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25 states with the best public education

Whether it’s paying for private education or buying a home in the best school district, if it’s financially feasible, most parents will do anything to give their kids the very best. Learn what states offer top public education that can be gentler on your wallet.

Providing your child with a good education is a concern at the forefront of most parents’ minds. In fact, when we surveyed Millennial parents, we found that 30% named education as a top financial priority.

Whether it’s paying for private education or purposefully buying a home in the best school district, if it’s financially feasible, most parents will do anything to give their kids the very best. Fortunately, some states offer top public education that can be a little gentler on your wallet. So that begs the question: is your state’s education standards aligning with your own hopes and dreams for your little ones?

In April of 2018, the Institute of Education Sciences released disappointing results from the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, is a continuing assessment of American students’ proficiencies across math, reading, and other subjects. This scorecard is designed to serve as a common standard by which student academic performance in all states can be measured and tracked over time.

The results from the 2017 assessment showed little to no progress compared with 2015. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, “Our nation’s reading and math scores continue to stagnate. More alarmingly, the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite billions in Federal funding designated specifically to help close it.”

Despite a disappointing national trend, certain states are performing better than others. To figure out which states offer the best public education for children, we looked at the most recent NAEP assessment data as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Education.

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How the states stack up

We evaluated states across three quality measures:

  1. Academic performance (using NAEP scores)
  2. Resource availability (using student-to-teacher ratios and per-student spending)
  3. High school graduation rates

Not surprisingly, the results vary widely by state across all metrics. For example, the percentages of 8th-grade students at or above Basic achievement levels in Math and Reading range from over 80% in Massachusetts down to just over 50% in Washington, D.C.

Similarly, high school graduation rates range from a low of 69% (also in Washington, D.C.) to a high of 91% in Iowa.

In general, researchers at online life insurance agency Haven Life found that when considering all metrics, the Northern states outperform the Southern states, with the top 5 best states overall located in the Northeast. Additionally, we learned the following:

  • State with the best NAEP test scores: Massachusetts (297 Math, 278 Reading)
  • State with the best student-to-teacher ratio: Vermont (10.5 students per teacher)
  • State with the most per student spending: New York ($21,206 per student)
  • State with the best high school graduation rate: Iowa (91.3%)

Whether you are considering a move or just want to see where your home state ranks, the following 25 represent the best public education offerings in our nation.


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25. Colorado

  • Overall education rank: 25th
  • Academic performance: 13th
  • Resource availability: 45th
  • Graduation rate: 45th (78.9%)

Colorado boasts a very strong academic performance (13th overall) despite its lack of resources available for students and low graduation rates. Its strong test scores put Colorado in the top 25 states for public education.

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24. Utah

  • Overall education rank: 24th
  • Academic performance: 16th
  • Resource availability: 51st
  • Graduation rate: 27th (85.2%)

According to the Utah Board of Education, there are over 650,000 students enrolled in Utah’s school system, which means approximately 1 in 5 Utahns is a public school student. Out of all the states, Utah spends the least amount of money per student ($6,575) and has a high student-to-teacher ratio of 22.9, meaning that by this methodology, it has the fewest resources available for education. Despite this, and like Colorado, its strong academic performance on the Nation’s Report Card boosts Utah to the #24 spot overall.

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23. Illinois

  • Overall education rank: 23rd
  • Academic performance: 24th
  • Resource availability: 26th
  • Graduation rate: 26th (85.5%)

Hovering around the 50th percentile across all metrics, Illinois scores well overall for its quality of public education. However, the disparity between education in the suburbs and inner cities has been a contentious issue in the news, sparking lawsuits over the distribution of educational funding.

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22. South Dakota

  • Overall education rank: 22nd
  • Academic performance: 22nd
  • Resource availability: 29th
  • Graduation rate: 28th (83.9%)

South Dakota ranks 41st on the list for per-student spending ($8,937), but also ranks 17th on the list for student-to-teacher ratio (13.9:1). A main reason for this is that teachers in South Dakota have some of the lowest teachers’ salaries in the U.S, partly due to factors such as a lower cost of living.

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21. Missouri

  • Overall education rank: 21st
  • Academic performance: 28th
  • Resource availability: 23rd
  • Graduation rate: 6th (89%)

Despite its average performance on national assessments, Missouri’s graduation rate is in the top 10 in the nation, with 89% of high school seniors earning a diploma.

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20. Kansas

  • Overall education rank: 20th
  • Academic performance: 23rd
  • Resource availability: 17th
  • Graduation rate: 23rd (85.7%)

One of the biggest factors contributing to Kansas’ high placement on this list is its low student-to-teacher ratio of 12.4 (ranked 7th out of 51). Although Kansas spends an average of $10,040 per student, the state has faced recent lawsuits alleging that the amount of funds allocated for education is insufficient, especially for districts with primarily low-income and minority students.

