States with the Best & Worst School Systems

July 30, 2018 | Adam McCann, Financial Writer

Securing a child’s academic success begins with choosing the right schools. But how can parents decide where to enroll their kids?

Because children develop and learn at different rates, the ideal answer to that question varies based on each student’s needs. Unfortunately, most parents can’t afford to place their children in exclusive, private or preparatory schools that give their students greater individual attention.

For the majority of U.S. families, public education is the only option. But the quality of public school systems varies widely from state to state and is often a question of funding.

Public elementary and secondary education money usually flows from three sources: the federal, state and local governments. According to the U.S. Department of Education, states contribute nearly as much as local governments, while the federal government supplies the smallest share.

Some researchers have found that more resources – or taxes paid by residents – typically result in better school–system performance.

Unlike other research that focuses primarily on academic outcomes or school finance, WalletHub’s analysis takes a more comprehensive approach. It accounts for performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials.

To determine the top–performing school systems in America, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 25 key metrics.


Public School Ranking by State

1 Massachusetts 74.16 1 1
2 New Jersey 67.09 3 9
3 Connecticut 66.93 2 11
4 New Hampshire 65.11 4 7
5 Vermont 63.18 5 4
6 Virginia 63.03 7 2
7 Minnesota 60.34 6 27
8 Maryland 57.82 10 20
9 Wisconsin 57.59 9 26
10 Colorado 57.45 14 8
11 North Dakota 57.03 11 29
12 Wyoming 57.02 8 37
13 Maine 56.82 16 5
14 Nebraska 56.42 12 28
15 Kansas 55.55 21 6
16 Iowa 55.33 13 35
17 Rhode Island 54.78 19 14
18 Washington 54.58 17 10
19 Delaware 54.36 24 12
20 Kentucky 54.34 20 19
21 Illinois 54.20 15 40
22 New York 53.36 24 12
23 Montana 52.78 18 37
24 Indiana 52.69 22 23
25 South Dakota 52.27 23 24
26 Florida 52.10 25 22
27 Ohio 51.93 29 18
28 Pennsylvania 51.36 30 17
29 Missouri 51.20 26 34
30 Utah 50.99 28 32
31 Michigan 50.07 27 44
32 North Carolina 48.91 32 25
33 Oklahoma 48.79 36 16
34 Idaho 47.84 33 39
35 Tennessee 46.90 39 15
36 Texas 46.90 39 15
37 California 46.33 38 21
38 Georgia 45.67 37 42
39 Hawaii 45.09 41 13
40 South Carolina 42.24 40 46
41 Arkansas 42.18 34 50
42 West Virginia 39.91 44 31
43 Oregon 39.79 42 49
44 Alabama 38.98 43 45
45 Mississippi 38.87 45 43
46 Nevada 38.54 47 36
47 Arizona 37.53 48 30
48 Alaska 35.87 50 33
49 District of Columbia 33.62 49 48
50 Louisiana 32.50 46 51
51 New Mexico 31.53 51 47



Ask the Experts

Giving students a good education is crucial for the future of the country. That responsibility falls to parents, educators and leaders alike. To expand the discussion, we asked a panel of experts to share their thoughts on the following key questions:

  1. How will the education policy agenda being pursued by the Trump administration affect the quality of K–12 education across states?

  2. Does variation in per–pupil spending explain most of the variation in school quality?

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

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

  5. In evaluating the best and worst school systems, what are the top five indicators?


Laura Hsu

Assistant Professor, Merrimack College


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

I will say that from literature I have read, more than any factor within the school, teacher quality seems to be the strongest predictor of student achievement. Thus, recruiting and retaining strong teachers would ideally be the priority for every school.

This is, of course, is linked to budgets – what can schools afford to offer teachers? And what kind of institutional support can they provide teachers once they are hired?

Teacher retention continues to be a concern in K–12 education. Often, teachers report they feel overworked and underpaid. What undergirds this is the value placed on the teaching profession in our country as opposed to other countries who compensate their teachers significantly more, such as Finland. A change in perception is important if any changes in compensation will occur.

In my own institution, I see education majors changing majors because of such concerns about the future. Although I convey to students that money is not the “be all end all” of feeling fulfilled, students and their parents have practical concerns, particularly with the rising cost of college tuition.

Ultimately, there are multiple factors that contribute to a child’s success. We should consider how we are defining “success”. Within a school context, it tends to mean a high GPA and test scores, but emotional well being should be integrated as well.

Scales and his colleagues identified 40 developmental assets that significantly predict a child’s success and lower the likelihood of delinquency. These include family factors, such as family support, positive family communication, and parent involvement in school. It also includes school factors, such as a caring school climate and school boundaries.

