Politics Columns & Blogs

Christensen: NC, you get a D — but you show improvement

We like to assign grades to our public schools as a means of making them more accountable. If the schools get a low grade, we sometimes blame the teachers or the principal.

But is there a way to hold our state leaders accountable for the state of our state?

Politico, a Washington-based online political publication, for the second year in a row has attempted to measure the 50 states and the District of Columbia by looking at 14 objective rankings, covering such areas as jobs, education and health.

The exercise was inspired by a magazine series published by H.L. Mencken in 1931 called “The Worst American State.” In 1931 it was Mississippi. It turns out that in 2016, it is still Mississippi.

The best, according to the Politico survey, is a tie between Minnesota and New Hampshire.

North Carolina is ranked a mediocre 37th, a legacy of its history of rural poverty. But that is an improvement from Mencken’s 1931 article, in which North Carolina was No. 43.

Although North Carolina’s ranking is nothing to brag about, it is the third best in the South behind Virginia (18) and Texas (35).

If you are looking for comparisons, North Carolina is sandwiched just behind Arizona and just ahead of Florida.

In two areas North Carolina is ranked above the national average – average math test scores (tied for 21st) and the percentage employed in computers, engineering and science (also 21st).

North Carolina is average on unemployment (26th) and in the rate of violent crime per 100,000 people (28th).

In most areas involving economic well-being, North Carolina trails a majority of the country — including annual per capita income (37th), the percentage of people below the poverty line (38th) and home ownership (35th).

The state also lags in most health factors, such as life expectancy at birth (38th), infant deaths at birth (36th), percentage who are obese (32nd) and an overall well-being rating score (33rd).

In some education areas, the state also trails: reading scores (34th) and high school graduation rates (38th).

Politico took the figures from the U.S. census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Measure of America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gallup, the National Center for Education Statistics and the FBI.

The good news is that North Carolina improved from 39th last year to 37th this year, largely because the unemployment rate has declined, and to a lesser degree because our statistics on math scores and obesity have improved compared with other states.

If we were grading on a curve, we might award our public officials a D but note that they have shown improvement. (That’s based on a format where the top 10 states get an A, the next 10 a B, and so on.)

But such a grade would be unfair because it would not take into account deep-seated social and economic problems that go back generations and cannot be fixed overnight.

That, by the way, is what teachers and principals say when people grade their schools.

So you can look at these ratings in both positive and negative lights.

North Carolina still offers its citizens one of the highest qualities of life in the South. It beats our neighbors, except Virginia, in virtually every economic, education and health category.

But still, trailing the rest of the country, this is no time for us to be complacent.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, @oldpolhack