Parents of more than a million pupils at underperforming inner-city schools have not exercised their right to move their child to a better school.
The loyalty to local schools has confounded advocates of the No Child Left Behind reforms, designed to give pupils a leg-up out of educational blackspots.
In some key cities, less than 0.5 per cent of pupils took the option to go to an academically stronger school. In one education authority the take-up was zero.
Last year, just 215 out of 204,000 eligible Los Angeles students swapped schools. In Chicago, 1,097 out of 270,000 did so, In New York, 6,828 out of 230,000 students exercised the right.
The No Child Left Behind Act aimed to make schools compete more to attract pupils. But critics argue that it forces struggling schools to underwrite transport costs for transferring students.
Three years into the reform, the low take-up suggests policy-makers might have underestimated the community roots of many schools, and overestimated parents' attachment to test scores.
Many urban schools are community hubs that host local meetings. Some provide social services, advocacy and health clinics and after-school programmes.
In Lansing, Michigan, transfer rights were extended to 1,400 students at four schools this year.
"We sent letters to inform parents of transfer options," said authority spokesman Mark Mayes. But no one took up the offer. "People have a strong allegiance to their school," he said.
In some cases, naming schools as underperforming worked to galvanise the community, he said.
Transfers have also been constrained by numbers of places. New York has set a limit and said new students would affect the small classes that made schools successful in the first place.