When it come to excellence in education, red states rule — at least according to a panel of experts assembled by Tina Brown’s Newsweek. Using a set of indicators ranging from graduation rate to college admissions and SAT scores, the panel reviewed data from high schools all over the country to find the best public schools in the country.
The results make depressing reading for the teacher unions: the very best public high schools in the country are heavily concentrated in red states.
Three of the nation’s ten best public high schools are in Texas — the no-income tax, right-to-work state that blue model defenders like to characterize as America at its worst. Florida, another no-income tax, right-to-work state long misgoverned by the evil and rapacious Bush dynasty, has two of the top ten schools.
Newsweek isn’t alone with these shocking results. Another top public school list, compiled by the Washington Post, was issued in May. Texas and Florida rank number one and number two on that list’s top ten as well.
There’s something else interesting about the two lists: on both lists only one of the top ten public schools was located in a blue state. (Definition alert: on this blog, a blue state is one that voted for John Kerry in 2004; red states cast their electoral votes for Bush.)
There were no top ten schools on either list from blue New England states like Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut. Nor were there any in the top 25. By contrast, Alabama made both the Newsweek and the Washington Post top ten. Only two public schools from these states made the Washpost top fifty list; zero made it into Newsweek‘s elite. 150 years after the Civil War, South Carolina is kicking New England’s rear end when it comes to producing great public schools.
Schoolboys playing Snap the Whip in an 1872 oil painting by Winslow Homer
As you go down the list, the numbers get a little more balanced. Fifty of the top 100 Newsweek schools are red, fifty blue — though according to the Washington Post, the split is sixty-one red, thirty-nine blue. But the results are shocking enough: the People’s Republic of Vermont has achieved parity with Mississippi: neither state has a single school on the Newsweek list of 500.
Defenders of the high tax, high regulation, highly unionized model of state governance that characterizes the blue states like to point to their higher quality of government services as justification for the taxes they pay and the regulations they accept.
Let those crackers and hillbillies in the red states wallow in their filth and their ignorance, say proud upholders of the blue state model. We blue staters believe in things like quality education — and that costs money.
In theory, perhaps, but in practice the extraordinary achievement of so many red state schools strongly supports the idea that blue state governance is no friend to excellence in education. Having low taxes and governors descended from George H. W. Bush seems to offer students more hope than having high taxes and strong teacher unions. At the very least, the rankings suggest that blue state taxes and management philosophies aren’t knocking the stuffing out of their allegedly underfunded and poorly run red state competitors.
The results of these two unrelated surveys are particularly surprising because the competition for best public schools is one that, logically speaking, blue states should dominate. Blue states are — generally speaking — richer than red states. They tend to spend substantially more money per pupil on education. They do not have the history of legal segregation that disrupted education in many Southern states. Almost certainly, a generation ago blue states would have dominated rankings of this kind.
The poor performance of the New England states is particularly striking. Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts are the states with the oldest and strongest traditions of public education in the country. They led the rest of the country in establishing free public schools and were among the first to mandate a full 12 years of pre-college education. Non-New England blue states like New York, New Jersey and even troubled California and Michigan do significantly better than the New England states in the rankings. The decline of public education in New England is clearly a subject that deserves further study.
As the blue state governance model comes under increasing pressure, both Democratic and Republican governors and legislatures are going to be looking for ways to cut costs while preserving the quality of basic public services like education. It is becoming harder and harder to find evidence of any kind that teachers’ unions help either taxpayers or kids; surveys like these hasten the day when real reform comes to the American educational system.
The rise of the red states is one of those stories that the mainstream media — which views the world through blue-tinted lenses — doesn’t like to think about. The conventional liberal explanation, sometimes cited by readers of this blog, is that the red states tend to be net recipients of federal taxes thanks to progressive taxation and social programs aimed at the poor. There is some truth in that explanation — but it is surely also true that inefficient spending, poor management and confused and unrealistic mandates together with layers of barnacle-encrusted bureaucracy in blue states mean that they spend money less wisely and efficiently than their counterparts.
I don’t think either red states or blue states have fully come to grips with the changes our educational system needs. Putting students in big box schools that teach conformity, sitting still and waiting in line does not strike me as a wise use of money or time. Most school textbooks are atrociously written and edited by committees and lobby groups; teaching to standardized tests is at best a very poor use of resources. High school graduates tend to know precious little about either academic subjects or practical life.
We can and should do much, much better and I suspect that home-schooling and community based schools will play a much larger role in the future. The key is going to be innovation and small scale initiatives by concerned parents and groups of gifted teachers and inspiring leaders who want to strike out on their own — and the educational system needs to support rather than fight this kind of change. Hospitality to innovation will ultimately be the most important quality that states can bring to public education; red states have an advantage here because entrenched interests (like unions) make it harder for blue states to reform.
That will change, one hopes, as blue states reflect on the gap between the high costs they pay and the disappointing results they too often achieve.