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To exit last place in per-pupil funding, Utah would need to spend $365M more a year

Utah would have to spend an additional $365 million a year to move out of last place for per-pupil funding, and $2.6 billion to reach the national average, legislative fiscal analysts told lawmakers Wednesday.

Analysts presented the numbers, based on fiscal year 2010, as part of an exhaustive report on Utah education meant to help legislative leaders gathered for the first meeting of a new Education Task Force. The group, created under a law passed earlier this year, aims to come up with a plan for improving education in Utah.

Spending, however, seems to have a smaller effect on student achievement, as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, than factors such as adults’ educational level, percentage of the population from other countries and percentages of single parent households, said Jonathan Ball, director of the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.

For example, every percentage of households headed by a single parent decreases the state’s average composite score on a number of NAEP tests combined by almost 18 points (out of hundreds of possible points), according to the analysts’ report.

By comparison, it would cost an additional $900 million in state money to increase the state’s composite NAEP score by just one point.

But Ball told lawmakers spending might be the only one of those factors they can control.

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, and Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, also cautioned that many children of single-parent homes can do very well, and having two parents in a house doesn’t ensure success.

Utah had the nation’s lowest percentage of single-parent households in 2011, the analysts said.

Task force member Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said the data seem to say what teachers have long argued — that family factors play a major role in student achievement. But he said spending can’t be the only factor on which the state should focus.

“If that’s the factor, the only thing we can control, we’d go bankrupt trying to catch up with Massachusetts,” Reid said, referring to the highest NAEP composite scoring state in the nation, according to the analysis.

Utah’s education budget is about $2.7 billion, just from state sources.

Ball said Massachusetts’ high scores might be because of a combination of factors, including that state’s 10th highest-in-the-nation per pupil funding and highest-in-the-nation levels of educational attainment.

Utah had the 10th highest level of education attainment in the country in 2010, according to the analysts.

Task force members briefly discussed ways Utah might be able to better spend its money to increase achievement. Utah students largely perform near national averages on NAEP tests.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, suggested the task force study early intervention. Last session, Osmond ran a bill that would have created a state-funded preschool program for at-risk children, but that bill failed.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, suggested the task force take another look at the state’s K-3 reading program, citing years of flat achievement in elementary reading.

But Reid suggested those results could be partly because of the state’s rapidly changing demographics during that time.

The task force may meet up to seven more times between now and the next legislative session. House Speaker Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, said the group will discuss, among other things, whether to change the governance of education in Utah and how to better use technology in schools.

“We each have our corners that we go to and fight against each other generally, and that’s very unhealthy,” Lockhart said, speaking of education debates. “I also believe we have a 19th-century governance model for a 21st-century school system that’s not working.”

In recent years, a number of groups, commissions and task forces have been formed to try to improve education in Utah, many of them covering much of the same ground.

But Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said this group is needed to give lawmakers better context when making decisions about education during the legislative session.

Brenda Hales, state deputy superintendent, called the data and discussion a good start.

“I think what it really showed was it takes a community response to affect achievement,” Hales said of the data, “and it’s not just one factor that influences achievement. It’s many factors.”

lschencker@sltrib.com

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