Utah ranks No. 51 in per-pupil spending behind Idaho

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) School buses get ready to leave after the final bell on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Utah has once again ranked last in the nation in per-pupil spending, a spot it has held for more than two decades — meaning students who started kindergarten when the trend began could have graduated from college in that time.

The numbers, released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau, show the state allocated $7,628 per student using totals from 2018, the most recent available. That keeps Utah in its longtime place at No. 51 behind Idaho, which spent $7,771.

“We are just last year after year after year,” said Shawn Teigen, vice president of the Utah Foundation, a research organization that studies education data. “It would be shocking if it weren’t the same thing every year. But now it’s just no longer a surprise.”

No other state has held its position for as long — almost an entire generation for Utah students — or been at the bottom as much. The available data goes back now 21 years.

In fact, Utah’s spot is so cemented that to move up even one place in the 2018 rankings, the state would have had to spend roughly $94 million more on the 660,000 public K-12 students here. “So it’s a pretty big gap,” Teigen added.

The good news is, though, that the gap seems to be closing slightly. For the 2017 data, there was a $200 million difference between Utah and Idaho.

The two states were $307 apart per student then. For 2018, they’re $143.

That doesn’t mean Utah will jump up to No. 50 on the list — which includes Washington, D.C. — anytime soon, especially with cuts to education expected now from the coronavirus pandemic. But it does show the state seems to be supporting K-12 students with more funding in recent years.

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In 2018, for instance, which the new census report is based on, Utah raised its spending per student by 2.5%, which is standard. But in addition to that, it also funded a compromise as part of the Our Schools Now initiative to put an additional $60 million in classrooms. That increased the WPU, or weighted pupil unit, the equivalent of 6.9% — a massive boost for the state.

That increased funding per student here by $449 between 2017 and 2018.

“The progress needs to be continued as much as possible moving forward,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association.

And it did continue most recently during the 2020 legislative session. The state invested $400 million in new funds for education and increased the WPU by 6%, or $200 million. It was a banner year by most counts.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who last year questioned the state’s last-place ranking, applauded that funding amid the rankings Monday. Spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt added that while the governor feels there’s “still a long way to go,” education has been his No. 1 priority in office.

The problem is some of that budgeted money will likely be clawed back now as the state grapples with how to respond to COVID-19 and the unanticipated economic impacts.

“We just had a great legislative session,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education that oversees public K-12 students in the state. “Then we all had to put on neck braces and prepare for cuts.”

Peterson said, before the pandemic was probably the best chance Utah had to beat Idaho. But with the virus, lawmakers are saying the state will reexamine its budget and education could be slashed anywhere from 2% to 10%.

That means the last place losing streak will likely continue through 2020 or longer, until things become closer to normal again.

Matthews said what’s important is that the gap continues to get smaller, even if it’s minimal, between Utah’s spending and the next lowest state. But she worries that legislators are eyeing education for cuts when students will still have the same, if not greater, needs once schools reopen.

“Students in a depression don’t have fewer needs than students in prosperity,” she said. “And we don’t have enough funding even in prosperity. We’re still in last place.”

At No. 51 on the list for 2018 — which includes Washington, D.C. — Utah comes in at roughly half of the national average in per-pupil spending ($12,612) and less than a third of what the top state is spending ($24,040 in New York).

“We’re already $5,000 per student less than the average in the country,” Matthews added. “That’s significant.”

Utah surpasses only Idaho when the data is shifted to include the costs of new school buildings, which aren’t typically part of the rankings because it isn’t seen as directly contributing to a student’s education.

Beyond that, the grim rankings go on. Utah got last place for staff salaries and last place for revenue from the federal government. It also ranked No. 39 for the amount spent per $1,000 made per household — a statistic looked at to see which states help low-income students — a category in which it’s gotten lower in each year.

“We’re on this downward trajectory, and there’s no bottom to it,” Teigen noted. “We should be helping those students who need it most, students who are learning English for the first time, students in single-parent households.”

It’s not only increasing the amount of spending that matters, he said, but also focusing it on the students who are being underserved. He would like to see more money spent on after-school tutoring and summer programs.

Top five in per-pupil spending:

1. New York — $24,040.

2. Washington, D.C. — $22,759.

3. Connecticut — $20,635.

4. New Jersey — $20,021.

5. Vermont — $19,340.

Bottom five:

51. Utah — $7,628.

50. Idaho — $7,771.

49. TIE: Arizona and Oklahoma — $8,239.

48. Mississippi — $8,935.

47. Florida— $9,346.