Better 'n You! A Few Reasons Why We Should Stop Citing State Rankings

State rankings are kind of like ethnic slurs. We can use them as punchlines of jokes about being grateful for Mississippi, and as motivating tools to talk about ourselves. But when someone else uses them, it can rankle.

That was the case last week when AlterNet and then Salon posted an article by Les Leopold, widely distributed here, about Tennessee's political, educational, and economic health. Headlined "The Southern State Fast Becoming Ayn Rand's Vision of Paradise" was, more or less, an exercise in statistical blurtage that made Tennessee sound like it's slouching toward third-world status.

Emphasizing rankings is a simplistic way to look at things, for more than a couple of reasons. To say a state's #45 in teacher salaries, or #48 in school revenues per student, implies nothing about how close it is, proportionally, to other states. Yes, Tennessee's currently lowest in state revenue, per capita, as Leopold says, but that's just $14 a year below the next lowest, Arizona.

And the figures he cites about teacher salaries don't factor in Tennessee's cost of living, which makes salary comparisons seem less dramatic. By a recent CNBC ranking, Tennessee is #2, nationwide, for its low cost of living (behind Oklahoma). That factor's so different, city to city, state to state, that comparing dollar figures is like comparing apples to raisins. Money spent in Tennessee can seem much less than it is, when viewed from other states, and can go farther than outsiders assume.

For the record, I favor boosting teacher salaries--even if, by the execrably low salary figures Leopold links to, the average Tennessee teacher makes more than I do. I'm not complaining. I do think it's important to recruit good teachers.

If cost of living is low, as it indeed is in Tennessee, of course revenues are low, comparatively, dollar to dollar.

We pay less for everything, including our legislators.

Without discussing sources, Leopold links to a 2011 National Education Association study—but he ignores some other data from that document that don't support his assumptions. The same NEA document lists Tennessee as #17 in the nation in total number of high-school grads (about what you'd expect, considering that Tennessee is #17 in total population). The same document says Tennessee is #3, nationally, in improvement in high-school graduates per capita between 2000 and 2010.

Leopold says we're 48th in school revenues per student. He implies Tennessee's "failure to invest in education" is to blame for America's "40th worst poverty rate" (perhaps he didn't mean to phrase it that way; wouldn't 40th worst be 11th best?). But which came first? Better education would surely help. But before we jump to conclusions about causation, Tennessee had a high poverty rate even before taxpayer-funded public education was universally available in any state.

Polls differ, and according to the U.S. Census, Tennessee's #41 in terms of population 25 and older with a high-school degree, but, again, looking at rankings is misleading. The difference between Tennessee, where 83.1 percent of citizens 25 and older have a high-school diploma, and America in general, where 85.3 percent have a high-school diploma, is just 2.2 percent. Something to work on, but not something any American can ridicule from a safe distance. We are, for the record, ahead of California and Texas in that regard.

In some testing-based educational assessments, Tennessee does pretty well. A 2011 Science and Engineering Readiness Index listing, based heavily on test scores in math and science, puts Tennessee at #23—just ahead of Ohio and way above California (#34), North Carolina (#36)—again, to be fair, by small margins of scores.

On Education Week's recently released "Quality Counts" survey, Tennessee is #22 of 51 (including D.C.), with a score slightly above the U.S. average. It singled out Tennessee, with six other states, with an A for progress.

Leopold's superficial methodology annoyed me—even though I might agree with most of his conclusions. We should invest more in our state, and in public education, than we're in the habit of doing. For most of my life I've been watching our best and brightest get skimmed away to the quality schools and high-tech jobs of better-funded states like North Carolina and Georgia. But exaggerating our plight in a national forum is only likely to discourage us and potential investors, and might even make things worse.

***

We found the purpose of Mr. Leopold's cherry-picked anti-Tennessee diatribe toward the end of his essay. He was using the broad brush of Tennessee's perceived inanity mainly to tar our most infamous legislator, Mr. Stacey Campfield. Who, I do wish, could find something besides "Knoxville" to put in parentheses by his name. It might make an interesting project for the Knoxville Chamber to see if they can measure his economic damage to the city, in bad press.

He may well live here when he's not clowning around in Nashville, but if you look at his district's election returns, it's not clear Campfield could get elected dogcatcher in Knoxville proper, unless it was to get him out of the state Senate. Campfield's strength is in the perplexed suburbs beyond—Halls, Karns, Ball Camp, Dante, even Farragut.

There's another thing you'll notice when you look at the returns. He was elected by only 22,000 votes, in a state senatorial district that ostensibly includes almost 200,000 residents. In 2010, he was very effective at mobilizing Campfield true believers. His opponents may enjoy leisure hours guffawing at Campfield antics, and link his wacky, wacky videos that circulate on Facebook. But in 2010, they weren't nearly as organized or as passionate as he was.

You have to admit you know plenty of people every bit as zany as Stacey Campfield. You laugh at their jokes, quote them, sometimes even buy them a beer. I've known plenty of people who are as fond of logical acrobatics and grandstanding statements as he is. Usually, we don't elect them to public office. It's ultimately our responsibility that Campfield is there, mooning America from his "(R-Knoxville)" perch.

He has his bully pulpit thanks to our midterm-election apathy. Maybe every community gets the state senator it deserves.