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Are States with Better Educated Legislatures Better Governed?

That depends on how you define “better governed.” If, for simplicity’s sake, you measure the quality of governance by fiscal solvency (or more aptly the lack thereof), then the answer appears to be no. Of course, these are strange times; forty-two states have a combined fiscal deficit of more than $100 billion, so maybe the data’s a bit skewed. Still, comparing a Chronicle of Higher Education report on the collective education level of each state’s legislature, to’s list of state budget deficits from March seems worthwhile. And the results don’t exactly make the case for education being a good predictor of fiscal competence.
The graph below plots the education of state legislatures on the x-axis, defined as the percentage of members with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the fiscal budget deficit as a percentage of 2011 spending on the y. California has the most educated legislature in the country, with 89.9% of members having bachelor’s degrees or higher. They’re also looking down the barrel of a $25.4 billion budget deficit, tops in the country. On a per-spending basis though, California’s budget deficit slips to fourth, behind Nevada, New Jersey and Texas.

(If the graph doesn’t work for you, click the interact button, then click the top bar, “State Budget and Education Level Freakonomics Chart.” On the Many Eyes page, then click the “full image” icon.)
Of the five states with the highest education levels, only Virginia and Nebraska fall out of the top ten for budget deficits.Virginia ranks second for education level, but falls all the way to 20th on the budget deficit scale. Nebraska scores even better, with the third highest education level and 29th worst budget deficit. Meanwhile, states that aren’t in the red, (North Dakota,Wyoming, Montana), have bachelor degree levels that hover somewhere in the 60% area. We are by no means presuming causality between low education and balanced budgets, or for that matter, that education causes legislators to run big deficits. There’s far too much that goes into a state’s fiscal equation. So, read into this what you will. But we thought it made for a fun comparison.