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U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 Top Public High Schools: By the Numbers

• Sam Duell

This week U.S. News & World Report published their 2018 rankings for the top public high schools in the U.S. There’s plenty of good news for states like Arizona who boasts six of the top 10 public high schools, and for Florida who earned 13 spots in the top 100.

And there continues to be good news for public charter schools. Thirty-four of the top 100 public high schools are public charter schools and seven of those thirty-four belong to one organization, BASIS.

This is especially significant when you consider that according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) only 7.5 percent of public schools in the U.S. are public charter schools; that’s 7.5 percent of schools representing 34 percent of the best schools.

One might reasonably wonder, how does poverty play a role in the U.S. News & World Report rankings? I had the same question, and this year we have some data that adds context to challenges facing low-income families. To answer this question, we will need to define some terms first.

  • Free or Reduced-Price Lunch – The United States Department of Agriculture offers schools grants to provide free or reduced-price lunch to families who earn 185 percent% of the federal poverty line or less. This year to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) program a family of four would make $45,510 per year or less, or about $3,793 per month. This grant program has been used frequently as an indicator for concentrations of poverty in public schools.
  • Title I Funding – The United States Education Department offers schoolwide program grants to schools with large concentrations of students from low-income families. More specifically, under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the USED can offer substantial grants to schools, “in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment.” So, Title I funding is also used as an indicator for concentrations of poverty in public schools.

How many top public high schools receive Title I funding? Thirty-eight of the top 100 public high schools receive Title I funding.

What does that mean? According to NCES, about 48 percent of families in the U.S. qualify for FRPL. Looking at the data, we see a gap in the number of families who are eligible for FRPL (48 percent) and the number of top public high schools who serve concentrations of low-income families (38 percent). One might call this an opportunity gap. This means if your family qualifies for FRPL, then you are much less likely to have access to one of the best high schools in the country.

How do the top public charter schools compare with the top magnet and traditional public schools when it comes to serving low-income communities? Forty-seven percent of the top public high schools receive Title I funds compared with 33 percent of magnet schools and 33 percent of traditional public high schools. Since BASIS schools are somewhat of an outlier in terms of performance and in terms of not receiving Title I funds, we might exclude BASIS from the data and then one might say 59 percent of the top public charter schools serve large percentages of low-income families.


What does this mean? This data shows that while public charters are over-represented in the rankings when compared proportionally to their magnet and traditional school counterparts, the best public charters are also serving many more low-income families than the magnet or traditional schools.

What challenges and opportunities does this reveal? This report clearly indicates that too many low-income families lack access to the best public high schools, and, while public charter schools are performing better than expected, there is much more work to do. The challenge is to expand opportunity to every family regardless of their income. Thankfully, Fordham provided a map for this work a few weeks ago. And the opportunities are more exciting than they were last year. As my colleague Adam Peshek wrote this week, “a new federal tax incentive could hold the key to spurring billions of dollars in investment in low-income areas with limited access to quality public charter school options.”

This year’s rankings of public high schools send a clear message: public charter schools are serving low-income families well, but not enough low-income families have access to high-quality public high schools. It’s time to expand educational opportunity for the families who need it the most.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.