U.S. Prison Population vs. The World: Statistics and Insights

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There have been a lot of hot button political issues in the United States in recent years. These stories dominate the news cycle and then make way for the next big story. But one topic in particular has been slowly bubbling just below the surface for many years: the rate of incarceration in the United States. 

Everyone from political candidates to celebrities like Kim Kardashian have taken up the incarceration rate in the United States as their personal pet cause. 

So, why has this become such a major issue for some, and what has happened to bring the discussion to this point?

Like many complex political and social issues, there is no one cause that anyone can point to the number of people who are currently incarcerated in the United States. Rather, this is a challenge that has been created over time as a result of a number of laws, social changes, and policy directives from government. Some may even wonder if this is even really a crisis at all. 

When comparing the US prison population vs the world, is there much of a difference to note?

Politicians from both parties have often quoted Bureau of Justice statistics that the United States, despite having only about 5% of the world’s population, is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Hillary Clinton mentioned this statistic several times in the run up to her presidential run. Republican Rand Paul has also made similar claims in the past. And, for the most part, these numbers are fairly accurate according to The Washington Post.

Clearly, the imprisonment rate in the United States is disproportionate to the total population. If it were to be assumed that people around the world commit crimes at a relatively similar rate, then it would stand to reason that the United States should only be home to about 5% of the world’s prison population. 

So why are crime rates - and the numbers - so out of line? And, more importantly, what can be done to change this?  Or, for that matter, does anything even need to be done?

This article is going to take a deeper look at incarceration rates by country to see where other countries rank, what could be contributing to such a high incarceration rate, and what other countries are doing differently than the United States to keep their prison and jail populations low.

Important statistics to consider

When looking simply at prison population totals by country, it is easy to see that the United States is not in good company. Just in terms of real numbers without accounting for per capita totals, the United States leads the list by a hefty margin with over 2 million people currently incarcerated. 

Next on the list is China with over 1.5 million people in prison. As the most populous country on the planet, it would be expected that China should be near the top of the list. 

However, it should also be noted that China is widely criticized for taking drastic steps including imprisoning journalists who go against the communist regime’s narrative, building detention camps for Muslimsdetaining Canadian citizens in the midst of a legal dispute between the countries governments, and arresting political dissidents at a rate that leads the world.

After China on the list of prisoner totals comes Russia. This is another country known for jailing journalists, arresting political dissidents, and even making laws against “gay propaganda.” Following Russia on this list are Brazil, India, and Mexico with their own unique challenges regarding human rights and incarceration.

Of course, prison population totals only tells a part of the story. It stands to reason that countries with higher populations will, in turn, have higher prison populations. Therefore, an incarceration rate per 100,000 people is a statistic often used to help analyze which counties are actually jailing people at a much higher rate than their peers. 

Even when sorting using this method, the United States still leads the world in incarceration rates with 737 people in prison per 100,000 citizens. Russia is second on the list with 615 and then there is a noticeable drop off with countries like Ukraine, South Africa, and Poland on the list.

Many people point to drug offenses and the War on Drugs, which was started by Richard Nixon, as a cause of the high mass incarceration rates in the United States. In fact, in the last 40 years, the prison population total in the United States has increased nearly 600%, while the overall population of the United States has only increased 51%. That is a drastic change that directly coincides with the beginning of the War on Drugs.

With the War on Drugs came many mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug-related crimes. And, according to the United States Sentencing Commission, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have had a significant impact on the size of the overall prison population in the United States. 

Many critics of mandatory minimum sentences believe that this policy unfairly imprisons non-violent drug offenders and fails to address the root cause of drug crime. In addition, it can also lead to a first-time offender being sentenced the same way that a repeat offender would be sentenced. 

With mandatory minimums, there is no room for creative sentencing that may help ensure offenders get the help they need to stay away from a life of crime.

Many also point to a racial disparity in prison populations to argue that there may be racial bias present when sentencing. For example, African Americans are jailed at a rate 5 times higher than whites and, despite only making up 32% of the population in the United States, African Americans and Hispanics make up 56% of the prison population total. 

This racial bias is partially confirmed by a former Nixon advisor, who said this in a 1994 interview:

“We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

By looking at the clear statistics showing the US prison population vs the world and considering the factors like the War on Drugs that may have contributed to this, people can begin to get a grasp on why the United States is home to such a disproportionately high number of prisoners. But these basic statistics do not tell the full story. There are other smaller factors that must also be looked at.

Recidivism rates in the United States

One basic way to judge whether a sentencing and prison system is working is the rates of recidivism. This shows how many people end up back in prison after being released for their first sentence. Essentially, it tells people whether the prison system is reforming people or if it is only continuing the cycle of crime and incarceration.

The rate of recidivism in the United States is 70% within 5 years. Simply put, 70% of freed inmates will be arrested again within 5 years. This is in stark contrast to Norway, which boasts the lowest recidivism rates in the world at just 20% within 5 years. 

What is the cause of this massive difference? Norway puts a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation. Inmates are given opportunities to train and learn new skills so that they can be better positioned for success when released. Prisoners have enclosed washrooms within their cells, excellent workout facilities, and on-site medical access. 

American prisons also claim to rehabilitate rather than punish but there are some policies like solitary confinement suggest there is still much work to be done. Prisoners in some states can be made to work on factory lines during their sentence for far less than minimum wage. In other states, some felons are unable to get back some basic rights like the ability to vote, even after they have served their time. These challenges can make it difficult to integrate back into society and, ultimately, may contribute to increased recidivism rates.

Crime begins early

There are some interesting juvenile incarceration statistics that may play a role in the significant incarceration rate in the United States. For starters, the United States has the most imprisoned minors of any country in the world with 60,000 in juvenile detention facilities and 95,000 in adult facilities. 

