Research & Commentary: New York City Public Schools’ Improvement on Standardized Tests Dwarfed by Charter Schools

Published August 22, 2016

New York City (NYC) charter schools made the largest gains during the 2015-16 school year among all Empire State schools on the New York State Common Core English Language Arts and Math Assessments, easily outpacing both state and NYC district schools in each assessment.

State and district public school gains were relatively in line with each other. Traditional public schools statewide experienced a 1 percent jump in math scores, while NYC public schools increased by 1.2 percent. On the English language arts (ELA) assessment, statewide scores increased by 6.6 percent compared to the 2014–15 school year; city school scores jumped by 7.6 percent.

By contrast, New York City charters schools’ math scores jump by 4.5 percent, and their ELA scores increased by 13.7 points. Over 48 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 in New York City charters now test proficient in mathematics, compared to just 39.1 percent of their peers statewide and 36.4 percent in NYC district schools. ELA proficiency follows the same pattern, with 43 percent of NYC charter students in grades 3–8 testing proficient, easily outpacing their statewide (37.9 percent) and district (38 percent) peers.

Charter students outperformed district averages in both math and ELA in 24 of the city’s 28 Community School Districts where charters are in operation, and, according to Families for Excellent Schools, charters now make up 38 percent of the list of the top 50 schools in the city – based on New York State Common Core English Language Arts and Math Assessments scores alone. 

Minority charter students, who make up 92 percent of all city charter students, also produced more significant gains than their district peers. “In math, African-American charter students are more than twice as likely to be proficient than their district peers[, 48.8 percent compared to 20 percent], and Hispanic students are nearly twice as likely to be proficient[, 46.9 percent compared to 24.4 percent],” wrote Michael Pih of the New York City Center School Center. “These trends hold true even when the data are disaggregated by neighborhoods. In Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the South Bronx, where many charter schools are concentrated, and continue to grow, charter performance far exceeds that of the district. In the South Bronx alone, 14 of the top 20 schools in math proficiency were charters.”

African-American and Hispanic students also outperformed their district school peers in ELA by significant margins. Black charter students scored 16.4 percentage points higher than district peers (43 percent proficient compared to 26.6 percent), while Hispanic students scored 13.1 points higher (40.3 percent compared to 27.3 percent.) Compared to their district school peers, charter students with disabilities and those who speak English as their second language also scored significantly higher in math (46.7 percent to 30.3 percent) and ELA (40.5 percent to 31.4 percent).

New York traditional public schools’ woeful performance on these and other tests underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available in the current charter networks. Too many public schools in New York are failing to prepare students for productive lives, and New York City public schools will be unlikely to ever get struggling students to reach proficiency, let alone subject mastery.

Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school. Not only does the empirical evidence show school choice programs work, polls show they are broadly popular. A poll taken in January 2016 by the American Federation for Children Education shows 65 percent of parents support private school choice, 75 percent support public charter schools, 65 percent support education savings accounts, and 53 percent support school vouchers. Education tax credits, school vouchers, and education savings accounts should all be on the table in New York State.

The goal for legislators should be to allow every New York parent a choice in schools, require every New York school to compete, and give every New York child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information on education choice.

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 the creation of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders with a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet, and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

The ABCs of School Choice – 2016 Edition—2016-edition?source=policybot
The ABCs of School Choice, produced by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, is a comprehensive, data-rich guide to every private school choice program in America. This annually updated publication may not reflect developments past January 25, 2016.

Taking Credit for Education: How to Fund Education Savings Accounts Through Tax Credits
This paper from the Cato Institute explains how legislators can design an education savings account (ESA) program that is privately funded through tax-credit-eligible contributions from taxpayers, which is similar to models used in many tax-credit scholarship programs around the country. Tax-credit-funded ESAs would empower families with more educational options while enhancing accountability and refraining from coercing anyone into supporting ideas they oppose. Because they are funded through voluntary contributions rather than public funds, tax-credit scholarships have a perfect record of constitutionality at the U.S. Supreme Court and at every state supreme court that has considered the issue. In states that have adopted a Blaine amendment, tax-credit ESAs could be a lifeline to families in need.

Pursuing Innovation: How Can Education Choice Transform K–12 Education in the U.S.?
This report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice summarizes the state of competition in U.S. K–12 education. It pays particular attention to the prevalence and market penetration of charter schools, private school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships. The effect of competition from charters, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships on the performance of traditional district schools and education funding is examined using a survey of recent high-quality research on that topic. These summaries and analyses suggest enhancing educational competition using school choice programs would likely improve the productivity of district schools, subject to the effective design of school choice policies.

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 (AEI) writes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but AEI also says these questions create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

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.

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 Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York City
In an experimental Brookings Institution 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.


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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