That ranking comes from the Center for Business and Economics Research. And, yeah, it sounds bad. But considering that North Carolina was ranked 43rd in 1990, that's actually a serious improvement.
Though, after the Great Recession's finished doing its work on budgets at all levels of education, from all funding sources, let's see if we can keep up that pace of improvement.
From Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education (MECK Ed):
N.C. and Kentucky Make Academic Strides. According to a report by the University of Kentuckys Center for Business and Economics Research, only two states that were in the bottom 10 education rankings in 1990 have had double-digit growth; they are Kentucky and North Carolina. In 1990, Kentucky was ranked 48th and North Carolina was ranked 43rd based on NAEP scores, the only true nationally-normed tests for math and reading. In 2009, Kentucky ranked 33rd (an increase of 15) and North Carolina ranked 32nd (an increase of 11). Aside from all the rhetoric and political posturing about public schools not showing stark improvement, the data in Kentucky and North Carolina tells a very different story!
Read the Center for Business and Economic Research's briefing here.