How “Choice-Friendly” Are America’s Major Cities?

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 11, 2016

A recent report released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranked 30 major U.S. cities according to how supportive they are of school choice. America’s Best (And Worst) Cities for School Choice, written by Priscilla Wohlstetter, Ph.D., Dara Zeehandelaar, Ph.D., and David Griffith, identifies the optimal conditions under which America’s cities are offering charter, magnet, and private school options to families and also assesses how easily these options can be accessed via open enrollment, vouchers, and tax credit scholarships.

How Cities Were Evaluated

The report evaluated a diverse group of 30 cities on three aspects of school choice – political support, policy environment, and the quantity and quality of school options – using publicly available databases, primary source documentation, and questionnaire responses from local stakeholders. Each city received a score out of 100 possible points and an accompanying A-F letter grade. The political support component, worth 15

Photo Courtesy of Liz

Photo Courtesy of Liz

points, looked at the degree to which elected officials, stakeholders, and the media support school choice. Counting for 35 points, policy environment measured the degree to which providers and consumers of school choice are supported. Quantity and quality of school options, assigned the remaining 50 points, considered the availability of charter, magnet, and private schools to families as well as how accessible they were in terms of offering open-enrollment, vouchers, and other scholarship programs. This final component also considered the portion of students attending schools of choice and the impact of these programs on math and reading achievement.


Not surprisingly, the all-charter school district of New Orleans received the highest score, 84.73, and an accompanying A- grade. Charter schools in New Orleans have been successful, nearly doubling achievement test scores and increasing the graduation rate to 73%.  The only other two cities to receive a grade above C+ were Washington, D.C. and Denver, with a B+ and B-, respectively. Detroit rounded out the Top 10 with a C. While Detroit was in the middle of the pack in terms of political support and policy environment, the city came in fourth in the area of quality and quantity due to the many options available to Detroit families, the fact that 54% of students attend charter schools in the city, and because charter schools outperform Detroit Public Schools in both reading and math. The only city to receive a failing grade, Albany, came in last place with a mere 53.52 points. According to the report, local officials largely oppose charter schools and charter schools are prohibited from being located in public school district facilities, creating serious financial burdens for charter schools in the city.

City Grade Score Rank
New Orleans A- 84.73 1
Washington, D.C. B+ 82.62 2
Denver B- 74.61 3
Indianapolis C+ 73.54 4
Columbus C+ 72.51 5
Milwaukee C+ 71.57 6
Newark C 70.18 7
Oakland C 70.07 8
Atlanta C 69.85 9
Detroit C 69.10 10
Chicago C 68.88 11
Boston C 68.66 12
New York City C 68.66 13
Philadelphia C 67.64 14
Los Angeles C- 67.21 15
Minneapolis C- 66.51 16
Baltimore C- 65.58 17
Kansas City, MO D+ 64.24 18
Houston D+ 63.23 19
San Francisco D+ 62.71 20
Nashville D+ 62.67 21
Jacksonville D+ 62.59 22
San Diego D 59.41 23
Tulsa D 57.94 24
Dallas D 57.91 25
Seattle D 57.53 26
Charlotte D 56.79 27
Pittsburgh D- 59.39 28
Austin D- 55.08 29
Albany F 53.52 3-0

Adapted from Table ES-1 How Choice-Friendly Is Your City? From America’s Best (And Worst) Cities for School-Choice, p. v, by P. Wohlstetter, D. Zeehandelaar, & D. Griffith.

For a more in-depth looks at each individual city’s profile, see Section Four of the full report.



The report concludes with four recommendations for making cities more “choice-friendly.” First, the authors argue that charter schools need to be treated equally. In many cities, charter schools are funded at lower rates than traditional public schools. Second, the report recommends that cities expand intradistrict choice. School choice goes beyond charter and private schools. Traditional public school districts can offer more extensive open enrollment policies, allowing families to choose among the schools in their district. Third, the report advises cities to make school choice options easier for parents to access in terms of obtaining information about schools, applying for them, affording private options, and accessing transportation. And finally, the report recommends that cities continue to seek out support for choice.

While this report makes a number of recommendations that have the potential to enhance support for school choice, some of these suggestions are more easily implemented than others. Equal funding for schools is an ongoing issue that extends beyond school choice, as evidenced by the many school finance cases that have been brought through the court system. It seems unlikely that simply making another suggestion to fund all schools equally will have any significant impact on how cities choose to financially support charter schools. Also, while this report suggested continuing to seek external and stakeholder support for school choice, there was little direction on how exactly this should be accomplished.

This report does, however, offer some realistic and concrete recommendations for cities that are looking to become more “choice-friendly.” Focusing on how public school districts can provide choice in the form of open enrollment policies and offering a variety of programming options as well ensuring that information about schooling options is readily available to parents are suggestions made by this report that have the potential to influence how America’s major cities approach school choice.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.