In addition, studies have shown that up to 57% of juvenile offenders will re-offend in adulthood. With the high rates of recidivism among adult offenders discussed above, the significant imprisonment of minors may be a starting point for many long-time offenders who are continuously in and out of the prison system throughout their lives.

Not all juvenile offenders may end up in prison facilities for minor crimes like petty vandalism. However, intervention is an important tool to ensure that young offenders have positive outcomes later in life. 

Studies have shown that treatments like mental health counseling can greatly improve future results for juvenile offenders and keep them out of the prison system. Unfortunately, these services are not always available or affordable for those who need them. As a result, important intervention opportunities may be missed and youth criminals may eventually graduate to more serious crimes throughout their teenage and adult years.

Prison system quality

The quality of a prison system can play a major role in recidivism outcomes, as mentioned above in the example comparing Norway and the United States. While the United States is not home to the worst prison systems in the world like those found in China, Russia, Thailand, and Venezuela, there is an opportunity for improvement.

One main criticism of the US prison system is the for-profit prisons. These are privately owned and operated prisons that are contracted by the government to house prisoners. In a for-profit prison system, there is an obvious risk of prison operators cutting corners to boost profits at the expense of inmate care. 

In fact, the United States is only one of a handful of countries that actually makes use of for-profit prisons. Some critics even go as far as to suggest that for-profit prisons have little incentive to rehabilitate prisoners as it would harm their business model.

Some policies in the US prison system are also being eliminated in other countries. For example, Canada has moved to eliminate solitary confinement in its prison system while the practice is still widely used in the United States. While solitary confinement isn’t physical torture like what can be found in the worst prison systems in the world, it can have long-term, negative mental health outcomes for prisoners even after they are out of prison.

Women in prison

Much like with the male prisoner population, when looking at female incarceration by country, the United States leads the world for number of women in prison with more than 200,000 women currently serving time. Once again, this only adds fuel to the fire when comparing US prison population vs the world. For context, China sits in second place with just over 100,000 women in prison despite their much larger population.

The consequences of putting women behind bars can be felt throughout the entire family. Since women are most often the main caregiver, their incarceration can lead to very negative outcomes for their children. Kids with parents in prison face a number of challenges including economic hardship, expulsion from school, psychological changes, and even turn to criminal behavior of their own. If the father is unable or unwilling to parent alone, the children can end up in the foster care system, which also increases the risk of criminal behavior and mental health issues.

Once women are released from prison, they may face challenges with finding secure employment and stable housing which makes raising children a challenge. Those that do not have children may still have to battle homelessness, poverty, and hunger. By imprisoning women at such a high rate, the United States may unintentionally be driving future generations toward a life of crime as well which only further worsens the already staggering incarceration rate in the country.

FAQs about U.S. prisons

Which country has the highest incarceration rate in the world?

The United States leads this category by a fairly wide margin. The incarceration rate in the United States is 737 inmates per 100,000 people. This exceeds countries like China, Russia, and Mexico which all have a dubious history with human rights. Despite only having about 5% of the world’s population, the United States is home to almost 25% of all prisoners in the world. Countries like China and India with much higher populations have both a lower incarceration rate and total prison population than the United States.

How does the prison population in America compare to other nations?

The United States far outpaces other countries for total prison population with over 2.1 million jail inmates. China is second on this list with just over 1.5 million people in prison. 

Russia is home to about 870,000 prisoners, Brazil has more than 370,000 prisoners, and India rounds out the top 5 with a little more than 330,000 prisoners. Despite some countries like China and Russia going so far as to imprison gay rights advocates and political dissidents, they still do not match the prisoner totals seen in the United States.

How many prisons are in the United States?

The United States prison system is made up of federal, state, and local facilities. Within that, there are women’s facilities, men’s facilities, and juvenile facilities that may all be subject to different reporting standards and timelines. 

According to recent information, there are 6,125 prisons in the United States including federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile correctional facilities, and Indian Country jails. This number does not include other facilities that may be relevant, including military prisons or immigration detention facilities.

How much does the United States spend on prisons each year?

It is widely estimated that the United States spends a total of $80 billion per year on public and private prisons. These numbers are a combination of federal, state, and local spending on prisons within their own jurisdictions. That figure has also been quoted by politicians including Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama. Some facilities may not be reflected in this number. 

For example, immigration detention facilities would not fall under a federal prison budget and would, instead, be part of the homeland security budget. Military prisons and prisons like Guantanamo Bay would also not appear in these figures, as they would be a part of the military budget. 

Top School Districts in Alabama, 2021

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Although Alabama lags behind other states in terms of test score performance, there are a number of public school districts in the Heart of Dixie where this is far from the case. Let’s look at Alabama’s top five best school districts. 

Alabama’s best school district is Vestavia Hills Schools, a medium-sized school district of eight schools and an enrollment of around 7,000 students. Not only do Vestavia Hills students excel in academics, but they perform excellently in extracurricular activities, as well, with the Vestavia Hills High School “We the People” team recently bringing home its 16th straight state title in a competition that simulates congressional hearings. 

Not far behind is #2 Mountain Brook Schools, made up of four K-6 elementary schools, one junior high, and one high school serving the wealthy city of Mountain Brook. MBS is an all-around excellent district, with high assessment scores, a high graduation rate, and a favorable student-to-teacher ratio. In fact, five of the district’s schools have received the Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education. 

Trussville City Schools is Alabama’s 3rd best school district. Composed of five schools serving Trussville, an affluent suburb of Birmingham, TCS is an elite district that performs well on assessment tests and boasts a dropout rate below one percent. 

In the 4th spot is the Enterprise City School System, a large district made up of nine schools serving over 7,000 students. ECSS has a great pedigree: it was the first district in Alabama to be accredited by both the State Department of Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and around 82% of district students go on to attend 2 or 4-year colleges.

