Malah Armstrong: ‘More’ doesn’t always mean more money

“Utah public school students deserve more from all of us”, wrote The Salt Lake Tribune’s Editorial Board on July 9. By “more,” of course, they mean more money. And by “all of us,” they mean taxpayers.

More money, they claim, will transform Utah’s public education system into a producer of graduates who can “excel in a range of competitive economic environments.”

The claim that more money is the solution to poor performance is made repeatedly, especially in the field of education, where emotions run high and where unions hold great sway.

Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise.

Since 2014, state funds directed towards K-12 education have almost doubled, from $2.6 billion to $4.4 billion, far surpassing the growth in student enrollment. Over that same time, the statewide proficiency rate average for language arts increased from 42% to 44%, from 39% to 41% in mathematics and from 44% to 45% in science.

$1.8 billion for a 2% increase in core proficiencies does not represent a return on investment.

This also holds true on an individual school basis. Consider the graph below, which shows the average per student spend compared with the average ACT score for Davis High peer schools over a nine-year period.

Data from Project KIDS, Utah State Auditor

Significant increases in per student spending have not yielded any significant improvements in average ACT scores. In fact, in some cases, average ACT scores have declined alongside an increase in spending.

Correlation does not mean causation, but taxpayers might reasonably wonder why more spending per student does not reflect in their test scores. Since one goal of the education system is to produce qualified individuals, and ACT scores are an important consideration in higher education admissions, ACT scores are a reasonable metric against which to measure the success of the education system.

Early in the 2023 General Session, Utah State Legislators agreed that Utah children deserved “more.” For this reason, they passed HB 215, which facilitated more choice, more flexibility and more tailored schooling for parents and students.

The bill established the Utah Fits All Scholarship, which allows students to apply for up to $8,000 in scholarship funding to attend homeschool or a private school. The local and federal funds allocated to that child would remain in the classroom they would have otherwise attended, driving up per student spending in public education.

Studies have shown that students who participate in school choice programs are more civic minded, more racially integrated, more tolerant, more law abiding, more likely to complete high school, enroll in college and persist through college, more likely to attend school and are safer. There is also more money, more teacher time and more resources available for the students who remain in public education.

School choice programs also reduce costs to taxpayers, meaning monies that would ordinarily be spent on education can be redirected back to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts, leaving more in their pockets, or — assuming the removal of the constitutional earmark on income tax revenues — be spent on other worthy programs or services which may themselves have positive impacts on education outcomes.

In the field of education, there are always cries for more money. The reality is that there is no magic dollar amount that fixes the broken system. Instead, we need more school choice, more innovation, more accountability and more value for money.

Yes, Utah students certainly deserve more.

Malah Armstrong

Malah Armstrong is the vice president of research and policy at the Utah Taxpayers Association.