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Utah last in U.S. in spending per pupil — again

Published: Tuesday, June 29 2010 12:21 a.m. MDT

Third-graders play tetherball in front of portable classrooms at Antelope Elementary School in Clearfield on Monday. Districts throughout the state are using portable classrooms as a means of accommodating population surges and staving off building projects until funding is available.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau comes out with a state-by-state education funding per pupil report. And every year, it seems, Utah comes in dead last.

The 2007-08 school year was no different, with the Beehive State ranking far behind the rest of the national pack, according to the census data released Monday.

"It's been said over and over again, we stack them deep and educate them cheap," said Larry Newton, school finance director for the Utah State Office of Education. "It gets old, but it's not new."

The census found that Utah schools spent on average $5,765 per student in 2007-08. Idaho was second-lowest at $6,931 — but that was still 20 percent higher than what was spent in Utah.

Nationally, schools spent $10,259 per student on average. That is almost twice as much as in Utah.

New York spent the most per student of any state — $17,173. That is about three times as much as Utah spent.

A key demographic reason behind the low ranking of Utah is that the state has far more students per taxpaying worker than any other state, caused in part by Utah's top-in-the-nation fertility rate and large family size.

University of Utah research economist Pam Perlich said Utah has about 35.8 school-age children per 100 "working age" people — nearly a third higher than the national average, according to census estimates. Idaho also has the second-highest students-per-worker ratio.

Newton said educators from others states marvel at how Utah is able to get by on such limited funding. The simple answer, he said, is that they have no other option.

"In public education, you can't say, 'I'm sorry, you can't come to school this year,' " he said. "Not having the money is not an excuse. … Over time, I think school districts and educators in Utah have learned to do more with less, and to work harder and smarter because they have to. There's no other choice."

School districts cope through a number of methods, such as hiring uncertified employees to man their libraries, and relying on aides who receive on-the-job training. This year, at least eight districts will be cutting back on their instructional days, and in districts throughout the state, portable classrooms are used as a means of accommodating population surges and staving off building projects until funding is available.

The Census Bureau also figured states' rankings according to how much they spent per $1,000 in personal income. Utah ranked 41st among the states in that measure, spending $37.86 on schools for every $1,000 in personal income. That was less than the national average of $42.14. Utah also has the highest birth rate among the states, so each taxpayer tends to support more schoolchildren than in other states.

"We've always been very, very high in our youth population," Newton said. "One of the things that Utah is very good at is making babies."

Educating those children will prove to become more difficult, he said, as the state becomes more and more diverse. Some minority groups have larger families than even traditional Utah families. Newton said the state was able to cope somewhat with the lacking per-pupil funding for decades, but it's going to get increasingly harder. Having more diverse schools requires more diverse instruction, which comes at a price.

"We're seeing more and more students with English language needs and more and more students from poverty," he said. "I don't know where we're going to get the resources. … We've only got a certain number of productive working taxpayers to support all these youth."

Considering decades of low per-pupil spending, the state has had exceptional academic performance, Newton said.

"I think the taxpayers have gotten a tremendous, tremendous bang for their buck in public education in Utah," he said. "Nowhere else do you see the kind of education productivity that you do in Utah."

Utah not only ranks last in overall per-pupil spending, it also ranks last in per-student spending on overall instruction ($3,718), last on teacher salaries per student ($2,429), last on general administration per student ($62) and last in school administration ($340).

The Census Bureau said that on average, Utah schools receive 9.1 percent of their funding from federal sources, 56.3 percent from the state, and 34.6 percent from local school district sources. The national average for such sources is 8.1 percent from federal sources, 48.3 percent from state sources, and 43.7 percent from local sources.

The Census Bureau also released per-pupil spending figures for 13 Utah school districts in 2007-08 that had more than 10,000 students each.

In order, they were Salt Lake City, $7,190; Ogden, $6,528; Provo, $6,028; Cache, $5,902; Washington County, $5,812; Box Elder, $5,660; Davis County, $5,564; Weber County, $5,555; Granite, $5,433; Tooele County, $5,477; Nebo, $5,325; Jordan, $5,316; and Alpine, $5,123.

e-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, lee@desnews.com

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