The 5th best school district in Alabama is Alabaster City Schools, which serves over 6,000 students in the Birmingham suburb of Alabaster. Although ALC is a young district established in just 2013, it’s already one of the best-performing in the state, being one of just 26 districts to earn an “A” on the Alabama Education Report Card.  

Top School Districts in Alabama, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Vestavia Hills CityVestavia Hills
2Mountain Brook CityMountain Brk
3Trussville CityTrussville
4Enterprise CityEnterprise
5Alabaster CityAlabaster
6Homewood CityHomewood
7Houston CountyDothan
8Morgan CountyDecatur
9Talladega CountyTalladega
10Saraland CitySaraland
11Cullman CityCullman
12Phenix CityPhenix City
13Muscle Shoals CityMuscle Shoals
14Arab CityArab
15Florence CityFlorence
16Athens CityAthens
17Hartselle CityHartselle
18Jackson CountyScottsboro
19Albertville CityAlbertville
20Pelham CityPelham
21Dale CountyOzark
22Leeds CityLeeds
23Satsuma CitySatsuma
24Marshall CountyGuntersville
25Oxford CityOxford
26Cherokee CountyCentre
27Cleburne CountyHeflin
28Opelika CityOpelika
29Pell CityPell City
30Oneonta CityOneonta
31Fort Payne CityFort Payne
32Lawrence CountyMoulton
33Brewton CityBrewton
34Gadsden CityGadsden
35Coffee CountyElba
36Covington CountyAndalusia
37Winfield CityWinfield
38Jasper CityJasper
39Guntersville CityGuntersville
40Jacksonville CityJacksonville
41Winston CountyDouble Springs
42Marion CountyHamilton
43Scottsboro CityScottsboro
44Escambia CountyBrewton
45Piedmont CityPiedmont
46Andalusia CityAndalusia
47Henry CountyAbbeville
48Russellville CityRussellville
49Lamar CountyVernon
50Geneva CountyGeneva
51Marengo CountyLinden
52Sylacauga CitySylacauga
53Troy CityTroy
54Franklin CountyRussellville
55Roanoke CityRoanoke
56Pickens CountyCarrollton
57Washington CountyChatom
58Fayette CountyFayette
59Tuscumbia CityTuscumbia
60Russell CountyPhenix City
61Haleyville CityHaleyville
62Alexander CityAlexander City
63Chambers CountyLafayette
64Hale CountyGreensboro
65Ozark CityOzark
66Clarke CountyGrove Hill
67Tallapoosa CountyDadeville
68Clay CountyAshland
69Geneva CityGeneva
70Opp CityOpp
71Demopolis CityDemopolis
72Boaz CityBoaz
73Pike CountyTroy
74Bibb CountyCentreville
75Colbert CountyTuscumbia
76Randolph CountyWedowee
77Monroe CountyMonroeville
78Selma CitySelma
79Thomasville CityThomasville
80Crenshaw CountyLuverne
81Dallas CountySelma
82Attalla CityAttalla
83Tallassee CityTallassee
84Talladega CityTalladega
85Sheffield CitySheffield
86Butler CountyGreenville
87Lowndes CountyHayneville
88Elba CityElba
89Bessemer CityBessemer
90Fairfield CityFairfield
91Coosa CountyRockford
92Midfield CityMidfield
93Macon CountyTuskegee
94Anniston CityAnniston
95Perry CountyMarion
96Tarrant CityTarrant
97Chickasaw CityChickasaw
98Daleville CityDaleville
99Choctaw CountyButler
100Lanett CityLanett

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

Did your district make the list? Share the good news!

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Top School Districts in Arkansas, 2021

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While on a whole, the Arkansas education system may not receive any special distinctions, a handful of its public school districts rank among the finest in the nation. Here’s a closer look at the Natural State’s five best school districts. 

Greenbrier Public Schools is the best school district in Arkansas. GPS is a medium-sized district of six schools serving over 3,000 students in the small city of Greenbrier, along with parts of eight other communities in the region. The district’s high school is one of the best in the state and has a graduation rate of over 97 percent.   

Earning the #2 spot is Benton School District, comprising seven schools serving the Little Rock suburb of Benton, as well as parts of surrounding communities. Every school in the district is accredited by the Arkansas Department of Education, and BSD recently reported its highest graduation rate in five years.  

The 3rd best school district in Arkansas is Greenwood School District, long one of the highest-performing in the state. Students in the district regularly earn ACT scores above state and national averages, as well as scoring among the top five schools in the state in math and literacy on the ACT Aspire exam. 

Valley View Public Schools is the 4th best school district in Arkansas. Comprising three schools in southwest Jonesboro, VVSD is accredited by the Arkansas Department of Education and its junior high earned National Blue Ribbon recognition in 2015. 

Lakeside School District, which serves the resort community of Hot Springs, completes the list of Arkansas top five school districts. Students at Lakeside’s four schools regularly distinguish themselves through high performance in assessment testing and by earning a high number of scholarships.  

