School Choice

The Best and Worst Cities for School Choice

What's the best city in America for school choice?


A recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranking America's best and worst cities for school choice includes two consistent winners—New Orleans and Washington, D.C.—at the top, and a trio of Texas cities in the bottom half of the 30 areas surveyed, with Albany, N.Y., bringing up the rear.

Fordham considered three criteria: political support, policy environment, and quantity and quality of school choice. After New Orleans and Washington, Denver rated third in 2015. Rounding out the top 10 were Indianapolis, Columbus, Milwaukee, Newark, Oakland, Atlanta, and Detroit. At the bottom were Pittsburgh, Austin and Albany.

With nearly all students (91 percent) being educated in charter schools, it's not hard to understand why New Orleans takes the top spot. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, school choice provided a fresh start for students in that city. But the election of Democrat John Bel Edwards as governor in Louisiana has cast doubt on whether the future of school choice in Louisiana will be as bright as its past.

In 1995, federal legislation led to an explosion of charter schools around Washington, D.C. They have grown steadily in the 20 years since, and charters now make up 44 percent of educational market share in the nation's capital.

Denver comes in third, with a school district that is supportive both of charter schools and innovation within the public school district. Although charters account for only 16 percent of the market, it is this openness to innovation that lands the city a spot so high on the list. Denver's common charter enrollment system  has been praised for making it easier for traditionally disenfranchised students to apply.

For the cities at the bottom, the story is different.

In Pittsburgh, charter schools were authorized 18 years ago but hold only a 10 percent market share. The school board continues to deny nearly every charter application it receives.

Charter schools have only 9 percent of the market in Austin, Texas, despite a 20-year history of school choice. The cap on charter schools will be raised in the next several years, which will add more opportunity, but private school choice legislation has repeatedly failed to pass.

Coming in last is Albany. Although charter schools in New York's capital city have a 26 market share, quality is going down and the political climate is growing increasingly hostile, according to the report. The city ranked 26th out of 30 for political support and last in policy environment.

"While school choice opportunities have increased nationwide," the study concludes, "our results reveal considerable variation among cities." It found that, in the top-ranking cities, school choice was the way leaders chose to reform education, while other cities provide few options and have made it difficult for school choice to flourish.

The study includes some obvious fixes, as well as some that are more of a surprise.

Among the obvious, the study recommends that cities "expand voucher programs and relax their eligibility requirements. Decrease or eliminate restrictions on the number and type of charters. Tie an expanded pool of options to stronger accountability systems. Shut down low-performing schools, so we aren't creating a market where bad schools recruit students."

There report includes four less-obvious paths that cities can take: provide resources for charters that are truly equitable, expand intra-district choice, make choice more user-friendly for parents, and keep mobilizing external and stakeholder support for choice.

This article originally appeared at

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  1. Funny, I just watched the 6th episode of Free to Choose yesterday (promoting school choice.) Happy to see Denver high on the list.

    1. dan,

      I remember being amazed to see that, one chapter a night, on PBS. Apart from Firing Line all I saw up to that was kinda to obviously liberal. I think I was in high school, so between 73-77. And what this current article shows me is both sad, and totally unexpected. Political machines are classically fascistic in techniques. Blandly telling the educational entrepreneur who is trying to get new charter off the ground to fill out this raft of forms, to note the needed building requirements, and drag it out for as long as possible-and then deny it-may sound unremarkable.

      To that entrepreneur, it could have meant bankruptcy, or near bankruptcy, and the wreckage of a dream. Why? The Gov-connected monopolist doesn’t want competition. To Reason readers, this is A-B-C stuff, but most Americans these days are taught that group rights trump individual rights now in school, and speech codes right out of 1984. So what gets me about this article is that it reminds me that a guy who dropped out pretty early, Jindal, had fought to get widespread charters in Louisiana, then walked away from what he should have known was only the beginning of a long fight. Those monopolists may be down, but they will dig spider holes like the best of the viet cong, stay dug in, and pop up ready to go when their supportive media and other orgs have helped them prepare the ground. And now we see a Dem Governor, so you can guess where that’s going. Thanks for dropping the ball, Bobby.

  2. Different link for “recent report” link:

    America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice: (.pdf)

  3. I have a child psychologist and a former school principal in my family, both hate what the public school system has turned into. Bad teachers that can’t be fired and insane oversight by bureaucrats that don’t know anything about teaching. Also, I believe Jindal was term limited.

  4. A comment:
    Someone here, and I cannot remember who, suggested that a more accurate label for what most of the US kids are stuck with is “Government Schools”, not “Public Schools”. I agree and I’m doing my best to spread that bit of honesty as I can. You might do so also.
    Re: the article, I appreciate the information, but those who are stuck with the government schools are not likely to have the resources to move to better alternatives. It’s worth pointing out to those who do have the choice, but it would be interesting to see how they got that advantage for those who are not about to move.

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