10 Best Cities to Use Public Schools

10 Best Cities to Use Public Schools

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Few things fire up passion more than public education. Love it or hate it, public education is, and has always been, a contentious issue in the United States. Some parents simply ignore the issue altogether and place their children in private school or instead choose to homeschool. However, the National Center for Education Statistics finds that only 10% of K-12 students are actually enrolled in private schools, while only around 3% are homeschooled. So what about the remaining 87% of students? They’re split (rather unevenly, as it were) between public schools and public charter schools.

The Criteria

There are any number of ways to measure which cities have the best public schools. We’ve taken a look at a load of data and decided on one way we think that helps provide some modicum of clarity to the issue. Using publicly available information from various sources, we looked at several key areas important to parents trying to locate cities with the best public schools: average SAT scores, average ACT scores, crimes per square mile, per-pupil spending, student/teacher ratio and graduation rates. For those interested, we provide a detailed methodology and sources at the bottom. However, to put all of our numbers into perspective, here are the national averages for all of the areas we chose to identify:

  • National average SAT score: 1006 (495 Reading, 511 Math)*
  • National average ACT score: 21 (composite)
  • National average graduation rate: 81%
  • National average Student/Teacher Ratio: 16.1
  • National average per pupil spending: $10,700
  • National average crimes per square mile: 32.8

*An increasingly large number of colleges do not consider the written portion of the SAT to be relevant. We therefore left it off of the total combined score, which was originally 1600 with the two sections.

10 Best Public Schools in the US

Before you start shopping for houses in a city you may regret, here are the 10 best cities to use public schools.

1. Alexandria, Virginia:

Just outside of Washington D.C., Alexandria is one of the densest and most populated cities in Virginia. The entire state of Virginia already has a strong reputation for academic excellence. Alexandria is one of several areas in the state known for providing high-quality education. The city’s most prominent high school, Thomas Jefferson, sits at the top of several lists that rank high schools nationally. Two school districts cover the city: Fairfax County Public Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools. FCPS is considered the better of the two systems. While the city’s proximity to Washington D.C. makes it a highly desirable location to both live and work, the area is known for its extremely pricey housing and horrible traffic. The DMV ranks #1 for the worst traffic in the country, something that might be a huge turnoff for those who hate traffic. Nevertheless, the area is extremely diverse, as are the schools within the city and the county.

  • Best High School: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
  • Average SAT Score: 1149
  • Average ACT Score: 25.5
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 209
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 12.79
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $14,495
  • Graduation Rate: 92.7

2. Scottsdale, Arizona

As a whole, Arizona’s population is spiking dramatically. Scottsdale, a city over 220,000 people, is just one of many cities that continues to add new residents. Schooling in Scottsdale is top notch, bucking the trend for most of Arizona. The best high school in the city is a public charter school, BASIS Scottsdale. BASIS operates public charters across the country, all of which are known for their academic rigor.

Scottsdale also has the distinction of being the second safest city on our list though those looking to move here will, unfortunately, be greeted with some rather hefty housing prices. Median household values in the city are well over $300,000. The job market in Scottsdale is noticeably weaker than some parts of the country. Having a job before you move here may be a good idea. While it is not the most diverse city on our list, the Scottsdale Unified School District puts a lot of effort into raising the bar for its K-12 students.

  • Best High School: BASIS Scottsdale
  • Average SAT Score: 1087
  • Average ACT Score: 23.8
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 31
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 19.24
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $11,647
  • Graduation Rate: 88

3. Austin, Texas

It might be a good idea to move to Austin, Texas fairly soon. Texas as a whole is adding thousands of new residents every week, and Austin is no exception. The city is nearing a population of 1 million people with no clear signs of stopping. There are two school districts that serve the area: Austin Independent School District and Eanes Independent School District. Both have relatively high standards for their students and surprisingly small student/teacher ratios. All aspects of Austin’s schools are above the national average. The best high school in the city, Lasa High School, is a highly selective magnet school focusing on liberal arts and sciences. Despite its size and popularity, housing in Austin is not too expensive, with median house prices landing slightly above $250,000.

  • Best High School: Lasa High School
  • Average SAT Score: 1024
  • Average ACT Score: 22.2
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 139
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 14.47
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $11,588
  • Graduation Rate: 86.3

4. Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina is what some might call the “jewel of the South.” Living, working and raising a family in Charleston might be a dream for many individuals. The city is as unique as it is beautiful. Although many aspects of the city’s schools are below average, as a whole, the school system is among the best in the country due to a few higher performing schools. Academic Magnet High School, the best high school in the city, is also the best-ranked high school in the entire state of South Carolina, and one of the highest ranked schools in the country. Because the population just barely squeezes over 120,000, student/teacher ratios in the classrooms are wonderfully small. Charleston also has the distinction of being the safest city on our list, which may indeed make it more desirable for some families. And despite having some fairly expensive houses right in the center of the city, most housing is incredibly affordable, while the job market is noticeably strong–if you’re in construction or tourism, that is. Otherwise, you may want to consider telecommuting work.

