Utah’s ranking nationwide in education funding has long been a sensitive subject for teachers, parents, and lawmakers.
For as long as most Utahns can remember, the state ranked 51st in its funding of schools. That is at bottom of the list for education funding, right below Idaho. However, there has been some relatively good news for Utah students. Recent statistics suggest that, for the first time in decades, Utah is no longer bringing up the rear. The Beehive State moved up one slot to bump Idaho down to no. 51.
Utah spends about $7,600 per student, compared to the no. 1 education-spender in the country, New York, which spends about $24,000 per student.
Although the jump to 50th isn’t a reason to get anyone too excited, those immersed in Utah education say the statistic is misleading. Rep. Mike Schultz (R-Hooper) has been involved in education legislation for years, and he says Utah’s education funding rank only tells a portion of the story.
“I don’t think people realize that in terms of state budget, we spend more (on education) than any other state as a percentage (of overall state budget),” Schultz said.
According to state records, 37% of Utah’s $23 billion budget is dedicated to education. If you take away federal dollars, Utah spends about 60% of its budget in the classroom.
Utah education funding expert Shawn Teigan, with the non-partisan research organization Utah Foundation, says Utah does do a lot more with less. For example, Utah’s graduation rate of 87% is better than nearly half the states in the U.S., including education big spender New York.
However, Teigan is quick to point out that during the past three decades, Utah lawmakers and voters have made significant changes to state law, the state constitution and taxes that have lowered the amount of money, as a percentage, going to education.
For example, in 1995 the state used to pay $58 per $1,000 of personal income to education. Twenty-six years later, that number has decreased to $48, while personal income in Utah has increased significantly in the past several decades.
If it weren’t for all the tax changes and constitutional amendments, there would be a lot more money in education,” Teigan said.
Matthew Weinstein with the child advocacy group Voices for Utah Children says the money that is not coming to Utah coffers could have come in handy right now. Weinstein says diversity is changing educational needs in the state. One example: while Utah graduates white students at about the same pace as the rest of the country, the graduation rate for Latino students in Utah is 3 points below other Latinos nationwide.
On the one hand, Utah does more with less, probably better than any other state,” said Weinstein.
“Our education system needs to respond to that (changing demographics) and that costs money. It does take an up-front investment,” he added.
Rep. Schultz says Utah is doing the best it can with the money it has — and, he adds, Utah was the only state in the country to increase education funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This last year, we were able to spend more of an increase in education spending than any other time in our state’s history,” he said.