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Massachusetts Has the Best K-12 Public School System

A new report ranked which states have the best and worst K-12 public school systems in the nation; Massachusetts came in the top spot. On average, blue states ranked higher than red.

School bus parked during closures related to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Trisha Crain/TNS)
As vaccination rates rise, schools and families across the nation are preparing for a return to in-person classes following a year where learning was either partially or fully remote. Some students will be attending a new school this fall due to a family move to escape the expenses of city life or simply to enjoy the freedoms of remote work. But not all school systems are the same. There are many variables that can factor when a family is looking for a new school that is best for their children: performance, location, safety, class size and cost. However, choosing a good K-12 school system is easier in some states than others, according to a recent report.

WalletHub, a financial advice firm, analyzed which states have the best and worst public school education based upon data from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Education, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and other sources. Its report examined school districts by considering “quality” and “safety” through 32 metrics, including number of public schools, graduation rates, test scores, student-teacher ratios, digital learning plans, school shootings, grade of surrounding roads, incarceration rates and more. These metrics were graded on a 100-point scale, with 100 being the highest quality of education available, and then the scores were ranked in order of best to worst school systems.

The data revealed that Massachusetts had the best public school ranking overall, with a total score of 73.14, and New Mexico came last with just 25.26 points.
Source: WalletHub

Massachusetts was not only the best overall state for public school options, but it was also the state with the highest math and reading scores, and in terms of safety, had the lowest percentage of threatened or injured high school students. The state with the worst public school system overall, New Mexico also ranked second-to-worst in dropout rate and in math and reading scores.

In addition to overall quality and safety rankings, the report also considered how states spend their education funds. All states and Washington, D.C., were categorized into four groups: low spending and a strong school system, high spending and a weak school system, high spending and a strong school system, and low spending and a weak school system. New York had the best spending, at $24,040 per student in 2018, though it’s school systems were ranked 14th overall; Idaho, which had an overall rank of 36th, had the worst spending, which was also consistent with its 2018 per pupil spending.

For some experts, school spending is a clear indicator about a school’s success. “From both a quantitative and qualitative lens, more money leads to greater opportunities and greater achievement,” explained Christopher Meidl, associate professor at Duquesne University. But more money doesn’t just mean more books, experiences and materials, it also enables schools to hire teachers with better training.

“Affluent areas pay well, with good benefits, and have smaller class sizes on average,” Meidl said. “That means teachers can assess more accurately and teach to the individual needs of their students.”

But Cathy Kim, assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University, explained that while school spending by student is important, it’s just one factor that should be considered. “If school quality is defined by student learning measures and student outcomes, then looking at per-pupil spending as one data point alone does not explain much,” she said.

For example, California has the largest public higher education system in the U.S., with its California State University, and has five of the top 10 public universities in the nation. However, it ranks at just 41st overall, just barely escaping the worst 10 states. The report classified the state as 20th in spending with a high spending and weak school system; it spent slightly less per pupil than the national average in 2018. Washington, D.C., the smallest system, ranked at 37th overall, despite being second in spending.
Source: WalletHub
The report’s rankings were generally split along party lines with Democratic states, on average, faring better than Republican ones. Of the top 10 ranked states, only one, Nebraska (#8), voted for Trump in the 2020 presidential election; two of the worst overall, Arizona (#49) and New Mexico (#51), supported Biden.

The Funding Control Issue

Policymakers can control how much funding will be allocated to what parts of the education system and some believe this control is too rigid.

“State departments of education are taking creativity, exploration and problem-solving out of learning by overmanaging what must be learned,” Duquesne University’s Meidl said. “This approach absolutely fails students in marginalized communities where teachers and administrators need more freedom to provide learning that provides voice and empowerment for the learners.”

The coronavirus pandemic also reinforced how important that control of finances can be. University of Mary Washington professor Teresa Coffman explained the pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges that school systems were already facing, such as connecting with students, providing enough learning resources and creating a safe learning environment.

“Barriers that schools face daily came to the forefront such as access to resources to include the Internet and access to needed services,” she explained. “In school districts with limited funding and/or in communities with limited or no high-speed Internet, this meant that the student’s classroom was oftentimes found in the school parking lot, accessing needed Wi-Fi.”

Ultimately, schools do much more than just teach students facts and numbers. COVID-19 has reiterated how crucial schools are to students’ mental, emotional and social growth and success, Christopher Meidl explained.

“Teachers, lunch personnel, custodial people and school staff provide consistency, role models, socioemotional caring and empathy for so many children,” he said. “This next year must have a transition plan to get students used to the in-person experience again.”

Zoe is the digital editor for Governing.
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