Education Week graded North Carolina’s education system. See where NC ranks in 2019.

The visual arts class at Moore Square Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, NC on July 30, 2019.
The visual arts class at Moore Square Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, NC on July 30, 2019.

North Carolina moved up a spot in a new national report card on public education, but the state still ranks in the bottom half in the country.

North Carolina received a C- grade and a score of 72 out of a possible 100 in the 2019 Quality Counts report released this week by Education Week. The report ranks North Carolina 37th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The state’s low overall ranking is largely due to getting an F for the amount it spends per student.

“Our overall rating is C-,” Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said in an interview Friday. “This is North Carolina. Nobody should be proud of that.”

Last year, North Carolina was ranked 38th. (Education Week initially ranked the state as 40th in January 2018 before revising the scores last September.)

North Carolina was as high as 19th in 2011 before the rankings were revamped. The Tar Heel State’s ranking has fluctuated in recent years from 34th in 2015 to 37th in 2016 and as low as 39th in 2017.

“Overall, it (North Carolina) has been in the lower tier although not among the bottom-ranked states,” Sterling Lloyd, assistant director for Education Week Research Center, said Friday. “There doesn’t seem to be enough of a trend to indicate that the state has made significant progress.”

The new ranking comes at a time when the direction of public education in North Carolina is under intense debate. Republican lawmakers who have held a majority in the General Assembly since 2011 say they have increased education funding and expanded school-choice programs.

But Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the state’s low ranking nationally reflects a lack of GOP support for public education.

“There’s been an attack on public education in North Carolina,” Jewell said. “When you adjust for inflation, public school funding is still well below pre-recession levels. They’ve basically put us in a permanent recession level while they continue to give tax cuts to corporations and millionaires.”

Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, pointed out that North Carolina had a higher score than several other Southern states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Quality Counts evaluates states based on student achievement, K-12 funding and educational factors that contribute to an individual’s prospects from cradle to career.

New Jersey was the new top state, with a B+ grade and a score of 87.8. Education Week gave the nation a C grade with a score of 75.6.

North Carolina gets a D for school finance

North Carolina’s best mark was in the “Chance for Success” category, where it got a C+ based on factors such as level of pre-kindergarten enrollment and percentage of adults with post-secondary degrees.

The state got a C- for student achievement and a D for school finance, where it ranked 45th. North Carolina ranked 48th in the nation in school spending in the report. After making regional adjustments, Lloyd said North Carolina spent $9,367 per student compared to a national average of $12,756.

Vermont led the nation with an adjusted spending of $20,540 per student. Overall, Vermont received a B- grade and was ranked seventh in the nation. New Jersey, the top-ranked state, spent an adjusted $16,543 per student.

“There’s a sizable gap between North Carolina and the top states in per-pupil spending,” Lloyd said.

Poston, of the Public School Forum, said the report shows how “North Carolina is failing our children when it comes to adequate resources.”

“This Quality Counts report certainly shines a light on where North Carolina is not meeting our obligations and failing our students,” Poston said.

Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, said the report is disproportionately based on spending.

“The fact that North Carolina doesn’t spend as much as other states is probably the only reason we’re in the bottom half of states nationally,” Stoops said. “If the ranking did a better job of tying expenditures and performance and what kind of bang for the buck that the state gets for what it spends, it would be a more reliable ranking.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.