Summary and Discussion
Public controversies about education in New York typically leave out discussion about the private—religious and independent—schools that educate nearly 20% of students in New York City and more than 10% of students in the rest of the state. This report uses publicly available data from the New York State Education Department and the U.S. Census Bureau to describe the importance of these schools to the overall educational enterprise of the city and state. Four themes emerge from the data presented in this brief:
Demographic change. There are 300,000 fewer students in New York State today than there were in the school year 2000–01, with the decline being much greater outside New York City. Further disaggregation of the data, not shown here, indicates than the percentage enrollment decline in the four counties closest to New York City is only slightly higher than the decline in the city, but the decline upstate is much greater than the city’s or its suburbs. Racial and ethnic change is evident in this decline. Statewide, there were 482,000 fewer white students than there were in 2000–01. The number of black students has declined by 175,000. These declines were partially offset by increases in the number of Hispanic (179,589) and Asian (88,792) students.
Statewide, private schools have experienced a 16% decline in enrollment since 2000–01; the decline has been less within the city (12%) than outside the city (21%). Statewide, enrollment in Catholic schools has declined by 49% while enrollment in Jewish schools is up by 62.6%. Independent schools (Dalton, Brearley, Horace Mann, etc.) have grown by 10.9%. Jewish schools are now the largest group of private schools in the state and educate more students than do charter schools.
New York City is more diverse than its public schools. The city’s public schools are largely (83.9%) nonwhite. But 171,791 white students, 52% of all white students in the city, attend private schools. Black families are the group second most likely to seek schools outside the public district schools; 20.6% of the city’s black students are in public charter schools, and 8.8% are in private schools. Public district schools outside the city have become much more diverse since 2000–01: 38% of students are nonwhite, compared with 21.8% in 2000–01. Though white students are in the majority in private schools, these schools also serve a diverse group of students. In the city, one-third of all private school students are nonwhite; outside the city, that figure is 24%.
Private schools defy generalization. New York City has much higher enrollment in private schools than the rest of the state. The census estimates that 19.4% of the city’s schoolchildren attend private schools, compared with 10.5% of the students in the rest of the state. In the city, private schools serve both wealthy and lower-income communities. In city census tracts with a median family income of $250,000 and above, 61.8% of all students are enrolled in private schools, though a very small percentage of the school-age population lives in such wealthy census tracts. Of the private school students in the city, 69.5% reside in census tracts where median family income is below $100,000. In these census tracts combined, 15.9% of students are enrolled in private schools. There are a small number of modest- to lower-income districts outside the city with high private school enrollment; these tend to be home to large concentrations of orthodox Jewish families and the Jewish schools that serve them.
Not all public schools serve heterogeneous populations. Outside New York City, wealthy enclaves have emerged over time, largely in the surrounding suburbs, particularly in Nassau and Westchester Counties. Of the school districts in the rest of the state with a median family income of $150,000 and above, 85.4% of students are enrolled in local public district schools. These wealthy suburban school districts are somewhat homogeneous with respect to family income—in districts with median incomes above $250,000, 13.4% of all families have incomes below $100,000. In districts with median incomes of $200,000–$249,999, 17.2% of all families fall below the $100,000 level. High-income districts outside the city are also homogeneous with regard to education and race. In the highest-income school districts, 84.3% of the adults, age 25 and older, have bachelor’s degrees or higher; in the poorest districts, 22.8% do so. The highest-income districts are 81.2% white and 11% Asian; 5.1% of residents are black or Hispanic. In the lowest-earning school districts, 53.2% are white, 4.4% are Asian, and 38.5% are black or Hispanic.
Implications for Public Policy
Whether provided by the public or private sector, schooling gives benefits to students and parents as well as to the broader society. The reliance of American democracy on a well-educated citizenry is well understood. Private schools provide this benefit as much as public schools do.
Most families understand that the higher the general educational attainment of their children, the more prosperous, healthier, and successful they are likely to be. Thus, families have a direct incentive to find the best education for their own children so that they may reap the benefits themselves. This is true for families that enroll their children in the best public-school districts as well as for families that seek private or religious schools for their children. For families with the means, there are two common paths to school quality in and near New York City. Wealthy city families can avail themselves of the city’s more exclusive private schools, at a high cost of tuition. Wealthy suburban families can effectively buy in to a quality public education by purchasing homes in affluent communities with highperforming public schools.
