Utah is no longer last in education spending per student. But what does that really mean?

Put on your fancy clothes. Grab your top hat. It’s time to party. Maybe this should be declared a state holiday.

For the first time in at least two decades, Utah no longer ranks dead last in per pupil spending for public education. The new last-place loser? Idaho. 

Sure, it’s a difference of only a few bucks per student (Utah spend $8,014, and Idaho $7,985), and yes, ranking 50th instead of 51st is kind of like the Houston Rockets vaulting into only the second worst record in the NBA, except that Utah schools don’t get to participate in a draft lottery for the best teachers.

But it still feels like a banner day, even though one can argue the significance.

Per pupil expenditure never has been a particularly helpful measurement. It captures only an input — taxes for education — and not an output — how well students are taught and prepared for the future.

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I learned about this new ranking last week after reading a blog post by Shawn Teigen, vice president of the Utah Foundation, an independent nonprofit that has done more than any other research group in recent years to study the relationship between spending and outcomes in Utah’s public education.

Teigen agrees the measurement has painted an incomplete look at Utah’s public schools, but he’s intrigued by the upward movement.

“Honestly, maybe until now I’ve always said the per pupil measure isn’t any good because we’re always in last place,” he told me this week. “But maybe it’s a little more important now that we’re not in last place.”

Important in that it shows Utah, and its lawmakers, are making a greater investment in public schools.

But if you’re measuring numbers, the Utah Foundation says a better one is the amount Utahns spend on education for every $1,000 in personal income. After all, a state can spend only so much, especially when it has more kids per family than other states.

Even when we brought up the rear in per pupil spending, we were pretty good at that one. Until about 30 years ago, that is.

Teigen’s blog post notes we went from being a top-10 state in that category back in the 1990s to 41st today. 

So, how about outcomes? Two years ago, the Utah Foundation studied how well Utah schools do compared to states with similar demographics. The answer is that it is somewhere in the middle. Also, it depends. 

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Utah has a higher proportion of college-educated parents than most states. It’s more urban than most other states the same size. Most significantly, Utah keeps changing the assessment test it requires students to take, and parents can opt their children out of these tests for any reason at all. 

When it comes to ACT scores, the state is about average. But then, Utah requires all high school students to take the test, which makes it hard to compare with other states that don’t.

Everywhere you look, it seems, apples are hard to compare to apples. 

That said, Teigen is optimistic. The latest figures are based on 2019 census numbers, which means they came before voters approved Amendment G, which was designed to make it easier for public school funding to keep pace with growth and inflation, and to protect against recessions.

But, he said, the important thing isn’t how much money the state spends, but where it spends it. Lawmakers recently ensured that funding for at-risk kids will increase annually, which ought to help.

The truth is, the key to a stellar public school system involves more than just funding. It takes strategic thinking, difficult administrative decisions and solid teaching. It probably takes a more centralized approach, rather than one that currently divides the focus of education among a State School Board, a state superintendent, local school boards, the governor and the Legislature. 

Teigen put it this way: 

“It’s not about per pupil spending and it’s not about the pressures some schools have because another (charter) school has opened up here or there,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about what we can do to help kids.”

Which is where the arguing begins.

But if you really care about per pupil funding more than anything else, here’s some advice. Don’t party too hard at the move to No. 50. Teigen notes the state is still far behind Arizona’s 49th place $8,625 effort. And don’t be surprised if Idaho responds to all this by stepping things up a bit.