Editorial: Taxpayers agree to spend generously on education

Editorial: Taxpayers agree to spend generously on education
Photos Provided by Rivkin Radler

Long Island residents apparently don’t mind paying taxes. At least if the money is spent on education.

Out of 122 Long Island school budgets, voters rejected only two last week – Sachem and West Babylon, both in Suffolk County.

Every budget on the North Shore was approved, including Port Washington’s, whose 4.55% tax levy increase exceeded the state-mandated tax cap.

This meant the budget needed more than 60% of the vote. Which it got.

Like Port Washington, virtually all North Hempstead School districts approved budgets by lopsided margins.

Given that schools account for about two-thirds of the money raised through property taxes in Nassau, this seems surprising in a county where complaints about high taxes are common.

The new budgets push school spending per pupil in North Hempstead to new heights – an average of about $36,523 per student.

This includes the North Shore School District spending $46,830 per pupil, followed by East Williston at $43,428, Great Neck at $41,324 and Roslyn at $39,490.

North Hempstead’s 11 school districts spend among the highest amount per pupil  — if not the highest—in New York State.

The state average is estimated at $33,404, according to a recent report by the non-profit think tank The Empire Center.

This is more than double the national average of $15,633, based on 2022 figures, the most recent year with national figures available,

States like Florida and Texas, which have drawn many New Yorkers in recent years, are under $10,000 per pupil.

Most North Shore school spending is funded by property taxes, with state aid covering most, if not all, of the remaining expenditures.

State aid varied this year among K-12 districts, from Herricks, which received 20% of its revenue in state aid, to Manhasset, which received 5.12%.

State aid, paid mainly from the state income tax, was a major source of contention on Long Island.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget initially proposed a record $34.5 billion in school aid. This included enough money to comply with a court order that schools in New York provide a sound basic education to all students—as guaranteed by the state Constitution.

State Budget Director Blake Washington told Newsday the new budget followed three years in which school aid increased by $7 billion, with an additional $13 billion increase in federal aid during the same period.

“It’s now time for the state to provide a more sustainable level of funding,” Washington said.

This sounded reasonable for budget-conscious New Yorkers trying to keep a lid on state spending.

But that doesn’t appear to apply to school spending.

Hochul’s proposed budget included revisions to the state’s funding formula, including the elimination of the so-called “hold harmless” policy, which barred any decreases in state aid from year to year—no matter the school’s enrollment, and money for pre-K classes.

The elimination of the hold harmless policy had large implications for many school districts on Long Island. Some 94 of its 124 school districts—76%—saw declines in their student population from 2012-13 to the 2033-2023 school years.

Kings Park saw a 29% decrease in school enrollment over the past 10 years, Port Jefferson 26%, West Hempstead 23%, Smithtown 22% and Commack 21%.

In North Hempstead, Carle Place saw an 8.9% decline, East Williston 8.2%, and Manhasset 8.1%.

It seems reasonable that state aid would increase when enrollment rises and decrease when enrollment declines, all things being equal.

But that is not how it was seen on Long Island.

Republican Long Island Congressmen Anthony D’Esposito (NY-04), Andrew Garbarino (NY-02) and Nick LaLota (NY-01) called the cuts in state aid “shameful” and “Draconian.”

State Sen. Jack Martin (R-7th Senate District) titled his op-ed that appeared in Blank Slate Media’s six newspapers and website “They’re Cutting Bone.”

We wish these officials had expressed similar concern for students outside Long Island, who for decades attended schools that did not provide even a sound basic education, let alone spend $35,000 or $40,000 per pupil.

The Long Island Republican officials were joined by school and Democratic officials in demanding more state aid.  Perhaps, not coincidentally, all the congressional and state seats are on the ballot this fall.

Never mind the increase in the past three years, with New York already leading the nation in school aid to local districts and residents’ complaints that New York’s taxes are too high.

Hochul ultimately compromised with state legislators, increasing state aid to schools to $35.9 billion – more than 15% of the $237 billion total budget – and retaining the “hold harmless” policy.

Hochul has said the state will overhaul its school-aid formula to account for school districts that have lost enrollment in the future.

This seems to be a matter of common sense, especially on Long Island, where zoning restrictions drive up the price of existing homes and discourage the construction of new housing.

Hochul should also address what we call a public school system, but that often functions like a private school system with large disparities in spending per pupil

In North Hempstead, spending per pupil ranges between $46,830 in the North Shore School District to $25,233 in the Floral Park-Bellerose School District.

That is known as destiny by zip code.

New York City, which has just one school district, is projected to spend $31,256 per student in 2024. This is over $5,000 less than the average spending per student on the North Shore. Why?

In theory, public education should level the playing field and provide a pathway for future success. But in practice, it is doing just the opposite, in part funded by taxpayers from across the state whose children attend schools with less funding.

A system based on fairness would spend more per pupil in New York City, with its large population of new Americans, many of whom speak English as a second language, not less.

That is not politically possible.

But Hochul could look to narrow the disparity further by gradually eliminating foundation aid intended to guarantee a basic education from affluent school districts that spend more than the state average.

School districts that lose revenue under this plan could make up for the lost revenue by increasing the money raised through property taxes.

In turn, school districts whose spending per pupil is below the state average should be exempt from a state-mandated tax cap that requires 60% of the budget vote to exceed. This would give them a better chance to narrow the gap with higher-spending districts.

Hochul and the Legislature should also take a look at why the state’s national lead in spending per pupil does not appear to correspond with the ranking of its schools.

U.S. News & World Report recently ranked New York State fifth in pre-K-12 education, trailing Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

New York fared even worse in rankings done by the personal finance site WalletHub, based on performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials, to name a few.

The state ranked New York 22nd in the country, according to WalletHub.

It is true not all rankings are accurate, that the quality of public schools can vary greatly within a state and New York State has more than its fair share of new Americans who face language challenges.

It is also true that school spending on Long Island is inflated by the cost of living – driven in part by a shortage of housing.

But shouldn’t someone be checking to see if New York is getting the biggest bang for the many bucks it spends on education?

This may raise some difficult questions, like whether Nassau County really needs 56 school districts, superintendents, and boards or just wants it that way for other reasons. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a discussion.

The quality of education in a school district is not only a priority for parents of school-age children who want the best for their children. It also plays an important role in the value of homes within a school district.

Nassau County residents have shown with their votes that they understand this. The least that can be done is to ensure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and fairly.

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