Let parents choose their kids’ schools: Darla Romfo

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For many New Yorkers, the term “private school” brings to mind exclusive schools with high five-figure price tags — the kind of schools you see depicted on TV shows such as “Gossip Girl.” That is simply wrong. There are hundreds of private schools all over the city meeting the educational needs of all types of New York families for a fraction of what taxpayers spend on our government-run schools — and more families should have the opportunity to choose them.

According to the state Department of Education, the total number of private schools in New York City in 2021-22 was 833. While that number includes the familiar high-tuition private options, it also includes more than 200 private schools attended by Children’s Scholarship Fund scholarship recipients with an average tuition of only $6,065.

By comparison, last year more than 1,580 government-run district schools and 271 charter schools received government funding. There is no good reason other than entrenched interests that taxpayer funding shouldn’t follow children to the 833 private schools, as well, and make many more learning options available.

Given that per-pupil spending in NYC government-run schools is nearing $30,000 per year and CSF participating schools and other similar schools have a cost to educate much closer to the tuition they charge, school choice would also result in significant savings while achieving better results for so many students.

The pool of low-cost, tuition-based schools in New York City includes Catholic and other faith-based schools from Baptist to Seventh-Day Adventist, including St. Demetrios Greek-American School in Astoria and Bay Ridge Christian Academy. It also includes independent schools such as Trey Whitfield in East New York, the Learning Tree Prep in the Bronx, and M.A.C.A.D.E.M.Y. in Brooklyn, which all serve largely African-American children, as well as the Big Apple Academy in Brooklyn and Staten Island’s Smiles Around Us Academy, which both attract Russian-speaking families. In short, the many cultures that define the city are reflected in the mix of available educational options — even though you don’t often hear about them.

On a recent trip to Trey Whitfield, we were reminded that a significant number of their eighth grade graduates go on to boarding schools such as Brewster and Eagle Hill — from a school charging $5,000 per year in tuition. The founder, former pro-football player A.B. Whitfield, told us he has been a father figure to so many young men who have attended over the years that more than 100 of them remember him every Father’s Day with a phone call.

At Learning Tree Prep each spring the eighth-graders raise money for educational trips that have taken recent classes to Brazil, Cuba, and South Africa. Founder Lois Gregory, who has led the school for more than 40 years, prioritizes providing students with enrichment opportunities beyond the regular curriculum. This school year, photographer Gordon Parks, whose novel, “The Learning Tree,” inspired the school’s name, is being honored with a series of photography workshops.

On another recent visit to Sacred Heart School in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, we were reminded of the unique culture these schools can cultivate when they can address the needs of the whole child — body, mind, and soul. This particular school is one of seven Catholic schools in the Bronx and Harlem run by Partnership Schools, which charges families an all-in amount of $1,250 per year, per student — a far cry from the city’s high-end private schools, where tuitions can top $60,000.

Many of the children attending Sacred Heart are English-language learners whose parents are recent immigrants. The core values of this school and the others in the network — integrity, humility, hard work, and service — are posted on the walls and supported by quotes from C.S. Lewis and Mother Teresa, among others. Best of all, based on what we saw and experienced as we visited several classrooms, these aren’t just words on the wall. They are the lived experience of what it means to be educated in this school.

The schools referenced here and hundreds of others like them in every corner of the city should be an option for many more children. This is National School Choice Week, so hopefully, greater awareness that these schools exist will lead to greater support for school choice in the Big Apple from our leaders who can make it happen. Perhaps things would change if the taxpayers who fund government-run schools realized how many other learning options would suddenly become available to the thousands of children trapped in underperforming schools if we shifted from funding systems to funding children.

Romfo is the president and CEO of the nonprofit Children’s Scholarship Fund which provides scholarships to more than low-income children attending private schools of all types.