In 2011-12, Cleveland’s public school system (traditional district and charter) had 80 schools rated a D or F. Over 30,000 students enrolled in these buildings. Given these numbers, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s headline is remarkable: “Hundreds of Spots Remain in Cleveland's Top-Rated Public Schools this Fall.” 

The article goes on to describe how the city’s top-rated schools still have the capacity to serve more students this coming school year. These are both district and charter schools, and all produce solid academic results, while serving some of Ohio’s most needy students.

Among the district schools with open slots: The top-rated John Hay Academies, three so-called “exam schools,” had nearly 150 available seats; MC2 STEM school had 56; and Whitney Young Leadership Academy had 227 open seats. Among the charter schools, Cleveland’s E-Prep School—part of the Breakthrough Schools, one of the nation’s highest-performing charter school networks—had 60 empty seats. Two ICAN charter schools, a high-performing charter network based in Cleveland, had 70 open seats.

By my calculation, the total number of open seats on the PD’s distinguished list of schools—17 schools were listed in all—came to 1,105.

It’s a shame that there are any open seats in high-quality Cleveland schools, much less over 1,000. The city has a staggering number of low-performing schools, whether one measures performance by state rating, or by value-added growth or achievement scores. And with so many poor-performing schools, it’s no surprise then that Cleveland’s school system has the second-worst NAEP scores—the so-called “Nation’s Report Card”—in the U.S. (only Detroit is worse).

Additionally, the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program received 7,454 applications for the 2013-14 school year, the largest number in the long history of the program. So many in fact that scholarships could only be awarded in the categories of renewal applications and low-income first-time applicants. Full numbers are not yet available but this likely means that well over 1,100 students were denied choices that their families actively sought, while high-quality seats go begging in public schools.

The struggle that Cleveland’s high-quality schools have in filling empty seats begs important questions for school reformers. Why are there open seats in Cleveland’s meager supply of high-performing schools in the first place? Shouldn’t inner-city parents beat down the doors of these schools to get their kids in? Why do parents send their kids to poor-performing schools, when there are better options—academically, that is—close by? Is it a problem of too little information? (Cleveland is taking steps to improve communication to parents.) Or, do parents have priorities that come before the academic quality of their kids’ school?


Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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