The availability of alternatives to New York City’s public school system serves as a natural check on the ability of that system to seek redistributive outcomes, such as the elimination of selective high schools or gifted programs in pursuit of greater racial diversity. Similarly, official hostility to high-achieving public charter schools might drive parents of color to private or suburban schools in pursuit of greater educational opportunity. The growth of charter schools has largely been fueled by the choices of such parents seeking high-performing schools. If parents of any background come to believe that the system is working against the well-being of their own children, those with the means have viable alternatives, both inside and outside the city.
Religious schools exist on a different dimension from exclusive private schools. Here, parents seek education for their children grounded in their own culture and faith traditions. Religious schools are often tradition-bound and resistant to the rapidly changing social and educational norms that some perceive in public schools.
This was true of Catholic schools in their heyday, and it is true of orthodox Jewish schools today. Ongoing debate about the appropriateness of public funding of religious schools, or tuition tax credits for religious school scholarships, will likely focus on the different approaches to family values and educational content.
A Statistical Profile of New York’s K-12 Educational Sector
Three times as many students were enrolled in private (religious and independent) schools (442,594) in New York State than in public charter schools (147,457):
Families in New York City are more likely to seek alternatives to the district’s traditional public schools, with more than a quarter of students in private or public charter schools. Outside the city, almost 88% of students attend traditional public district schools:
The number of students attending public district schools as well as private schools has declined in New York State since 2000–01. Charter school enrollment has grown dramatically. Enrollment declines in district schools have been steeper outside New York City during this period:
Private schools in New York serve a different population than do public district and charter schools. Two-thirds of the students in New York City’s private schools are white; outside the city, more than three-quarters of private school students are white:
More than half the white students in New York City attend private schools and most of the remainder, 46.3%, attend district schools. Outside the city, 86.9% of white students are enrolled in district schools. Black families are the group second most likely to seek placements other than in the city’s district schools. Outside the city, 83.8% of black students are in district schools. Asian families are the most “loyal” to district schools in the city and in the rest of the state:
The racial makeup of New York schools has changed since 2001. Statewide, in all sectors combined, the number of white students is down by more than 25%. The number of black students has declined even more dramatically. The loss of white students has occurred almost exclusively outside New York City; white enrollment in New York City is up modestly. Black enrollment has declined in both the city (-30.7%) and outside the city (-18.4%). Asian and Hispanic enrollment is growing across the state, dramatically so in the areas outside New York City:
Student enrollment in private schools is very high in high-income areas. Even so, close to 70% of private school students are in areas with a median income below $100,000. Outside New York City, wealthy families are likely to be located in high-income school districts, and they enroll their children in public schools rather than in private schools. Even so, a significant number of students are enrolled in private schools in low-income school districts. (All data in the next five charts are derived from the five-year estimates of the 2017 American Community Survey and therefore reflect the average of data drawn during 2013–17):
Across the state, higher-income areas tend to have much higher adult educational-attainment levels than do lower-income areas. They also tend to include more white and Asian families than other communities:
In New York State as a whole, and in New York City, Jewish schools educate more students than schools of any other religious affiliation. There are many more students enrolled in Jewish schools in New York State as a whole than are enrolled in public charter schools. Outside New York City, Catholic schools serve more students than Jewish schools:
Student enrollment in New York City and State private schools has changed dramatically since 2000–01. In those 18 years, enrollment in Catholic schools in the city and the rest of the state has dropped by half; and Jewish schools have grown by 46.3% in the city and 106.7% in the rest of the state:
Students enrolled in Jewish schools (New York City and State) are almost exclusively white. Schools of other affiliations serve more mixed populations. In New York City’s Catholic schools, black and Hispanic students constitute more than half of all students. Outside the city, 70% of the students in Catholic schools are white:
- New York State Education Department, Information and Reporting Services, Nonpublic School Enrollment and Public School Enrollment.
- U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder.
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