Top School Districts in Arkansas, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Greenbrier School DistrictGreenbrier
2Benton School DistrictBenton
3Greenwood School DistrictGreenwood
4Valley View School DistrictJonesboro
5Lakeside School DistrictHot Springs
6Vilonia School DistrictVilonia
7Russellville School DistrictRussellville
8Lake Hamilton School DistrictPearcy
9Van Buren School DistrictVan Buren
10Harrison School DistrictHarrison
11Siloam Springs School DistrictSiloam Springs
12Searcy School DistrictSearcy
13Alma School DistrictAlma
14Melbourne School DistrictMelbourne
15Jonesboro School DistrictJonesboro
16Farmington School DistrictFarmington
17Salem School DistrictSalem
18Sheridan School DistrictSheridan
19Greene Co. Tech School Dist.Paragould
20Bismarck School DistrictBismarck
21Valley Springs School DistrictValley Springs
22Pottsville School DistrictPottsville
23Genoa Central School DistrictTexarkana
24Gravette School DistrictGravette
25Charleston School DistrictCharleston
26Brookland School DistrictBrookland
27Mountain Home School DistrictMountain Home
28Paragould School DistrictParagould
29Southside School DistrictBatesville
30Heber Springs School DistrictHeber Springs
31Dequeen School DistrictDe Queen
32Ozark School DistrictOzark
33White Hall School DistrictWhite Hall
34Pea Ridge School DistrictPea Ridge
35Searcy County School DistrictMarshall
36Dover School DistrictDover
37Nashville School DistrictNashville
38Batesville School DistrictBatesville
39Nettleton School DistrictJonesboro
40Mena School DistrictMena
41Nemo Vista School DistrictCenter Ridge
42Eureka Springs School DistrictEureka Springs
43Manila School DistrictManila
44Mountain View School DistrictMountain View
45Emerson-Taylor School DistrictEmerson
46Clinton School DistrictClinton
47Wynne School DistrictWynne
48Elkins School DistrictElkins
49Jackson Co. School DistrictTuckerman
50Clarksville School DistrictClarksville
51Bergman School DistrictBergman
52Dardanelle School DistrictDardanelle
53Highland School DistrictHardy
54Danville School DistrictDanville
55Bauxite School DistrictBauxite
56El Dorado School DistrictEl Dorado
57Pocahontas School DistrictPocahontas
58West Memphis School DistrictWest Memphis
59Cave City School DistrictCave City
60Fouke School DistrictFouke
61Glen Rose School DistrictMalvern
62Beebe School DistrictBeebe
63Mccrory School DistrictMccrory
64Prairie Grove School DistrictPrairie Grove
65Mt. Vernon/Enola School Dist.Mt Vernon
66County Line School DistrictBranch
67Cleveland County School Dist.Rison
68Parkers Chapel School Dist.El Dorado
69Quitman School DistrictQuitman
70Texarkana School DistrictTexarkana
71Marion School DistrictMarion
72South Side School DistrictBee Branch
73Scranton School DistrictScranton
74Ouachita School DistrictDonaldson
75Centerpoint School DistrictAmity
76Monticello School DistrictMonticello
77Fountain Lake School DistrictHot Springs
78Gentry School DistrictGentry
79Corning School DistrictCorning
80Rose Bud School DistrictRose Bud
81Des Arc School DistrictDes Arc
82Lavaca School DistrictLavaca
83Hot Springs School DistrictHot Springs
84Concord School DistrictConcord
85Armorel School DistrictArmorel
86Atkins School DistrictAtkins
87Magnet Cove School Dist.Malvern
88Alpena School DistrictAlpena
89Riverside School DistrictLake City
90Hackett School DistrictHackett
91Pangburn School DistrictPangburn
92Poyen School DistrictPoyen
93Hamburg School DistrictHamburg
94Harmony Grove School DistrictBenton
95Gosnell School DistrictGosnell
96Mammoth Spring School DistrictMammoth Spring
97Perryville School DistrictPerryville
98So. Conway Co. School DistrictMorrilton
99Paris School DistrictParis
100Buffalo Is. Central Sch. Dist.Monette

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

Did your district make the list? Share the good news!

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Top School Districts in Arizona, 2021

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As one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, Arizona is constantly adding new school districts while adjusting existing ones. The constant change and upheaval mean that public school districts in the state do not perform as well as they could. However, a number of Arizona school districts truly excel in academics and other areas.

The best in the state is Catalina Foothills School District, made up of four elementary schools, two middle schools, a high school, and two specialty learning centers in the city of Tucson. CFSD’s students excel both academically and in extracurricular activities, each year earning a long list of achievements in just about every category.

Queen Creek Unified School District is the 2nd best in Arizona. Students of the large district of over 9,000 enrollment regularly earn scores significantly above state averages in the areas of language arts and math on state assessment tests. 

Ranking 3rd in Arizona is Sierra Vista Unified School District #68. Another large district with over 6,000 students, all eight of SVUSD schools hold a rating of “Highly Performing” or “Performing Plus” with the Arizona Learns system, and the district’s graduation rate is above the state average. 

Lake Havasu USD No. 1 earns the 4th spot in the ranking of Arizona’s public school districts. Encompassing eight schools in the Lake Havasu City area, the district boasts an above-average graduation rate and its students regularly outperform state and national averages in assessment tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the SAT9.

Filling out Arizona’s top five is Sahuarita Unified Schools serving over 5,800 students of the towns of Sahuarita and Green Valley. The district’s high quality is reflected in its above-average graduation rate of 88%.

