Commentary: Utah may rank low on education spending — but with large class sizes, we’re getting more bang for our buck

(Al Hartmann | Tribune File Photo) Students raise their hands in full classroom of 32 students in a Spanish class at South Jordan Middle School in 2015.

Among the qualities that define Utahns is a devotion to family — which is manifest in our average household size and the share of our population under 18, both the largest in the U.S. Another quality is Utahns’ strong sense of civic pride.

So it’s not surprising that when people are reminded that our K-12 education spending per pupil is the lowest in the nation, a lot of folks get up in arms over it. Major efforts are now afoot in both civic circles and the Legislature to increase funding for teacher pay and public schools in general.

With these concerns in mind, Utah Foundation has issued new report, Simple Arithmetic? K-12 Education Spending in Utah, meant to inform public school funding decisions.

To be sure, Utah is miles away from the highest-spending states, and indeed even from the average. Nationally, spending per student in 2015 was $11,392, while in Utah it was $6,575. Just to reach the national average would be a high mountain to climb.

But there’s much more to the story. To begin with, Utah’s investments in K-12 education are big. For instance, nearly a quarter of every dollar taxpayers send to the state goes to public schools. Between local, state and federal sources, our public schools get roughly $6 billion per year.

Furthermore, one of the very factors that causes so much concern about school funding actually contributes to the challenge: the fact that we have so many kids. When your state has the highest proportion of children in the nation, it probably means you also have fewer people paying the bills for public education. And proportionally, Utah has the nation’s smallest working-age population.

As a result, Utah’s K-12 funding looks much higher through the lens of “effort” – the amount per $1,000 of personal income. Utah is still behind the nation by this metric. Though just considering state revenue, Utah’s funding effort actually exceeds the national average.

As for teacher pay, Utah ranks 35th when it comes to funding effort. Interestingly, however, it ranks 19th in funding effort for teacher benefits — funding that goes heavily toward pensions.

But we may be getting more bang for our buck out of those teachers. Utah has the second largest class size in the nation, which is likely a key factor in keeping K-12 educational costs low.

We may also be getting decent bang for our buck from administration. Despite the perceptions of many Utahns that a large portion of K-12 spending goes toward administrative costs, only 7 percent is spent on administration — the 13th lowest percentage in the nation and the second-lowest amount per pupil in the nation. This may owe in part to economies of scale: Utah had the sixth largest average number of pupils per district in the nation.

That said, there are vast differences in revenues and spending among districts. For instance, due in large part to district size, spending on district administration ranges from $254 per pupil to $1,947. And, due in large part to logistical differences, spending on transportation among districts ranges from $277 per pupil to $1,500.

There are also some significant differences in spending between district and charter schools. Although charter schools spend a much smaller percentage per-pupil on teacher benefits than district schools, charter schools spend a significantly higher percentage on support services and administration.

Finally, federal funding is part of the puzzle, and Utahns should be aware that the federal government provides our state with less K-12 money than any other state. This is due in part to Utah’s low percentage of lower-income students — in other words, we have a lot of kids, but we tend to raise them in financially stable households. However, our low federal funding is also due in part to Utah’s modest state and local funding levels, which in turn affect federal funding formulas. Furthermore, federal revenue accounts for only 8 percent to 9 percent of total education funding in the U.S and Utah. So federal revenues are probably not the answer for those who want to boost the state’s funding rank.

In short, if Utahns decide they want to significantly raise the state’s ranking in K-12 spending — well, we have a tough climb ahead.

| Courtesy Utah Foundation Peter Reichard is as president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization.

Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Utah Foundation’s new education report, Simple Arithmetic? is available at www.utahfoundation.org.