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In New York’s Opt-Out Hot Spots, Which Presidential Candidates Did Voters Prefer?

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2016 7 min read
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New York state is arguably the epicenter of the testing opt-out movement. Last school year, 20 percent of students eligible to take the statewide exams in English/language arts and math opted out. And New York state also just held a presidential primary on Tuesday. So what happened in voting booths in areas of the Empire State where opt-out was a big deal in the 2014-15 school year?

We don’t have final opt-out rates for the current school year yet. But we do know that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won approximately 58 percent of the vote statewide over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 42 percent in the Democratic primary. In the Republican race, real estate executive Donald Trump got approximately 61 percent of the vote, compared to 25 percent for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and nearly 15 percent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Let’s go a bit deeper into the numbers:

First, let’s look at New York City’s opt-out and voting patterns. As you may be aware, the opt-out rate in Gotham last year was extremely low, about 19 percentage points off the statewide rate. But some schools did experience high opt-out rates. Chalkbeat New York reported, for example, that the Institute for Collaborative Education on the east side of Manhattan had an 84 percent opt-out rate for both the English/language arts and math exams.

Thanks to a primary election results map from The New York Times, we know how each precinct in New York City voted. As a result, we can see that the precinct immediately surrounding the Institute for Collaborative Education went for Sanders over Clinton, one of the relatively few areas of Manhattan that favored him. In the same precinct, 55 percent of GOP voters favored Kasich—but there were only 18 Republican primary voters, compared to 269 Democratic primary voters in the same precinct.

Three other schools in that area of Manhattan that had high opt-out rates in 2014-15 (ranging from 26 percent to 73 percent) are also located in voting precincts that favored Sanders in Manhattan.

We don’t know, of course, exactly what share of students at those four schools come from areas whose parents vote in those precincts. But courtesy of the New York Times’ information, here’s the cluster of strong Sanders support (shaded in green) in those four schools’ neighborhoods:

However, at least on the Democratic side, what happened in Manhattan didn’t always happen in Brooklyn. At P.S. 29 in the Cobble Hill neighborhood, for example, where the opt-out rate last year beat the state average of 20 percent, voters in that precinct picked Clinton over Sanders by a wide margin, 72 percent to 28 percent. And at P.S. 261 and P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, voters also overwhelmingly preferred Clinton. All of the New York City schools I mentioned had opt-out rates of over 20 percent. (Less than 20 people voted in each of the precincts immediately surrounding those schools in the Republican primary, with Kasich getting the nod in two of those three precincts.)

Overall in New York City, Clinton won 63 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for Sanders. Trump won just over 64 percent of the vote, compared to 22 percent for Kasich and just under 14 percent for Cruz.

Let’s leave the Big Apple and look at a couple of upstate, county-level results from April 19 in areas that had relatively high opt-out rates last year.

In 2014-15, Franklin County featured a relatively high rate of opt-outs—of the county’s 10 school districts, eight had opt-out rates that beat the statewide opt-out rate of 20 percent, and that county’s Chateaugay district’s opt-out rate of 89 percent was one of the highest in the entire state. Other districts in the county with high opt-out rates included AuSable Valley (63 percent), Malone (56 percent), and Brushton-Moira (55 percent).

So which candidates did voters in Franklin County, which is relatively close to Vermont, prefer? In sharp contrast to Clinton’s strong statewide showing in the Democratic primary, 73 percent of county voters went for Sanders, compared to just 27 percent for Hillary. As for Republicans, 56 percent of Franklin County voters preferred Trump, somewhat below his statewide vote share, while 28 percent went for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and 16 percent favored Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

What about Oneida County, another area with relatively large shares of opt-outs but in a different part of the state? Of the county’s 24 school districts, 21 districts’ opt-out rates last year either beat or matched the statewide opt-out average. Districts with particularly high opt-out rates included New York Mills (74 percent), Whitesboro (67 percent), and Sauquoit and Mount Markham (each at 65 percent).

So what were the presidential primary results in Oneida County? Among Democrats, Oneida County voters favored Sanders over Clinton, 55 percent to 45 percent, nearly the reverse of the statewide vote shares for the two candidates. As for Oneida County Republicans, 56 percent of primary voters went for Trump—like in Franklin County, that’s a little bit worse for Trump compared to how he did statewide.

And let’s touch briefly on Long Island, another opt-out hot spot. There are only two counties on Long Island: Nassau (which is closer to New York City) and Suffolk. The districts with the highest opt-out rates are largely clustered in the central part of Long Island, with some overlap between the two counties but many of them in Suffolk County. Clinton and Trump won both counties in their respective primaries.

If you slice up Long Island’s voting data a little bit, Clinton fared worst in the state’s 1st Congressional District, which is on Long Island and encompasses most of Suffolk County geographically and might have had the biggest cluster of districts with opt-out rates above 50 percent of any congressional district in the state. Clinton won by just 52 percent to 48 percent over Sanders. Trump, meanwhile, outperformed his statewide vote percentage in the 1st District, winning 73 percent of the Republican primary vote.

However, without precinct-by-precinct information, it’s hard to say if a large share, or if any, more specific opt-out hot spots deviated from the overall voting trends in Long Island.

Here are a few important things to keep in mind about this data:

  • The results from counties with high opt-out rates in the examples we listed above track relatively closely with results in at least some adjacent areas where opt-out rates were not as high. For example, Clinton County, which is adjacent to Franklin County and is right on the border with Vermont, actually had a slightly higher share of its Democratic primary voters back Sanders, but didn’t have the same kind of opt-out activity as Franklin. The same can be said for Herkhimer and Madison counties next to Oneida. And Sanders overall did very well in upstate counties.

In general, it’s probably a big leap to claim that you can draw a straight line between high opt-out rates in a particular area and any sort of deviation from the local and statewide voting pattern, or any sort of impact. There might be a hint of correlation in parts of Manhattan and in Suffolk County, but even there it’s tough to say one way or the other.

  • As in many other situations, it’s important to note that education has rarely been a priority issue for the five remaining major candidates in debates and other public forums in the 2016 race. Opt-out might once again be an issue in New York state this school year, but that doesn’t mean it had any measurable impact on the presidential primary.

  • Opt-out generally did not become a big issue during the New York primary. Just over a week before election day, Clinton told Newsday that she would not want her granddaughter to opt out of New York’s tests. She voted for the No Child Left Behind Act 15 years ago, and the standardized testing regimen that was one of its key pillars, but doesn’t like the idea of basing teachers’ pay on test scores.

And Sanders is a long-time critic of standardized testing who indicated support for the testing-resistance movement in its early stages a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Cruz has supported letting states opt out of any testing mandate from the federal government, but apparently hasn’t made his thoughts clear on parental opt-out. Neither has Trump, although the latter thinks U.S. students do a bad job on international tests for the money the country spends on education. Kasich, meanwhile, has opposed testing opt-outs in Ohio.

Photo: In this March 30, 2016 photo, students hold signs in favor of opting out of state assessments during a visit by New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to the William Street School in Lancaster, N.Y. New York last year saw the highest rate of opt-outs in the country as parents protested the volume of testing and the high-stakes consequences. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

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