The Best and Worst Places in America to Educate Your Child

Among the many topics parents tend to spend obscene amounts of time worrying about (are they safe? are they warm? are they well fed?), where to send one’s children to school can become a bona fide obsession. And with good reason: even as the debate continues about the value of a college degree, at the moment, level of educational attainment still carries significant weight in predicting future earnings. Even leaving “earnings potential” aside, most of us who care for children want to know that where we’re sending them each day is a place that’s safe and nurturing -- not mention teaching them a thing or two along the way.

Since for most families in America, where children go to school is closely tied to where they live, choices about where to reside can loom large. Any number of resources currently exist to help parents make informed choices about what neighborhoods, and states, offer the best educational opportunities for children, K-12.

Now WalletHub, an organization that bills itself as “the leading personal finance social network,” has entered the fray with the release of a new report, 2014's States with the Best & Worst School Systems. The report analyzes, “12 key metrics — from student-teacher ratios and dropout rates to test scores and bullying incident rates,” to determine what it has categorized as the “best” and “worst” public school systems across the country.

According to Odysseas Papadimitriou, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of WalletHub, the goal of the report is to educate parents. “There is an undeniable linkage between the quality of education someone has, the level of education, and… their income potential for the rest of their life,” says Papadimitriou. “One of the best decisions parents can make is to give [their children] the best education possible, and that’s why we wanted to look at this, since school is top of mind for many parents.”

So which states win the educational race based on WalletHub’s calculations? The top ten rank as follows:

1. New Jersey
2. Massachusetts
3. Vermont
4. New Hampshire
5. Kansas
6. Colorado
7. Virginia
8. Minnesota
9. Wisconsin
10. Pennsylvania

“One thing [these states have in common] is that they allocate a significant amount of money on a per student basis toward education,” says Papadimitrou. Indeed, there is notable overlap between WalletHub’s top scorers and states listed as having high levels of per pupil spending in Census data released this past May. But Papadimitriou cautions that per pupil spending isn’t predictive in and of itself. “There is not one clear pattern here,” he says. “You also have states that spend a lot of money and don’t get the results; there’s an efficiency problem. So it’s not just about spending the money, but it’s about spending it efficiently.”

Which states notched the lowest scores using WalletHub’s metrics? The bottom 10 are:

42. South Carolina
43. Arizona
44. Arkansas
45. West Virginia
46. New Mexico
47. Nevada
48. Louisiana
49. Alabama
50. Mississippi
51. District of Columbia

Papadimitriou links the failure of these states to score highly to a combination of low-levels of financial investment in education and precipitously high drop-out rates. “In the District of Columbia, which ranked the lowest, the drop-out rate is 41%... and 16% [of students] have to repeat a grade. So essentially, 6 out of 10 kids either will drop out or have to repeat a grade.” That, he suggests, leads to a culture where there is little incentive to stay in school or pursue studies to a higher level.

Lists like these are always appealing to parents, who are perennially on the hunt for good advice. But not everyone is convinced such rankings are worth relying on. According to Paul L. Thomas, Professor of Education at Furman University in South Carolina, “Rankings in education are almost always misleading… because the measurements used are strongly correlated with affluence and poverty. Thus, as with many school report cards, we could have predicted the rankings simply by looking at socio-economic indicators of states.

“A better way to help parents would be to present (and not rank) how equitable states are in their funding, what access all students have to advanced courses and experienced teachers, and how states address tracking and other policies that sort students once they are in schools,” Thomas suggests. “Many of the so-called ‘worst’ systems are burdened by high poverty rates, large populations of ELL students, and significant challenges presented by special needs students.”

Papadimitriou is unmoved by such criticisms. “We look at our metrics,” he says. “If there’s a high correlation between those metrics and per capita income, so be it.” WalletHub’s intention, he says, is simply to help parents make strategic decisions about education – and push states to improve on how they are serving their youth.

“From the taxpayer standpoint, we hope this will help to put more pressure on the states that aren’t spending enough and not getting the results, and those that are spending a lot and still aren’t getting results. There’s an efficiency problem here, and there’s a lot of rhetoric. We have good schools, we have bad schools -- but there also is actual data that can be relied upon. We want to push parents and taxpayers to ask for improvements based on the data that exists.”

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