Utah spends less per student in its public schools than any other state. Not just a little less – 15% less than Idaho, the next on the list. Utah’s been at the bottom since 1988.
There are several reasons for that last-place ranking, but the most important is the high ratio of children to adults in Utah – 20-percent more kids as a proportion of the population than most other states.
The Utah Foundation looks at the funding picture a little differently. It measures what’s called funding effort – how much does the state spend on schools compared to the combined income of everyone in the state. By that measure, Utah was in the top ten – until recently.
Utah Foundation president Steve Kroes says, “We saw that top-ten-in-the-nation ranking for funding effort decline over the rest of the 90’s and into the 2000’s until we hit a low of 33rd in the nation in 2007, so well below average. And this came from a series of property tax cuts, income tax cuts and sharing the formerly earmarked income tax with other things in the state budget.”
Kroes says Utah’s education funding effort began to recover in 2008. It got up to 24th in 2009, but the latest figures show it’s slipped back to 29th.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no good news coming out of Utah’s schools. Kroes says there’s been a surprising turnaround in test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – a nationwide test given to 4th graders and 8th graders.
“In reading and math,” Kroes tells KUER, “we saw our scores decline to around 30th in the nation several years ago for most of the grades and exams, but we’re starting to see a turnaround, and I don’t think this is getting enough publicity. So if you look at math scores, for example, back in 2007, our 4th graders were 28th in the nation. But in 2011, they jumped to 19th best in the nation, so back in the top 20. For our 8th graders, it’s been a smaller change, going from 30th in the nation to 26th in the most recent test.”
There have been similar gains in reading scores, and in science, Utah students rank 6th in the nation. Adjusted for statistical error, only North Dakota can claim better scores in science.
Larry Shumway, Utah’s outgoing state school superintendent, pointed out some other gains in his final State of Education address this week – with higher curriculum standards and gains in minority student achievement. But he said the state’s perpetual position in school funding is holding students back.
“We cannot have the best school system in the country and be the lowest in the country in funding,” Shumway said, to applause from his listeners. “Let me repeat: We can’t be first if we’re always last. We don’t have to outspend everybody else, but our current position in last place when it comes to the fiscal resources is standing in the way of progress. It’s standing in the way of our goal to be the best that we can be for our kids.”