States Receive Annual Grade on Education Quality

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by Joyce Jones

Education Week has issued the 15th edition of its annual state-by-state report card of the nation’s public schools. Quality Counts tracks school performance based on six key areas, including chance for success, K-12 achievement, school finance and transitions and alignment. The nation’s overall grade this year is a C, which is unchanged from last year. For the third year in a row, Maryland earned the highest grade, B+, followed by Massachusetts and New York, which each earned a B. The District of Columbia, Nebraska and South Dakota received the lowest grade, D+, while the majority of states earned a C or C+.

Not surprisingly, the economy has played a critical role in individual state performance and this year it received special attention in Quality Counts 2011, which is subtitled “Uncertain Forecast—Education Adjusts to a New Economic Reality.” According to the report, many states will have to figure out how to move forward with significantly smaller budgets and without the much-needed aid that they received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since the start of the economic recession, 21 states have been forced to be more flexible in how education funds are spent by allowing money reserved for a specific program or student population to be used for some other priority or need. Ten states have altered the length of the school year, week or day. These adjustments generally were “quick fixes,” the report states, and were often made in conjunction with budget cuts or other fiscal changes.

Still, says Christopher Swanson, vice president of research and development for Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week, researchers were surprised that a good deal more did not change in light of the economic crisis. They attribute the relative stability to the $81 billion in stimulus funding that states received. EPD looked at detailed data from stimulus recipients, including where the dollars went, and compared the findings to other agencies.

“When we crunched the numbers, we found that about a third of all stimulus funding that’s been accounted for so far has gone to education; that’s twice as much as the next agency, which was (the Department of) Transportation,” Swanson says. Fifty-two percent of the 650,000 jobs created or saved by stimulus funding were education-related, he adds.

“Where we hear a lot of concern is around the funding cliff that everybody’s waiting for,” says Swanson. “Before long, the funding will be all gone and spent down, and the concern is everyone expects it’s going to take some time after that for the state budgets to get healthy again, for the tax base to become more solid and for state revenues to rebound. Until that happens, it’s hard to see how a lot of states are going to be able to move forward without some substantial cuts across the board.”

For 2011, the nation earned a C for School Finance, which it also earned last year. Half of the states scored in the C- to C+ range

The report’s Chance-for-Success Index looked at 13 influential indicators, including family income, parent education and employment, elementary and middle school reading and math scores, postsecondary education and annual income earned as an adult. Massachusetts earned the only A in this category.  The District of Columbia, Nebraska and South Dakota each earned a D+. The nation overall earned a C+, as it did last year.

Swanson says the K-12 Achievement category continues to be troubling. “This is the heart blood of education, and it’s our best way of knowing how well these states are doing. There are still lots of challenges and the nation as a whole gets a D+,” he says. “If we want to have education improve in and of itself and to help support the larger society and economy, then we as a nation need to figure out what the secret sauce is there.”

Swanson points to Maryland as a good example of a consistently successful state in terms of policy and performance. Although it does have some challenging poverty gaps, it is on average a more socioeconomically affluent state, providing a solid foundation for quality public schools. “But it’s also a state that for many years has been active on policy, which is not always something you see,” he says. There are wealthy states that do well in terms of achievement, but if for some reason they don’t push improvement initiatives through policy because they tend to not do well in other areas.

Although the annual report does not make specific recommendations, Swanson says states take the report very seriously because it provides a barometer by which they can look at how they compare to other states.

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