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What Newsweek‘s School Rankings Won’t Tell You

Newsweek has just published one of those reliable money-makers: a school-rankings list. In this case, it’s a ranking of the top-performing U.S. public high schools. Newsweek’s methodology — which has its critics — basically consists of comparing the number of graduating seniors to the number of Advanced Placement, Cambridge, and International Baccalaureate exams given each year. Newsweek has published a list of the top 5 percent, some 1,300 schools. This isn’t an end-all-be-all measurement, but it is a fair indicator of how well schools are preparing students to go on to higher education, which is no small thing.

It’s interesting reading, of course, and it’s nearly impossible (at least for us public-school plebes) to resist turning immediately to one’s own high school to see whether it made the cut and how it ranked. (Yes, I did, and yes, it did.) But there is an easily obtainable figure that I wish Newsweek had included: How much these schools spend to get where they are on the list.
The two school districts I know the most about are my hometown schools in Lubbock, Texas, and the public schools in Philadelphia’s blueblood “Main Line” suburbs, in Radnor and Lower Merion, where I lived for years editing the local newspaper. If you include the financials behind the rankings, it’s a pretty interesting comparison.
My alma mater, Lubbock High School, was ranked No. 1078, which is to say in the bottom third of the top 5 percent. The student body is relatively poor — 69 percent are in the federal school-lunch program — and consequently, spending per student is quite low. The Lubbock Independent School District spends $6,500 per student each year.
Compare those numbers to the schools in the affluent Philadelphia suburbs. In Radnor, ranked just behind Lubbock at No. 1092, fewer than 1 percent of the students are on the free-lunch program. The average price of a home in the area is more than $400,000, with average family incomes to match. Radnor’s per-student spending is about $23,000 per year. (That’s the real bottom-line number, total operating budget divided by number of students. Different schools calculate these things different ways, but this seems to me the most comprehensive number to use for a comparison.) Radnor reports that the average salary for a teacher in their district is about $70,871 a year. Add in the very generous benefits teachers receive and you’re pushing six figures for nine months of work a year. Not too shabby.
Lower Merion, the next town over, spends more than $25,000 annually per student, and it didn’t even make the Newsweek list. By way of comparison, nearby Episcopal Academy, a pedigreed private school where Noah Webster once taught, charges less than that per year for tuition. (For an extra thousand bucks or so a year, Lower Merion could send its students to Phillips Exeter Academy.) Lower Merion teachers are highly paid as well — the average mid-career (13 years’ experience) teacher with a master’s degree in that district pulls in just under a hundred grand a year, again not counting benefits, sweet retirement plans, and time off. This is an extraordinarily well-off community — ZIP code 19035 has an average income of $699,690 — and they’re paying a lot of money to not even make the list.
Of course, these concerns are a little less pressing in places like Lower Merion than they are across the street in Philadelphia — or in places like West Texas — because Lower Merion parents enjoy school choice. Not vouchers, mind you, they just have enough money to send their kids to school wherever they like — and nearly half of the families in the district send their kids to private schools. Rich people always have school choice. Pity the same can’t be said for the students struggling in schools that don’t even come close to making the Newsweek cut.
The conclusion here is that the most important factor in education is not how much you spend on the schools, or even how well-off the students are to begin with, though those things do matter. The No. 1 ranked school was a Tucson charter school, and 10 of the top 100 schools were charters, even though charters comprise only about 3 percent of the public schools overall. If private schools were included in the rankings, you can be sure that they would, for the most part, blow the schoolhouse doors off their government-run counterparts, and it should would be nice if we could help some un-moneyed kids reap those benefits. Maybe Newsweek will take on the task of making that side-by-side comparison.


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