It is oversimplified to pinpoint one particular factor. Each developmental asset has a cumulative impact on a child’s success and well–being.


Lori Czop Assaf Ph.D.,

Professor, Honorary Professor of International Studies, Program Coordinator for Undergraduate Elementary Education, Graduate Reading Faculty, Texas State University

Does variation in per pupil spending explain most of the variation in school quality?

I do not believe that variation in per pupil spending explains most of the variation in school quality. Teacher knowledge, expertise and ability play a bigger role in school quality than pupil spending.

While how much school districts receive per student is important and plays a huge role in resources, classroom teacher/pupil ratio per class size, teachers’ knowledge and ability to teach every student makes a bigger difference.

Teachers with graduate level degrees in subject areas such as reading, science, math, social studies have students who perform better on standardized tests then teachers without advanced degrees.

Teachers with advanced degrees also have higher rates of attrition and show more leadership potential over their career. These teacher leaders not only impact the instructional practices in classrooms and schools, they are highly knowledgeable and responsible for creating curriculum that meets the learning needs of all students.


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

State and local policymakers can invest in teachers’ education and professionalism without raising taxes. Instead of creating policies that allow anyone to teach research shows that this practice is highly ineffective and detrimental to students and school success.

They should encourage certified teachers to pursue advanced degrees, serve as committee leaders on state level policy and curriculum tasks, and lift up the status of teaching as a profession in the U.S. Once status is lifted and teachers are viewed as highly educated and essential to the growth of our nation on every level, then more qualified individuals will pursue teaching as a profession.

Do we need to pay teachers more? Yes. In Texas, we most definitely need to pay teachers more. But I think that could happen by reallocating funds and not raising taxes. Too often, principals and superintendents pay hundreds and thousands of dollars on expensive instructional programs – programs that are not research based nor have any record of effectiveness because they seek a “quick fix” to an educational problem.

These funds could be better used to invest in teachers’ education and professionalism. Teachers are extremely resourceful, innovative and know their students. I believe reallocating these funds will not only improve instruction and student learning, it will advance the belief that teachers are highly intelligent, professionals who can teach children and improve the school system.


In evaluating the best and worst school systems, what are the top 5 indicators?

The top 5 indicators of the best and worst school systems:

  • Teacher knowledge/expertise and attrition rates.
  • Instructional time.
  • Teacher/student ratio per classroom.
  • Effective leadership.
  • Community inclusion and involvement.


Sandra Stotsky

Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas – Department of Education Reform


Does variation in per pupil spending explain most of the variation in school quality?

The work/research of economist Eric Hanushek for years has told us that spending more money on education does not result in higher school achievement or quality. As Eric Hanushek noted, “…variations in per–pupil expenditure had little correlation with student outcomes”, Education Next, Spring 2016, Vol. 16, No. 2.


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

  1. Allow public schools to hire directly college graduates who have majored in a subject taught in a normal k–12 curriculum for subject area teaching from grade 5 to grade 12. No requirement that they attend or complete a teacher preparation program.

  2. Eliminate all professional development provided by external providers; professional development should be within and between discipline based departments, no evidence to support externally provided professional development in any subject.

  3. Eliminate all reading and math coaches – no evidence to support their effectiveness.

  4. Eliminate all federal/state mandated tests for k–12; use district based teacher made tests by subject area in high school for high school diploma.

  5. Develop transitional grade 9 for students unable to read at high school level.

  6. Develop regional (independent) grades 9–12 career/technical high schools and performing arts high schools as options for all grade 8 students to consider, with support of local industries/business for choice of workshops offered. See as a model Blackstone Valley regional vocational/technical high school or Worcester Technical high school or Ellington School for Performing Arts in DC.

  7. Hire for k–4 as primary grade teachers only those who can pass separately scored reading and math licensure tests as developed in MA in 2003 and 2008.

  8. Eliminate all computer based testing.

  9. Eliminate all data managers and assistant administrators in all subjects. Restore high school department chairs after requiring they have at least an MA or MS degree in the discipline/subject they chair.


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

Family stability and support most important, as 1966 Coleman Report and 1965 Moynihan Report implied.


In evaluating the best and worst school systems, what are the top 5 indicators?

  1. Daily attendance by students.

  2. Daily attendance by teachers.

  3. Accelerated curriculum in math and reading available from grade 5 on for fast learners regardless of race or creed or gender.

  4. Active PTO* (not PTA*).

  5. Optional high school curriculum sequences available.

  6. Teacher/parent committees to choose textbooks for math, science, and history, and suggest literary texts for reading K–12.

*PTO is Parent Teacher Organization, PTA is Parent Teacher Association.