NYC spends a record $28K per student, but the state is footing a smaller portion of that bill

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted the state’s record-high spending on education during his administration. 

But over the past three decades, including under Cuomo’s leadership, the state has picked up a smaller portion of the tab for New York City schools, according to a report on school spending from the city’s Independent Budget Office, or IBO, released Monday. 

New York City spends $28,808 per student, on average, according to the annual report analyzing three decades of school spending. That number includes pension obligations and debt service, which make up a chunk of the total budget but are costs that have grown since 1990, the report shows. Without accounting for those factors, the city spends significantly more per student than most other large, urban districts — in some cases, upwards of $10,000 more. 

The state’s share of the city’s school budget has dropped by more than 11 percentage points over the past three decades and just under 2 percentage points since Cuomo took office in 2011, the report shows. The city’s share of spending has grown by nearly 14 percentage points. 

At the same time, with some fluctuation, both the city and state have boosted how many dollars they’re investing in the system at a rate that surpassed inflation, said Dave Friedfel, director for state studies at Citizens Budget Commission. The state spent $11.2 billion on city schools last year, $3 billion more than in 1990, while the city spent $20 billion last year, or $11.6 billion more than in 1990.  

In 1990, the city picked up about 46% of the cost to educate New York City students, while the state picked up nearly 45%, and the federal government paid for about 9%. This fiscal year, the state’s share of spending dropped to its lowest-ever level in 30 years, to 33.6% of the city’s education budget. The city’s share hiked up to its highest level in that same time period — to 60.1%. The federal government contributed 5.7%.

“I think the most important thing is whether or not school districts — and New York City being one — have enough funding to provide a sound basic education,” Friedfel said. 

The report comes amid New York’s annual political battle over school spending and boosting Foundation Aid, a formula that is supposed to calculate more state dollars for high-needs districts. But following the recession, it was never fully phased in at the levels promised, education policymakers have said. 

Advocates, education-focused organizations, state lawmakers, and city officials are pushing the state to contribute more money following the release of Cuomo’s budget proposal last week, which calls for boosting school spending by $826 million — including just under 2% more than last year for the city’s schools. That would indeed increase school spending to its highest-ever levels in New York, but it’s less than half of the $2 billion boost that groups such as the state teachers union and the state’s Board of Regents has requested. 

In his proposal, Cuomo is also pushing once again to change the Foundation Aid formula as an attempt to ensure more dollars are going to the schools that need it the most.

“We stretch every dollar to support schools, and this administration has made an unprecedented commitment to funding schools, leading to record-high graduation and college enrollment rate,” said Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman for the city’s education department, in a statement. 

She added that the state continues “to owe our students over $1 billion each year,” referring to $1.1 billion in Foundation Aid that city officials say they’re owed under the formula. 

Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of the Budget, said in a statement that state funding for city schools has increased by $3.6 billion since fiscal year 2012 — the start of the governor’s administration — while still limiting the growth of the overall state budget to under 2%. He noted the city’s increased spending but did not answer a question about why the state’s overall share of the city’s education budget has dropped over the years. 

Sarita Subramanian, an education analyst with the IBO, said one reason why the state’s share of money appears to have dropped over the years is that Foundation Aid has never been fully implemented. 

“So I think you’re seeing the ramifications of that in increased city funding,” Subramanian said. 

But city funding is not level at all city schools. A city formula called Fair Student Funding is designed to send more dollars to schools with larger shares of high-need students, such as students with disabilities or children who are learning English as a new language.

The Fair Student Funding formula has contributed to New York City spending significantly more money at higher needs schools, compared to the state’s other large school districts. But the formula has drawn criticism – not every school receives 100% of the money it should, which the city blames on state underfunding, leaving school leaders to point out what they could do with full funding, such as having more after-school classes. Critics have questioned a part of the formula that sends extra dollars to high-achieving, selective schools. 

In 2018, the city moved to give every school at least 90% of the money it’s owed under the city formula. That year, it cost the city another $125 million. That increase was “anticipated to be filled with state funds” that didn’t come, Subramaniam said.

The widening gap between city and state spending caught the attention of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization that has fought for the full funding of Foundation Aid. It’s true that both the city and the state have been spending more money over the past 30 years, but the city continues to take a higher share as the needs of the district are growing, said Marina Marcou-O’Malley, policy and operations director for the Alliance for Quality Education. 

For example, she pointed to the number of homeless students the city is now serving. There are about 114,000 students without permanent housing in New York City, one of the highest numbers ever recorded.  

“Over the last 10 years, the need in New York City has grown tremendously,” Marcou-O’Malley said. “We have a city that has over 70% of economically disadvantaged students, and that’s a lot of need.”