Recently, I heard on the radio an audio clip of New York’s Governor Cuomo remarking that he was proud that New York spends the most on education of any state in the union. I was a bit taken aback, being under the impression that New York’s national educational standing has been somewhere in the middle of the 50 states, which to me represents a very poor return on our educational investment. This Politico story covered Cuomo’s announcement, and the dramatic change in his position it represented.
A recent opinion piece in the New York Post appears to support my view, and not just in the area of education. While some its conclusions are a bit suspect — for example, I’m not sure the poverty spending figures and results account for the far better Medicaid benefits New York provides, which may represent a good return on investment — the general thrust of the article, that Texas and Florida spend far less than New York and California, and do not do appreciably worse on many metrics, especially those of interest to the average citizen, seems valid.
If New York’s greater spending does not result in superior programmatic results, how can it be explained or justified? One answer may be that New York’s inherent costs are higher due to, for example in the education sphere, harder to educate students. While there certainly are large concentrations of high need students in New York, I suspect there also are in Florida and Texas. Teacher and administrator pay are probably higher in New York than in lower spending states, but excessive salaries are wasted money, especially in the absence of superior results, and it is hard to conclude that Texas and Florida teachers are grossly underpaid (especially when working hours, tenure security and health and retirement benefits are considered). According to this site, teacher salaries average about $80,000 in New York and $50,000 in Florida. That is a significant difference, but New York’s highest in the nation tax burden accounts for over a fifth of the difference. For example, for 2012, the Tax Foundation ranks New York as having the highest state and local tax burden in the nation, at 12.7% (a little over $10,000 off that $80,000). Florida, by contrast, has a burden of 8.9% (a little less than $4500 off $50.000). Other cost of living differences, harder to ascertain, further narrow (but do not close) the gap. I am not saying New York teachers are overpaid in an absolute sense — their jobs are important, their work often stressful, and the value of the service they provide is, especially when performed well, invaluable. But are they worth spending 50-100% more to maintain for similar results?
Based on anecdotal evidence of superintendent compensation in New York, no doubt the disparities in administrators’ salaries are similar or greater, and other excess spending may go toward consultants, contractors and other things (such as waste and corruption) that don’t necessarily improve results.
If the Post’s conclusions are to be believed, the spending difference in New York does not directly benefit the primary beneficiaries of the system — the students — though it does appear to benefit the largest group secondary beneficiaries — the teachers, and the administrators above them. In New York, teachers, through their unions, have been effective at getting ever-increasing pieces of the educational spending pie, and in spinning their gains as investments in the “children.” The latter appears, as explained above, not to be true; how you feel about the former depends on what you feel the appropriate level of teacher compensation and other spending should be in a system that produces the results seen in New York.