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Virtue and vice: What to make of Utah's lowest-in-nation per-pupil funding rank

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's decades-old ranking of having the lowest per-pupil spending rates in the country is not going away anytime soon.

Last week, a U.S. Census Bureau report showed the state in 2013 spent $6,555 on each student, almost a third of what other states spent on their pupils.

Even catching up to the national average of $10,700 per student would take an infusion of $2.35 billion in new revenue for Utah, more than 50 percent of the state's current budget for public education, according to Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson, chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

"That means we would more than double Utah's individual income tax, or almost double the total property tax from all taxing entities, including schools, counties, cities and towns," Stephenson said.

That reality now has educators and lawmakers questioning how much merit the per-pupil spending rankings deserve, and how much sway they should have on education policy.

The metric raises other questions: Where does Utah go from here? Should attention to per-pupil spending be abandoned? What will it take to improve the performance of a rapidly growing student population?

"I think everybody, no matter what side they're on in this argument, would agree that it's more important to focus on how the money is spent than how much is being spent," Stephenson said. "And that's where Utah is doing a better job than most other states."

Where the money goes

New York, Alaska and Washington, D.C., topped 2013's list of per-pupil funding levels, each devoting more than $17,000 to individual students. But higher spending doesn't necessarily mean higher academic performance.

Fourth-grade reading scores for that year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered in every state, showed Alaska and Washington, D.C., behind Utah, and New York only one point ahead.

Part of the difference boils down to administrative and capital costs, according to Stephenson. Utah has 41 school districts and an average of 13,500 students per district. Other states are much the reverse, such as Texas, which has more than 1,200 school districts with an average of 4,700 students each.

The result is more money being spent on overhead and maintaining buildings, and less on classroom instruction, Stephenson said.

Of Utah's per-pupil amount in 2013, 64 percent went directly to the classroom, compared to the national average of 61 percent, according to the Census report. Only 6.8 percent of the money was used for school and district administration, compared to 7.4 percent nationally.

"There's just a huge difference in comparing us with other states," Stephenson said. "What we find, the more you spend on administration, the less you have available for lower class sizes and a higher instructional focus."

Utah's academic performance hangs near the middle of the pack, despite being 51st in per-pupil expenditure. For that reason, many see the per-pupil rankings as an excessively gloomy outlook and not the metric to focus on.

"There is no virtue in rising higher on that list, and there is no particular vice in being low on it," Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said at a Utah Taxpayers Association conference earlier this month. "It's simply a measure of input variables, and that's all."

While the state does achieve with less what other states do with more, the ability for teachers to move their students further up the ladder of success still depends largely on new resources, according to Tami Pyfer, education adviser for Gov. Gary Herbert.

"To me, it's frustrating when you say, 'Our outcomes are not what they should be, but let's not talk about the resources. Let's not talk anything about inputs. Let's just talk about outcomes,'" Pyfer said. "If you're going to improve the outcomes, you need to look at everything."

This year, the Legislature appropriated $512 million in new money for education, including a 4 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit and a $75 million property tax increase for equalization, which brings schools in areas where the tax revenue is less up to the same basic funding level as other schools.

During the past four years, Utah has increased its education budget by $1.3 billion in new money, according to Pyfer. During that same period, however, an additional 34,408 students have entered public education. And the projected growth rate is almost 8,000 new students each year statewide.

Stephenson said it's still unclear how this year's appropriation will affect Utah's national rank in per-pupil spending.

Some of the money has gone toward hiring and keeping quality teachers. This includes bonuses and differential pay for math, science and special education teachers, which are in short supply. The Legislature and the State School Board are also hoping to pilot a program that would allow teachers to earn more money by teaching year-round.

"We clearly are trying to invest more and more as we can," Pyfer said.

Driving innovation

Even when additional resources are slim, many teachers have found innovative ways to further student success, Pyfer said.

"Look at the incredible improvements we've had in graduation rates. That is an outcome we should be looking at," she said. "Now the question is, could we improve faster? Could we raise that even higher if we were to target increased investments in certain areas? Sure, I believe that we could. But I think we're doing really well given the investment that we're making."

McKell Withers, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, said there are "blind spots" where improvement can be made without additional resources. But most often, he said, it takes an investment beyond what creativity alone can produce.

"The teachers are awesome because they will do the best they can with what they have," Withers said. "It's appropriate to look at both outcomes and investments and not be shy. When your outcomes need a little bit of support, you've got to increase your investments."

Technology is one investment lawmakers have been eyeing for years. During this year's legislative session, legislators debated a bill that would have made $75 million available to train teachers and provide each student with a hand-held electronic device.

Lawmakers ultimately turned down the initiative, but a state-commissioned study is underway to assess each school's technology needs and how such a program would be implemented.

While educators agree that the use of technology and various other state programs present opportunities for innovation, there's much educators can learn from what is already being done in some Utah schools, according to Pyfer.

"The innovation is not going to come from the top down. The innovation's not going to come from here at the Capitol. That innovation's going to come from local schools, local charters, developing programs unique to their district and to their school," she said. "We need to stop dictating what we think that innovation should be, and let them show us what they can do."

Educators are anticipating the second year of data from Utah's year-end assessment, known as SAGE, will strengthen baseline data to show academic trends in the years to come. State leaders hope that data will show what education investments are worth making and where innovation is working.

Meantime, data concerning Utah's per-pupil spending compared to other states remain largely unchanged. So is it time to retire the metric and look entirely inward, or is the ranking worth consideration each year?

"It's worth keeping around if we keep it in perspective as one data point, if we keep it in perspective as to what's happening in other states that have inefficiencies in their population distribution among schools," Stephenson said. "I believe that few people even know of those distinctions."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen