The New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) mission is to “raise the knowledge, skill and opportunity of all the people in New York.” It is responsible for the general supervision of all educational activities within New York State, including public and private educational institutions, but also libraries, state museums and archives, and the public broadcasting office. NYSED is governed by the Board of Regents, a 17-member body elected to five-year terms by the Legislature with four at-large members and one member from each of New York’s 13 judicial districts. NYSED’s commissioner, currently Dr. John King, is appointed by the Regents.

NYSED’s fiscal year 2015 operations budget is $495 million, and it employs the full-time equivalent of about 3,100 staff members. Its reach is even broader than these figures suggest— its prekindergarten to 12th grade education activities alone, for example, affect what happens to $59 billion in state, federal and local resources devoted to public elementary-secondary education. (See Figure 1.) Fully $23.3 billion of the total is school aid disseminated to school districts through multiple formulas NYSED oversees. Each year the Regents make recommendations to the Legislature about how these funds should be allocated, although the Legislature is ultimately responsible for setting the formulas in statute. There are two important challenges: ensuring state school aid is targeted to the neediest districts so they have adequate resources, and improving performance so New York is as much a leader in student outcomes as it is in per-pupil spending.

New York was the top per-pupil spender among states on public elementary-secondary education in 2012. New York spent $19,552 per student, compared with $10,608 on average nationally, and $16,274 and $17,266 on average in the neighboring states of Connecticut and New Jersey, respectively. (See Figure 2.) Average total per-pupil spending in New York was 84 percent more than the national average, a disparity driven largely by high teacher compensation and fringe benefits costs. Instructional salaries and wages in New York averaged $8,313 per pupil, 94 percent higher than the national average of $4,287; and instructional employee fringe benefits in New York averaged $4,233 per pupil, 169 percent higher than the national average of $1,573.

NYSED faces many challenges in leading New York’s massive educational enterprise forward. Chief among them is ensuring that New York’s 3.1 million schoolchildren all receive a 21st century education regardless of their socioeconomic status. Although the main goal of school aid is to make up for differences in resources that occur from wealth, income and student need, reaching that goal has proved elusive in New York. School aid formulas remain seriously flawed; Regents’ recommendations to improve them by better targeting resources to the neediest districts and students have been rejected by the Legislature. The formulas contain numerous “save-harmless” provisions to guarantee increases for more affluent districts, and have not been appropriately adjusted to reflect demographic changes including enrollment, student need and district ability to pay over the years.

The other part of the resource challenge for NYSED is helping to ensure that New York’s sizable education dollars are spent providing top-notch educational opportunities, in essence delivering “bang for the buck.” Student performance should reflect New York’s position as a top spender, but performance has not been as high as spending; Education Week’s 2014 K–12 Education Achievement Index grade for New York was 70.2, the same as the national average, based on comparative metrics, such as graduation rates and test scores on national assessments.

To improve outcomes relative to national and international competitors, NYSED has led the charge to implement the more rigorous Common Core curriculum and a new evaluation system for teachers called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Both have been controversial. Educators and parents have complained that the Common Core, meant to bring what U.S. students are learning each year up to international standards, is being implemented too rapidly. Legislation included with the Fiscal Year 2015 budget mandates better communication with parents about the Common Core, limits the amount of test preparation teachers are allowed to conduct in their classrooms, prohibits “bubble testing” for children in grades K–2 and restricts the use of test data. APPR has met with resistance from teachers’ unions, which oppose the use of student performance measures in teacher evaluations.

To move its ambitious agenda forward, NYSED will need Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other allies to continue to make the case that New Yorkers are not getting the results they deserve for the amount they are spending. Increasing the cost effectiveness of the education system is critical if New York is to be economically competitive.

Elizabeth Lynam is the vice president and director of state studies with the Citizens Budget Commission.