The Real Cost (and Uncertainty) of Public Schooling in New York City

There are a lot of things to consider when searching for an apartment to rent or buy in New York City: location, home or rental prices, amenities, and if you are a parent—the quality of local public schools. New York parents are notorious for going to what would seem like insane lengths anywhere else in the country to secure a spot for their offspring in the top schools, sometimes before their children are even born! Here we’ll discuss the best public schools, the “cost” of accessing them (which depends on what you’re willing to sacrifice…), and why choosing a public school in New York is ultimately a game of chance.

There are 32 school districts within the five boroughs of New York. Each district is composed of multiple school “zones” and there are hundreds of zones within the city. Unsurprisingly, the best public schools are located in the City’s most expensive neighborhoods to rent or buy. Examples include PS 6 on the Upper East Side, PS 87 on the Upper West Side, PS 234 in Tribeca, and PS 41 in Greenwich Village.

According to MNS Real Impact Real Estate, the average monthly rent for a two bedroom non-doorman apartment in Tribeca is $7,713 versus the same type of property in Harlem, where the public schools are less sought after, which would rent for an average of $2,600.

Unlike in other areas of the country, in NYC you must apply for your children to attend public school, even the schools that are located within your zone. The easiest way to ensure your child makes it into a top school is to move to the zone where one is located, making sure to call the school first to verify that your prospective address is zoned for it.

If you can’t afford a home in Tribeca or one of the other top neighborhoods your options are more limited. You can apply to schools in other zones, but overcrowding makes your child’s acceptance unlikely. If you’re willing to make moral sacrifices (which are not recommended) you can lie about your address, which may result in your child losing his or her seat in the school if discovered. Or if you’re willing to make financial sacrifices you can either scrape by renting an apartment in a top neighborhood for your son or daughter’s first year of school, after which he or she will not be required to change schools, even if you move to a more affordable neighborhood later. Or you can move to a cheaper neighborhood, but direct the money you’re saving on rent or mortgage into private schooling. All of these are less savory options.

Ultimately, even if you can afford to live in an expensive neighborhood with good public schools there is still an element of chance. Top schools like PS 41 do become overcrowded; meaning that even students that live within the zone may have to attend public school elsewhere or opt for private. Finally, school zones can and are redrawn unexpectedly, leaving many a disappointed parent behind.

With this amount of uncertainty, the best option may be to send your kids to the public school in the best neighborhood that you can afford, even if its public schools are not top ranked. Then make it your job to support your child’s extracurricular learning and to recruit other parents in the area to rally the Parent Teacher Association to make improvements. While not the easiest route, in the long run this will help to improve public education across the City, reducing the need to pay exorbitant rents to access the best free education the City has to offer.