why the spending increases boosted student achievement. One possible answer is that many of the schools reduced class sizes, the authors note, which has been linked to gains in student achievement. But the study does not focus on how the funding was spent and what drove the gains in student learning.

One national study showing benefits of court-ordered spending found the new money went toward lower class size, higher teacher pay, and longer school years. (The study also doesn’t look at whether maintaining funding for districts that lost students, typically more rural districts, is the most effective use of that money.)

Finally, the authors caution against interpreting their results as evidence that increased funding is a silver bullet, especially in reducing disparities in student achievement between students of different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds. Increasing per-student spending by $1,000 would only close the national gap between rich and poor students by roughly 5 percent, Gigliotti said.

“These effects are moderate,” he added. “They don’t imply that achievement gaps are something we can overcome by just spending our way out of the problem.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.