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Money not the best measure

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It is not a proud fact that per-pupil expenditure on education in Utah is the lowest in the nation. For the foreseeable future, there is no reason to believe the numbers will change. Utahns have the ninth highest income tax burden in the nation, and about one-fourth of the state's 2 million people are public school students.

In the public policy arena, much is made of Utah's cellar dwelling per-pupil expenditure. As much as most Utahns want smaller class sizes, more school counselors and sufficient compensation for teachers so more young people will consider teaching as a career, the more important issue is educational outcomes. By many measures, Utah's lean, mean education machine is remarkably efficient.

Utah students, on average, score above the national average on the American College Test, have a higher pass rate on the Advanced Placement tests and score above the 50th percentile (the national median) on the Stanford Achievement Test.

Utah's academic success stems from dedicated teachers and parents who have high expectations of their children and actively volunteer in public schools. Another factor is Utah's relatively low poverty rate. This does not suggest that poor children are doomed to poor academic achievement, but they are more vulnerable to factors that impact learning such as hunger, sub-standard housing or frequent moves.

It is doubtful that Utah's per-pupil expenditure rating can improve. It would take $300 million to move the state to 49th place in the rankings. Considering the sizable enrollment growth anticipated in the next decade, Utah will be hard-pressed to fund the basic school program, let alone make any substantial improvement in per-student funding.

But Utah can continue to seek strategies to make the most of its precious education dollars. Many schools have had great success with "schools within a school" strategies. Students who aren't reading at grade level by third grade will struggle later in their school experience. Lower class sizes in elementary school must continue to be a priority.

There are many measures of Utah's public education experience. Utah's story is that high per-pupil spending isn't the magic bullet. But the state's accomplishments should not be taken for granted, nor should its achievement, in spite of low per-student funding, be an excuse not to make education a priority in Utah.