Today, U.S. News & World Report released its fourth Best High Schools rankings, based on student proficiency, preparation for college, and other factors.

“There are also separate rankings of the top high schools by state, as well as lists of all the districts in a state and the schools in each district—ideal for both families who are moving and those who are exploring their neighborhood public schools.” Special features include rankings of best charter schools, magnet schools, schools for math and science, and most (technologically) connected classrooms rankings.

At USNWR’s top 10 high schools 100 percent of students take—and pass—the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Exams, which qualifies them to receive college credit. In contrast, just 18 percent of high school students nationwide take and pass an AP Exam.

It’s also interesting to consider how much—or how comparatively little—these top-performing schools are spending for success.

USNWR includes student poverty and demographic data reported to the U.S. Department of Education. They don’t include politically touchy financial data—but those are available from the same source. (Go to ED’s “Search for Public School Districts” database. Just enter a portion of the school district name, select the state, click on the appropriate district link from the list that appears, and select the “fiscal data” tab mid-way down on the selected district’s data page.)*

A review of USNWR’s top 10 high schools reveals that typically 45 percent of these schools’ students are minorities, 11 percent are low income (qualifying for federal free-and reduced-priced meals), and spend about $1,700 less per student than the national average, $10,555 compared to the U.S. average of $12,274.

Averages, however, don’t tell the whole story. The wide variances in student demographics and spending indicate some top performers are getting greater bang for taxpayers’ bucks than others.

At the Dallas Independent School District’s School of Science and Engineering Magnet (ranked #3), for example, 84 percent of students are minorities, and 60 percent are low-income. The district spends nearly $800 less than the statewide average, $10,290 compared to $11,085, and it out-ranked other top-10 high schools that enroll fewer minority and low-income students and spend more.

Consider the International Academy in Michigan’s Bloomfield Hills School District (ranked #5). At this high school 37 percent of students are minorities, and 9 percent are low-income. Yet this district reports spending nearly $21,000 per student—more than $9,000 above the state average.

Similarly, at High Technology High School in New Jersey’s Monmouth County Vocational School District (ranked #10), less than half the students are minorities and just 2 percent are low-income. Still, the district reports spending well over $19,000 per student, about $1,200 more than the state average.

When it comes to superior school performance, money does matter. Some places are more expensive than others, and some students have educational needs that require additional spending.

Even so, taxpayers may wonder why ensuring students are college-ready costs them anywhere from around $6,000 per student (Arizona’s BASIS Tucson, ranked #6; and California’s Pacific Collegiate Charter, ranked #8) to more than $20,000 per student.




*Note: California charter-school finance reporting is idiosyncratic, and in some cases the state education department reports financial data but not the student counts necessary to calculate per-pupil funding amounts. For this reason, I refer to the funding amount for Pacific Collegiate Charter contained in the California School Finance Center (which I developed with the California Business for Education Excellence’s Educational Results Partnership).