Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus, Honolulu
Source: Thinkstock

26. Hawaii
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $13,100 (16th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 81.6% (18th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 49.5% (13th highest)

With only one school district, the Hawaii Department of Education is the only statewide public education system in the United States with no smaller governing bodies. Hawaii also does not use property taxes to fund public education. Nevertheless, Hawaii spends an average of $13,100 per student on education annually, roughly $1,000 more than the national per-pupil expenditure of $12,156.

Children from wealthy, educated homes tend to be more academically successful than children living in poverty. While Hawaii’s $73,486 median annual household income is the second highest in the country, students in the state fall short in some measures of academic ability. Just 29.1% of fourth graders and 25.7% of eighth graders in Hawaii are proficient in reading, among the smallest shares of any state.

Tabor College
Source: JonHarder / Wikimedia Commons

27. Kansas
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $11,628 (25th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 85.7% (20th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 43.6% (23rd lowest)

By most measures, the health of the Kansas public school system is average compared with other states. In other measures, however, it stands out as either considerably better, or struggling. While the most recent cohort of seniors in Kansas reported a modest graduation rate of 85.7%, for example, the state’s graduation rate rose by 11.9 percentage points over the 10 years through 2012, seventh best improvement of all states. By contrast, the national high school graduation rate improved by 8.4 percentage points over that period.

On the other hand, standardized test scores in Kansas schools are not improving. Math and reading proficiency among fourth and eighth grade students is slightly better than average. But between 2003 and 2015, fourth and eighth grade math scores worsened — making Kansas one of only a few states to post a decline.

Carroll County High School, Carrollton, Kentucky
Source: Smceuen / Wikimedia Commons

28. Kentucky
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $10,560 (17th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 88.0% (8th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 40.3% (12th lowest)

Kentucky’s education system has begun reporting more favorable outcomes in recent years. The state’s high school graduation rate has improved by 12.2 percentage points between 2002 and 2012, better than the 8.4 percentage points increase in the national graduation rate. Among seniors for the 2014-2015 school year, 88% graduated on time, the eighth highest proportion among states. Kentucky’s school system spends $10,560 per student, less than in most states and about $1,600 less than the national per-pupil expenditure. Spending is relatively evenly distributed between districts, however, as the state has one of the smallest gaps between per pupil expenditures at the highest and lowest spending districts.

Cape Coral, Florida
Source: Thinkstock

29. Florida
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $9,585 (12th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 77.9% (9th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 50.8% (9th highest)

Florida’s school system spends an average of just $9,585 per student annually, roughly $2,600 less than the national per-pupil expenditure of $12,156. Though spending is low, it is relatively evenly distributed. The difference in per-pupil spending between the highest and lowest spending districts is the second smallest funding gap of any state.

Over the past two decades, Florida has implemented significant education reform. What followed were some of the best improvements in test scores in the country. Between 2003 and 2015, reading test results among fourth graders increased more in Florida than in all but two other states. There has also been a dramatic increase in the share of students who take advanced placement classes, as well as in the proportion of students scoring well on advanced placement exams. Today, both are among the highest such percentages in the nation.

lees-summit-missouri
Source: Andrew Sullivan / Wikimedia Commons

30. Missouri
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $11,226 (22nd lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.8% (10th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 44.6% (25th lowest)

Not an especially wealthy state, the typical Missouri household earns $50,238 a year, about $5,500 less than the national median income. Lower incomes often mean lower property values, which can translate to lower property tax revenues — revenues which are used to fund Missouri schools. Possibly as a result, Missouri spends less annually per student than the majority of states. About 89% of students in the state live in districts where per pupil spending is below the national average of $12,156 a year.

The relationship between spending and educational outcomes is a matter for debate, and in Missouri, academic achievement outcomes are mixed. Both fourth and eighth graders in the state are more likely to be proficient in reading than the typical American student. However, the same cohorts are slightly less likely to be proficient in math.