SALT LAKE CITY — Utah continues to spend the least per student of any state in the country, with a 2013 per-pupil amount more than $4,100 below the national average, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released Tuesday.
Utah's per-pupil spending amount that year was $6,555, compared with a national average of $10,700. The state, however, is closing the gap between its nearest competitor, Idaho, which was the only other state in 2013 to have per-pupil funding levels less than $7,000.
But gaining ground financially for Utah schools continues to be slow, partly because students represent a share of Utah's population greater than most states, according to Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education.
Census estimates released last month also show Utah also has a five-year population growth rate that ranks fourth in the country.
"We've got a systemic issue that isn't going away anytime soon," Peterson said. "We've been last in per-pupil funding since sometime in the 1980s. In that sense, it's nothing new. On the plus side, we really are putting forth an effort to move us away from that."
Tuesday's report also shows Utah's funding effort toward education is low relative to other states. For every $1,000 in personal income, $40.47 went toward public education, compared with a national average of $42.88, earning Utah a rank of 35th in the country in 2013.
This coincides with a Utah Foundation report released early this year, showing Utah's tax burden in 2012 at a 20-year low. Currently, all funds from Utah's income tax are devoted to education, as well as more than half of its property tax revenues.
The census report does, however, show some positive trends for the state. Between 2012 and 2013, Utah increased its per-pupil amounts by 5.6 percent — more than any other state and well above the national average increase of 0.9 percent.
Of the amount Utah spent per student in 2013, 64 percent went directly to the classroom, compared with 61 percent nationally. Only 6.8 percent of the funds went to school and district administration, compared with a national average of 7.4 percent, the report states.
"We're spending our money productively," Peterson said. "The reality for public schools is we have this amount of money to work with. Heck yes, we could use more, but what we've got, we're going to make the best use of it."
Educators are also hopeful money for students will increase as the state's dependency ratio declines in the coming years. Population projections show youths will come to represent a smaller portion of Utahns, producing more working people per child to contribute tax dollars to education, according to Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economics and Business Research.
In 2013, New York had the highest per-pupil spending amount of $19,818, trailed by Alaska at $18,175 and Washington, D.C., at $17,953. The total amount spent on public schools in the U.S. was $596.3 billion, up 0.5 percent from 2012.
Utah's spot at the bottom of the list frequently brings the criticism of lawmakers and educators, even though Utah's funding distribution model, the weighted pupil unit, is often hailed as one of the most equitable formulas for funding schools.
That conversation was echoed at a recent conference hosted by the Utah Taxpayers Association. But Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said the "same old tired statistic" of Utah's per-pupil funding rank contributes little to an effective dialogue on student performance.
"There is no virtue in rising higher on that list, and there is no particular vice in being low on it. It's simply a measure of input variables, and that's all," Smith said at the gathering last week. "The critical shift that we must see in education is an emphasis on output variables. If we're 51st in the nation, so be it in funding. It's being 27th in the nation in student performance that concerns me, because we can be so much better."
But it could take more funding to get there. This year, the Utah State Board of Education requested $10 million from the Legislature for intensive special education programs, but the request was denied. Among other initiatives, the board also sought $5 million for principal development, and the Legislature met only about 10 percent of the request, according to Peterson.
But lawmakers in other ways headed initiatives to increase ongoing funding for education. A bill to increase the income tax rate by 1 percent, later amended to 0.5 percent, failed to pass out of committee. But the Legislature approved a $75 million increase to the property tax, recapturing money lost to inflation to improve funding equity among schools.
In all, the Legislature approved an increase of $512 million for education, including a 4 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit, both welcome increases, according to David Crandall, chairman of the State School Board.
"Looking back on this last legislative session, we're appreciative for what the Legislature was able to do, and now the responsibility, I think, is on us as a public education system to show what difference that additional funding actually can make for students," Crandall said.
Educators are hoping that difference will become visible as data from SAGE, Utah's year-end assessment, continue to accumulate. Utah's performance on national tests, such as the ACT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, will also provide clues as to whether changes to Utah's funding model lead to better student outcomes.
"Our attention should be on what the outcomes are and where we rank and what we can do to improve on that list, without paying attention to where we end up on the funding list. Let that fall where it may," Crandall said. "It's likely that improving student outcomes will require additional funding over the years. But that shouldn't be our focus."
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