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New U.S. News High School Rankings Teaches That Charter Schools Are Working

Top three slots of U.S. News Best High Schools rankings go to a trio of BASIS charter schools in Arizona.

News RealClearLife Staff

Add another win to charter schools’ column—this time, courtesy of newly released rankings on the top high schools in the nation from U.S. News and World Report.

The annual “U.S. News Best High Schools Rankings” was released yesterday, with charter schools notching 60 percent of the top 10 public high schools on the list, as well as the top three slots (those went to a trio of BASIS schools in Arizona). Also, 60 out of the top 100 schools listed were either charter or magnet schools, according to the New York Post.

“That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for a sector that is only six percent of all children attending schools,” Paul Peterson, professor of government and the director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, told RealClearLife. “They’re a very small share of our total educational system.”

Per U.S. News, the 2017 rankings take into account data from over 22,000 public high schools in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. Schools are awarded gold, silver, or bronze ratings based on a four-tier methodology: (1) students performing better than expected in their home state; (2) disadvantaged students performing better than the state average; (3) students graduation rates meeting or exceeding the national average; (4) and ultimately, students’ readiness to tackle college coursework.

Publicly funded but privately run, charter schools have been around since the ’70s, and have become popular alternatives to traditional public schools because they don’t have to work within the boundaries of government bureaucracy. Charters have also been viewed as a highly successful alternative for urban and underprivileged youth, who may not have access to better choices in their area. (See RealClearLife‘s story on Wyatt Tee Walker, co-founder of the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem.) One such school, KIPP Academy in New York City’s The Bronx, landed at No. 10 on the U.S. News‘ rankings.

As the New York Post noted last year, for example, New York City charters were outpacing public schools on state English and math exams. Peterson explains that BASIS—which can now boast of having four of the top five high schools in the nation—has even opened a private school in the city, but is charging students tuition. The reason BASIS tops the list? Because of two factors that permeate charter school culture: how aggressive they are academically (i.e. how many Advanced Placement classes students are likely to take); and the “flexibility” or “freedom” to have a mission like that, explains Nat Malkus, a research fellow in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “[BASIS charters] are quite honest with people; they’re like, ‘We do super-hard work, and if your kid is not ready to come in and hit the books hard every day, they’re probably not going to be very happy here.”

The rise of the charter school has also become a hot-button political issue in recent years, with a number of bipartisan voices coming out in favor of them. Last year, then–presidential candidate Donald Trump called school choice the “new civil rights issue of our time“—and later, as president, appointed charter schools proponent Betsy DeVos as his new Secretary of Education. DeVos has been an outspoken supporter of charter schools and vouchers programs.

“Under the Obama administration, [the federal government] put a lot of money into charter schools—about $250 million a year—and Trump is interested in even increasing that,” notes Malkus. But he likens that largely to “seed money.” “All these policies depend on how well [schools] are done, but done well, charters are a fantastic addition to the public education system,” Malkus continues.

However, as Peterson explains, how much sway the federal government has over the proliferation of charter schools is actually quite limited. “It’s really up to the states to allow for more charter schools, and states have been pulling back,” says Peterson. “As ironic as it is, charter schools are under pressure right now.”