Utah governor questions the state’s ranking as dead last in per-pupil funding. But the figure he’s using is for a different year.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students open lockers at West Jordan Middle School that will be torn down at the end of this 2018-2019 school year.

Gov. Gary Herbert said he doubts the accuracy of U.S. Census data showing Utah has again ranked last in the nation for money spent per student — despite the state holding the bottom spot for at least the past two decades.

“Whatever the numbers are coming out, I’m not sure they are actually accurate,” he said Thursday during his monthly news conference.

At $7,179 spent per student, the state nabbed its usual place behind Idaho in the report released earlier this week based on 2017 data. Herbert said he’s heard that number “bandied about” but believes it is “not correct.”

“We actually are spending today over $10,700 per student in the state of Utah,” he added.

It’s a surprising statement from Herbert, who has never before questioned the numbers during his 11 years as governor — during all of which Utah has been in last place. And it comes toward the end of what he has said will be his last term.

Later in the day, his office responded to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for the support behind his number. The figure he provided is an estimate for next year, not the total for 2017 — the year used in the census ranking, his spokeswoman said.

And Herbert’s number includes building costs. The census ranking doesn’t; adding that for other states would increase their totals as well.

In fact, hardly any education funding tallies include those expenses.

“That calculation is not used widely,” said Mallory Bateman, state data coordinator at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “It will make our spending look higher.”

The census data is based on current per-pupil spending — which doesn’t include funding for building construction and bonds because those don’t typically fall neatly in one year and aren’t seen as directly contributing to a student’s education. Instead, the federal bureau bases its numbers mainly on teacher salaries and instruction costs; it gets that information from each state.

“It’s data collected directly from the school system,” said Kristina Barrett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Census Bureau. “These are not subject to error." That’s also noted on the survey’s methodology page.

If the governor thinks there’s a problem, she added, it would be best to talk to the school districts “where he believes the discrepancy lies. … Maybe they want to do an internal review of their own,” Barrett said.

Additionally, the census numbers for Utah match those at the National Center for Education Statistics and the Utah Board of Education.

But even shifting the data the way the governor has likely wouldn’t pull Utah much higher on the list. The difference between the bottom two states is still so wide that to move up even one spot, Utah would have to spend roughly $200 million — an extra $307 for each of the 650,000 public K-12 students here.

“I find this very concerning,” said Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews, who leads the largest teacher union in the state. “When we have the lowest resources in the country, we’re not doing our job. We’re shortchanging our students by not making the necessary investments in them.”

At No. 51 on the list — which includes Washington D.C. — Utah comes in at roughly half of the national average in per-pupil spending ($12,201) and less than one-third of what the top state is spending ($23,091 in New York). Because its funding bumps each year are relatively minor it is also slowly falling further behind.

This report also marks the first time Utah has jumped above $7,000 — the last holdout. For 2016, the state was at $6,953.

Beyond that, the grim rankings go on. Utah got last place for teacher salaries, last place for revenue from the federal government and second to last place for total funding (much of which is spent on buildings — which is why it’s last place for pupil spending).

“I think it’s up to policymakers to see how interested they are in getting out of last place,” said Shawn Teigen, vice president of the Utah Foundation, a research organization based in Salt Lake City. “They say we get a lot of bang for our buck with high test scores and graduation rates. But is it a big enough bang? Or do we want a bigger bang?”

Herbert has long declared education his No. 1 priority. But, for his tenure, the state has not seen much of an increase in the per-pupil spending beyond inflation.

“It is hard to compare state by state by state,” he said Thursday, though the census has always done that. “We have to spend money just to tread water.”

That’s due, in big part, to Utah’s atypically large student population. Here, Teigen added with a laugh, “we have a lot of babies.” That means there are more kids per capita than other states, so there are bigger classrooms and fewer teachers with current funding.

It’s a hard economic and demographic reality to shift, added Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. “It’s just too much to catch up to Idaho.”

More education funding, the governor has said, could help keep more teachers in the classroom as the state faces a dire shortage. That’s what Matthews would like as well.

Of the $7,179 spent per student, the census data shows that $2,759 of that goes to paying instructors in Utah — the smallest amount in the country, though benefits rank 40th and overall instruction 48th.

“We have been doing an incredible job with very few resources,” Matthews said. “But we really see this coming to a head with our teacher shortage. We’re not moving the needle.”

These numbers come as the state looks to restructure its tax system, which could potentially impact education if lawmakers decide to remove the earmark for income tax to go into classrooms. Matthews said the education association will be fighting against any slashes to funding.

Herbert said Thursday that test scores and graduation rates in the state haven’t declined despite the limited dollars spent on students.

“It’s not all about the money,” he suggested. “It’s some about the money. We’re doing better there and we need to do better still.”

Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this article.

Top five in per-pupil spending:

1. New York — $23,091

2. Washington, D.C. — $21,974

3. Connecticut — $19,322

4. New Jersey — $18,920

5. Vermont — $18,290

Bottom five:

51. Utah — $7,179

50. Idaho — $7,486

49. Oklahoma — $7,940

48. Arizona — $8,003

47. Mississippi — $8,771

Census Bureau