Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

Layton, Utah
Source: Wikimedia Commons

31. Utah
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $7,038 (the lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 84.8% (25th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 43.1% (21st lowest)

There are an average of 3.17 people per household in Utah, the most of any state. With so many children per parent in Utah, the state has relatively few taxpayers per student. School systems in Utah spend an average of $7,038 per pupil, the least of any state. Not even 2% of students attend school in districts with above average per-pupil expenditure, compared to 39% of students nationwide.

Despite low funding, Utah students outperform most states in a variety of measures of academic achievement. An estimated 40.1% of fourth graders and 38.0% of eighth graders are proficient in reading, compared to 34.8% of fourth and 32.7% of of eighth graders nationwide.

Groves High School, Georgia
Source: Bellemare / Wikimedia Commons

32. Georgia
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $9,403 (9th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 78.8% (11th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 49.7% (12th highest)

Preschool and kindergarten can be vital to cognitive development, and Georgia’s children are more likely to be enrolled in both than those in the majority of states. An above-average share of three- and four-year olds attend preschool in the state, and about 80% of five- and six-year olds attend kindergarten, the fourth highest share of all states.

While a large share of children get a jumpstart on school, a relatively small number of students actually finish school on time. Just 78.8% of the senior class of 2014-2015 graduated on time, 11th worst among all states.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
Source: Thinkstock

33. Michigan
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $12,440 (21st highest)
> High school graduation rate: 79.8% (15th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 45.7% (20th highest)

Michigan’s school system spends an average of $12,440 per student annually, in line with the national per-pupil expenditure of $12,156 across all states. While Michigan’s education expenditure closely matches that of the nation as a whole, the academic performance of the state’s students has fallen over the past decade and remains lower than in most of the country.

In just five states, including Michigan, the standardized reading test scores among fourth graders fell between 2003 and 2015. Similarly, Michigan is one of only three states where standardized eighth grade math scores did not improve over the same time period. Today, an estimated 28.6% of Michigan fourth graders are considered proficient in reading, and 34.0% are proficient in math — both among the smallest shares of any state.

West Virginia University
Source: Thinkstock

34. West Virginia
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $13,075 (17th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 86.5% (18th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 34.1% (3rd lowest)

West Virginia’s school system spends $13,075 per student annually, or about $900 more than the national average expenditure. Further, school spending per student is relatively evenly distributed across all districts. However, above average spending alone does not necessarily translate to better outcomes. The shares of fourth and eighth graders receiving proficient scores on math and reading exams are each among the lowest of any state.

There are a number of factors working against West Virginia’s students. Students with higher-income parents who have a college education are more likely to be successful in school than those without. In West Virginia, just 38.0% of children have at least one parent with a postsecondary degree, compared to 48.8% of children nationwide. Similarly, only 68.7% have at least one parent who works full time, year round, compared to 75.4% of all children nationwide.

Clinton, Tennessee
Source: Brian Stansberry / Wikimedia Commons

35. Tennessee
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $9,421 (10th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.9% (9th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 37.6% (7th lowest)

Tennessee’s school system is one of the most poorly funded in the country. The state allocates only 2.7% of taxable resources to education, one of the smallest shares of any state. Partially as a result, annual per-pupil spending in the state is only $9,421, well below the $12,156 national average expenditure.

Despite minimal public school investment, Tennessee’s graduation rate is better than in most states. The state’s 88% graduation rate is nearly 5 percentage points higher than the national graduation rate. Tennessee’s graduation rate increased by 23.4 percentage points between 2002 and 2012, the greatest improvement of any state in the country.