Fact-Checking Cuomo's New York Education Numbers

Attention policy wonks! Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared in his State of the State address last week that New York is "No. 1 in spending but 34 in terms of results" when it comes to education. But according to a new analysis released Tuesday by an established education watchdog, New York is actually doing much, much better than that.

Education Week, which publishes the annual "Quality Counts" guide, ranked New York State No. 2 in the nation in a comprehensive analysis of policy and performance with an overall grade of B. Maryland ranked first, with a grade of B+, and Massachusetts came in third with a B.

Although this year's ranking on "Quality Counts" is unusually high, New York "is actually a perennial top-ranking state" said Christopher Swanson, Vice President for Editorial Projects in Education, which is the non-profit that publishes Education Week.

"Quality Counts" looks at student achievement and the performance of low-income versus high-income students, along with state financing to districts and issues of equity. It also examines standards and teacher professionalism.

Swanson said one reason for New York's high ranking is that the state spends so much money on education compared to others. As Cuomo noted, New York does spend more than any other state (averaging almost $17,000 per pupil). But it's high even when adjusted for regional costs, said Swanson, even though Wyoming spends more per student in that calculation. New Jersey also ranks very high in school spending (coming in seventh overall on the list). And New York's funding is considered pretty equitable, with a much smaller gap between its highest and lowest spending districts than the top-ranked Alaska.

When Cuomo said New York ranked 34th among states in education, his press secretary said he was talking about U.S. Census figures for educational attainment. On that chart New York ranks worse than average for the percentage of adults with a high school degree or more (84 percent). But it actually ranks higher than average in terms of adults with a bachelor's degree or more (28 percent). 

But the "Quality Counts" guide ranked New York No. 8 for student achievement, giving it a C compared to the average grade of D plus for states.

"We look at achievement fairly holistically," Swanson said. He said New York is at or above national benchmarks in reading, though gains have actually slipped in 8th grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But gaps between poor and non-poor students on those national math and reading tests have closed faster than any other state in the nation, Swanson said.

The state also does well on policy indicators such as standards (earning an A), and connecting K-12 education to what's needed in higher education, he said. The state just won a federal Race to the Top grant worth almost $700 million.

But even if Cuomo's assessment isn't quite so dire, Swanson cautions that no states should rest on their laurels -- especially at a time of budget cuts. Federal stimulus dollars are running out this year.

Those states on the bottom of the "Quality Counts" ranking include South Dakota, Nebraska and Washington, D.C.