© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Union County offers a good life for children, NC data map shows

Map of Charlotte region counties
Layna Hong
Union County is the top-performing local county in North Carolina's new Roadmap of Need.

This story appeared first in Ann Doss Helms' weekly newsletter, which comes out each Monday. Sign up here to get it to your inbox first.

Public schools don’t work in a vacuum, so when the Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina mapped out what policymakers need to know about conditions for kids, researchers looked at an array of data points: Test scores and spending on public education, but also each county’s economy and physical and mental health conditions.

The resulting Roadmap of Need highlights swaths of the state with big challenges. One is a band of counties running along the state’s southern border, from Anson east to Columbus. Another is a cluster of rural counties east of Wake.

In the Charlotte region, Union County stands out as having unusually good conditions while spending relatively little on public education. Union’s overall ranking was third out of 100 (after Polk and Orange counties), but it had the state’s top ratings for economic development and educational outcomes. The former incorporates median household income, unemployment, housing costs and food insecurity. The latter is based on math, reading and ACT scores, along with graduation rates. Union County also ranked in the top 10 for physical and mental health.

The thing that knocked Union down a couple of notches is per-pupil spending. According to the report, Union was dead last for state spending ($6,523 per student) and 96th for federal money ($1,728). The county’s $2,524-per-pupil contribution ranked 29th.

County spending is the only financial item under the control of local officials — county commissioners, not school boards. By the Forum’s tally, per-pupil amounts ranged from $698 in eastern Wayne County to $6,537 in Orange County (Chapel Hill). The average was $2,459. Mecklenburg County, at $2,951, was the highest in the region. But North Carolina’s second-largest district fell well below per-pupil spending for Wake, the largest ($3,126) and Guilford, which is third ($3,230).

I’ve often noted that numbers don’t tell a full story; they just provide a framework for smarter questions and decisions. It’s no surprise that more affluent counties tend to have better educational outcomes, and Union County has been recognized locally and nationally for strong results. The state pumps considerable money into low-wealth counties, so it’s predictable to see relatively prosperous urban and suburban counties rank low on state spending. And, as the report notes, “county-wide indicators can mask the significant variation occurring within counties, particularly in our more populous urban areas.”

But it’s interesting to see what the report says about counties in our area:

  • Cabarrus County ranked eighth overall, boosted by a third-place rating on physical health. The county has relatively low rates of teen pregnancy and child fatalities, with good access to doctors and insurance coverage. And Cabarrus rated 10th out of 100 for economic development.
  • Lincoln County ranked 14th, falling just behind Union County for economic development. Like Union, it also ranked low on per-pupil spending and high on test scores and graduation.
  • Iredell County ranked 21st, with high ratings for economics and physical health and low per-pupil spending.
  • Mecklenburg County was number 32 on the list. It was 13th in the state for mental health, based on overdoses, suicides, juvenile detention admissions and student-counselor ratios. 
  • Catawba County ranked 39th, rating fairly high on economics and physical health.
  • Gaston County, at number 63, was the only county in the immediate Charlotte region falling into the bottom half of the list. Its best ranking was for physical health, where it was in the top third. All other measures were in the bottom half, including low per-pupil spending and an above-average teacher vacancy rate.

Sign up for our Education Newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.