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Utah has no plans to change lowest-in-nation education spending, officials say

Utah’s public education spending remains among the lowest in the nation — and the state is in no rush to change that this legislative session, according to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

“We are not in a race to outspend other states,” officials said when asked if Utah plans to alter its reputation as a state with low public education spending. “Student outcomes are what truly matter, and a focus only on funding does not tell the whole story.”

Since 2014, Utah’s public education budget has nearly doubled, up from $3.8 billion that year to $7.7 billion in fiscal 2024, according to state budget reports. And if lawmakers embrace Gov. Spencer Cox’s plan for fiscal 2025, schools may have an additional $855 million to spend.

But despite previous budget increases and the potential boost, Utah is still spending less per student than most states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For over two decades, Utah ranked last in the nation for its per-student spending. That changed in 2021, when Utah slightly outspent Idaho to claim the No. 50 spot

Utah currently maintains its second-to-last position, according to the latest rankings released in May, which are based on financials from 2021, the most recently available nationally. Utah allocated $9,095 per student, a third of New York’s $26,571, which claimed the top spot.

Despite its frugal approach to education funding, Utah has consistently outperformed higher-spending states in some academic areas.

In math, Utah excels, sharing the top spot with Massachusetts — which spends more than double on its students — for the highest percentage of eighth graders scoring above proficient in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Utah also secured the No. 5 spot for the percentage of fourth graders scoring above proficient in math.

Utah’s fourth and eighth graders also outperform their counterparts in higher-spending states for reading proficiency, ranking No. 3 for eighth grade and No. 7 for fourth grade, according to NAEP.

The state has also documented fewer pandemic-related learning losses compared to other states, according to a report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Notably, Utah was the only state where eighth grade math didn’t see significant declines post-COVID.

Overall, statewide proficiency rates have still declined since 2019, in part because of the pandemic. The gap grew wider for minority and economically disadvantaged students, with the latter group experiencing two to three times more losses than the state average, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Going further back, between 2014 and 2018, Utah’s average proficiency in English language arts and math was increasing, according to the Office of the State Auditor.

During that time period, English language arts proficiency increased from 40% to 45% and math proficiency rose from 37% to 46%. But Utah students regressed slightly in 2019, which marked the first year the state implemented RISE testing after changing vendors. The pandemic hit the following year.

Less than half of Utah’s third graders also read on grade level, according to August data from the Utah State Board of Education. In response, lawmakers allocated $11.9 million from over $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds for literacy training, specifically the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) program.

Though Utah has seen progress, the state has a significant way to go if it hopes to achieve its goal of 70% of third graders reading on grade level by 2027.

Cox has suggested a 5% increase in per-pupil funding for fiscal 2025, also called a weighted pupil unit — for a total of $211.7 million. But the state’s largest teacher’s union said it wouldn’t be enough.

“We cannot overlook the significant shortfall in the proposed 5% increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU),” union President Renée Pinkney said in a statement. “The proposal falls far below the UEA’s requested 12%, which will leave critical student needs unaddressed.”

Officials from the governor’s budget and planning office noted that recent years have seen notable increases to the WPU, mostly because of additional revenue from the federal COVID stimulus.

That wasn’t the case for fiscal year 2021, which saw lawmakers approve the lowest WPU increase the state had seen since 2013 at 1.8%, state records show. But both fiscal 2022 and 2023 saw a 6% increase in WPU, the largest in a decade.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, fiscal 2016-2020, officials said the average WPU increase was 3.5%.

“The governor’s [fiscal 2025] budget, which recommends a 5% increase in the WPU, as well as a 5% year-over increase in total education funding, is prudent and responsive to available revenues in an environment of lingering economic uncertainty, while still providing significant investments in our education system,” officials said.

As the state gears up to redirect $42 million of its public education dollars to private schools through the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program — enough for about 5,000 students to receive $8,000 each toward private school tuition — one national study found that Utah could be spending more.

The Education Law Center’s annual Making the Grade study reviews public school funding in all 50 states and Washington D.C. This year’s report examined the latest data from the 2020-21 school year and graded each state on three different metrics: funding level, funding distribution and funding effort.

The methodology excluded federal revenue sources and relied solely on state and local revenues, because we are primarily interested in the state policies around how schools are funded,” said Danielle Farrie, research director for the Education Law Center.

Utah placed third-to-last in the nation in the study for average per-pupil spending, totaling approximately $10,907, which is slightly higher than the U.S. Census Bureau’s assessment. It’s a $5,223 difference from the national average.

Farrie explained that school districts generate additional revenue beyond their state’s funding formula, or in Utah’s case, the WPU. That revenue comes from property taxes, private donations and other local sources.

The study ranked Utah as the top state for funding distribution, a measure of how much additional funding is allocated to school districts with higher levels of student poverty.

Utah provided 77% more per-pupil funding to high poverty districts than low-poverty ones on average, the study found. But Utah has a relatively low child poverty rate compared to other states at 8.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, the study found Utah to be a “low-effort” state, meaning its education spending is a small portion of its gross domestic product.

“The sort of lesson we take from that is that, if Utah wanted to increase its funding to schools, it could enact fiscal policies that would generate more revenue to go into school systems,” Farrie said.

DMU Timestamp: February 13, 2024 08:59

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