  • Best High School: Academic Magnet High School
  • Average SAT Score: 998
  • Average ACT Score: 19
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 28
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 13.98
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $11,935
  • Graduation Rate: 83.8

5. Raleigh, North Carolina

North Carolina is a bit of a puzzle. As a whole, the state performs poorly in most academic rankings. Raleigh, however, emerges high on our ranking and well nationally. Some of this has to do with it being a college city. Over 400,000 people call Raleigh home, with over 150,000 students enrolled in the Wake County Public Schools system. If you’re hoping to get the best out of the school system, you will want to locate yourself near Raleigh Charter High School. The school is nationally ranked and performs well, even for a city that is already known for its dedication to education. The job market in Raleigh is also strong, making it extremely desirable for families looking to relocate to an area with good jobs available to coincide with the good school system. The per-pupil spending may be below the national average, but this hasn’t hampered the school system from offering top-notch education with high standards.

  • Best High School: Raleigh Charter High School
  • Average SAT Score: 1063
  • Average ACT Score: 20.5
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 110
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 15.56
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $9,135
  • Graduation Rate: 86.1

6. Tucson, Arizona

Much like Scottsdale, Tucson has a lot to offer prospective parents and families. The Tucson Unified School District has managed to do a lot with less. This highly diverse city defies expectations. The average SAT scores for students in this city are well above average. The graduation rate leaves a bit to be desired, however, as many students in the city do not graduate on time. That said, housing is extremely affordable in Tucson, with the median housing cost less than $130,000. This city of over 500,000 people has leveled off a bit in its population growth. The job market is active, but not strong. However, Tucson is home to several large colleges, including the University of Arizona, almost ensuring excellent opportunities for families and students who graduate from the local school district. The best high school in Tucson, BASIS Tucson North, is one of many BASIS schools that are known for high academic rigor and achievement.

  • Best High School: BASIS Tucson North
  • Average SAT Score: 1170
  • Average ACT Score: 25*
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 158
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 19.01
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $9,564
  • Graduation Rate: 81

7. San Jose, California

There are many, many great school districts in California. However, San Jose stands out as a great place to live and to send students to school. Per-pupil spending is right along the line of the national average, while ACT and SAT scores noticeably exceed the national average. The biggest concern some parents may have with the San Jose Unified School District is the student/teacher ratio. At 23.44 students per teacher, class sizes are noticeably large. However, this seems to have only marginally hurt the school system, which manages to see a large amount of success from its students. The best high school in the city, Lynbrook High School, is the 17th best in California and in the top 150 high schools in the country. The biggest downside to San Jose is the cost of living. Median house values are well over $500,000, while median incomes are only around $80,000.

  • Best High School: Lynbrook High School
  • Average SAT Score: 1063
  • Average ACT Score: 22.5
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 160
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 23.44
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $10,238
  • Graduation Rate: 85.6

8. New York City, New York

New York City is the first of three cities (New York City, Dallas and Chicago) that one might consider questionable choices to include on the list. However, New York City, like the other two, is a city of contrasts. Some of the best schools in the country can be found in the nation’s largest metropolitan area. Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan is considered the best high school in the country by some lists, but undoubtedly one of the best on all known measurements. This does not include the large number of other specialized K-12 public schools that will attract potential families. The biggest concern with New York City is the very high crime rate, which is more than double that of the next closest on our list. The crimes per square mile is deeply concerning, although mostly a result of the population density. New York has extremely high standards in its public schools. All teachers are required to have a Master’s degree, or to be working on one, and the city invests a lot of money in raising its educational standards.

  • Best High School: Stuyvesant High School
  • Average SAT Score: 910
  • Average ACT Score: No Data
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 1,959
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 15.03
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $18,825
  • Graduation Rate: 78

9. Dallas, Texas

For all intents and purposes, Dallas shouldn’t be on our list. The average SAT score in the Dallas Unified School District is noticeably low, as is the average ACT score. However, Dallas has two of the best public high schools in the entire county, the School for the Talented and Gifted and the School for Science and Engineering. Prospective families looking to use public schools in Dallas will likely want to situate themselves in the best neighborhoods in order to get their children into the best schools. In a city of over 1 million people (and growing), it’s understandable that there may be some contrasts in terms of school quality. Housing is fairly cheap in Dallas, and jobs of all types are plentiful. Dallas is a great option for those who want the best schools and are willing to put in the time to finding good housing in just the right spot.

