2015’s States with the Best and Worst School Systems

by Richie Bernardo

2014-Back-to-School-States-with-the-Best-and-Worst-School-Systems-BadgesUnless one is destined for the ranks of wildly successful college dropouts like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, education remains the traditional route to professional and financial success for many Americans. Consider the median incomes for workers aged 25 and older in 2014. Those with a bachelor’s degree earned 65 percent more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data reveal that income potential grows — and chances of unemployment shrink — as one’s educational attainment improves.

And with school resuming session, many parents will be seeking the best school districts to secure their children’s academic success. When comparing their options, however, parents should recognize that the amount of available public funding is by no means a determinant of a school system’s quality, as our findings demonstrate, though money is certainly helpful.

In addition, states that invest more dollars in education benefit not only their residents but also their economies. The Economic Policy Institute reported that income is higher in states where the workforce is well educated and thus more productive. With better earnings, workers in turn can contribute more taxes to beef up state budgets over the long run.

In light of back-to-school season, WalletHub compared the quality of education in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia by analyzing 13 key metrics that range from student-teacher ratios to standardized-test scores to dropout rates. By shining the spotlight on top-performing school systems, we aim to encourage parents to help their children realize their maximum potential and to call the attention of lawmakers on the work that remains to be done to improve America’s schools.

Main Findings

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Overall Rank

State

“School-System Quality” Rank

“Safety” Rank

1 Massachusetts 2 1
2 Colorado 1 47
3 New Jersey 5 9
4 Wisconsin 4 14
5 Kentucky 10 4
6 Vermont 6 12
7 North Dakota 3 46
8 Minnesota 9 16
9 Connecticut 7 28
10 Illinois 8 32
11 Virginia 11 14
12 Kansas 14 22
13 Iowa 12 39
14 Utah 16 17
15 New Hampshire 15 29
16 Maryland 19 17
17 Nebraska 17 26
18 Wyoming 13 41
19 Maine 20 13
20 Montana 18 32
21 North Carolina 24 6
22 Ohio 23 29
23 Florida 26 20
24 Indiana 22 50
25 Arkansas 21 42
26 Tennessee 28 29
27 Texas 31 19
28 Missouri 27 38
29 Pennsylvania 29 43
30 South Dakota 25 47
31 Washington 32 11
32 Michigan 30 37
33 Oklahoma 34 2
34 New York 33 27
35 Rhode Island 38 10
36 Georgia 35 20
37 Hawaii 36 5
38 Delaware 40 7
39 Alabama 39 36
40 Mississippi 45 8
41 Idaho 42 34
42 New Mexico 44 3
43 California 37 49
44 West Virginia 46 22
45 South Carolina 47 24
46 Oregon 41 45
47 Louisiana 43 44
48 Arizona 48 40
49 Nevada 50 25
50 District of Columbia 49 51
51 Alaska 51 35

 

States-with-the-Best-and-Worst-School-Systems-Artwork3
Note: The metric “Safest schools” from the above image refers only to the percentage of public school students in grades 9–12 who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.

 
 

Note: Spendings Ranking refers to “Total Current Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Day Schools per Student” (Highest Amount = Rank 1)

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Ask the Experts

Back-to-school season isn’t just about shopping for school supplies. Many parents also must consider the quality of education their children receive in order to succeed. To expand the discussion, we’ve asked a panel of experts to share their advice and thoughts on important back-to-school-related issues. Click on the expert’s profiles to read their bios and responses to the following key questions:

  1. How can parents get their kids ready for back to school without breaking the bank?
  2. How can parents effectively use back-to-school to teach their kids about financial responsibility?
  3. Do you think states should implement sales tax holidays or exemption for back to school items?
  4. What can state and local policymakers do to improve their school systems without raising taxes?
  5. In setting a child up for success, how important is the quality of the school relative to other factors (family, neighborhood, etc.)?
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  • Stacy Beebe Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Physical Education Teacher Education Program at Aurora University
  • Alan B. Krueger Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
  • Marcus Winters Assistant Professor of Leadership, Research, & Foundations in the College of Education at University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, and Senior Fellow at Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

Stacy Beebe

Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Physical Education Teacher Education Program at Aurora University
Stacy Beebe
How can parents get their kids ready for back to school without breaking the bank?

Watch for back to school sale offers at local discount stores. Look through last year’s school supplies; children are often required to use the same items from the year before. Crayons may be broken, but rulers, protractors, scissors and other items can be used for more than one year. Many states also offer tax free school days and this will assist parents/guardians in saving additional money. Don't purchase all new school clothes at the beginning of the year, as young children often grow and then it is back to the store for more shoes and clothes.

How can parents effectively use back-to-school to teach their kids about financial responsibility?

Use shopping ads to determine an approximate cost for school supplies. Then, give your child a budget and allow them to shop from the list of supplies and keep their purchase within the budget. For younger children, allow them to count out money for paying the bill or take along a calculator and allow children to add up the cost of items as you place them in the cart.

Do you think states should implement sales tax holidays or exemption for back to school items?

I think providing a sales tax holiday for back to school items is helpful to parents, especially when they are buying for multiple children and are on a tight monthly budget.

What can state and local policymakers do to improve their school systems without raising taxes?

Using good fiscal responsibility is a start. There are new technologies and other educational programs available each year. Districts must research what is necessary and what might simply be a waste of taxpayer money. It is one thing to purchase high dollar educational resources, and they may look good sitting in the classrooms, but if they go unused by teachers and students it is simply a waste of money.

In setting a child up for success, how important is the quality of the school relative to other factors (family, neighborhood, etc.)?

