Utah is not last in the nation for per-pupil spending, for the first time in decades

In the year before the pandemic struck, K-12 spending was up across the nation, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marci Weatherspoon works on a reading assignment with Lucas Gonzalez in her first grade class at Crescent Elementary in Sandy on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Utah is no longer last in the nation for per-pupil spending, according to new data from U.S. Census.

For the first time in more than two decades, Utah is not ranked last in the nation for its per-pupil spending — edging out Idaho to claim the No. 50 spot.

The state allocated $8,014 per student for fiscal year 2019, the most recent year of data compiled nationally and released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

That moved Utah up from its longtime place at No. 51, behind Idaho. Utah spent $29 per student more than Idaho for 2019, a switch from 2018, when Idaho spent $143 more per student.

No other state had 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 22 years.

“While moving out of the last place designation is certainly not our endgame, it is absolute progress,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association.

The state has continued to increase its per-pupil spending since 2019, the association reported, allocating $8,306 per student in 2020 and $8,532 per student in 2021. Based on the 2019 spending totals, those figures would widen the gap between Utah and Idaho, but are not enough to vault above Arizona at No. 49.

“We’ve been neck-and-neck with Idaho for a long time,” said Shawn Teigen, vice president of the Utah Foundation, a research organization that studies education data. “I thought we were going to overtake them three or four years ago … We have been as a state putting more and more money into education.”

Increases in spending are shown to particularly benefit students who are most at risk, Teigen said. “If we can direct some of this increase in spending to those kids that are at risk of the poorest outcomes, that’s a good benefit,” he said. “If we’re just spreading money all over, it’s not that big of a deal.”

The UEA worked with members of the business community to introduce the Our Schools Now initiative in 2018, which led Utah lawmakers to compromise on the distribution of state income tax and put an additional $60 million in classrooms. That represented a massive boost for the state, increasing the WPU, or weighted pupil unit, the equivalent of 6.9%. The WPU is the basic per-pupil funding unit used in Utah to calculate the amount of state funds for which a school district is eligible.

This progress in per-pupil spending will continue, said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. He pointed to the addition of Amendment G to the state constitution as a key marker.

The amendment, which passed in November 2019, guarantees increases in the state education budget for enrollment growth and inflation. That allows the Board of Education to forego those annual negotiations, Peterson said.

In the past, he explained, that tended to be the board’s first priority. “We need to get at least what we had last year, plus fund all the new kids coming in this year,” Peterson said. “Now that that piece is off the table, we can start making more targeted asks from the Legislature for pieces that are going to help improve instruction for students.”

The Census Bureau also reported that Utah had the fourth largest year-to-year growth in teacher salaries in 2019, and the eight largest increase in per-pupil spending of any state.

Peterson had worried that some of the increased funds from prior sessions would be clawed back as the state grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. But, he said, “our fears were not as financially founded… This year it’s been even greater. Things continue to look good for us on that front.”

Utah “can’t afford” to not increase spending, Matthews said. “We know the impact of the chronic underfunding of our schools. We still have among the largest class sizes in the nation. When we want all of our kids to succeed, we have to have the funds to hire more adults” and provide other supports, she said.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed into law on March 11, could also help Utah continue to make progress up the rankings, Teigen said.

Teigen estimated that Utah would need an 8% increase in overall budget to make up the $611 per-pupil difference between Utah and No. 49 Arizona, which would be around $1 billion in total. The Utah Legislature is considering an allocation of $1.2 billion toward education from the stimulus.

“To really make a funding difference, it would take a lot of money because we have a lot of kids in the state,” Teigen said. “Since 1995, we’ve been making some income tax cuts, some property tax cuts, which constantly pushes down the tax revenue.”

Every other state spent at least $9,000 per pupil in 2019, other than Arizona, which spent $8,625. New York ($25,139), the District of Columbia ($22,406), Connecticut ($21,310) and New Jersey ($20,512) were the states that spent the most, according to the Census Bureau.

Utah’s lift coincides with a national increase in per-pupil spending for K-12 public schools, in the year before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted education across the country, the bureau said. Spending for all 50 states and the District of Columbia increased by 5% in fiscal year 2019, to $13,187 per pupil.

That amount was $12,559 per pupil in 2018, and the new higher total reflects the largest increase in more than a decade, the bureau said.

“We didn’t get to the lowest [spot] overnight,” Matthews said. “We’re not going to get out of it overnight. But we’re on a trajectory that can only get stronger as we raise awareness about what funding really means to our classrooms and to our students.”