Top School Districts in Arizona, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Catalina Foothills Unified District (4410)Tucson
2Queen Creek Unified District (4245)Queen Creek
3Sierra Vista Unified District (4175)Sierra Vista
4Lake Havasu Unified District (4368)Lake Havasu City
5Sahuarita Unified District (4411)Sahuarita
6Snowflake Unified District (4391)Snowflake
7Humboldt Unified District (4469)Prescott Valley
8Buckeye Union High School District (4284)Buckeye
9Flowing Wells Unified District (4405)Tucson
10Prescott Unified District (4466)Prescott
11Avondale Elementary District (4272)Avondale
12Palominas Elementary District (4180)Hereford
13Thatcher Unified District (4219)Thatcher
14Fountain Hills Unified District (4247)Fountain Hills
15Saddle Mountain Unified School District (4254)Tonopah
16Joseph City Unified District (4388)Joseph City
17Maricopa Unified School District (4441)Maricopa
18Douglas Unified District (4174)Douglas
19Tanque Verde Unified District (4408)Tucson
20Valley Union High School District (4190)Elfrida
21St Johns Unified District (4153)Saint Johns
22Kingman Unified School District (79598)Kingman
23Santa Cruz Valley Unified District (4458)Rio Rico
24Morenci Unified District (4230)Morenci
25Safford Unified District (4218)Safford
26Yucca Elementary District (4377)Yucca
27St David Unified District (4173)Saint David
28Chino Valley Unified District (4474)Chino Valley
29Alpine Elementary District (4161)Alpine
30Kirkland Elementary District (4480)Kirkland
31Benson Unified School District (79226)Benson
32Colorado City Unified District (4370)Colorado City
33Patagonia Union High School District (4462)Patagonia
34Round Valley Unified District (4155)Springerville
35Aguila Elementary District (4249)Aguila
36Apache Junction Unified District (4443)Apache Junction
37Colorado River Union High School District (4381)Bullhead City
38Ajo Unified District (4409)Ajo
39Nadaburg Unified School District (4252)Wittmann
40Owens School District No.6 (4373)Wikieup
41Show Low Unified District (4393)Show Low
42Solomon Elementary District (4222)Solomon
43Continental Elementary District (4416)Green Valley
44Santa Cruz Elementary District (4459)Nogales
45Payson Unified District (4209)Payson
46Winslow Unified District (4387)Winslow
47Sedona-Oak Creek Jusd #9 (4467)Sedona
48Grand Canyon Unified District (4194)Grand Canyon Village
49Tombstone Unified District (4168)Tombstone
50Blue Ridge Unified School District No. 32 (4397)Lakeside
51Wickenburg Unified District (4236)Wickenburg
52Duncan Unified District (4228)Duncan
53Page Unified District (4196)Page
54Ganado Unified School District (4157)Ganado
55Tonto Basin Elementary District (4215)Tonto Basin
56Altar Valley Elementary District (4418)Tucson
57Miami Unified District (4211)Miami
58Mingus Union High School District (4488)Cottonwood
59Kayenta Unified School District #27 (4396)Kayenta
60Parker Unified School District (4510)Parker
61Pima Unified District (4220)Pima
62Globe Unified District (4208)Globe
63Bisbee Unified District (4169)Bisbee
64Mcneal Elementary District (4181)Mcneal
65Holbrook Unified District (4389)Holbrook
66Beaver Creek Elementary District (4481)Rimrock
67Mammoth-San Manuel Unified District (4439)San Manuel
68Camp Verde Unified District (4470)Camp Verde
69Maine Consolidated School District (4199)Parks
70Willcox Unified District (4170)Willcox
71Bagdad Unified District (4468)Bagdad
72Fredonia-Moccasin Unified District (4195)Fredonia
73Hayden-Winkelman Unified District (4212)Winkelman
74Williams Unified District (4193)Williams
75Double Adobe Elementary District (4179)Mcneal
76Tuba City Unified School District #15 (4197)Tuba City
77Oracle Elementary District (4444)Oracle
78Pinon Unified District (4390)Pinon
79Pima Accommodation District (4401)Tucson
80Naco Elementary District (4176)Naco
81Red Mesa Unified District (4159)Teec Nos Pos
82Coolidge Unified District (4442)Coolidge
83Gila Bend Unified District (4238)Gila Bend
84Antelope Union High School District (4506)Wellton
85Window Rock Unified District (4154)Fort Defiance
86Fort Thomas Unified District (4221)Fort Thomas
87Sanders Unified District (4156)Sanders

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

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Top School Districts in California, 2021

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California is a huge state of over 39.5 million people and nearly 1000 school districts, many of which are among the largest school districts in the country. Therefore, to be named one of the top public school districts in the state is a significant honor. Let’s take a closer look at five school districts that truly distinguished themselves among the Golden State’s many hundreds of school systems. 

The top public school district in California is Acalanes Union High School District, consisting of four high schools in Contra Costa County. Acalanes’ four schools are all accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and boast a tradition of exceptional academic performance: each ranks in the top 6 percent of high schools in California on the Academic Performance Index.  

Laguna Beach Unified is California’s 2nd best public high school district. The district’s Laguna Beach High School has earned AP Honor Roll designation for increasing AP access, and its students excel in areas outside of academics as well, indicated by 100% participation in arts and athletics. 

Earning the #3 spot is Piedmont Unified School District. The district is made up of seven schools in the city of Piedmont, which is completely surrounded by Oakland. PUSD students achieve some of the highest scores in the state on standardized tests, and over 95 percent of graduates go on to enroll in higher education.  

Like California’s top school district, #4 Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District is comprised solely of high schools in the San Jose area. Both of the district’s two schools are exceptional, boasting a 97% graduation rate and student test scores well above state averages in math and language arts. 

San Marino Unified School District is California’s 5th best school district. A small district compared to others on the list, SMUSD comprises two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The district’s schools have earned numerous honors and recognitions, and all are Blue Ribbon Award winners?.

