SALT LAKE CITY — Most states, including Utah, are funding education below pre-recession levels, according to a new report.
The report, released Tuesday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, shows that Utah's per-pupil spending has fallen 8.1 percent when adjusted for inflation since 2008. That figure puts Utah behind 26 states that either increased per-pupil spending or decreased by a smaller percentage.
The state continues to have the lowest base per-pupil spending in the U.S. However, according to the report, Utah was among a minority of 22 states that increased funding for the 2012-13 academic year.
New York saw the smallest change in per-pupil spending since 2008, decreasing by 0.1 percent when adjusted for inflation. The greatest decrease occurred in Arizona, which is down nearly 22 percent from pre-recession levels.
On Tuesday, the group Voices for Utah Children responded to the report by condemning the cuts made to education by the state Legislature, saying they put Utah's long-term prosperity in jeopardy.
"We can get by with being in the middle of the pack but that won't change anything about the fact that we're at the bottom for per-pupil spending," said Allison Rowland, the group's director of research and budget. "We can keep trying to get the cheapest education we can, or we can make changes to improve education."
Rowland said Utah's ranking in the report shows that things could be worse, and credited state legislators with their careful managing of the state budget during the recession. But she said there's only so much fat to be trimmed away in education before budget knives start striking bone.
"We want to make sure that we move beyond, now, this worst-case scenario," she said. "Every indication is that Utahns are going to have to be better educated, from cradle to grave, to compete in the economy."
During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers stated that funding growth in education was a budget priority. Rowland said it is encouraging to see Utah among the states that increased per-pupil spending for the 2012-13 school year and hopes the trend continues.
She said the same demographic features that make budgeting for education difficult in the state — Utah families, on average, have more children than their national peers — give Utah an advantage in terms of a younger workforce. The challenge then, she said, is ensuring that students are adequately prepared to compete in a state, national and even global economy.
"We have to try harder," Rowland said. "We've got to be able to do things differently to stay ahead of the pack."
According to the most recent annual report by the Utah State Office of Education, per-pupil spending in Utah was $6,078 in 2011, compared to the national average of $10,425. Without accounting for inflation, Utah's spending stayed relatively constant since 2008, when per-pupil spending was $6,086.
Bruce Williams, associate superintendent for business at the Office of Education, said the state's spending would likely have fallen further if not for federal stimulus money awarded to Utah through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
"The Legislature struggled to fund education during that period of time," he said. "It's been really tough for school districts."
Williams also said the Legislature's decision to increase funding for the current academic year is encouraging. He said it hopefully is an indication that the state is stepping out of the economic downturn.
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