Organizations across New York and the country last week observed National School Choice Week to raise awareness of the educational pathways that exist outside of residentially-assigned public school systems. But what does “school choice” really mean? And how does New York rank in terms of allowing families to choose the best school for their child? 

School choice centers around the idea that a student’s allotment of public education funds should be used at any school of a family’s choice – instead of being automatically directed to the public school in their district.

Families who had the means have been enjoying a version of “school choice” for decades by moving to a zip code with higher-quality public schools, by paying tuition at a private school, or by homeschooling. For others who can’t afford to leave the local system, school choice may take the form of private tutoring at personal expense. But for many parents in New York, they get only one “choice”: their district public school, no matter how well it prepares their child for life.  

Other states have paved the way for all families to exercise school choice. In the past week alone, both Pennsylvania and Iowa took big steps to give students more options. Pennsylvania expanded its scholarship tax-credit program which provides tuition support for low-income families to send children to private schools. In Iowa, families will soon have their own education savings accounts, giving them access to a portion of their students’ funding allotment for use at any school of their choice. 

School choice programs save money for both school districts and taxpayers, increase parental satisfaction and are associated with academic gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the nation’s report card. Perhaps most notably, school choice programs have been found to improve outcomes for all students—that is, even those who remain in residentially-assigned public schools. 

In New York, every student’s local education funding flows directly to their district public school (whether they are taking up a seat there or not). Parents cannot access these education dollars or redirect them. 

New York students can access a limited form of school choice in the form of about 360 charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated schools, and serve approximately 13 percent of the public-school students in New York City and a smaller portion statewide. Students at charter schools are admitted by random lottery and do not have to pay tuition. 

However, the Legislature capped the number of permitted charter schools. This particularly affects New York City, the largest district in the state. There, planned charter schools are ready to open their doors to students in the highest-need neighborhoods of the city, but are prevented by the charter cap. 

The state extensively regulates homeschooling, micro-schooling and other innovative learning environments—essentially none of which are eligible for public funding. 

New York in 2015 came close to creating a scholarship program, funded indirectly by a state tax credit, but the plan was scuttled amid opposition from teachers unions. Taxpayers cover the private-school tuition for a small subset of students whose parents have successfully sued—or threatened to sue—if or when a school district fails to adequately provide necessary special-education services. Otherwise, New York does not have any formalized system in which public money follows students to the school of their choice. 

The state’s lack of school choice—funding systems instead of students—puts it behind the rest of the country both academically and philosophically. New York’s failure to catch up only serves to further the opportunity-divide for the families and students who need school choice the most.

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