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Does perception match reality in education spending?

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 70 percent of Utahns think the state spends too little on education, but half say they're either unwilling to pay for more education funding or unsure if they would, according to a recent survey from Envision Utah.

Jason Brown, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization, said the results reflect a "lack of trust that doesn't need to be there" in how funding will be spent.

That's because Utah residents who were surveyed by the group seemed to think schools are spending more on administration than they should and were not confident that new funding would actually improve educational outcomes, according to Envision Utah.

That perception doesn't match up with reality, Brown said, noting that administrative costs in Utah are among the lowest in the nation.

"Essentially, they think there's money in administration, where it shouldn't be," he said.

But "it looks like we can trust that money is being spent where we want it to be — on helping students gain knowledge and skills," Brown added.

The Envision Utah results, conducted by Virginia-based firm Heart+Mind Strategies, showed more uncertainty than a poll in July that showed 35 percent of Utah voters oppose or are unsure about a personal and corporate flat-rate income tax hike of seven-eighths of a percent to fund public education.

The 0.875 percent tax increase was proposed by Education First, a coalition of Utah business executives.

Democratic candidate for governor Mike Weinholtz said he supports the proposal. His opponent, Gov. Gary Herbert, warned against the “Eastern liberal mentality” of tax increases, although he stopped short of promising he would not increase taxes if he is re-elected.

Many Utahns seem to be unsure if spending money would actually improve educational outcomes, according to the Envision Utah survey.

Just 18 percent of respondents in the survey said they are "extremely confident" or "very confident" the funding would improve outcomes, whereas 14 percent said they were "not at all confident" it would.

Most Utahns were somewhere in the middle.

And nearly half of Utahns expressed some doubt that it's even possible to know what strategies will work.

Thirty-seven percent said they neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement: "It is possible to know what actions will improve education."

"There's been a lot of debate about a lot of different strategies out in the media, and I think the public is just confused," said Envision Utah CEO Ari Bruening.

However, Bruening pointed out that when asked about specific strategies, Utahns responded positively.

More than two-thirds of respondents said policies like strengthening family influence on students, supporting teachers and ensuring early learning likely would have an impact on educational outcomes.

But many still think there's extra money in the system, according to Bruening.

Asked to guess how much schools are spending on certain kinds of costs, Utahns estimated that more than a quarter of education spending is going toward administrative costs.

Yet Utah continues to spend less per student on administrative costs than almost any other state in the U.S. — an average of $63 per student compared with the national average of $202 per student, according to Envision Utah.

Only Hawaii spends less per student on administrative costs.

In reality, administrative costs make up a small portion of school district budgets, according to Granite School District budget director Mitch Robinson, who said he often has to correct the misperception at budget hearings and public meetings.

Robinson said school administration costs take up about 6 percent of the yearly district budget. Business functions — including accounting, payroll and human resources — consumes another 2 percent, whereas district administration makes up less than 1 percent, he said.

Teacher salaries and benefits make up the lion's share — 48 percent — of the district's annual budget, according to Robinson.

That's even more than survey respondents said they wanted. Asked how much they would like to allocate toward teachers, Utahns settled around 33 percent. Most thought teachers received just one-fourth of the education spending.

Robinson said other Utah school district budgets likely look similar to Granite's.

If the district were to receive additional funding, he said, the first priority would be to fix the teacher shortage.

"That's probably our biggest need right now, is maintaining a competitive salary so that we can have teachers in the classroom," Robinson said.

The Envision Utah survey was conducted first among three focus groups — one with a general population, one with minority residents and one with Spanish-speaking residents — and then expanded to an online survey with a little more than 1,000 people.

Margins of error were not available.


Twitter: DaphneChen_