Top School Districts in California, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Acalanes Union HighLafayette
2Laguna Beach UnifiedLaguna Beach
3Piedmont City UnifiedPiedmont
4Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union HighLos Gatos
5San Marino UnifiedSan Marino
6Mountain View-Los Altos Union HighMountain View
7Albany City UnifiedAlbany
8Beverly Hills UnifiedBeverly Hills
9Carmel UnifiedCarmel
10Tamalpais Union HighLarkspur
11Lammersville Joint UnifiedMountain House
12Tahoe-Truckee UnifiedTruckee
13Scotts Valley UnifiedScotts Valley
14Jefferson Union HighDaly City
15Tulare Joint Union HighTulare
16Shasta Union HighRedding
17Centinela Valley Union HighLawndale
18Templeton UnifiedTempleton
19Sierra Sands UnifiedRidgecrest
20Martinez UnifiedMartinez
21Cotati-Rohnert Park UnifiedRohnert Park
22Windsor UnifiedWindsor
23Cutler-Orosi Joint UnifiedOrosi
24Santa Ynez Valley Union HighSanta Ynez
25Duarte UnifiedDuarte
26Santa Paula UnifiedSanta Paula
27Selma UnifiedSelma
28Center Joint UnifiedAntelope
29West Sonoma County Union HighSebastopol
30Nevada Joint Union HighGrass Valley
31Fowler UnifiedFowler
32Patterson Joint UnifiedPatterson
33Central Union HighEl Centro
34Ukiah UnifiedUkiah
35Newman-Crows Landing UnifiedNewman
36Golden Valley UnifiedMadera
37Escalon UnifiedEscalon
38Silver Valley UnifiedYermo
39Carpinteria UnifiedCarpinteria
40Northern Humboldt Union HighMckinleyville
41Mendocino UnifiedMendocino
42Kingsburg Joint Union HighKingsburg
43Bret Harte Union HighAngels Camp
44Del Norte County UnifiedCrescent City
45Mammoth UnifiedMammoth Lakes
46Sierra UnifiedPrather
47Holtville UnifiedHoltville
48Galt Joint Union HighGalt
49Fillmore UnifiedFillmore
50Sonoma Valley UnifiedSonoma
51Healdsburg UnifiedHealdsburg
52Firebaugh-Las Deltas UnifiedFirebaugh
53Durham UnifiedDurham
54Calaveras UnifiedSan Andreas
55Live Oak UnifiedLive Oak
56Lake Tahoe UnifiedSouth Lake Tahoe
57Wasco Union HighWasco
58Middletown UnifiedMiddletown
59Eureka City SchoolsEureka
60Muroc Joint UnifiedNorth Edwards
61San Rafael City HighSan Rafael
62Calistoga Joint UnifiedCalistoga
63Riverbank UnifiedRiverbank
64Bear Valley UnifiedBig Bear Lake
65Pierce Joint UnifiedArbuckle
66Anderson Union HighAnderson
67Delhi UnifiedDelhi
68Mariposa County UnifiedMariposa
69Scott Valley UnifiedFort Jones
70Lemoore Union HighLemoore
71Yosemite UnifiedOakhurst
72Gateway UnifiedRedding
73Oroville Union HighOroville
74Fortuna Union HighFortuna
75River Delta Joint UnifiedRio Vista
76Julian Union HighJulian
77North Monterey County UnifiedMoss Landing
78Caruthers UnifiedCaruthers
79East Nicolaus Joint Union HighNicolaus
80Hilmar UnifiedHilmar
81Riverdale Joint UnifiedRiverdale
82Corcoran Joint UnifiedCorcoran
83Bishop UnifiedBishop
84Waterford UnifiedWaterford
85Plumas UnifiedQuincy
86Coast UnifiedCambria
87Fallbrook Union HighFallbrook
88Lone Pine UnifiedLone Pine
89Colusa UnifiedColusa
90Chawanakee UnifiedNorth Fork
91Woodlake UnifiedWoodlake
92Yreka Union HighYreka
93Gustine UnifiedGustine
94Esparto UnifiedEsparto
95Lakeport UnifiedLakeport
96Golden Plains UnifiedSan Joaquin
97Calipatria UnifiedCalipatria
98Gridley UnifiedGridley
99Red Bluff Joint Union HighRed Bluff
100Anderson Valley UnifiedBoonville

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

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Top School Districts in Colorado, 2021

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The Colorado Board of Education recently approved a more difficult, rigorous rating system for schools in the state, which many believe will prompt a ratings decline for hundreds of schools. However, the Centennial State’s five best school districts perform so well that it’s unlikely that the ratings adjustment will affect them in a significant way. Let’s take a closer look at these five high-performing school districts. 

Lewis-Palmer School District #38 is the best school system in Colorado. Consisting of five elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools in El Paso County, LPSD exemplifies a well-rounded school district where extracurricular programs are just as important as academics. LPSD schools brought home multiple state championships in sports and other competitive activities during the 2018-2019 school year, while over 85% of the district’s graduates went on to a post-secondary education. 

Colorado’s 2nd best school district is Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, comprising nine schools in southwest Colorado Springs with a total enrollment of around 5,100. D12 students excel in academics, earning test scores which are some of the highest in the state, and like #1 LPSD, 85% of graduates went on to attend university. 

Placing 3rd is Weld RE-4 School District, encompassing eleven schools in the towns of Windsor and Severance.  Weld RE-4 boasts a graduation rate well above state and national averages.

Steamboat Springs School District Re-2 earns the 4th spot in the ranking. The district holds “Accredited with Distinction” status with the Colorado Department of Education and a number of its schools have received the prestigious John Irwin and Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Awards

Filling out the list of Colorado’s top five school systems is Summit School District, which serves over 3,500 students hailing from several mountain resort communities in Summit County. SSD boasts a favorable student-to-teacher ratio and a high graduation rate of 95%.

