Niche.com Inc. is a Pittsburgh, Penn.-based company that evaluates and ranks K-12 schools, colleges, cities, and neighborhoods. It recently released a 2015 ranking of public schools and school districts in each state, as well as a national ranking of private and public schools and districts.
Niche researchers evaluated dozens of variables in eight categories and weighted each. Factors included academic performance (50 percent), health and safety (10 percent), student culture and diversity (10 percent), parent and student survey responses (10 percent), teachers (10 percent), resources and facilities (5 percent), extracurricular activities (2.5 percent), and sports and fitness (2.5 percent).
Obviously, the ranking reflects more than just test scores or graduation rates. The total school environment was taken into account.
After compiling the data and weighting each factor, Niche determined that Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools was the best school district in North Carolina. (Read this John Locke Foundation “Education Update” to find the full list.)
Unfortunately, Chapel Hill-Carrboro failed to land in the top 100 districts in the nation. In fact, no Chapel Hill-Carrboro high school made the list of the top 100 high schools in the nation. (Raleigh Charter High School (No. 52) was the only school in North Carolina to appear on Niche.s high school ranking.)
Chapel Hill-Carrboro is a well-funded district, but by no means does it spend the most per student. During the 2013-14 school year, Chapel Hill-Carrboro spent $10,872 per student on operating expenses, which was the 15th highest expenditure in North Carolina.
Compare that level of spending to the fifth-ranked district, Union County Schools. Union County’s per-student expenditure was far lower than the state average of $8,477. Union’s $7,611 expenditure ranked No. 112 of 115 districts in the state. That is a remarkable achievement.
On the other end of the spectrum is Northampton County Schools, which spent $11,886 per student last year. That was the fifth-highest expenditure in the state, but Northampton was the lowest-ranked district. A number of other districts occupy the lowest quartile of the Niche ranking and the highest quartile of per-pupil spending.
This is not to say that money does not matter. Funding is necessary, but not sufficient, to operate a successful school district. There are numerous other factors that play a role.
School culture, working conditions, parental involvement, and community support are essential. Unfortunately, those key factors are difficult to describe and quantify, and of course cannot be purchased in bulk from Office Max.
Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.