Top cities to live and learn 2011
Best cities 2011: clusters of excellence — find the regions with the most pro-education towns
Best cities 2011: top 10 education towns nationwide
Best cities 2011: homes under $100K
Best cities 2011: homes $100K-$199K
Best cities 2011: homes $200K-$399K
Best cities 2011: homes $400K-$599K
Best cities 2011: homes $600K-$799K
Best cities 2011: homes over $800K
Best cities 2011: Midwest
Best cities 2011: Northeast
Best cities 2011: South
Best cities 2011: West
The missing ingredient: What don't these towns have?
Find out how we picked the winning cities 2011
By Carol Lloyd
"Zip code equals destiny."
In an era when almost everything about American education is a matter of intense debate, it's rare to find a truism which so few people dispute. But is the equation between big money and good schools really so inviolable? This year as we surveyed our data about American cities with the most consistently high-performing schools, we noticed some intriguing — and sometimes surprising — results.
Educational sweet spot
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the very best cities for public schooling are not those whose streets are rolling with Rolls. The winning cities in our top 10 list don't have the highest median home prices: not those in the $800,000-plus, $600,000-plus, nor even $400,000-plus ranges. The real shocker? The highest number of top-scoring cities for public schooling were in fact found on our $200,000-$399,999 list: Falmouth, ME (ranked 1# nationwide), Barrington, RI (#4) and Bedford, NH (#5).
Anomalies of greatness? Hardly. In fact, the $100,000-$199,999 list had some serious contenders, too. Pella, IA (median home price: $148,200) ranked 3rd nationwide; St. John's, FL ($181,700) ranked 8th.
It’s not that many well-heeled areas don’t have great schools. Mercer Island, WA (#2 nationwide, median home price of $708,740) and Manhattan Beach, CA (#7, median home price $1,278,980) are just two examples of towns where superlative learning and affluence go hand in hand. Yet as the lackluster performance of many upscale towns across the country proves, deep parental pockets are no assurance of an area’s exceptional public schools.
So where is the educational sweet spot? Wherever the impassioned middle class puts down roots. These are the towns, suburbs and cities across America where families consistently, and somewhat forcefully, support their local schools — come budget crisis or political battle. This kind of education-loving populace tends to multiply, attracting like-minded families to move there, too.
Of course, many of this year's top-ranking cities seem affordable when compared to say, New York City, but they are prosperous relative to their regions. For instance, though Barrington, RI has a median home price of $269,010 (compared to humble Queens, NY, at $450,249), it's an affluent suburb of Providence, attracting academics and professionals who work in the city. In a similar fashion, cities like Bedford, NH,or Falmouth, ME,tend to attract a quorum of college-educated parents — a strong predictor for the success of any school district.
What, then, can we learn from these top education towns? For starters, it’s worth taking note of what we didn't find in our school-district success stories: bleeding-edge, high-tech solutions, billionaire sugar daddies, or teachers whose exertions resemble that of ultra-marathoners. Rather, the educational model followed by our top-rated districts is based on educational practices that aren't so easy to implement, day after day, year after year.
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