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Commentary: The facts of education funding in Utah

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students raise their hands in full classroom of 32 students in a Spanish class at South Jordan Middle School Monday Feb. 1. Lawmakers will consider a proposal to raise taxes to fund schools, which could pay for technology, teacher salaries and relieve pressure on over crowding.

As Utah begins voting on a nonbinding ballot question regarding a possible tax increase to finance additional education investment, what are the facts about recent trends in Utah’s level of K-12 investment?

For example, how does Utah rank nationally?

The latest federal data released earlier this year ranked Utah once again in last place in per-pupil current expenditures, as has been the case every year since 1988.

Utah spent $6,953 per pupil in the 2015-16 school year, compared with $6,575 the year before.

Unfortunately, even such a substantial increase was not enough to surpass our perennial rival for 49th place, Idaho. In recent years, the gap between Utah and Idaho had shrunk to as little as $121 per pupil in FY 2014, a gap Utah could have overcome that year with an additional $74 million budget allocation. For FY 2016, the gap was $204 per pupil, which would have required a budget increase of $129 million to surpass Idaho.

How does Utah compare with the nation as a whole?

In FY 2016, while Utah invested $6,953 per pupil, the U.S. average was $11,150. Utah has a lower cost of living than the national average, but our 3 percent advantage in that regard does not come close to the 38 percentage point gap between Utah and the U.S. average that year.

How does Utah’s current level of education investment compare with a decade ago, before the Great Recession?

In real terms (after taking inflation out of the equation), Utah’s per-pupil education investment peaked in FY 2009 at $7,111 (expressed in 2016 dollars). The FY 2016 figure of $6,953 is still 2.2 percent below its pre-recession peak. Nationally, the data are even worse as the national average of $11,150 in FY 2016 was 5.1 percent below its FY 2009 peak.

What should Utah do?

On the one hand, Utah has made substantial improvements in our educational results as measured by NAEP test scores in recent years, a remarkable achievement given our meager financial investment, and a testament to the commitment of Utah educators, as well as to the thousands of parents who volunteer in the classroom to offset staffing shortages.

On the other hand, our high school graduation rates remain behind national levels for every racial and ethnic group, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In other words, whites in Utah graduate high school at a lower rate than whites nationally, Latinos in Utah graduate at a lower rate than Latinos nationally, and the same for Asian Americans, American Indians and African-Americans.

The only reason Utah enjoys a higher overall high school graduation rate is that we are still whiter than the nation as a whole. But we are rapidly becoming more diverse, and our growing minority populations — one quarter of our future workforce based on child population data — require additional attention to avoid the growth here of the majority-minority gaps that have plagued much of the rest of the nation.

Given our large class sizes and high student-to-teacher ratios and rates of teacher attrition, it seems difficult to imagine Utah achieving our potential unless we are willing to restore our education funding effort to levels that earlier generations were willing to pay.

Thus, the question on the ballots that Utahns are currently filling out and mailing in is a crucial — and rare — opportunity for us to weigh in on whether we are willing, as earlier generations were, to set aside sufficient resources every year to make the investments in the next generation required to ensure our state’s continued prosperity and success.

In this Feb. 23, 2017, file photo, Matthew Weinstein, state priorities partnership director, points to a chart as he talks to members of the media during a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Matthew Weinstein is state priorities partnership director at Voices for Utah Children.