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19. Montana

  • Overall education rank: 19th
  • Academic performance: 20th
  • Resource availability: 20th
  • Graduation rate: 24th (85.6%)

According to NAEP test scores, Montana’s students are stronger in math than in reading. Although the student-to-teacher ratio is a healthy 14:1 (ranked 18th on this list), Montana’s rural areas have struggled in recent years to attract and retain teachers, due to issues such as low pay and a small-town culture that does not appeal to everyone. Montana does allow students to opt-in to a “college and career ready” diploma, providing stronger academic options for high-performing students.

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18. Maryland

  • Overall education rank: 18th
  • Academic performance: 25th
  • Resource availability: 15th
  • Graduation rate: 12th (87.6%)

Maryland spends an average of $14,192 per student each year, putting it in the top quartile of states by per-student spending. As part of an effort to equalize the quality of education across school districts, the Maryland Department of Education is providing principals from low-performing Baltimore schools with leadership training to equip them with the skills and tools they need to create a better environment for student success. Although Maryland ranks 30th in math scores and 20th in reading scores, all students must pass certain exams in order to graduate, suggesting more stringent requirements than other states on this list.

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17. Ohio

  • Overall education rank: 17th
  • Academic performance: 14th
  • Resource availability: 30th
  • Graduation rate: 29th (83.5%)

Despite being somewhat stretched for resources, less than 2% of Ohio’s public schools are in a state of academic emergency. Ohio students rank 8th in math and 17th in reading, and they must pass a Math and Reading Graduation Test in order to receive a high school diploma.

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16. Washington

  • Overall education rank: 16th
  • Academic performance: 6th
  • Resource availability: 38th
  • Graduation rate: 41st (79.7%)

Washington students do extremely well on the Grade 8 NAEP exams — ranking 6th in both math and reading — which explains Washington’s high placement on this list. The state’s high student-to-teacher ratio (ranked 46th of 51) and average per-student spend, however, means it has fewer resources available for students than many other states. Washington also has one of the lowest graduation rates, ranked 41st out of 51.

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15. Maine

  • Overall education rank: 15th
  • Academic performance: 19th
  • Resource availability: 9th
  • Graduation rate: 17th (87%)

Maine has 737 schools, 620 of which are in the public education system. Maine ranks 3rd for student-to-teacher ratio (12.2:1) and spends $13,257 per student. Keeping in line with its reputation for high academic performance, Maine requires students to earn a proficiency-based diploma, which means students must demonstrate mastery in eight subjects including English and math before graduating.

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14. North Dakota

  • Overall education rank: 14th
  • Academic performance: 21st
  • Resource availability: 7th
  • Graduation rate: 13th (87.5%)

Among the top 25 states, North Dakota ranks lowest in reading scores, bringing down its academic performance score. That said, North Dakota dedicates impressive resources towards its 104,000 students. Its 11.8:1 student-to-teacher ratio (ranked 2nd on this list) and a respectable $13,320 spent per student leads to greater opportunities for personalized attention.

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13. Indiana

  • Overall education rank: 13th
  • Academic performance: 7th
  • Resource availability: 42nd
  • Graduation rate: 19th (86.8%)

Indiana boasts high academic results with fairly few resources. On the NAEP Grade 8 exams, Indiana students rank in the top 10 on both reading and math. The state only spends $9,687 per student and has a high student-to-teacher ratio of 18.1 (ranked 42 out of 51). Ninety-four percent of Indiana public schools are currently facing a teacher shortage, especially in math and special education, which contributes to this high ratio.

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12. Iowa

  • Overall education rank: 12th
  • Academic performance: 18th
  • Resource availability: 25th
  • Graduation rate: 1st (91.3%)

Iowa has the highest graduation rate on this list, as well as math and reading scores in the top quartile of this ranking. It’s important to note that Iowa does not require students to take an exit exam before graduating, unlike many other states, which likely boosts its graduation rate.

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11. Pennsylvania

  • Overall education rank: 11th
  • Academic performance: 15th
  • Resource availability: 12th
  • Graduation rate: 21st (86.1%)

Pennsylvania students rank highly on the list for NAEP Grade 8 scores in math (15th out of 51) and reading (8th out of 51). However, with recent legislation requiring exit exams in literature, algebra, and biology, the graduation rate in Pennsylvania is expected to decrease over the next few years. As with many other states on this list, persistent inequality exists due to the distribution of school funding. Pennsylvania regressively funds schools, which means that schools with a larger percentage of low-income students receive less money, despite being more likely to need additional resources.

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10. Wyoming

  • Overall education rank: 10th
  • Academic performance: 9th
  • Resource availability: 6th
  • Graduation rate: 39th (80%)

The smallest state by population, Wyoming ranks highly on academic performance as measured by NAEP test scores (6th in math and 11th in reading). The state benefits from a low student-to-teacher ratio of 12.4:1 and high per-student spending of $16,055, in part due to its small size. Wyoming’s graduation rate, however, ranks in the bottom quartile of this list.

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9. Minnesota

  • Overall education rank: 9th
  • Academic performance: 4th
  • Resource availability: 24th
  • Graduation rate: 35th (82.2%)

Minnesota students demonstrate fantastic academic performance (ranked 4th overall). Despite strong test scores and average resource availability, Minnesota ranks in the bottom 50% for graduation rate, bringing its overall rank down slightly.

