Why it Matters That Public Charters Dominated the 2018 US News Best High School Rankings

By / 5.9.2018

This morning, U.S. News and World Report released its 2018 list of the nation’s best high schools. For the past few years, public charters have been slowly taking over the top 10 spots on the list; this year, they dominated them.

For those of us who believe in the power of public school choice to bring dramatic change to America’s education system, the timing of the release couldn’t have been better. After all, it’s National Charter School Week, and what better way to highlight the success of public charters than by celebrating that seven of  America’s 10 best high schools are charter schools, including the top six spots.

Of course, rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt, and U.S. Newsmethodology for ranking schools differs from the method used by The Washington Post for its “most challenging high schools” list. Creating performance frameworks for schools is difficult, and there’s alway room for quibbling over rankings and ratings.

Regardless, we shouldn’t ignore that public charter schools were the only non-selective public high schools to make it into the top 10 spots on the U.S. News list

District-run “selective” schools are allowed to evaluate applications and select students based on academic criteria and other admission requirements. Public charters, on the other, must take all students who apply. If a charter school is oversubscribed, it holds a lottery to see who gets in, giving preference only to siblings of current students and, in some cases, students who are economically disadvantaged.

The only three traditional public schools to earn a spot on the U.S. News top 10 list have admission requirements. Of the top 20 spots on the list, nine of the 11 traditional public schools have them. The other two traditional public schools in the top 20 use lottery enrollment systems similar to those of public charters.

Personally, I don’t have an ideological objection to academically selective public schools; however, I think placing these high schools in the same category as the rest of America’s public schools doesn’t make for a fair comparison.

When high schools require students to complete any combination of testing, grade reporting, interviews, or teacher recommendations as part of the admissions process, they are attempting to select for a specific subset of students – the brightest and most motivated. To some extent, the most difficult work has already been done. These schools are only admitting the students deemed most likely to succeed based on their previous academic and behavioral records. America’s other public schools, including public charters, must teach all kids, regardless of their abilities or behavioral issues.

A mere five years ago, on the 2013 list, seven of the top 10 schools had selective admissions processes. (The other three were two charters and a traditional public school with a lottery admission). In a short time – because of the growth and success of public charters – we’ve seen those numbers reverse.

Charters competing with, and outranking, these selective schools shows that America now has public high schools capable of educating all students, not only those marked as highly qualified before they walk through the doors.

If states and districts continue to invest in growing 21stcentury school systems that utilize the charter formula of autonomy, accountability, and choice, we can have more of these schools. And maybe, one day, America can live up the promise of providing a rigorous and enriching public school for every child – not just for those who test into one.