Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

Randolph Hall, Historical Landmark Building, College of Charleston, South Carolina
Source: Thinkstock

36. South Carolina
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $10,909 (19th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 80.3% (16th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 44.2% (24th lowest)

South Carolina’s school system spends 4% of its taxable resources on education, considerably more than is typical. Despite allocating a larger share of tax dollars to education, the $10,909 average per pupil spending in the state is still below the $12,156 national average. The lower per-pupil spending is largely explained by the state’s weaker than average tax base. The typical South Carolina household earns only $47,238 a year, well below the $55,775 national median income. Lower incomes often translate to lower property values and lower property taxes, the revenue from which much of the school system derives its budget.

Throughout nearly every age range, students in South Carolina lag behind their peers nationwide in some measures of academic achievement. Fourth and eighth graders in the state are less likely to be proficient in math and reading than the typical American student in that age group, and 11th and 12th graders in South Carolina are less likely outperform their counterparts in many other states on advanced placement exams.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Orange County
Source: Thinkstock

37. North Carolina
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $9,004 (8th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 85.6% (22nd highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 42.9% (19th lowest)

Fourth graders in North Carolina outperform fourth graders in a majority of states on standardized math and reading exams. Some 44.4% of North Carolina fourth graders test as proficient in math, and 38.5% are proficient in reading. By comparison, 39.4% of fourth graders nationwide are proficient in math, and 34.8% in reading. Still, 10-year improvement in standardized reading and math test scores in the Tar Heel State trails the national average improvement.

Since the GOP took control of the state government in 2010, North Carolina has enacted comprehensive education system reform while also cutting the education budget. Today, the state spends just 2.5% of taxable resources on education, less than any state other than North Dakota. Additionally, the roughly $9,000 per-pupil spending is about $3,200 less than the national average.

Pierre, South Dakota State Capitol
Source: Thinkstock

38. South Dakota
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $11,287 (23rd lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 83.9% (23rd lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 40.2% (10th lowest)

The quality of a state’s education system can affect a student’s chances of success, as can a student’s home environment. Students who grow up in more affluent households with college-educated parents are more likely to excel. South Dakota’s children are among the most likely in the country to have parents who work full time, year round and have a college education. They are also more likely than children in most states to be financially secure.

Despite these advantages, the state’s student achievement records are subpar. Between 2003 and 2015, fourth grade math scores improved slower than the nation while fourth grade reading scores in the state went down. South Dakota is also the only state where the share of eighth graders proficient in math and the share proficient in reading each declined in the last decade.

Hillsboro, Oregon
Source: Thinkstock

39. Oregon
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $10,963 (20th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 73.8% (3rd lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 43.1% (21st lowest)

Academic achievement among Oregon’s younger public school students lags behind that of their peers across the country. Of Oregon’s fourth graders, 37.1% are proficient in math and 33.9% in reading, slightly below the corresponding 39.4% and 34.8% national shares. However, by eighth grade, Oregon’s public school students have more than made up the lost ground. Of the state’s eighth graders, 33.7% are proficient in math and 35.7% in reading, slightly higher than the comparable 32.1% and 32.7% national shares.

Despite the larger than typical share of eighth grade Oregon students able to grasp fundamental academic concepts, the state’s graduation rate is among the worst in the country. At 73.8%, Oregon’s graduation rate is the third lowest of all states and well below the 83.2% national graduation rate.

Source: Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons

40. Texas
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $8,265 (4th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 89.0% (4th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 41.9% (17th lowest)

A relatively large share of students in Texas face additional academic challenges beyond what many of their peers nationwide face. Only 72.3% of children in Texas are raised by fluent English speakers, well below the 83.1% national share. The state’s students raised in non-English speaking households are more likely to struggle academically. They may also place an additional burden on Texas’ education budget by necessitating ESL instruction.

Additional financial burdens may meaningfully impact students in the Lone Star State as Texas schools are among the most poorly funded in the country. The state education system allocates only 2.9% of taxable resources to schools, less than the 3.3% average across all states. Also, only 8.2% of Texas students live in districts that receive greater per-pupil funding than the $12,592 national average.

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