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If You Have Kids, Move to the Suburbs

John on April 10, 2008 at 11:17 am

The ten year old America’s Promise Alliance — a group of politicians and media elites founded by Colin Powell — has just issued a report on high school graduation rates in our nation’s 50 largest cities. The results are fairly stunning. In fact, given that the report was released on or about April 1, I had to double check to make sure this wasn’t part of an elaborate blog sting. But no, the group is real, here’s their page on the Charity Navigator site.

The report itself is here (pdf). It’s not very long and can be skimmed fairly quickly. But for those looking for the lowlights:

Studies conducted over the past several years have repeatedly demonstrated that far fewer American students are completing high school with diplomas than had previously been realized. Whereas the conventional wisdom had long placed the graduation rate around 85 percent, a growing consensus has emerged that only about seven in 10 students are actually successfully finishing high school.


Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data and the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) methodology, we calculated graduation rates for all school districts in the nation’s largest cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. This analysis examines graduates from the 2003-04 school year.

Our analysis finds that graduating from high school in the America’s largest cities amounts, essentially, to a coin toss. Only about one-half (52 percent) of students in the principal school systems of the 50 largest cities complete high school with a diploma. That rate is well below the national graduation rate of 70 percent, and even falls short of the average for urban districts across the country (60 percent). Only six of these 50 principal districts reach or exceed the national average. In the most extreme cases (Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis), fewer than 35 percent of students graduate with a diploma.


It should be noted that these findings capture the likelihood that the average student in the nation’s largest cities will successfully complete high school. In past analysis of state and national data, we have found that certain demographic groups graduate at rates much lower than the student population as a whole. Male students, on average, have graduation rates eight percentage points lower than females. The gaps between whites and historically disadvantaged minority groups can reach as high as 25 percentage points nationally. If those patterns hold for the nation’s largest cities, it is possible that graduation rates for certain subgroups in these communities may fall even lower than those presented in this report.

Rather than reproduce the entire chart (which is on page 10 of the report), I’ll just give you the bottom ten:

Rank City Graduation %
41 Oakland 45.6
42 Los Angeles 45.3
43 New York 45.2
44 Dallas 44.4
45 Minneapolis 43.7
46 Columbus 40.9
47 Baltimore 34.6
48 Cleveland 34.1
49 Indianapolis 30.5
50 Detroit 24.9


It’s interesting that (as the report notes) the worst affected cities are in the Northwest and Midwest. In fact, the overall graduation rates of the worst performing southern states is higher than any of the bottom 25 cities including New York, LA and Chicago.

Of course we all know what the reputation of the deep south is in America. It’s a land of bumpkins and rednecks as compared to the effete and elite who populate places like LA and New York City. As is so often the case, the reality is somewhat different. It appears from comparing this data with comparable data on state graduation rates that parents would be better off moving to rural Tennessee or Georgia than leaving your kids in big city schools.

The problem isn’t spending. According to the National Center for Education Statistics report titled Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States: 2004–05, many of the bottom ranked schools have high per pupil spending:

Rank City Graduation % Per pupil spending 04-05
41 Oakland 45.6 $10,361
42 Los Angeles 45.3 $10,996
43 New York 45.2 $15,106
44 Dallas 44.4 $9,241
45 Minneapolis 43.7 unlisted
46 Columbus 40.9 $11.554
47 Baltimore 34.6 $10,596
48 Cleveland 34.1 $11,799
49 Indianapolis 30.5 unlisted
50 Detroit 24.9 $13,207


Compare that to the number one city in the report Mesa, AZ which has a 77.1% graduation rate (that’s 7% above the national average) and per pupil spending of just $6,218. Nashville United school district comes in third in performance (77% graduation rate) and spends $10,277. This is still lower than all of the bottom performing schools except Dallas.

As you read further into the report, you’ll find that something about the cities themselves seems to be causing the problem. In many cases, the suburban metro areas surrounding these poorly performing cities have graduation rates 10%, 20%, even 40% higher. The effect is most pronounced in the cities near the bottom of the rankings (e.g. Baltimore, Columbus, Cleveland, New York). Graduation rates in the metro areas around these cities often approaches the national average.

Finally, it’s also worth noting how these cities break down politically. I’ll recreate the table above with the addition of the political affiliation of the current mayor:

Rank City Graduation % Mayor
41 Oakland 45.6 Ron Dellums (D)
42 Los Angeles 45.3 Antonio Villaraigosa (D)
43 New York 45.2 Michael Bloomberg (R)*
44 Dallas 44.4 Tom Leppert (R)
45 Minneapolis 43.7 R T Ryback (D)
46 Columbus 40.9 Michael Coleman (D)
47 Baltimore 34.6 Sheila Dixon (D)
48 Cleveland 34.1 Frank Jackson (D)
49 Indianapolis 30.5 Gregory Ballard (R)
50 Detroit 24.9 Kwame Kilpatrick (D)


* Note that Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat who switched parties in order to run for office.

There’s a definite pattern here. Mayor Bloomberg’s party switch aside, these are cities run, often historically run, by Democrats.

The bottom line is simple. If you have kids, the best thing you can do for them is to move to the suburbs. America’s cities, especially our big cities, are not a good place to get an education.

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