by Howard Stephenson

From recent news reports and reaction from NEA’s Utah affiliate, you’d think the Legislature had been stingy with education funding this year. UEA President Pat Rusk called it a “status quo amount.” She said in a Deseret Morning News report, “It’s not an investment that moves us forward.” A Salt Lake Tribune editorial parroted Pat Rusk’s statement.

The truth is that Utah’s state appropriations for public education jumped a whopping 13% for the coming school year. This includes a 6% increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) the basic student funding measure, fully funding enrollment increases, and significant hikes in block grants and categorical funding. When local property taxes are included in the totals, the percentage is still an amazing 11.3% increase in overall spending for education – hardly “status quo.”

The union leader was responding to a recent Census Bureau report which ranks Utah dead last (again) in education spending per student during the school year ending June 30 2004. We’d have to increase spending another $497 million – the equivalent of a 30% increase in Utah individual income taxes – in order to catch up with second-to-last Idaho which spent $6,028 per student. This would require another $1,020 per pupil in Utah spending to bring us up from the current $5,008 per student.

If our goal was to bring Utah spending per student to the national average of $8,287, it would take $1.598 billion in new revenues. This could be accomplished by doubling the current total take in Utah property taxes.

Not included in the comparisons is funding for debt service and capital outlay which is not an insignificant amount in a state which is growing like Utah and whose school boards tend to choose lavish building plans.

The Rest of the Story

One would think that Utah’s ranking in spending per student would produce a sub-standard education system and a poorly paid professional staff, but the evidence does not support this assumption. In fact national studies show that the amount spent per student has little relationship to the quality of education in a state. For example, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. spent just under $13,000 per student in 2004 but few Utahns would like to send their children to D.C. type schools.

Other demographic and geographic factors illustrate why higher spending per student does not mean better education.

The High Cost of Small Districts

Utah school districts number only 40 with an average of 12,238 students per district compared to more than 1,000 districts in Texas with an average of only 4,116 students per district and nearly 1,000 districts in California with 6,490 students per district. There are significant administrative costs associated with small business units in public education; costs which do nothing to enhance the quality of education students receive. The other four of the five lowest states in spending per student have significant overhead in administration due to the markedly lower numbers of students per district. For example, while Utah has an average of 12,238 students per district, Idaho has an average of only 2,190, Arizona has only 2,976, Oklahoma 1,137, and Mississippi 3,220. This additional administrative overhead in these and most other states suggests that Utah is getting more bang for its buck. If overhead costs were deducted from student spending, Utah’s ranking would likely improve.

Other factors associated with small districts involve limited ability to achieve uniform class sizes. Whenever small student populations exist, there are additional costs caused by sporadic class sizes. The fact that Utah is the sixth most urban state in the nation provides uniformity of class sizes – lowering costs and improving efficiency.

Utah has its own share of high overhead districts which should make the education lobby feel better. Our tiniest district, Daggett, for example has 136 students and spends $17,000 per student for an education which is no better than Alpine which spends just Tintic School District has 262 students and spends $12,343 per student while Piute with 345 students spends $10,650 per student and Rich with 429 students spends just under $10,000 per student. But fortunately, only a small percentage of Utah students are educated in small school districts. Nearly 60% of Utah students are taught in just five of our 40 districts. Nearly 80% are taught in the largest ten districts.

Vermont , which has an average of 328 students per district – the smallest in the nations – ranks fourth highest spending per student at $11,128. Is this money well spent? Montana and Nebraska have the next smallest district sizes at 333 and 527 students per district respectively. No wonder they each spend an average of approximately $7,750 per student. Can anyone argue that they get greater educational value than Utah does at $5,008 per student? Maine has an average district size of 709 students and spends $9,534 per student.

Would the education lobby feel better if Utah students were distributed evenly across the state and educated in small, high-overhead schools? Unfortunately, high cost doesn’t necessarily mean high quality when it comes to public education.

Declining Enrollments Generate Higher Per Student Spending

The industrial Eastern and Mid-Western states are dying. Out migration in the rust-belt is taking its toll on school efficiency. Unlike Utah and other western states, northeastern and mid-western states have experienced declining public school enrollment in the past twenty years. The most difficult challenge of any school board is closing schools. Utah recently witnessed a hint of this in the unique portion of the state with declining enrollment – Granite School District’s east bench. Citizens showed up at public hearings with figurative hanging ropes and torches ready to take matters into their own hands. In the end, only token closures were made because it’s politically excruciating to close schools.

If managed correctly, declining enrollment can increase total spending per student and instructional spending per student without raising taxes since existing revenues go further when classrooms have fewer students. Also, instead of raising local property taxes to build and operate new schools, states with declining enrollment can use more of their tax base to fund instruction.

However, if managed incorrectly, declining enrollment can cause instructional spending to decline as tax dollars are inefficiently used to cover facility operation and maintenance costs in half empty schools with all the overhead of a school with a full student body. The cost of heating, lighting, cleaning, maintenance, and administration of buildings with half as many students as they are designed to house is a very, very expensive proposition.

But Doesn’t More Money Produce Better Education?

Despite the evidence cited above regarding wasted resources, some suggest that more money is necessary to produce better education outcomes. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2005 Report Card on American Education finds no correlation between increases in education spending or keeping pupil-teacher ratios at a very low level—and improving student achievement—such as average scores on standardized tests. In fact, there has been shown to be an inverse correlation between spending and results: States which spend the most tend to have lower performance.

This does not suggest that Utah should spend less on education. In fact, with a large percentage of teachers expected to retire in the next few years and an influx of 140,000 net new students entering the system over the next ten years, there is a crying need to ensure that teacher compensation is such that we can attract qualified teachers to our system. To accomplish this, the legislature has already instituted signing bonuses for math, science, and special education teachers which are in short supply. The legislature has also instituted a pilot program for pay for performance, rewarding teachers whose students make more than one year of academic progress.