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  • America’s America’s Best (And Worst) Cities for School Choice PRISCILLA WOHLSTETTER & DARA ZEEHANDELAAR WITH DAVID GRIFFITH

    Foreword by Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

    2015 December

  • The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing

    educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis,

    and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.

    It is affiliated with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,

    and this publication is a joint project of the Foundation and the Institute.

    For further information, please visit our website at

    or write to the Institute at 1016 16th St. NW, 8th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036.

    The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

  • foreword i

    executive summary iv


    Choice in America Today 1


    What Makes a City Choice-Friendly? 5


    Methods & Data Sources 8 Area I: Political Support 10

    Area II: Policy Environment 11

    Area III: Quantity & Quality 12


    City-Level Results 14 The Top Ten 16

    The Middle of the Pack 19

    The Bottom Ten 22


    Taking a Closer Look 25


    Making America’s Cities More Choice-Friendly 29

    endnotes 32


    City Profiles by Rank 34 01 New Orleans 35

    02 Washington, D.C. 39

    03 Denver 43

    04 Indianapolis 47

    05 Columbus, OH 51

    06 Milwaukee 55

    07 Newark 59

    08 Oakland 63

    09 Atlanta 67

    10 Detroit 71

    11 Chicago 75

    12 Boston 79

    12 New York City 83

    14 Philadelphia 87

    15 Los Angeles 91

    16 Minneapolis 95

    17 Baltimore 99

    18 Kansas City, MO 103

    19 Houston 107

    20 San Francisco 111

    21 Nashville 115

    22 Jacksonville 119

    23 San Diego 123

    24 Tulsa 127

    25 Dallas 131

    26 Seattle 135

    27 Charlotte 139

    28 Pittsburgh 143

    29 Austin 147

    30 Albany 151


    Detailed Methods 155


    City Scores by Area 166


    foreword AUTHORS: Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

    executive summary, sections one - six

    AUTHORS: Priscilla Wohlstetter and Dara Zeehandelaar

    CONTRIBUTORS: Julie Casper, Eric Chan, Solana Chehtman, Jane Griesinger, David Houston, and Christopher Lim

    section seven AUTHOR: David Griffith

  • i

    Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

    This report focuses once again on one of Fordham’s core issues—school choice.

    And it’s one that we’ve learned quite a bit about over the last decades.

    Key among those lessons? Quantity does not equal quality. Plus: The

    conditions must be right for choice to flourish. Good intentions only take

    you so far; sturdy plants grow when seeds are planted in fertile ground.



    The best teacher of that last lesson has been our friend Rick Hess.

    Five years ago, we teamed up with him on a study that explored

    the ideal conditions for school reform at the city level. What

    factors in America’s major metropolises fostered the spirit and

    reality of innovation and enterprise such that reform might take root and thrive? That effort, America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform, found that too few of our big cities possess

    the talent, leadership, infrastructure, culture, and resources to

    beckon enterprising reformers and then help them succeed.

    But we also found some innovators on that list of cities, many

    of which served as “proof points” and role models for stodgier

    places. (Especially notable were New Orleans, Washington, D.C.,

    and New York City). And the report led to many fruitful conver-

    sations with school, city, business, and philanthropic leaders all

    over the place about how to fan the flames of “edupreneurship.”

    Now we’re back with a targeted follow up. America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice is not a replica—it focuses

    on school choice rather than innovation writ large and considers

    some additional questions. But it again demonstrates vividly

    the spectrum of receptivity to fundamental education reform

    when one looks across cities.

    To lead the work this time, we approached Priscilla (Penny)

    Wohlstetter, Distinguished Research Professor at Columbia Uni-

    versity’s Teachers College. Penny is well known for her scholar-

    ship on the politics of education, and on school choice, including

    research on charter schools, charter management

    organizations, and parental involvement in schools of choice.

    Penny and a talented troop of graduate students joined forces

    with Fordham National Research Director Dara Zeehandelaar

    and Research and Policy Associate David Griffith to define what

    it means to be “choice-friendly,” gather and analyze copious

    amounts of data, and write up the results of this ambitious


    They settled on three “buckets” of indicators that, taken

    together, provide a robust and multi-faceted picture of school

    choice in a given city:

    1. Political support, which gauges the stance of key players

    relative to school choice, including the mayor, city council,

    school board, superintendent, parent groups, and the media.

    2. Policy environment, which includes the strength of

    state charter laws; funding and facilities access for charter

    starters; non-profit, business, and philanthropic support;

    vital consumer tools, such as school report cards and pupil

    transportation; and quality control mechanisms, such as

    policies for closing weak and fading schools.

    3. Quantity and quality, which addresses the types

    of choice options that are presently available in a city and

    the mechanisms for helping people to access them (such as

    voucher and open enrollment programs); the portion of

    market share occupied by charters and other specialized

    schools; and the quality of the choice sector in that city.

    The first bucket incorporates the informed opinions of several

    “insiders” in each community. Gaining a nuanced perspective

    about a city’s choice climate is impossible without asking close

    observers and participants. This small but carefully chosen group

    of respondents included a leader of the city’s largest school

    district (superintendent or other central office official); a

    representative of a local organization that supports choice;

    and a member of the business community. We do not claim that

    their views are representative of others in the city, but they do

    represent the informed judgment of a small group with deep

    knowledge of respective locales.

  • ii

    The use of this insider questionnaire, coupled with inclusion of

    a broader definition of school choice and varied data sources,

    means that our study’s metrics differ in non-trivial ways from

    those used in the Brookings Institution’s respected Education Choice and Competition Index.1 (See page 24 for more.)

    After combining more than one hundred data points into

    nearly fifty indicators of choice friendliness, here’s what our

    ace analysts found: New Orleans and Washington, D.C. continue

    to earn top spots, just like last time. But Denver has come away

    with the bronze medal, while New York City has fallen into the

    mediocre middle. (Blame the “de Blasio effect.”) Unsurprisingly,

    Albany and Pittsburgh are near the bottom. But there were

    also curveballs like Atlanta, which is notorious for its recent

    cheating scandal but turns out to attain a respectable ninth

    rank for choice friendliness.

    Observe that all three cities with “honors grades” (New Orleans,

    Washington, D.C., and Denver) are thriving, growing, and gentri-

    fying places. Is that coincidence? If there’s a causal relationship,

    which direction does it go? Do choice-friendly conditions boost

    a city’s vitality or vice versa? Or both? It sure seems harder to

    enact big-time education reform of any sort in cities that are

    struggling economically (like Albany and Baltimore).2

    Meanwhile, the South is showing newfound strength. This

    includes New Orleans, of course, but also Atlanta. And keep an

    eye on Nashville, with its small but high-quality (and growing)

    charter sector. The history of segregation has always complicated

    school choice below the Mason-Dixon Line, but perhaps not for

    much longer.


    Our hope is that cities across the country will look at these rankings and work

    to catch up with New Orleans, Washington, and Denver. (Although reformers

    love to bicker over which of this trio may be the “best” model for school reform,

    all three tower over the rest.) But we’re keenly aware that progress is not

    necessarily a permanent condition. New York City, in particular, r


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