Top School Districts in Colorado, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Lewis-Palmer Consolidated School District No. 38 In The CoMonument
2Cheyenne Mountain School District No. 12 In The County Of EColorado Springs
3Weld County Reorganized School District No. Re-4Windsor
4Steamboat Springs School District No. Re 2Steamboat Springs
5Summit School District No. Re 1Frisco
6Delta County Joint District No. 50Delta
7Roaring Fork School District No. Re-1Glenwood Springs
8Weld County School District No. Re-2Eaton
9Weld County School District No. Re-7Kersey
10Montrose County School District Re-1JMontrose
11Telluride School District No. R-1Telluride
12Platte Canyon School District No. 1 Of The County Of ParkBailey
13Gunnison Watershed School District Re1JGunnison
14Durango School District No. 9-RDurango
15Weld County School District No. Re-5JMilliken
16East Grand School District No. 2Granby
17Meeker School District Re1Meeker
18Limon School District No. Re 4JLimon
19Eagle County School District No. Re 50Eagle
20Garfield School District No. Re-2Rifle
21Lone Star School District No. 101Otis
22Bayfield School District No. 10Jt-RBayfield
23Estes Park School District R-3Estes Park
24School District No. Re-3 Fort MorganFort Morgan
25School District No. Re-50 WigginsWiggins
26Kiowa County School District No. Re-1Eads
27Manitou Springs School District No. 14 In The County Of ElManitou Springs
28School District N. 14 In The County Of Adams & State Of ColoCommerce City
29School District No. Re-1 ValleySterling
30Peyton School District No. 23 In The County Of El Paso AndPeyton
31Woodland Park School District No. Re-2Woodland Park
32Strasburg School District 31JStrasburg
33Elizabeth School DistrictElizabeth
34Salida School District No. R-32Salida
35Gilpin County School District No. Re-1Black Hawk
36Clear Creek School District No. Re-1Idaho Springs
37Bennett School District No. 29JBennett
38North Conejos School District No. Re1JLa Jara
39Fremont Re-1Canon City
40Ridgway School District No. R-2 Of The County Of Ouray ARidgway
41Edison Joint District No. 54 Of The Counties Of El Paso AndYoder
42School District No. Re-2 BrushBrush
43Swink School District No. 33 In The County Of Otero And StSwink
44Buena Vista School District No. R-31Buena Vista
45Rocky Ford School District No. R2Rocky Ford
46Moffat County School District Re: No. 1Craig
47Weld County Reorganized School District No. Re-1Gilcrest
48Sanford School District No. 6 In The County Of Conejos AndSanford
49Rangely School District Re4Rangely
50Big Sandy School District No. 100JSimla
51Mcclave School District No. Re-2Mc Clave
52Del Norte Consolidated School District No. C-7Del Norte
53Sargent School District No. Re-33JMonte Vista
54Park County School District No. Re-2Fairplay
55Weld County School District No. Re-9Ault
56Custer County School District Consolidate 1Westcliffe
57Alamosa School District No. Re-11JAlamosa
58Weld County School District Re-3JKeenesburg
59Archuleta County School District No. 50 JtPagosa Springs
60Wray Rd-2 School DistrictWray
61South Routt School District No. Re 3Oak Creek
62Norwood School District No. R-2JNorwood
63Holyoke School District No. Re-1JHolyoke
64Ellicott School District No. 22 In The County Of El Paso AEllicott
65East Otero School District No. R1La Junta
66Hoehne Reorganized School District No. 3Hoehne
67Mancos School District Re-6Mancos
68Hayden School District No. Re 1Hayden
69Fremont Re-2Florence
70Cheyenne County School District No. Re-5Cheyenne Wells
71Trinidad School District 1 In The County Of Las Animas AndTrinidad
72Crowley County School District No. Re-1-JOrdway
73Huerfano School District Re-1Walsenburg
74Haxtun School District No. Re-2JHaxtun
75Calhan District No. Rj1Calhan
76Weld County Reorganized School District No. Re-8Fort Lupton
77Yuma 1 School DistrictYuma
78West Grand School District No. 1Kremmling
79Sangre De Cristo School District No. Re-22JMosca
80School District No. Re-3 FrenchmanFleming
81Dolores School District No. Re-4ADolores
82Karval School District No. Re 23Karval
83Fowler School District No. R4JFowler
84Grand Valley School District No. 16 In The County Of GarfiParachute
85Akron School District No. R-1Akron
86Montezuma-Cortez School District No. Re-1Cortez
87Lamar School District No. Re-2Lamar
88Holly School District No. Re-3Holly
89Center Consolidated School District No. 26 Jt. Of The CountCenter
90Vilas School District Re-5Vilas
91School District No. C-2 In The County Of Elbert And State OfKiowa
92Manzanola Joint District No. 3J Of The Counties Of Otero AManzanola
93Wiley School District No. Re-13 JtWiley
94West End School District No. Re-2Nucla
95Sheridan School District No. 2Englewood
96School District No. Re-20 Weldon ValleyWeldona
97Monte Vista School District No. C-8Monte Vista
98Ignacio School District No. 11JtIgnacio
99Elbert School District No. 200Elbert
100Burlington Public School District No. Re-6JBurlington

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

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Top School Districts in Connecticut, 2021

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Connecticut’s public school system is one of the best in the nation, with the state’s students earning test scores significantly higher than national averages while graduating at a rate of nearly 88%. While the state performs well overall, the achievements of Connecticut’s five best school districts are even more singularly impressive. 

Westport Public Schools is the best school district in Connecticut. The medium-sized district of nine schools in the oceanside community of Westport boasts a graduation rate of 98%, while over 80% of its students score above proficiency level in reading and language arts and math.

The 2nd best school district in Connecticut is Trumbull Public Schools, a system made of 10 schools with a total enrollment nearing 7,000. TPS students enjoy a student-to-teacher ratio of 13.1 and graduate at a rate of 97%.

Connecticut’s 3rd best school system is Darien Public School District, made up of seven schools in the community of Darien. A large majority of students in the district score above proficiency in RLA and math, while Darien High School has earned a “Best High School” medal from U.S. News.  

Earning Connecticut’s #4 spot is Glastonbury Public Schools, comprising eight schools in the affluent Hartford suburb of Glastonbury. The district does a great job of preparing students for a post-secondary education, and a remarkable 92.8% of 2019 graduates went on to attend a two or four-year college. 

Wilton Public Schools places 5th in the ranking of Connecticut’s best school districts. In 2019, Wilton schools earned a long list of achievements, including a GreatSchools College Success Award for Wilton High School. 