  • Best High School: School for the Talented and Gifted
  • Average SAT Score: 787
  • Average ACT Score: 17
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 143
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 16.25
  • Pupil Spending: $12,061
  • Graduation Rate: 84

10. Chicago, Illinois

Chicago makes our list, but just barely. The crime rates in Chicago are not the worst on our list, but there are some significant issues with crime in the area. However, the key to schooling in Chicago is a matter of location. Many of Chicago’s schools are highly ranked, while many of them are struggling to survive. As such, Chicago is a city that shows a great disparity between rich and poor. Families interested in moving to Chicago will likely want to locate themselves on the north side of the city where crime is less common and schools are better. However, housing in that part of the city is also much more expensive. The two major colleges around the city, University of Chicago and Northwestern University, are internationally ranked schools. Students who attend the best schools in the city have a good chance of getting into these schools. Most of Chicago’s best public schools operate through selective enrollment. Chicago can be one of the best places to use public schools, but only if you’re confident your children can get into the best ones.

  • Best High School: Walter Payton College Preparatory High School
  • Average SAT Score: No Data
  • Average ACT Score: 18.2
  • Crimes Per Square Mile: 478
  • Student/Teacher Ratio: 17.01
  • Per-Pupil Spending: $14,246
  • Graduation Rate: 77

*The ACT average for Tucson is self-reported data. Self-reported survey data of this nature can easily suffer from selection bias. We include the number, obtained from k12.niche.com, in order to provide some data, but do not suggest using this number as a scientific measure.

Methodology and Research

Ranking school systems is always going to be a bit of a touchy subject. Part of the reason for this is that many schools do not measure and report certain data. SAT and ACT scores, for example, are not actively collected by many school districts, or not actively published. No data on the list comes from before 2010. However, test data and graduation numbers can change dramatically from year to year, and not every school district’s numbers represent the most recent year they could be available (2015).

Our list represents only the largest school districts in cities with populations over 100,000. There are only around 300 cities in the U.S. with populations that are over 100,000, which eliminates the majority of potentially excellent school districts around the country. When selecting from the list of cities with populations over 100,000 people, we only looked at school districts that had at least one high school with a Gold Medal ranking according to U.S. News and World Report. From there, we cross-referenced several other rankings (Newsweek, Niche) to see if those schools landed on separate lists with different measuring criteria.

Our starting point for each city was to identify the largest school district serving that city’s student population — as long as the high school we identified as top-ranked in the city was also located in that school district. For each school district, we looked at 6 areas that may be relevant to families: average SAT scores, average ACT scores, crimes per square mile, student/teacher ratios, per-pupil spending and graduation rates.

We organized and graded the school districts several times based on the number in each category. For SAT scores, ACT scores, per-pupil spending and graduation rates, higher numbers were better. For student/teacher ratios and crimes per square mile, lower numbers were better. Each city was given a score of 10 to 1, depending on where it fell for each category. The overall score was calculated (out of 60), and the final ranking was given.

There were some concessions we had to take in ranking and data collection due to the inconsistencies of how education data is reported across the country:

  1. Alexandria sits inside of two school districts. We included the data for Fairfax County, the larger of the two school districts covering the city.
  2. Scottsdale SAT and ACT data is 6 years old (latest data was publicly published).
  3. Tucson SAT and ACT data is self-reported survey data from Niche. We consider this unreliable. However, it was the only publicly available data.
  4. San Jose SAT scores were only available as a cumulative of all three sections. The number given is representative of a rough average of what the score for the math and reading alone might be.
  5. Chicago has no publicly listed SAT data. Individual school information is available, but inconsistent.
  6. The Raleigh Charter High School is independent of Wake County. However, it is free, public, and open to students who live in Raleigh. The SAT, ACT, student/teacher ratio, per-pupil spending and graduation rates for the high school are different from that of Wake County. More about this school can be found here and here.

As stated, our ranking methodology is only one way to rank cities and school districts. Certain areas could be weighted more heavily. For example, student/teacher ratios may play a bigger role in student success than per-pupil spending. Some studies also suggest teacher quality plays a major role, as well as parental involvement. Some of these are harder to measure than others, as many school districts do not publicly share this information, or do not collect it. North Carolina, for example, only began reporting graduation rates less than a decade ago. And because ACT and SAT tests are voluntary, many school districts choose not to report these averages regularly, particularly when the district-wide averages are below the national average.

Although the word “standardization” leaves a negative taste in the mouths of many educators, parents and students, there is something to be said about maintaining a standard for data collection. The National Center for Educational Statistics keeps a lot of data on file, but much of it is not what families would consider the most relevant for making a decision about a school district’s viability. A call for more standardized data collection and publication, much in the same vein as the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, may be a good route for the federal government to take when it comes to America’s schools.

Various pages were accessed from the following websites for data:



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