Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

Old Douglass High School, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Source: Patrick W. Moore / Wikimedia Commons

46. Oklahoma
> Overall grade: D+
> Per pupil spending: $8,929 (7th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 82.5% (21st lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 43.2% (22nd lowest)

There is no consensus among researchers that higher education spending leads to better educational outcomes. While the relationship is complex, a certain amount of resources is needed to attract high quality teachers and provide adequate access to education technology such as computers, among other costly learning materials. This could explain the correlation between spending and outcomes across states.

Per-pupil spending in Oklahoma averages just $8,929 a year, the seventh lowest expenditure of all states. Like many other states with relatively low education expenditure, state students score poorly on standardized tests. Just 2.7% of eighth graders achieve advanced scores in math, nearly the worst standardized test performance of all states.

Skyline High School, Idaho Falls, Idaho
Source: The38superdude / Wikimedia Commons

47. Idaho
> Overall grade: D+
> Per pupil spending: $8,066 (2nd lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 78.9% (12th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 29.6% (the lowest)

In Idaho, annual education spending is $8,066 per student, the second lowest of all states after only Utah. According to Education Week researchers, a certain level of funding equity across school districts is critical to the health of a state’s education system. In a addition to low per pupil funding, education spending in Idaho is also poorly distributed across districts.

Preschool enrollment is often a positive experience for children, and can be especially beneficial to working mothers and low-income families. As such, it is a key component of a healthy state education system. In Idaho, less than 30% of three- and four-year-old children are enrolled in preschool, the lowest percentage of all states.

Albuquerque, New Mexico skyline of downtown
Source: Thinkstock

48. New Mexico
> Overall grade: D
> Per pupil spending: $10,714 (18th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 68.6% (the lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 40.7% (15th lowest)

New Mexico’s 68.6% high school graduation rate is the lowest rate of all states. Mirroring the poor graduation rate across the state, New Mexico’s standardized test scores also trail those of most states. For example, the percentage of fourth grade students who demonstrate proficiency in reading, at 22.9%, is also the lowest in the country. Nationwide, 34.8% of fourth grade students demonstrate reading proficiency. Such poor outcomes are likely at least partially tied to various socioeconomic factors. Because the source of school budgets is largely property tax revenue, low incomes can help explain low funding. New Mexico’s per pupil expenditure is below average, and the typical state household earns a modest $45,382 a year, sixth lowest compared with other states.

Madison Central High School, Mississippi
Source: Wikimedia Commons

49. Mississippi
> Overall grade: D
> Per pupil spending: $9,656 (13th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 75.4% (4th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 49.0% (15th highest)

Children from wealthier families are far more likely to attend well-funded schools, where for a variety of reasons the quality of education is often substantially higher than in poorer schools. With a median household income of $40,593 a year, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. State schools spend $9,656 per pupil annually, well below the national average per-pupil spending of $12,156. Further, just 1.7% of students attend school in districts that report spending levels that exceed the U.S. average, versus 38.6% of students across the nation. According to Education Week, the poverty gap between rich and poor Mississippi school districts, particularly for eighth graders, is getting worse, and faster than in the vast majority of states.

By many measures of achievement, students in Mississippi are trailing their counterparts across much of the country. For example, only 4.0% of advanced placement test scores among 11th and 12th graders in the state are high enough to earn college credit, the lowest share in the country, and well below the 29.3% national average.

Eureka County, Nevada
Source: Famartin / Wikimedia Commons

50. Nevada
> Overall grade: D
> Per pupil spending: $8,441 (5th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 71.3% (2nd lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 33.5% (2nd lowest)

No state’s school system is rated worse than Nevada’s. The state’s high school graduation rate declined by nearly 12 percentage points over the decade through 2012. This was the largest decline of all states, the vast majority of which reported graduation rate increases. Just 71.3% of seniors graduate high school, lower than in all states except for New Mexico.

High preschool enrollment is an indication of a healthy education system as it is frequently beneficial to both families and children. In Nevada, just one-third of eligible children are enrolled in preschool, the second lowest proportion of states and in stark contrast to the national share of nearly half of preschool-aged children.

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