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Is Utah falling short of its potential by spending least per pupil nationally?

Report says Utah spends far less per student than surrounding and peer states, yet produces ‘respectable’ outcomes

Utah spends less – and in most cases far less – per student than surrounding states and its peer states, yet performs “respectably overall in terms of outcomes,” according to a new Utah Foundation report.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah spends less — and in most cases far less — per student than surrounding states and its peer states, yet performs “respectably overall in terms of outcomes,” according to a new Utah Foundation report.

States that spend the most on K-12 education outperform other states but “it is impossible to draw a straight line between higher spending and better outcomes,” the report says.

“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 pupil than any state. The differences in spending are not marginal. In many cases, Utah spends less than half per pupil,” according to the report “Making the Grade? K-12 Outcomes and Spending in Utah.”

Utah compares well nationally and among Western states in terms of national assessments and graduation rates. The state’s performance on annual statewide assessments and national assessment are improving, and Utah students compare well on ACT scores, ranking third among 19 states that test most of their high school graduates.

While some might champion Utah’s efficient use of resources, the report raises the question of whether the state “leaves significant potential untapped due to insufficient resources.”

Utahns must ask, “to what standard do we aspire for our public education? Best in the West? Best in the nation? Best in the world? Once that standard is clear, the question becomes unavoidable: To what extent are additional resources necessary to reach that goal?” the report states.

Not only is Utah’s per-pupil public education spending the lowest in the West, it remains last in the nation for operational per-pupil spending at $7,179 per student in 2017, which was the most recent year that state-level data was available for national comparisons.

Utah spent less than two-thirds of the national median of $11,554, the report states. Wyoming, meanwhile, far exceeded the median, spending $16,537 per pupil. Wyoming outspent all Mountain States, followed by Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and last, Utah.

Although Utah spends less on public education per pupil, student performance is helped by other factors such as a higher percentage of college-educated parents. Utah is tied with Colorado in the Mountain States with 51% of parents holding at least a bachelor’s degree, according to census data. Utah ranks above the national median in terms of educational attainment.

The report notes that differences in spending can be attributed to cost of living and labor costs.

Most per-pupil spending is directed toward teacher pay and benefits, as more expensive states — like Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire and New Jersey — require higher pay to attract highly effective teachers.

School district size also plays a factor.

“Utah has relatively large school districts, which drive down administrative costs. Size is also often the result of how rural a state is; Utah has one of the more urbanized populations in the nation, and so costs should be lower due to the economics of scale that come with urban populations (such as having lower transportation costs and the flexibility to have larger class sizes),” the report states.

In terms of high school graduation rates, Utah is among the top tier of Mountain States and in the middle of its peer states. Its graduation rate is also near the top third of states, which are primarily higher spending states.

Utah also ranks higher than the Mountain States and peer states for the proportion of children who live in two-parent households.

“Research suggests that household structure has a strong influence on educational outcomes, even when factoring in income. This is good news for Utah,” the report states.

Other key findings of the report were:

• Utah students improved over time on a statewide annual assessments, with an increase in proficiency during the five years that the SAGE testing (Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence) was administered. However, less than half of Utah’s students were proficient or better on the English, math and science tests.

• Utah districts show a wide range of outcomes on the state’s annual assessment, student ACT scores and graduation rates.

• While higher spending has limited links to better education outcomes, at some level spending can become decisive. Utah is the lowest in the nation in per-pupil K-12 operational education spending and therefore may fall short of its potential.