In recent years many Utah legislators have reported on their experience at national conventions when a speaker asks whose state spends less per student on public education than any other. Legislators representing several states claim theirs is the lowest. Sometimes arguments ensue between legislators representing Idaho, Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Nevada, and even Florida and Texas. They all claim public education advocates have shown them proof that their state is dead last in K-12 spending per student.

The common factor in this discussion is that these are the ten states reports as having the lowest public education funding per student. Education spending advocates in these states sometimes “massage” the data to include spending per student only from selected revenue sources or to include spending for capital outlay and debt service to show their state unfavorably in an effort to get policy makers to increase spending.

And in fact, spending per student has increased across the United States faster than the rest of the world and much faster than inflation, causing the United States to now spend more per student than any of the industrialized nations in the world (non-industrialized nations don’t even come close). Despite the U.S. dominating international spending rankings, America’s student performance is lackluster. On the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report card the U.S. ranked 31st overall out of 70 industrialized nations, 39th in math, 25th in science, and 24th in reading. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that in spite of America’s massive increases in spending per student, results continue to stagnate or decline. The most recent NAEP shows that two-thirds of U.S. students are not proficient in math and reading, and the scores continue to decline for all subgroups each time the NAEP is given. Washington D.C. spends $19,159 per student, more than all but New York, yet its scores on the NAEP are near the bottom of the nation. The data prove that the amount spent per student is not as important as whether it is sufficient. More than sufficient amounts tend to make little difference in student performance.

The report shows spending per student highest in New York at $22,366, Washington DC $19,159, Connecticut $18,958, New Jersey $18,402, Vermont $17,873, Alaska $17,510, and Wyoming $16,442. The U.S. average is $11,762 and Utah comes in last place at $6,963, followed by Idaho at $7,157 and Arizona at $7,613. Interestingly, the report reveals New York’s administrative spending per student at $3,707 which is nearly as high as Utah’s teacher salary and benefits spending per student at $3,998!

Why Utah’s 51st Ranking is Flawed
According to the most recent nationwide data from 2016, ranks Utah’s spending per student 51st in the nation. In isolation, that metric fails to tell the story of wide variations in efficiency of school spending from one state to another based on geographic and cultural factors and that significant efficiencies in Utah schools are ignored.

Surprising to many in light of Utah’s rural image, the Beehive State is one of the most urban states in the nation. The only states that are clearly more urban than Utah are California, Nevada, and New Jersey with approximately 95% of their populations living in urban areas. Utah competes for fourth place with Rhode Island, Hawaii and Massachusetts at around 92% urban. The 2020 Census is expected to put Utah squarely in 4th place. (Maine is least urban at 39% which helps explain why its spending per student at $13,278 is nearly twice Utah’s.)

Education financial analysts all agree the single biggest expense of public education is (and should be) teacher salaries and benefits – typically comprising 70-80% of school general fund spending. It is widely known that class size affects the amount of spending per student related to teacher salaries and benefits. Based on average teacher total compensation, a class of 12 students would require double the spending per student on teacher salaries and benefits of a class of 24 students. Most variations in per student spending have to do with class size, or student:teacher ratio. In turn, student:teacher ratios are more efficient in urban areas because of the ability of Utah urban school districts, for example, to have four classes of each grade with fairly uniform class sizes in each elementary school. That type of efficiency is impossible to accomplish in states with students scattered through rural areas and results in per student spending to be much higher in rural states.

The average student:teacher ratio in the United States during the 2018-19 school year was 16:1, according to Utah and California were highest at 23. Of the ten states lowest in spending per student, all but one were higher than or at the national average class size. Of the ten lowest spending per student states, Utah at 23 was highest followed by Nevada at 20. On the other hand, the top ten spenders per student tended to have the smallest class sizes: New York with 11, New Jersey, Vermont, Wyoming and New Hampshire with 12 and Connecticut, Vermont, Wyoming, Massachusetts with 13. There is a strong debate about whether low class sizes produce better student learning outcomes, and low student:teacher ratios are not always planned. They are sometimes a product of declining enrollments or geographic distances between students.

The High Cost of Small School Districts
Utah’s efficiency in per student spending is also affected by the fact that we have fewer school districts than all but four other states and our average number of students per district is greater than all but four other states. This creates efficiencies in lower administrative and plant operational overhead and better pricing for purchased services and instructional materials. It’s part of the reason Florida with 46,237 students per district, Nevada with 27,223, Utah with 14,949 and North Carolina with 12,520 – the four states with the largest average district enrollments – are all in the bottom ten states in spending per student.

On the other end of the 50 state spectrum of district size, Montana’s average district size is 354 students and it spent $11,348 per student, North Dakota (587) $13,373; South Dakota (869) $9,176; and Maine (980) $13,278. Interestingly, Utah school districts of similar size to these state average sizes (under 1,000 students) spent similar amounts per student: Daggett (178) $21,137; Tintic (226) $16,727; Piute (273) $17,093; Wayne (444) $12,554; Rich (507) $14,570; and Garfield (899) $11,075.

By contrast, 86% of Utah students are attending districts of 10,000 students or more while 88% of states have average district sizes of less than 10,000. This difference has a profound impact on relative costs of providing K-12 schooling.

While Utah’s Population Growth Leads the Nation, Many States Face the High Cost of Declining Enrollments
While growth creates challenges in a school system, one of the greatest challenges an elected school board can face is closing schools due to declining enrollments. In America, public schools have become centers of the community. This is true regardless of whether it is an elementary, middle, or high school. There is nothing more politically difficult than closing a community center school. Over the years, Salt Lake and Granite school districts faced such decisions in a small way as neighborhoods once teeming with children of young families are now occupied by aging populations.

Across America’s Rust Belt, as out-migration occurred, school boards, wherever possible kept schools open with half or a third of the students occupying the building but with all of the costs of heating, lighting, cleaning and maintaining a building where these costs had been spread over more students but now are focused on a fraction of the students the buildings were designed to serve.

No one would suggest the higher spending per student caused by failure to efficiently utilize capital facilities is something anyone would want to emulate. Yet these are the states with which Utah school spending is compared.

While the U.S average growth in public elementary and secondary school enrollment grew 7% between fall 2000 and fall 2016, Nevada and Utah led the nation at 39% and 37% respectively, according to “The Condition of Education 2019” published by the National Center for Education Statistics. This growth explains in part why Nevada and Utah are in the ten lowest states in spending per student. Schools are full while administrative and operational overhead costs per student are low.

Eight of the ten states lowest in spending per student have experienced growth significantly faster than the national average: Tennessee 10%, Oklahoma 11%, Florida 16%, North Carolina 20%, Idaho 21%, Arizona 28%, Utah 37% and Nevada 39%.

While the nation’s population has grown 7%, twelve of the 20 states spending the most per student have actually experienced population declines between fall 2000 and fall 2016: Massachusetts and Illinois -1%, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania -5%, Ohio -7%, Rhode Island -10%, Michigan -11%, and Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine -13%, No one envies the difficult decisions school boards face in paying excess per student expenses in underutilized school buildings, but no one should criticize states which spend less per student because of efficient operating environments.

Should Utah apologize for exercising economies of scale and lower administrative overhead? When anyone mentions Utah’s 51st ranking in spending per student, remind them it is a false metric.

Utah’s Ugly Little Secret
Next month in this column I will explain why so many in Utah’s K-12 system use our 51st ranking as a red herring to draw attention from Utah’s practice of discrimination against students attending schools in the wrong zip codes and the fact that these students receive only a fraction of the education resources available to students in other districts.