A new national requirement that school districts disclose per-pupil spending for each school worries many Long Island educational leaders, who said the data could well convince the public that some students are being shortchanged, even when this is not the case.
On the opposite side, supporters of the new school-by-school reporting system, due for launch in December 2019, view the requirement as a means of encouraging greater educational equity. Such is especially the case for schools serving large numbers of black and Hispanic students in low-income neighborhoods, proponents said.
Public release of school-level spending figures is mandated by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, approved by Congress with bipartisan support in 2015.
The new disclosure rules, though little noticed initially, have sparked growing controversy as states have begun preparing for the rollout of per-pupil spending data. New York State Regents, who set educational policy, debated the topic for more than an hour last week, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pitched his own plan for greater spending transparency.
One regional school representative, Bob Vecchio, board president of the William Floyd district in Brookhaven Town, voiced concern about potential public reaction in his own community when the new dollar figures come out.
William Floyd, like many districts, concentrates many special-education classes in one of its 10 schools, Vecchio noted. Such classes are smaller and more expensive than regular academic classes — a fact that could lead to the false impression that that particular school receives favored financial treatment, he said.
“But now, when the media starts publishing figures, there’s not going to be an asterisk that says this building has more special-education students than the other buildings,” said Vecchio, who serves on the executive committee of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. “And if there is an asterisk, nobody’s going to read it.”
Advocates of the new reporting system said that potential problem could be solved — perhaps by counting educational costs of such students as a separate district expense.
The state already posts per-student spending figures on a district-by-district level, and that data also requires an explanation beyond the numbers themselves in order to be fully understood. For example, seven of the top 10 districts in terms of per capita spending on the Island enroll fewer than 400 students each, and thus cannot employ the same economies of scale as larger systems.
Across the Island, school administrators have objected to the extra paperwork that the transparency effort is likely to require. Federal regulations require breakdowns of spending from federal, state and local sources, along with data on students’ socioeconomic status.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in outlining the new system at the Regents’ meeting in Albany last week, acknowledged that the rollout represented a “heavy lift” for some districts.
“I can’t say people are jumping for joy over doing this,” said Elia, adding that the state would start developing guidelines this spring. “But I can say that they know it’s being done, why it’s being done and that ultimately, I think that it will provide more information to the public and to all of us.”
The commissioner added that extra spending data could be especially useful in analyzing needs of schools where achievement is low. Educational analysts have noted that such schools often are staffed with inexperienced teachers at beginning pay grades, because more experienced teachers with greater seniority and higher pay tend to opt for placement in schools serving more affluent neighborhoods.
Cuomo, in a statement issued March 12 argued for his own plan that would require 15 large school systems statewide, including Brentwood and Hempstead on the Island, to begin submitting school-by-school spending plans to the state for review and approval over the next two years.
“I believe the funds should follow student need, and poorer schools have greater needs,” the governor declared.
State and local school officials who have contacted legislative representatives in Albany have concluded that Cuomo’s proposal, which goes beyond federal requirements, has virtually no chance of adoption this year. Still, some districts already are drafting school-by-school numbers, in order to comply with whatever guidelines require.
Regina Armstrong, the acting superintendent in Hempstead, told Newsday on Thursday that her district has begun developing a “line-by-line budget” encompassing each of the system’s 10 schools.