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Commentary By Bob McManus

Money for nothing: the ugly truth about NYC’s schools

Education Pre K-12

The feds report that New York’s public schools are awash in cash, a conclusion impossible to dispute. Now the question becomes this: When it comes to education spending, how much is enough?

Here’s one answer: Anything short of all the money in the world will never be enough to satisfy New York’s parasitical public-education cartel.

And never mind, say, the city’s corroding mass-transit system.

Here’s the latest news, courtesy of the US Census Bureau and the Empire Center for Public Policy’s E.J. McMahon: Per-pupil public-school spending in 2014-15 exceeded the national average by a breathtaking 86 percent. And total school spending ($64.8 billion) was greater than the entire current state budgets of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined ($59.5 billion).

More to the point, says the Empire Center, “School spending in New York [state] was driven primarily by instructional salaries and benefits — which, at $14,769 per pupil, were 114 percent above the national average of $6,903, the census data show.”

Translation: New York’s teachers are the nation’s best paid — with benefits to match. And because money means everything in public education — just ask the advocates — New York’s schools must be among America’s best. Right?

Not really. If anything, New York’s public schools are mediocre — and none more so than New York City’s 1,800 non-charter schools. Sure, some are great — but most aren’t and overall, the city Department of Education doesn’t begin to produce results commensurate with the $22,000 it spent per pupil last year.

Remember, the city has a high-school dropout rate exceeding 30 percent (probably much higher when GED program manipulation and other scams are factored in). A recent independent study showed that as many as 60 percent of city kids who managed to graduate can’t do college-level work without extensive remediation.

So there’s the dilemma: New York’s schools are wealthy beyond reason in a state otherwise strapped for public resources — and overall classroom performance is embarrassingly poor. It’s as if there’s a disconnect between the two.

Which, of course, there is.

In some parallel universe, this circumstance might be taken as a challenge to do better — to raise performance to a level that justifies the spending.

But not in New York. Here, the practice is to camouflage dysfunction with deceit, to resist reasonable reform with high-decibel bombast and — always and forever — to demand more money.

And why not? It works — for the establishment, anyway.

In New York City, United Federation of Teachers President Mike Mulgrew leveraged his union’s vast treasury into effective control of the schools — enticing Mayor de Blasio to sign a teachers-union contract so rich that it’ll blow out the next round of Census Bureau spending stats; hobbling charter-school and related reforms; and effectively silencing discussion of school-performance shortfalls.

For Mulgrew, that’s still not enough. “If [Gov. Cuomo’s education] budget proposal becomes law,” he said last winter, “then I am sorry folks. Our governor [will have done] more harm to public education than any other governor in the history of New York state.”

Much if this is kabuki. In the end, Mulgrew not only got the state budget he wanted — the plushest in the nation, as reflected in the Census stats, got even fatter — but he appears to have coerced Cuomo into walking away from reforms the governor previously supported strongly.

Among them, at least for now, was a proposal to increase the number of charter schools in New York City. While the issue isn’t settled — the Legislature might yet come through before it adjourns later this month — that won’t happen without a vicious fight.

That’s because charter schools represent an almost existential threat to the gravy train reflected in the Census Bureau figures.

Almost a generation of experience demonstrates that they work — not perfectly, but better than the average New York City public school. And they do so without the feather-bedding work rules and other impediments to actual education that make up the UFT ethic.

No wonder Mulgrew wants them to die.

And then there’s this: New York’s budgeteers — both at City Hall and in Albany — have had an easy time of it in recent years. Cash has been pouring in.

But both city Comptroller Scott Stringer and his Albany counterpart, Tom DiNapoli, have been warning for months of a softening economy — and this comes at a time when competition for mass-transit, social-services and housing dollars is increasing sharply.

If nothing else, a summer of collapsing subway service stands to prompt a long-overdue look at the gap between spending and performance in New York’s public schools. If other big states do better, more cheaply, why can’t we?

This time, bombast and deceit may not be enough.

Bob McManus is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post