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The per-pupil spending myth

Third-grade teacher Glenda Adams works with her students at South Jordan Elementary School this week in South Jordan.
Third-grade teacher Glenda Adams works with her students at South Jordan Elementary School this week in South Jordan.
Deseret News

Once again, Utah has measured dead last in the nation in terms of per-pupil expenditures for public education. A Census Bureau report made that official this week.

And once again, any objective look at the state's school system would reveal that this is a worthless measure.

Oh, it makes for a nice bumper sticker or picket sign when the state Legislature meets. But there is no correlation between per-pupil expenditures and how well students are educated. Go down the list and compare state expenditures to student test scores. They just don't match up. Then consider this: When adjusted for inflation, the United States paid much more per pupil in 2006-07 (an average of $9,666) than it did in the 1961-62 school year ($2,670, according to the National Center for Education Statistics).

Even Utah, with its dead-last $5,683 in '06-07, is much higher than that figure. And yet by any measure students score lower on tests today than they did then, and they also compare less favorably with students from other industrialized nations. All that extra money hasn't added up to an ounce of improvement.

By similar measures, Utah's schools continue to produce students who perform at or higher than national averages. That's true with the ACT college admissions exam. Two-thirds of Utah students took this test last year, which is itself an impressive figure. It's also true for the SAT test.

However, the last time nationwide SAT scores were reported (in August of 2008), they were at the lowest levels nationally in nearly a decade. Utah clearly isn't hampered by its lower per-pupil expenditures when compared to other states, but it is producing kids who score above a national average that is dismal. The nation needs to quit fixating on expenditures and look at other ways to improve schools.

Which isn't to say money is a complete non-factor. This page has long argued in favor of higher teacher salaries and greater expenditures for schools whenever possible. Utah, however, is not likely to climb above last place in expenditures any time soon. For one thing, about a quarter of the state's residents are school-age children. For another, the state's tax burden already ranks 13th in the nation and is higher than in any other Western state except Washington and California. Given the current economy, huge spending increases are unlikely.

But it ought to be clear to any observer that spending more per pupil is not a magic bullet and that Utah's schools are dead last in only this category.