Top School Districts in Connecticut, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Westport School DistrictWestport
2Trumbull School DistrictTrumbull
3Darien School DistrictDarien
4Glastonbury School DistrictGlastonbury
5Wilton School DistrictWilton
6Ridgefield School DistrictRidgefield
7Guilford School DistrictGuilford
8Farmington School DistrictFarmington
9Simsbury School DistrictSimsbury
10Cheshire School DistrictCheshire
11Avon School DistrictAvon
12Southington School DistrictSouthington
13Regional School District 05Woodbridge
14South Windsor School DistrictSouth Windsor
15Monroe School DistrictMonroe
16Shelton School DistrictShelton
17Milford School DistrictMilford
18Madison School DistrictMadison
19Rocky Hill School DistrictRocky Hill
20New Fairfield School DistrictNew Fairfield
21Regional School District 15Middlebury
22Wethersfield School DistrictWethersfield
23Berlin School DistrictBerlin
24East Lyme School DistrictEst Lyme
25Regional School District 17Higganum
26Newington School DistrictNewington
27Regional School District 10Burlington
28Canton School DistrictCanton
29Tolland School DistrictTolland
30Bethel School DistrictBethel
31Waterford School DistrictWaterford
32Regional School District 06Litchfield
33Brookfield School DistrictBrookfield
34Wallingford School DistrictWallingford
35Colchester School DistrictColchester
36East Hampton School DistrictEast Hampton
37Regional School District 04Deep River
38Ellington School DistrictEllington
39Regional School District 08Hebron
40Middletown School DistrictMiddletown
41Stratford School DistrictStratford
42Coventry School DistrictCoventry
43Wolcott School DistrictWolcott
44Branford School DistrictBranford
45Granby School DistrictGranby
46Bolton School DistrictBolton
47Oxford School DistrictOxford
48Old Saybrook School DistrictOld Saybrook
49Regional School District 07Winsted
50Watertown School DistrictWatertown
51Enfield School DistrictEnfield
52East Haddam School DistrictMoodus
53Regional School District 16Prospect
54Stonington School DistrictOld Mystic
55Regional School District 14Woodbury
56Ledyard School DistrictLedyard
57East Granby School DistrictEast Granby
58Suffield School DistrictSuffield
59Regional School District 19Storrs
60Seymour School DistrictSeymour
61Groton School DistrictMystic
62Portland School DistrictPortland
63Cromwell School DistrictCromwell
64Naugatuck School DistrictNaugatuck
65East Hartford School DistrictEast Hartford
66North Stonington School DistrNorth Stonington
67North Branford School DistricNorthford
68Manchester School DistrictManchester
69Lebanon School DistrictLebanon
70Plainville School DistrictPlainville
71Somers School DistrictSomers
72New Milford School DistrictNew Milford
73Griswold School DistrictGriswold
74Thomaston School DistrictThomaston
75West Haven School DistrictWest Haven
76Stafford School DistrictStafford Springs
77Plainfield School DistrictPlainfield
78Plymouth School DistrictTerryville
79Killingly School DistrictDanielson
80Montville School DistrictOakdale
81Vernon School DistrictVernon
82East Haven School DistrictEast Haven
83Torrington School DistrictTorrington
84Windham School DistrictWillimantic
85Ansonia School DistrictAnsonia
86Derby School DistrictDerby
87New London School DistrictNew London
88Thompson School DistrictNorth Grosvenord

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

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Top School Districts in Delaware, 2021

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Though public education in Delaware isn’t quite at the level of its neighbors Maryland and New Jersey, the state is nevertheless among the best in the nation. In 2018, the Delaware high school graduation rate hit a record high of 86.69%, besting the 2017 number, which was also an all-time high. Performance at Delaware’s five best school districts bests the already high state standard. 

Cape Henlopen School District is the top public school system in Delaware.  Consisting of eight schools located in the scenic southern cape region of Delaware Bay, CHSD boasts a graduation rate of 91% that bests state and national averages, while nearly 66% of its students are proficient in English language arts. 

Caesar Rodney School District places a close 2nd in the rankings. Headquartered in Wyoming, Delaware, CRSD and its schools have earned a long list of achievements and academic recognitions, including three Blue Ribbon awards. 

Delaware's 3rd best public school district is Sussex Technical School District, consisting of a single county-wide technical public high school. Sussex Tech does an excellent job of preparing students for the future, allowing them to choose between 21 different trades of specialization.

Smyrna School District earns the 4th spot in the rankings. SSD’s eight schools all perform above the state level in proficiency tests, and 97% of SSD seniors graduated in 2018. 93% of them went on to a post-secondary education.  

Delaware’s 5th best school district is Kent County’s Polytech School District, which includes Polytech High School and the Polytech adult education program.  Like #3 Sussex Technical, Polytech puts students on the path of future success by giving them a specialized education in 1 of 21 technical fields

Top School Districts in Delaware, 2020

RankSchool DistrictCity
1Cape Henlopen School DistrictLewes
2Caesar Rodney School DistrictWyoming
3Sussex Technical School DistrictGeorgetown
4Smyrna School DistrictSmyrna
5Polytech School DistrictWoodside
6New Castle County Vocational-Technical School DistrictWilmington
7Lake Forest School DistrictFelton
8Capital School DistrictDover
9Delmar School DistrictDelmar
10Milford School DistrictMilford
11Seaford School DistrictSeaford
12Laurel School DistrictLaurel
13Woodbridge School DistrictBridgeville

Methodology

The following variables contributed to the ranking: number of students (K-12), graduation rate, school funding per student, student to teacher ratio, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Math test, percent of students scoring above proficient in standardized state Reading and Language test. Data from a total of 10,247 public school districts were used to compute a score for each school district. The following states were omitted due to lack of sufficient data: Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia. Note that high schools in some states have their own independent districts.

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