Public schools

Down 136,000 Students in Just Four Years, New York City's Public Schools Manage To Spend Billions More

Look for these budgetary swindles at a failing K-12 system near you.


In just four years, according to newly released enrollment figures, the municipally operated portion of the New York City public school system has lost more than 136,000 students, or roughly the same population as the entire city of Pasadena, California. And yet not only has the annual Department of Education (DOE) budget increased over that time—by $4 billion, no less—the schools are set to go on an expensive hiring spree, thanks to a new statewide class-reduction law.

If that sounds like government dysfunction bordering on the openly malfeasant, well, welcome to New York. Sadly for the rest of you people, the pathologies and policies and tactics on display in the five boroughs are being emulated in big cities all over the country.

The four-year, 14 percent reduction in enrollment, coupled with the budget hike, means that per-student spending in city-administered schools has grown by 22 percent, to more than $31,000, according to the DOE. Yet that's almost certainly an undercount.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan nonprofit watchdog, in April put the estimated per-student cost this fall at $38,000, with more growth projected on the way: "more than $41,000 in fiscal year 2026," and then "adding unbudgeted yet likely collective bargaining costs, per-student spending would reach nearly $44,000 in fiscal year 2026."

A key driver of these imminent cost increases is a five-year class-size reduction mandate signed into law last year by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. Beginning this fall, 20 percent of NYC-operated classes must stick to 20 kids from kindergarten through third grade, 23 students from fourth to eighth, and 25 for high schoolers. The New York City Independent Budget Office in July estimated that full compliance (when applied to 2021–22 budget/enrollment numbers) would require hiring 17,700 new teachers, and an additional annual budgetary bump of between $1.6 billion and $1.9 billion.

Class-size reduction has long been a go-to formula for teachers unions to increase hiring, or at least ameliorate the layoffs that come when the math of per-student funding butts up against massive consumer repudiation of an ostensibly free product. It also increases the delta between city-operated and charter-operated schools, the latter of which are typically outside of big public-sector labor negotiations.

Enrollment at New York City charters—the number of which are artificially capped by the state government—has increased by 9 percent over the past three years to 141,000, even as government schools continue to experience what Mayor Eric Adams correctly described in 2022 as "massive hemorrhaging." The taxpayer portion of per-student costs at the privately run charters is less than $18,000, though they typically receive space at existing schools, and have access to additional outside funding.

Aside from the comparatively poorer performance of its public schools, New York—like the rest of the country, only more so—is experiencing a startling out-migration of families with school-aged children. The Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan policy nonprofit, released a report in June titled "Young Families Have Not Returned to Large Cities Post-Pandemic." The quadruple whammy of COVID-19 restrictions (especially on schools), remote work, preexisting high prices, and public disorder have combined to make big urban centers repellant to people with young kids.

Since the pandemic, "major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco," the report concludes, "have seen some of the largest declines among young families of any large counties in America, all greater than 10 percent. New York City's under-five population was 12.5 percent smaller in July 2022 than April 2020." New York's public-school kindergarten class has shrunk by 17 percent over the past seven years.

These declines are taking place even amid a migrant crisis that's roiling New York City politics. Adams this week said that 18,000 asylum seekers have entered the public school system, with more on the way. He is busy lobbying Washington for more aid money, which could conceivably paper over the DOE budget gap for a semester or two.

But the system as it stands bears all the markings of a vicious policy circle. More than one-third of New York City's gargantuan budget is spent on a system that tens of thousands of families each year are hell-bent on escaping. The only thing keeping enrollment numbers from pure free-fall is an influx of nonnative–English speakers experiencing major life disruptions. The school and public-order dysfunction that Adams campaigned against has not been meaningfully improved on his watch.

From the perspective both of young families and taxpayers, there is no reason to expect any of this to get better, which is why both groups are voting with their feet. The pandemic-cursed year of 2020 continues to look like a needle-scratch across the vinyl of American life. God help those who aim to fix the cornucopia of resulting problems, and damn those trying to squeeze one last drop of personal gain from the rag they've already wrung dry.