Utah lagging behind on funding to support at-risk students according to new study

It’s well known that Utah falls way short in per-pupil spending for public schools.

Utah remains last in the nation in that student spending metric – even though Utah lawmakers have over the last few years pumped more than a $1 billion into education budgets.

But now a new study by the Utah Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, finds that the state also is falling short in spending on at-risk students, those who come from poor families, are trying to learn English, or have disabilities.

Utah Foundation President Peter Richard says: “Ultimately, funding adequacy can’t be pegged to a set formula.

“But based on various benchmarks, it appears that funding for Utah students at risk of academic failure deserves a closer look, especially when it comes to English learners and low-income students.”

The foundation study can be found here.

Key findings:

  • Utah receives the lowest per-pupil federal funding in the nation. These federal funds are primarily directed toward students at risk of poor academic outcomes.
  • In Utah, combined federal and state funding for lower-income students is about 7% higher than per-pupil spending for other students. This is far below suggested levels from the federal government and various independent studies. 
  • The federal government expects states to carry most of the financial burden of supporting English learners, but it is not clear that Utah is even matching the federal spending for English learners.
  • Compared with other states, Utah comes up short in English learner educational spending, providing only about a 3% increase in combined federal and state funding.
  • The federal government estimates that students with disabilities require twice the spending of other students.
  • Utah’s combined federal and state funding suggests that Utah nearly reaches that mark, even though the federal government’s commitment to funding special education comes up short.
  • In light of Utah’s low overall per-pupil spending, the challenge of reaching adequate funding for targeted groups may be acuter. Increases in targeted funding for at-risk populations should be viewed in this context.

On the November ballot is a non-binding referendum question – put there by the 2018 Legislature – that asks if the state’s per-gallon gasoline tax should be increased by 10 cents, the money ultimately going to schools.

If voters approve, lawmakers and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will look to taking the equivalent amount of sales tax money now going into the Transportation Fund and shifting that to education budgets.

Combined with other funding changes, the estimated $300 million per year more in school funds falls way short of the $700 million that the Our Schools Now citizen initiative petition would have raised.

Yet GOP lawmakers and Herbert agreed to try raising the gasoline tax in return for the OSN folks dropping their initiative this year – so that initiative won’t be on the ballot.

A recent UtahPolicy.com Dan Jones & Associates poll found that 52 percent of Utahns support the gasoline tax hike for schools, while 43 percent oppose and 5 percent don’t know.