RALEIGH – If North Carolina were a country, our level of taxpayer funding for education would be near the top – but the performance of our public schools would be mediocre, at best.

These are among the findings of a new study by the John Locke Foundation’s education analyst, Dr. Terry Stoops. He looked at spending, student-assignment policies, test scores, and other data for North Carolina as well as for our chief European and Asian competitors.

While many North Carolina politicians proclaim their desire for a “world-class” education system, they spend most of their time comparing North Carolina schools to those of other states. In reality, most American states are similar in their education policies. Rather than hyping the relatively small differences that exist across the country, it makes more sense to look at the wider variations in education policy across the developed world.

For his new study, Stoops pulled together the most recent data from a variety of sources. On school spending, the latest international data are from 2008. North Carolina spent about $9,000 per elementary-school student that year in federal, state, local, and capital funds, and about $11,000 per high-school student. Only a handful of countries spent more. The vast majority of developed countries spent less – much less.

Japan, for example, spent about 20 percent less than North Carolina did on both elementary and secondary education. The Netherlands also spent about 20 percent less on elementary education, but only slightly less at the high-school level.

As it happens, both Japanese and Dutch students outperformed North Carolina students in the most recent international assessments of math and reading skills. Other countries with lower educational costs and higher educational performance than North Carolina include Korea, Finland, Canada, Australia, Germany, and France.

But that was three school years ago, some North Carolina liberals might respond. Haven’t recent cuts to school budgets changed this picture dramatically?

No. For one thing, cash-strapped states across the developed world have had to clamp down on government spending. North Carolina’s inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending number might well be a bit lower today than in 2008, but so would the comparable figures from most other countries. (This is the kind of error that leads liberal politicians and activists to claim that North Carolina’s education spending ranks 49th in the country, a fictitious claim for which they have no evidence except for the assertion of a teacher union.)

For another thing, to quibble over rankings from 2008 vs. 2011 is to miss the real point: The level of taxpayer funding does not determine the level of educational performance. Many countries have vastly more high-performing students despite the fact that they spend vastly less tax money on their school systems.

Why? There are dozens of differences across these countries, not just in educational policy but also in economic and social conditions. Still, I think there are two policy factors that stand out.

Some high-performing countries make extensive use of performance pay as a tool to identify and retain the best teachers. The Netherlands does, for example. North Carolina doesn’t.

And many high-performing countries use tools such as vouchers, tax credits, and charter-like public schools to encourage innovation, parental choice, and competition. Most Dutch and Belgian students attend charter or private schools, for example, as do about 45 percent of Korean and English high-school students, about 30 percent of Australian, New Zealander, and French high-school students, and about 20 percent of high-school students across the developed world as a whole.

In North Carolina, however, the share of students outside of district-run public schools is 13 percent. At the high school level, the figure is below 10 percent.

None of this is to suggest that North Carolina schools are horrendous by international standards. North Carolina really did make substantial progress in educational performance during the 1980s and early 1990s, in part because of policies supported by both major parties.

But North Carolina simply went from abysmal to mediocre. Since the late 1990s, progress has slowed to a crawl. The problem hasn’t been a lack of resources. It’s been a lack of will to challenge entrenched interests. Time for that to end.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.