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Red State Education Rules? Guess Again.

June 22, 2011

Seizing on recent rankings of American high schools by Newsweek and the Washington Post, Walter Russell Mead crowed that "blue state education [is] the shame of the nation." Eager for any data point to bash the supposedly high-tax, big government, union-dominated states which generally vote for Democrats, the conservative blogosphere quickly regurgitated Mead's jubilation "that the very best public high schools in the country are heavily concentrated in red states."
Sadly for the purveyors of right-wing propaganda, the bigger picture of American public education isn't a pretty one for their side. As the numbers show, reading comprehension, graduate rates, ACT scores and state education funding are generally lowest where Republicans poll best.

Nevertheless, Mead and his fellow conservative water carriers line Red State and Instapundit did their best to convert failure into success:

When it come [sic] to excellence in education, red states rule -- at least according to a panel of experts assembled by Tina Brown's Newsweek...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.

A word of advice to conservatives desperately trying to smear teachers and other public workers: when trapped in a hole, first stop digging.
As the showdown over Scott Walker's war on public employee unions heated up earlier this year, the right-wing blogosphere made the mistake of complaining that Wisconsin received millions of dollars in federal education aid when solidly Republican red states get much, much more. Then, the Republican union busters whined that Badger state students can't read. As it turns out, Wisconsin students outperform their counterparts in those reddest of states where collective bargaining rights are few - or non-existent.
A day after he inadvertently drew attention to the persistent phenomenon of "red state socialism" (that is, the one-flow of federal tax dollars from Washington DC to heavily Republican states), Terence Jeffrey of CNS News protested that "two-thirds of Wisconsin eighth graders can't read proficiently." The implication, of course, is that the unacceptable scores are the fault of overpaid, undeserving public school teachers.
Sadly for Jeffrey and his right-wing echo chamber, the data show that Wisconsin schoolchildren out-read the kids in states where Republicans poll best and public workers have the fewest collective bargaining rights. Those know-nothing red states also happen to be where the federal government most heavily subsidizes the local education systems.
The numbers - and the electoral map - tell the tale. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Wisconsin does in fact spend more per student than some of its Midwestern neighbors even as its pupils score less well. But with 34% of its eighth graders students at or above the target reading proficiency, Wisconsin far outperforms the Republicans' solid south (and the national average of 30%). Only Kentucky, which receives substantially more money from DC can match Wisconsin's scores. Florida and Texas? Not so much.
Just as telling (as the table above reveals), the woefully inadequate per student spending levels are propped up only by generous federal spending provided by blue state tax payers. Meanwhile, the bluest of states in the Northeast spend more and get what they pay for. In Connecticut, 43% of eighth graders are at or above reading proficiency. The Nutmeg state spends $14,610 per pupil per year. New Hampshire (39%, $11,951), Vermont (40%, $14,421) New Jersey (42%, $17,620), Pennsylvania (40%, $11,741) and Massachusetts (42%, $13,667) pay the price for better educational outcomes.
If Americans want to see what the Republican future of gutted government and busted unions looks like, they need only look to Haley Barbour's Mississippi.
The education of its children provides just one of many heart-breaking stories of failure for the people of Mississippi. At $7,890 per student per year, Mississippi ranks 45th in school funding. (And even that meager figure is only made possible by substantial funding from the federal government.) According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department Education, only 22% of Magnolia State fourth graders read at or above grade level. By eighth grade, the figure falls to 19%. (Only the District of Columbia does worse.) It's no surprise that Mississippi has the lowest mean score on the ACT college admissions test taken by 96% of the state's high school graduates. And as it turns out, only 63% of its children even graduate, less than the national average of 69% (and much lower than the 81% in, for example, Wisconsin.)
Of course, dismal schools aren't the only place where the Republican race to the bottom leads. In their all-out war to crush union - and Democratic - power, red staters would remake the rest of America in their image. Unfortunately for the GOP mythmakers, the numbers show that incomes, working conditions, health care and educational performance are worst where union protections are weakest and Republicans poll best.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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