Opportunity to Learn: State Comparisons

The Opportunity to Learn gap, and the educational and economic effects of that gap, are highly concentrated, and over-represented, in a handful of states. California and New York each account for 15 percent of the nation’s nearly $60 billion annual economic burden attributable to Opportunity to Learn inequity. Texas accounts for an additional 12 percent. The next three states—Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania—account for 5 percent each. New York’s share of the economic effect of inequity is nearly three times its percentage of the national population.

Geographically, the interstate quality and access Opportunity to Learn disparities are vast. As the Figure 8 map indicates, with the exception of Virginia, the states where historically disadvantaged students have the most access to the nation’s best schools are in places where they are the least likely to be found in critical mass. As the map indicates, southern and southwestern states that have large Latino and Black populations have essentially lowered the bar for all students and relegated their students to subpar educational systems. On average, the best schools that these states offer fall short of national and international standards. Northeastern and Midwestern states are achieving higher results but have policies or practices which essentially limit access to those districts and schools capable of producing high results to those who are not part of a historically disadvantaged group. Furthermore, the map also reveals the existence of an “opportunity denied belt” that runs from Michigan, to Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, where the educational systems are subpar and disadvantaged students remain locked out of even their state’s subpar systems’ best schools.” Federal support, state action and community advocacy are needed to assist these states to address the policy, practice and resources challenges that are maintaining these geographic trends.

Opportunity to Learn: State Proficiency Comparisons

Figure 9 highlights the educational quality disparities among states as measured by the states’ student performance, at the proficient or above level, on the National Assessment for Education Progress 8th Grade Reading exam. As the data indicate, where a child is born definitely influences the child’s educational possibilities. Students in states like Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey are clearly out pacing students in the District of Columbia and states like New Mexico, Louisiana, and Mississippi. This chart tells the tale of a union divided and unequal. 



Opportunity to Learn: State Access Comparisons

Figure 10 combines the Opportunity to Learn probabilities for all disadvantaged groups for each state. We see that a student’s Opportunity to Learn is best in states with small minority populations (with the exception of Louisiana*) and worst in industrialized states with highly concentrated minority—predominately Black— populations.


The stark inequities and absence of real Opportunity to Learn in states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Ohio (states that are traditionally known as educationally strong) are particularly striking. While these states have rich resources intended to offer a world-class education to all students, resources are currently allocated in such a way as to deny students from historically disadvantaged groups the opportunities to learn that always have, and continue to be, extended to their White, non-Latino peers.

Native American Opportunity to Learn State Rankings

The Opportunity to Learn in a state’s best schools varies for Native Americans from nearly equal or better than that of White, non-Latino students in 10 states to just 25 percent or less in six states.


In general, those states offering Native American students the least Opportunity to Learn are those with the most Native American students. Oklahoma is a positive exception, offering slightly better Opportunity to Learn for Native American students than for White, non-Latino students, and the District of Columbia is a negative exception, where the few Native American students in that system have little Opportunity to Learn.

Black, non-Latino Opportunity to Learn State Rankings

Only a half a dozen states offer Black, non-Latino students an equal Opportunity to Learn in schools with good records of achievement and graduation, while most do not. Those where Black students have a good Opportunity to Learn are, with the exception of Louisiana, states where there are relatively few Black students and the quality of the schools quite high.


The states where Black students have the least chance of attending good schools include some, such as New York, with large numbers of Black students and generally good schools for others. Nearly all the states offering the lowest Opportunity to Learn for Black students are outside the South.

Latino Opportunity to Learn State Rankings

Ten states offer Latino students fairly good Opportunity to Learn in high performing schools. These states have comparatively few Latino students. For those states that have significant numbers of Latino students, the Opportunity to Learn is significantly lower.


States offering Latino students the least Opportunity to Learn include those where most schools have good educational outcomes, such as those in the Northeast, as well as some Midwestern and Southwestern states. The latter is particularly disturbing because so many of these states have large Latino populations.

Opportunity to Learn State Rankings for Low-Income Students

Compared to other historically disadvantaged groups, low-income students, or those eligible for free or reduced price lunch, have the best chance for an Opportunity to Learn, equal to that of White, non-Latino students. This is particularly true in those states where most low-income children are themselves White, non-Latinos. While these statistics offer general promise for low-income students, they further illustrate the growing opportunity disparity between White, non-Latino students and students of color.


The Opportunity to Learn gaps for low-income students are most prevalent in those states where the low-income population is comprised primarily of children who are Black or Latino. Those states with large low-income, White, non-Latino populations generally do a better job at addressing equity and opportunity issues.

* Louisiana’s population is disproportionately comprised of historically disadvantaged populations (low-income, Black, Latino, Native American). Louisiana’s situation is further complicated by the tradition of middle class students attending non-public schools and, possibly, by effects from the Katrina displacements. Therefore, although the top quartile of schools in Louisiana enroll approximately 20,000 Black students, 1,000 Hispanic students, 28,000 White, non-Hispanic students and 24,000 low-income students, this high degree of equity in access is off-set by the academic deficiencies of those schools themselves.

^ back to top