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8. Wisconsin

  • Overall education rank: 8th
  • Academic performance: 12th
  • Resource availability: 22nd
  • Graduation rate: 10th (88.2%)

Wisconsin students performed well on the NAEP Grade 8 assessments in math (ranked 8th of 51) and reading (ranked 11th of 51). The state spends a healthy $11,375 per student and currently has more than 860,000 students in its public school system. The student-to-teacher ratio is 14.9:1, a number that has increased in recent years.

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7. Virginia

  • Overall education rank: 7th
  • Academic performance: 8th
  • Resource availability: 21st
  • Graduation rate: 20th (86.7%)

Virginia is the only Southern state on the top 25 list. For academic performance, Virginia students have done well in math (ranked 5th of 51) and reading (ranked 17th of 51). This achievement is not universal across the state though. High-poverty schools, defined as those in which at least 75% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, have less state funding, less experienced teachers, and fewer course options, especially in STEM fields. This disparity partially accounts for the lower overall graduation rate.

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6. Nebraska

  • Overall education rank: 6th
  • Academic performance: 11th
  • Resource availability: 14th
  • Graduation rate: 4th (89.3%)

Nebraska is the highest ranked state in public education outside of the Northeast. Nebraska students rank 8th by math scores and 11th by reading scores. Nebraska is also ranked 4th for its graduation rate of 89.3%.

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5. Connecticut

  • Overall education rank: 5th
  • Academic performance: 10th
  • Resource availability: 2nd
  • Graduation rate: 15th (87.4%)

Connecticut is the first of a series of Northeastern states to dominate the public education rankings. As a state with one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country, Connecticut funds high-quality academics as well as enrichment programs. Interestingly, eighth-grade students do significantly better in reading (ranked 4th of 51) than math (ranked 21st of 51) according to the NAEP scores. Like many states though, Connecticut is also facing large achievement gaps across different socioeconomic groups.

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4. Massachusetts

  • Overall education rank: 4th
  • Academic performance: 1st
  • Resource availability: 10th
  • Graduation rate: 14th (87.5%)

Nationally, Massachusetts has gained a positive reputation for its public school system. According to NAEP test scores, Massachusetts ranks #1 in math and reading. The state spends $15,592 per student (ranked 8th) and has a student-to-teacher ratio of 13.4 (ranked 12th). Since 1993, Massachusetts has allocated additional funds to low-income schools with the goal of closing the achievement gap, partly by investing in teaching training and retention.

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3. Vermont

  • Overall education rank: 3rd
  • Academic performance: 5th
  • Resource availability: 1st
  • Graduation rate: 11th (87.7%)

The second-smallest state by population, Vermont has the lowest student-to-teacher ratio in the country, at 10.5:1, and spends $18,039 per student, the sixth-highest amount in the U.S. Vermont students also perform well on math and reading tests, ranked 8th and 4th, respectively.

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2. New Hampshire

  • Overall education rank: 2nd
  • Academic performance: 2nd
  • Resource availability: 8th
  • Graduation rate: 9th (88.2%)

New Hampshire students perform exceptionally well on standardized tests, with their NAEP Grade 8 math scores ranked 3rd and NAEP Grade 8 reading scores ranked 2nd. New Hampshire spends $14,697 per student and has a student-to-teacher ratio of 12.4:1. Enrollment in public schools, however, has been steadily declining since 2006, which is prompting school mergers, closings, and the consolidation of educational resources.

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1. New Jersey

  • Overall education rank: 1st
  • Academic performance: 3rd
  • Resource availability: 3rd
  • Graduation rate: 2nd (90.1%)

New Jersey performs well across the board. It has high test scores in math and reading, high per-student spending ($18,235), and a low student-to-teacher ratio of 12.3:1. Together, these factors earn New Jersey the distinction of having the best public education in the U.S. The state’s high property taxes, at 2.4%, the highest in the nation, largely go towards funding public education and attracting experienced teachers and a variety of educational resources.

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Methodology & full results

The Overall education rank is a composite ranking based on the following data for public school students. The raw data used in this analysis is included in the table below.

Academic performance (60%):

Academic performance was assessed using the Institute of Education Sciences, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Math and Reading assessments for 8th grade students (2017). Scores are on a 0-500 scale. The national public average math and reading scores for grade 8 students in 2017 were 282 and 265 respectively.

Resource availability (20%):

Resource availability was assessed using student-to-teacher ratios and per student spending. Student-to-teacher ratios are from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Common Core of Data “Public Elementary/ Secondary School Universe Survey” (2015-2016). Per student spending is from the U.S. Census Bureau, “Annual Survey of School System Finances” (2015). The data used is for fiscal year 2015.

Graduation rate (20%):

High school graduation rates are from the U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts Data (2015-2016). The data used is the public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR).

which states have the best public education

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About Adam Weinberg

Adam Weinberg is the Brand Director for Haven Life, where he’s working hard to make life insurance easy. Adam is a creative problem solver who uses unique brand moments to create meaningful customer experiences.  Adam has more than a decade of diverse editorial, marketing, and branding experience, including work on several award-winning campaigns for various digital media companies.

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Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.

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