Research & Commentary: Closing Failing New York City Schools Produces Gains for Students

Published December 18, 2015

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools, an initiative of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, has released an important study on the effects of a reform plan that phased out and closed 29 chronically underperforming Big Apple public high schools. The study considers how the closures affected students already enrolled in the schools as well as the middle-school students who would have been required to attend them.

The NYU study, the first to take an in-depth look at these school closures between 2002 and 2008, monitored roughly 50,000 students. Ninety-two percent of the students were black or Hispanic, and 65 percent were receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Graduation rates at the high schools had averaged only 39 percent, with only 17 percent of their students receiving New York’s more demanding Regents diploma. Almost half of the freshmen at the schools were chronically absent.

When former mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the school closure measure, he was met with lawsuits and heavy protests. Critics argued students attending the schools designated for closure would be harmed by being forced to transfer to a different school or staying put in the closure schools as students, teachers, and resources dwindled away.

Although the study found students enrolled in the failing high schools were not measurably helped by the closure decision, it also presented evidence they were not harmed by it, either. In addition, the study found the middle-school students who would have attended the schools showed measurable improvements in metrics such as attendance and graduation rates.

Of the approximately 9,600 freshmen attending the failing schools at the time of the closure announcement, those with “maximum exposure to the phaseout process,” only 41 percent remained in the schools through their senior year. One-quarter transferred to schools outside of New York City, 17 percent transferred to schools within New York City, and another 19.5 percent are considered dropouts.

Students who remained in the phase-out schools showed graduation rates 7 percentage points higher, and Regents diploma rates 19 percentage points higher, than those who attended the schools before the closure announcement. Crucially, these figures show opponents of the school closures were wrong in predicting the phase-out would harm the students. Low-performing schools outside of the closure program experienced similar graduation rate and Regents diploma gains during the closure period.

The incoming cohort of students was the big beneficiary of the school closures. Those students attended higher-performing schools than the closure schools they would have been stuck in. “This shift in their enrollment options led to improvements in students’ attendance, progress towards graduation, and … graduation rates—with large increases in the share of students earning a Regents diploma,” the study found. The chronic absentee rate for this cohort dropped by 6.3 percentage points, the graduation rate increased by 15.5 percentage points, and the number of students earning a Regents diploma rose by 33.7 percentage points.

The NYU study is an important reminder of the impact school choice can have on students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This study shows closing poor-quality schools and giving those disadvantaged students other education options is an effective policy. This can be done by having money follow the child or by giving parents the opportunity to flip a failing school using the “parent trigger.”

The following documents provide more information about school choice and education reform.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support passage of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. Some 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This small booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders a highly condensed yet easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain yet precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Web, and a directory of the Web sites of national organizations that support school choice.

High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the NYC Department of Education implemented a set of large-scale and much-debated high school reforms, which included closing large, low-performing schools, opening new, small schools, and extending high school choice to students throughout the district. The school closure process was the most controversial of these efforts. Apart from the general sense that school closures are painful, there was no rigorous assessment of their impact. Hence the Research Alliance undertook a study of the 29 low-performing high schools designated for closure in New York City between 2002 and 2008, examining the impact of these closures on students’ academic performance, attendance, and mobility.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. These programs raise other important legal questions, which fall into four categories: the scope of students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to choose their children’s schools, state constitutional obstacles to private school choice, the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students, and the religious liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. The American Enterprise Institute writes that the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but also opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
This paper from the Cato Institute examines the success achieved by school choice programs across the globe. The authors find the efficiency (student achievement per dollar spent on education) of private education options was higher than for public education in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts 
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers 
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies that use the best available scientific methods to measure how school choice vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claim vouchers do not benefit participants and that they hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and those who remain in public schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

Fear and Privatization
Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University and E. Vance Randall of Brigham Young University examine public attitudes toward school choice models and find much anxiety among both private and public school advocates. The authors make many common mistakes and assumptions about school choice, but they come to an interesting conclusion: School choice advocates are successfully blurring the lines between the public and private school models by instituting a wide range of different choice plans.

Study Finds School Vouchers Boost College Enrollment for African Americans by 24% 
In an experimental study examining the long-term outcomes of school voucher programs, Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson found the percentage of African-American students who enrolled part-time or full-time in college by 2011 was 24 percent higher for those who had won a school voucher lottery while in elementary school and used the voucher to attend a private school.

The Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education|
The Parent Trigger is an education reform innovation passed in California in January 2010. If half the parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition requesting reform of the school, the school must either shut down, become a charter school, or undergo one of two other types of reform. Unlike most reform proposals based on empowering parents, the Parent Trigger originates from activists on the political left. This pedigree creates an opportunity for a successful coalition that can advance reform. Both sides of the political spectrum can support the Parent Trigger because it could allow parents to choose to create a new charter or voucher program in a failing district, and because it empowers low-income and minority parents to control the reform path their schools follow.

The Parent Trigger: Justification and Design Guidelines
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief presents the rationale for empowering parents with Parent Trigger legislation and offers design guidelines for parents and elected officials interested in crafting legislation for their city or state. It is a companion piece to two earlier reports on the Parent Trigger, also published by The Heartland Institute, and it carries the analysis considerably further by citing many of the bills that have been introduced since the original studies were written. The report also benefitted from a series of Research & Commentary collections produced by Heartland Institute Research Fellow Joy Pullmann, which are available on Heartland’s website.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

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