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Utah's Not Last In The Country For Per-Pupil Spending Anymore, But Funding Still Isn't Making The Grade

A photo of a first grade glassworks with dividers at each of the students desks.
Courtesy of Randy Miller
Utah beat out Idaho in per-student for fiscal year 2019, finally lifting itself out of last place.

Utah is no longer last in the country in per-student funding, according to the latest census data on public education funding. The state spent $8,014 per student for fiscal year 2019, barely nudging past its long-running rival Idaho. The national average was $13,197.

Since the data lags two years behind, it does not account for the significant increase in education funding lawmakers passed earlier this year. That could have a further positive impact on the state’s ranking, said Matthew Weinstein, fiscal policy director of the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children. But it’s also not likely to push the state’s trajectory out of the bottom ten nationally.

2019’s numbers also show, however, the state has gotten worse in it’s funding effort compared to previous years — that is, how much money the state spends on education relative to personal income.

In the 1990s, Utah ranked in the top ten nationally for funding effort, according to census data compiled by Voices for Utah Children. About 6% of Utahns’ income went to public education. Now, only 3.9% of income goes to education.

“I think [of it] as: is the current generation of Utahns doing our part, as earlier generations did, to invest in our children?” Weinstein said. “Our incomes now are higher by any measure adjusted for inflation than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And yet we're putting in a lower percentage of our incomes into educating our children than our parents and grandparents were.”

A graph.
Voices for Utah Children
Utah had the 7th highest education funding effort in 1996 — not including capital expenses — but has since fallen to 41st in the country.

Funding is far from a complete measure of the state’s education system. Shawn Teigen, research director of the nonpartisan Utah Foundation, said looking at student outcomes is more important.

Utah, overall, is about average nationally when it comes to things like meeting expected reading and math levels, ACT scores and high school graduation rates. Given it’s low funding level, that suggests the state does more with less, Teigen said.

But rather than compare Utah to other states, he said a better strategy is to look at the gaps between students within the state. The gap between students within Utah are significant — like graduation rates for white and Asian students compared to Latino, Pacific Islander and Black students.

Teigen said the state should be focused on closing those gaps. That’s where funding can play a role, providing more resources for things like after-school tutoring and small-group classes.

“If you want to compare yourself to other states and you want to actually do something about it, let's help out the people that have the most chance at increasing,” he said. “A lot of those kids are from lower-income households. A lot of them are learning English. And if we can ramp up their education progress and catch them up a little bit with their peers in school, we could see some serious gains.”

Part of the problem, Weinstein said, is that Utah has cut state income taxes by about $100 million each year over the last 25 years, adding up to about $2.5 billion. That’s money that could’ve gone to public education, paying teachers more and reducing class sizes.

He said cutting taxes is often seen as a lure for businesses to the state, but now that Utah’s economy is ranked top in the nation, he said perhaps it’s time for a shift in strategy. An educated workforce is often just as important to attracting businesses as low tax rates.

“Is what we did 10, 20, 30 years ago with cutting taxes the way to take Utah to the next level?” Weinstein said. “Or do we need to be restoring some revenues now that we've grown Silicon Slopes, we've gotten on the radar for people and big corporations all over the country. Now, do we need to make the investments in education, both high school and higher educational attainment, so that we can take Utah to the next level?”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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