A quality school and, more importantly, quality teachers are important to any child's success. However, a teacher needs the support of parents/guardians in the process of educating their child. Children who are raised in loving, supportive families with the necessary resources have the potential for greater success than those who are in abusive homes, unstable neighborhoods, and have limited resources. It is not to say a child cannot overcome their circumstances to be successful, it is only that the road may be more difficult. It is also important to note that just because a child has all the financial resources at their disposal they won't struggle in school. A child needs more than just resources; they need love, support, guidance, correction, and encouragement to truly be successful. All children, no matter their needs, with the appropriate love and support of parents/guardians and teachers are capable of being successful and accomplishing great things.

Alan B. Krueger

Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Alan B. Krueger
How can parents get their kids ready for back to school without breaking the bank?

I think parents should use some of their children’s down time in the summer to review material that the children learned in school in the previous year. Studies find that a lot of the learning that students do in one year fades out over the summer. This is particularly the case for math.

How can parents effectively use back-to-school to teach their kids about financial responsibility?

They can give them a budget to use to buy clothes and materials for school.

What can state and local policymakers do to improve their school systems without raising taxes?

Although some schools are inefficient and can deploy their resources better, there is, frankly, no free lunch when it comes to education. Education is expensive. It is costly to reduce class size and have up-to-date textbooks. But these expenditures make a difference in how much children learn.

In setting a child up for success, how important is the quality of the school relative to other factors (family, neighborhood, etc.)?

School quality is very important, but other factors matter as well, such as family influences, neighborhood safety, and the amount of effort children put into their education and career.

Marcus Winters

Assistant Professor of Leadership, Research, & Foundations in the College of Education at University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, and Senior Fellow at Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Marcus Winters
What can state and local policymakers do to improve their school systems without raising taxes?

Money does matter in education. But lack of resources is not the major factor holding schools back. The most promising reforms focus on getting schools to use their current resources more effectively.

Expanding school choice can improve educational quality in an area while actually reducing costs. Charter schools have expanded rapidly. The quality of charter schools varies both across and within localities. However, in some areas, charter schools are making an enormous difference for kids. These schools of choice typically receive significantly fewer public dollars than do the surrounding district schools.

Policies that hold schools accountable for low performance offer another low-cost way to improve public schools. Research suggests that such policies are often very effective at improving bad schools.

In addition, school systems can look for low-cost ways to improve teacher quality. Teachers are the most important resource for public schools. We know that there is wide variation in the effectiveness of teachers. And yet, most school systems treat all teachers as if they are interchangeable. School systems should look for ways to remove ineffective teachers, regardless of their longevity within the system. They can also seek ways to get the most effective teachers in front of the most challenging students.

In setting a child up for success, how important is the quality of the school relative to other factors (family, neighborhood, etc.)?

It is undeniable that environmental and family factors are tremendously important to a child’s chances for academic success. But there is ample evidence that schools can and do make an enormous difference as well.

Charter school networks such as KIPP and Uncommon have had enormous success educating their mostly low-income and minority students. These types of schools now serve as important proof-points showing that kids of all types are capable of learning when their school sets high standards and provides the high quality instruction needed to reach them.

Perhaps the most important evidence that schools make a difference is the research on teacher quality. There is wide variation in the quality of public school teachers. The difference between being assigned to a teacher at about the 25th percentile of quality and a teacher at about the 75th percentile of quality is about an additional year’s worth of learning for a student. That being assigned to Ms. Smith or Mr. Johnson down the hall makes such a large difference in educational outcomes suggests strongly that the quality of instruction that a student receives matters a great deal for educational outcomes.

Methodology

As back-to-school season arrives, WalletHub compared the school systems among the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia across two key dimensions, “School-System Quality” and “Safety.” We then compiled 13 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights.

School-System Quality – Total Weight: 20

  • Presence of State’s Public Schools Within the “Top 700 Best U.S. Schools”: Full Weight
    Note: The number of schools in top 700 was adjusted by the number of schools for each state in the US News sample.
  • Remote-Learning Opportunities from Online Public Schools: Half Weight
  • Dropout Rates: Double Weight
  • “Bookworms” Rank: Half Weight
  • Pupil-Teacher Ratio: Full Weight
  • Math Test Scores: Double Weight
  • Reading Test Scores: Double Weight
  • Percentage of Graduates Who Completed an Advanced Placement (AP) Exam in High School: Double Weight
  • Average SAT Score: Double Weight
  • Percentage of High School Graduates Who Completed the ACT: Double Weight

Safety – Total Weight: 4

  • School Safety (percentage of public school students in grades 9–12 who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property): Double Weight
  • Bullying-Incidents Rate: Double Weight
  • Youth Incarceration Rate per 100,000: Full Weight

 
Sources: Data used to create these rankings were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Center for Educational Statistics, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Kids Count - Anney E. Casey Foundation, Stopbullying.gov, U.S. News & World Report, the College Board, ACT and K12.com.

Author

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Richie Bernardo is a personal finance writer at WalletHub. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism and a minor in business from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Previously, he was a…
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Discussion

 
By: Kenf
Jul 29, 2015
Why does WalletHub and so many other organizations include SAT as such a weighted factor regarding quality of education? Rating North Dakota and South Dakota in the top 10 and assigning double weight seems to tilt the scores quite unfairly. How do you compare Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey and others who have 80+ percent of students take the SAT with North Dakota and South Dakota who together have only 4% of students taking SAT. read more
 
By: Robertb2
Jul 30, 2015
@Kenf: You are absolutely correct. Not only does the SAT carry double weight in states where only a few of the brightest students take the SAT, like North Dakota and South Dakota, but the percentage of students who take the ACT also carries a double weight in states where ACT is given to every grade 11 student. Such is the case in North Dakota. This will also tilt the scales.
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