Free & Clear: October 2012

The real score on the state’s schools
By John Hood

The Fox program Family Guy is far from my favorite TV show, to put it mildly. While sometimes wickedly funny, it is just as often simply wicked — gross for the sake of being gross. I’ll take my satiric animation in the form of The Simpsons with a dash of South Park, thank you. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Family Guy for demonstrating the gap between perception and reality in education policy.

During a 2007 episode titled “Lois Kills Stewie,” a character develops amnesia. Wandering through North Carolina, she comes across a sign that says “First in Flight, 48th in Education.” If only this “48th in education” business was limited to lame jokes on TV. Since cropping up in the 1990s, this fallacious claim has been hard to stamp out. Here’s where it comes from. During the early to mid 1990s, North Carolina’s average score on the SAT ranked 48th among the states and District of Columbia. When then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Bob Etheridge ran for Congress in 1996, critics claimed that North Carolina had remained “48th in the nation in education” during his tenure. He responded that the state’s average SAT score had been 51st, dead last, in 1989, so that represented progress.

This was all quite silly. The SAT isn’t administered to all high-school students in the country. Some kids aren’t college-bound. Others take the ACT instead because they reside or plan to attend college in the middle of the country, where that test is more common. At the time North Carolina ranked 48th on the SAT, the percentage of students taking it ranged from single digits in some states to well over two-thirds in others. The test-taking populations varied too widely to yield a valid comparison.

What’s worse is that the “48th in education” claim persisted even as North Carolina’s SAT ranking rose. When the writers of Family Guy took their gratuitous shot, North Carolina was no longer among the bottom 10. In 2011, its national ranking was 39th — but among the 17 states where at least two-thirds of students took the test, it ranked ninth, in the middle. The boring fact of the matter is that North Carolina’s public schools are about average in academic results. Their SAT scores are slightly below average, their ACT scores slightly above. On independent tests of eighth-grade performance, which include comparable samples of students across the country, North Carolina ranks slightly above average in math, about average in reading and slightly below average in science.

You might think that downplaying the performance of public schools would be a rhetorical temptation limited to conservatives and Republicans who, until recently, have been shut out of education policymaking in Raleigh. You would be wrong. Many liberals and Democrats also misstate how North Carolina’s schools rank, either to argue for more tax money for public schools or to create a favorable contrast with the UNC system, whose praises they love to sing. They assume the more money government spends, the better the results will be. Since the state has long ranked low in tax funding for public schools and high in it for colleges and universities, they expect us to get weak outcomes from the former and strong outcomes from the latter.

That’s not the case at all. In college attainment, North Carolina continues to lag behind the nation. In April, Bloomberg Businessweek released a study of return on investment in higher education. The researchers computed average 30-year earnings for alumni of 1,248 schools, subtracted the cost of obtaining their degrees, then compared the result with the average earnings of high-school graduates. Among state university systems, North Carolina ranked a disappointing 42nd.

The truth about our education system is hard to cram into partisan boxes. The performance of North Carolina’s public-school students is better than it was a generation ago for a variety of reasons. But it isn’t good enough if we want our economy to compete effectively with those of top-scoring states and nations. At the university level, North Carolina has until recently operated a high-cost model without obvious educational benefits. (The UNC system’s per-pupil expenditures were about 20% above the national average in 2010, though budget cuts during the past two years probably have reduced the gap a bit.) Investigations of academic irregularities in the UNC Chapel Hill athletic program may be getting the headlines, but the real problem is far broader than that.

To move North Carolina from the middle of the pack to the top tier does not require a massive infusion of tax money. If this state were a country, we’d rank sixth among 24 industrialized countries in K-12 spending per student and first in higher-education spending. What we need are tougher standards, higher rewards for excellent teaching and broader parental choice and competition. Oh, and politicians who base policies on facts rather than half-baked talking points.

John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation.You can reach him at jhood@johnlocke.org.