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Guest opinion: Getting clear on Utah education outcomes and goals

Though ranking last may induce shame, the real issue is not how much we spend on schools. Rather, it’s how well the schools perform.

Gradee Montague and Mason Slicer listen as head teacher Sierra Westwood gives them instructions as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson sits in during a stop at her old elementary school in tiny Antimony, Utah, on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 20
Gradee Montague and Mason Slicer listen as head teacher Sierra Westwood gives them instructions as State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson sits in during a stop at her old elementary school in tiny Antimony, Utah, on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When the question of K-12 spending comes up in public policy circles, someone is bound to mention: “We spend the least per student in the nation.”

Though ranking last may induce shame, the real issue is not how much we spend on schools. Rather, it’s how well the schools perform.

Utah Foundation launched a series of reports on K-12 spending nearly two years ago, exploring issues ranging from funding for students at risk of academic failure to teacher compensation. We learned a lot along the way, which has already helped to inform public policy decisions.

Most recently, we went to the core issue: looking at the return on our K-12 investments. The full analysis is in our new report, “Making the Grade? K-12 Outcomes and Spending in Utah.”

Before getting to the findings, take a moment to appreciate that we do have lean school systems here in Utah. Some of the factors driving down spending are large districts, the second lowest per-pupil administrative costs in the nation and, for better or worse, nearly the largest class sizes in the nation. So while we spend the least on K-12 operations per pupil, we also have a relatively efficient collection of districts.

Well, how are those districts doing? As it turns out, Utah’s educators and students are performing admirably despite low spending levels. Utah compares well both nationally and with its neighboring Mountain States on national assessments and graduation rates. And Utah is improving, both on its statewide annual assessments and on national tests. Furthermore, Utah’s students compare very well on ACT scores, ranking third among the 19 states that deploy the test heavily.

Does spending make a difference? At least in broad strokes, apparently so. As a group, the states that spend the most on K-12 education outperform other states. However, it is impossible to draw a straight line from higher spending to higher rankings. Utah itself proves this point: The Beehive State fares better on multiple measures than the highest-spending states collectively, even though it spends less per student than any state. And the differences in spending are not marginal. Utah spends less than half of what many of those states spend per student.

But in some cases, it may be a matter of comparing apples and oranges. Utah’s K-12 population differs from those of other states. For instance, we have a lower proportion of at-risk populations than other states. It can be argued, therefore, that national and Mountain State comparisons don’t say much.

To move past that problem, Utah Foundation identified three “peer” states that are closest to Utah when it comes to five demographic and socioeconomic measurements: race and ethnicity, English learners, childhood poverty, two-parent households and parental educational attainment.

Interestingly, however, Utah performs respectably among the three peers — Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota — even though it is spending far less per student than any of them.

With that said, there is certainly a point at which funding becomes decisive. While it is not necessary to spend $20,000 per pupil to reach acceptable outcomes, $2,000 per pupil would be inadequate. And Utah’s position as the lowest spender in the nation does raise an important question: Are we leaving significant improvements in outcomes untapped due to insufficient resources?

Ultimately, Utahns must determine the standard to which they aspire for public education and to what extent additional resources are needed to reach that goal.

Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the report, “Making the Grade?,” at utahfoundation.org.