Policy Savant Panel: Can Utah become a top-tier education state with low per-pupil funding?

We regularly query leaders from the state’s policy institutes/think tanks regarding timely policy issues important to the state. Here is our latest question and responses from our panel of policy savants:

In normal (non-pandemic) times, Utah’s public education system performs quite well, despite our lowest-in-the-country spending per pupil. But if Utah aspires to be a top-five education state, can we do so at current per-pupil spending levels? At what spending level can we achieve top-in-the-country public education performance?

Peter Reichard, President, Utah Foundation. Last year, Utah Foundation published a report called Making the Grade? K-12 Outcomes and Spending in Utah, which wrestled with this question. The report found that, while Utah spends far less per pupil than peer states with student profiles similar to Utah’s, it performs respectably in terms of outcomes. And while higher-spending states tend to outperform the rest of the states, Utah outperforms higher-spending states collectively on several measures. In short, higher spending has only limited links to better education outcomes. The U.S. spends far more per pupil than all but a handful of OECD states. It spends significantly more per pupil than nations regularly mentioned among the world’s highest performers, such as Finland and Poland.

But at some level, spending can become decisive. Will extra money, well spent, get Utah into the very top tier? This is a possibility.

Currently, Utah spends $7,628 per pupil, far less than the U.S. average ($12,612). Yet, even compared to OECD countries, Utah’s per-pupil spending remains low. While it approximates Poland’s, Utah would have to spend thousands more per pupil to approximate the spending in high-performing South Korea ($12,000+) or Finland ($10,000+).

That said, perhaps we should focus less on per-pupil spending overall, and more on spending for lower-performing students. In our 2018 report, A Level Playing Field? Funding for Utah Students at Risk of Academic Failure, we found that funding for lower-income students and English language learners was far below suggested levels. To the extent that they do not perform well due to inadequate funding for targeted programs, we are leaving student achievement potential untapped.

The state has since increased funding for these groups. But providing funding per federally suggested spending levels would cost taxpayers roughly $2,500 more per lower-income and English-learning student – or about $1,000 per pupil overall.

Matt Sandgren, Executive Director, Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. The fact that Utah already performs well at low per-pupil spending levels speaks to how much better we could perform by investing more. We have a national reputation for being wise stewards of federal and state taxpayer funds. We do a whole lot with a little-but that’s not to say we can’t do more.

With the right level of investment and training in our teacher workforce, it’s well within our reach to be a top-five education state. If we want to make the most of this investment, we need to target funds to specific subject areas where schools are weakest. One area is civic education.

In a new report from the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, we trace the rising division and civil unrest in our society to decades of neglect in the area of civic education. Some of this neglect comes from an increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. Through our research we found that the federal government spends an average of $54 per student annually on STEM but only $0.05 per student on civics. It’s no wonder that only 24 percent of today’s students are proficient in civics, according to the Nation’s Report Card. They’re simply not learning about it in the classroom.

The founding purpose of the American public education system was to form responsible democratic citizens, but we have clearly lost sight of that goal. That’s why in increasing funding for Utah education, we should focus specifically on civics. Our new report calls for a 100-fold increase in federal spending on civic education while also outlining how states like Utah can put those funds to best use.

Ari Bruening, Chief Executive Officer, Envision Utah. Utah’s public education system is highly efficient and effective for the amount of money we spend. Our administrative costs are second lowest in the country. Despite having the lowest per-student funding, our results are above average. But above average isn’t what Utahns want, particularly as our economy continues to transform and leave behind those who don’t have training beyond high school – and those metros that don’t have a highly educated workforce. Utahns expect to have an education system that competes with the best in the world and offers everyone a full opportunity to prepare for life, obtain a good job, and contribute to society.

Fully achieving Utahns’ vision means closing the attainment gap between different populations and ensuring more students obtain a postsecondary credential. To get there, we need parents who engage with their children from the day they’re born, early childhood education opportunities that are accessible to at-risk students, quality teachers, and extra efforts to ensure equal opportunity to succeed. These are consensus strategies from a variety of different groups that have looked at education in Utah – including the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission, the State Board of Education, Prosperity 2020, and Envision Utah’s education steering committee. Unfortunately, we can’t do all these things without more resources, no matter how efficient we are. But we shouldn’t just spend more without targeting our spending at areas we know will bring real results. For example, we know that teachers have a bigger impact on educational outcomes than anything else within a school, and we also know that our teacher training programs only graduate half of the new teachers we need each year. Ensuring a quality teacher in every classroom requires having more people who want to be teachers. And that can’t be done unless we pay teachers better.

Natalie Gochnour. Director, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah. Few public policy issues in Utah cause as much consternation as education spending. And for good reason…Utah faces an education paradox.

Utah ranks first in educational commitment (education spending as a percent of our economy) and last in education per pupil spending. This seemingly inconsistent outcome occurs because of Utah’s young population. The Beehive State has, by far, the largest percentage of our population ages 5-17 years old. This makes it difficult to match the per pupil spending tallies of other states.

Gratefully, Utah students still excel, and Utah schools realize great outcomes. That is a credit to Utah’s parents, teachers, and students. Looking forward, I can’t give you a magic number of what it takes to be a top-five education state, but I can predict with confidence that meeting future education needs will be challenging, and current spending levels will fall short of what is needed, particularly with Utah’s economically disadvantaged students. The public and private sector in Utah will need to find new and creative ways to invest more and invest smarter in Utah students.

I would focus funding increases on the nearly 200,000 Utah students who are economically disadvantaged. These students experience lower graduation rates and a smaller percentage of them are proficient in math and English language arts. Those who aren’t educated properly will fall farther and farther behind. We can spend more now, or a lot more later.

A peer-reviewed analysis of 21 years of state investment in education showed that “states with a greater overall investment in education and with more intensive staffing per pupil tend across the board to have higher outcomes for low-income students.” (Baker, B. & Weber, M. (2016).) That’s a goal Utah leaders should strive to achieve.

Rick B. Larsen, President & CEO, Sutherland Institute. Due to realities that include lost tax revenues on public lands and larger families, the issue of per-pupil spending levels is likely to remain a point of debate. But there is another “top five” metric: the education of future leaders.

Utah has made significant progress in terms of spending. Whether or not those improvements correlate to increased student performance must be assessed. However, Sutherland Institute suggests that it’s not necessarily just the amount of money we spend on education, it’s how we spend it and what we teach.

Perhaps the key to top-five status is to be found in increasing how effectively we are producing future leaders who understand the republic we live in. And that metric has to do with teacher development and curriculum standards.

Just as STEM/STEAM has been declared essential to our global standing, national security and economic stability, today those same criteria apply to lessons of history, civics and citizenship – and for the same reasons.

Utah has an opportunity to add to the funding debate the goal of creating the most informed generation of citizens in the world in modern times: a cohort equal to the challenges of a pandemic and economic recovery based on free market principles. And a next generation of voters and elected officials who understand the Constitution and the principles, processes and obligations of freedom. That is the pressing need – and the opportunity. Utah is uniquely positioned to rise to the opportunity

The top-five education states of the future will create the leaders of the future. Yes, funding is an element, but the goal of sound curriculum should be employable, competitive minds, who are also responsible, principled future leaders. This means we must look beyond current models and priorities to a future with a continued focus on STEM/STEAM, financial literacy, a path for trades, and yes – civics and history. The importance of informed citizenship has never been more apparent. Pandemics, polarized politics and a contested election all reveal how little we know about the republic we live in.