Back to school: Enrollment in New York declines, but school spending rises

Chad Arnold
Albany Bureau

ALBANY – There will be fewer students enrolled in New York public schools when classes begin next month than there were a decade ago, and the number of teachers in the state has fallen during the same period. 

But spending across New York's nearly 700 school districts has steadily increased, in some cases by as much as 30% over the last 10 years, a review of state data by USA TODAY Network New York found.

The numbers vary by district, with those in rural parts of the state experiencing the greatest losses in student population, while districts in and around New York City seeing a slight uptick in some cases — a trend in line with the state's ongoing population loss.

But even with some districts seeing gains, student enrollment statewide has dropped 4.5% since the 2009-10 school year when there were 2.7 million students. There were just over 2.5 million students enrolled as of last year.

As a result, the number of active educators in the state has fallen 7% after climbing to 285,774 in 2010.

There were 263,500 active educators in the state when the past school year ended June 30, according to the state Teachers Retirement System. The number also includes non-teachers, such as guidance counselors and principals.

Spending faces scrutiny

Critics say schools should use the declining numbers as a way to pare back spending, which in New York is 90% above the national average and has been increasing in recent years. 

"They (school districts) don't see it as an opportunity for saving, they see it as an opportunity for re-seeding the football field or something," said E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank based in Albany.

"They always find another way to spend the money."

But the state's School Boards Association and teachers union point to increased personnel costs and shifting student demographics — which they say has led to a teacher shortage in some speciality areas — as reason for the spending increases.

And the School Boards Association said voter-approved budgets each May are a sign New Yorkers are satisfied with the amount their districts are spending. Few budgets fail each year.

"It's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach, you really have to look at it almost in a district-by-district, or region-by-region basis...to see the population of student the district is serving," David Albert, the association's spokesman, said. 

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A closer look 

New York's declining enrollment comes as the state continues to lose population.

More than a million people have left the state since 2010, mostly from rural upstate portions of the state, according to Census data. And the decline has also led to a drop in enrollment in state colleges, particularly at community colleges.

But even with enrollment on the decline, district spending has continued to increase.

Rising healthcare costs for personnel and collective bargaining agreements are the main factors behind the trend, Albert said. 

"Labor is always going to be the largest component of a school district's budget," he said.

But the number of active teachers in the state continued to grow until 2010 even as enrollment began to decline.

The number of teachers only began to decrease once the recession took hold a decade ago and state implemented a 2% tax cap in 2011, Albert said.

The tax cap — which requires local municipalities and school districts to limit spending unless they receive 60% approval by voters — was made permanent by lawmakers this past legislative session. 

But while local spending has been capped, state aid for education has grown by 42% since 2012. It reached $27.9 billion this school year.

"If they have more money, they spend it," McMahon said.

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Ways to cut costs

School districts should be looking at their demographics in order to find ways to reduce spending and address the needs of students, McMahon said.

"Unless you're willfully blind to it, you know what your district demographics are now and are likely to be in the future," McMahon said. 

The decline in enrollment has been steady, McMahon said, meaning districts don't have to resort to layoffs to reduce staff, they can simply choose not to fill a position once someone retires. 

But a desire for smaller class sizes by parents and teachers makes downsizing difficult, McMahon said. 

"Unless it's a sudden change in enrollment you don't see much change in staffing budgets."

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Shifting demographics 

The issue is more complicated than that, said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers union.

"While we see this decrease in students, what we are seeing an increase in are the needs of the students that we do have," she said. 

The union has identified 16 areas of education short on teachers, including special education, elementary education and English as a second language. 

"The shortage is very widespread across New York state and in certain areas it's quite acute," DiBrango said. 

Complicating matters even further is New York's aging teacher population.

A third of teachers in the state will be eligible to retire in the next five years, DiBrango said, and even with declining enrollment, most jobs will need to be filled.

But the pipeline to replace those retiring has been reduced to a trickle in recent years.

"We've seen a 47% decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs in New York state," DiBrango said. 

The state's Department of Education has sought to address the shortage in recent years by reinstating individual teacher evaluations for certain speciality areas and providing grants to incentivize entering the field. 

"The Board of Regents and Department have and will continue to implement strategies to ensure that there are opportunities for high-quality candidates to enter the education professions," a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement. 

"We're very concerned about this," DiBrango said.

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A 'sticky issue'

But even with declining student enrollment, education spending is a "sticky issue," McMahon said. 

"(Districts) don't have fewer buses, they don't have fewer guidance counselors, or staff psychologists or librarians and teachers. It takes a while for that to be felt in their expenditures," he said.

But 98% of New Yorkers approved school budgets on their first try this year, said Paul Heiser, a research analyst for the state's School Boards Association.

"If voters are unhappy about the level of per pupil spending in their district, they're certainly not showing it at the ballot box," he said. 

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