Our Kids, Our Schools

North Carolina slips in national ranking on public education

Third-graders scurry around the room during gym class at Mills Park Elementary in Cary on Nov. 22, 2016.
Third-graders scurry around the room during gym class at Mills Park Elementary in Cary on Nov. 22, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

Issues with school funding and student achievement dropped North Carolina to 40th in the country in a new report card on public education, continuing a downward trend in the rankings for the Tar Heel state.

North Carolina received a C- grade and a score of 70.6 out of a possible 100 in the 2018 Quality Counts report released this week by Education Week. That’s below the national grade of C and score of 74.5

North Carolina’s score put it 40th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The state’s standing compared with the rest of the nation has been steadily declining since North Carolina was ranked as high as 19th in 2011. Education Week revamped the rankings in the annual report in 2015 with the state placing 34th. The state was 37th in 2016 and 39th last year.

“The change in the ranking reflects improvements in other states,” Sterling Lloyd, assistant director for Education Week Research Center, said in an interview. “One of the reasons we issue reports is that a 50-state comparison really allows state policymakers to compare themselves against other states and inform the discussion.”

The new study is likely to add more fuel to the fire over the state of public education in North Carolina since Republicans took control of the state legislature in the 2010 election.

“Since I began my campaign for this office, I have consistently said that great work is occurring in our schools, led by hard-working teachers and local school leaders, but also that our state needs to approach education with more urgency and innovation,” state Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, said in a written statement.

“I’ll always put much more stock in my conversations with educators, parents, and students than some national magazine’s idea of quality. That being said, I have never shied away from pointing out stubborn concerns caused by the status quo while we work to implement innovations that will transform incremental progress into real success for all educators and students.”

But Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said the latest Education Week rankings reflect decisions made by state lawmakers this decade. In December, Nordstrom released a report called “The Unraveling,” where he accused lawmakers of adopting poorly crafted education policies that he said are failing the state’s children.

“You have a General Assembly not interested in funding schools or putting in the serious work of putting in new policies to help address the actual barriers to education in North Carolina,” he said.

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.

Massachusetts was the top state, with a B+ grade and a score of 86.8. Lloyd of Education Week said the more-affluent northeastern and mid-Atlantic states appeared at the top of the rankings while many Southern states ranked closer to the bottom.

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. But the state also got a D+ for student achievement and a D for school funding.

“School finance is really the area where North Carolina struggles,” Lloyd said. “It’s 45th in the nation for its school finance grade.”

Lloyd said what especially hurt the state’s finance grade was the per-pupil spending amount. Using 2015 federal data, the report showed that only 2.5 percent of the state’s 115 school districts spent at or above the national average of $12,526 per student. As a whole, the state was spending $9,217 per student.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the conservative John Locke Foundation, focused on how the report didn’t include the latest school funding data.

“The data used for the report are from 2015, so it does not include recent efforts by the North Carolina General Assembly to raise teacher compensation and support programs designed to raise student achievement,” he said. “I suspect that these changes will improve our grade in future editions of Quality Counts.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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