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Is Utah still last in per-pupil spending?

First Published Aug 03 2014 01:01AM      Last Updated Aug 03 2014 09:19 am

(Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Rob Lake's introduction to statics class use their Texas Instruments wireless calculators at Kearns High School, February 5, 2014 in Kearns, Utah. Each student has a calculator that transmits its data onto a screen for all to see. The Utah Legislature is looking into infusing millions of dollars for technology in Utah classrooms. Kearns High received a one million dollar grant 3 years ago, allowing every student to get an iPod touch to help in the classroom. The results were mixed.

In recent weeks, some politicians have claimed that Utah has finally done it — moved out of last place in per-pupil spending.

"In case you didn’t hear, UT [Utah] no longer has the lowest per-pupil total spending for public ed," state Auditor John Dougall proclaimed on his Facebook page.

Then, in late July, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, announced to legislative leadership at a public Education Task Force meeting, "Idaho now holds the once-coveted position that we held for so long that none of us were real proud of."

It’s an assertion that, if true, could shape the conversation about public education funding in Utah.

The trouble is, it’s not totally accurate.

A May report released by the U.S. Census Bureau does indeed rank Utah as second to last (beating Idaho) for per-pupil revenue in 2012, at $7,607 per student.

The problem is — that’s revenue, not spending.

That same report shows that when it came to "current spending" per pupil, Utah still ranked last in the nation, at $6,206 per student in fiscal year 2012.

What’s the difference? The revenue figure shows how much schools got from federal, local and state sources per student. The spending figure shows how much schools actually doled out per kid.

Stephen Wheeler, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau, said it’s generally more accepted to look at that spending column when citing per pupil spending.

"In the last few years, Utah has been last and still is for this year," Wheeler said.

Bruce Williams, associate superintendent for business and operations at the state Office of Education, also said he’d tend to look at the spending side when describing per-pupil spending.

"That’s what’s actually been spent, as opposed to revenue," Williams said.

Dougall, however, stands by his statement. He said he feels it’s more accurate to look at the per-pupil revenue ranking than the spending one when discussing per pupil funding.

That’s because the spending figure doesn’t include money spent building new schools — a big expense in growing Utah.

"We’re a rapidly growing state," Dougall said. "We have to build lots of new school buildings. That’s part of our cost of education, so to ignore that part of spending is unfair versus, say, a state that’s shrinking."



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