Investments in ‘at-risk’ students falling short of national benchmarks

Written by: Peter Reichard

In the K-12 education arena, battle lines can be drawn in numerous areas: curriculum content, school choice, teacher qualifications, school taxes, governance – the list goes on. But one area in which there is broad consensus is the notion that, to the extent feasible, impediments to student success ought to be lifted. Each child ought to have a fair shot at academic achievement.

That challenge is a top concern of the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission, which voted to focus its efforts in 2018 on “providing support to students at risk of academic failure.” To help guide those efforts, Utah Foundation last month released a report, A Level Playing Field? Funding for Utah Students at Risk of Academic Failure. Specifically, the report examines the funding directed at improving K-12 educational outcomes for three groups: students with disabilities, English learners and lower-income students. As part of the study, we looked at various benchmarks nationally to get a clearer picture of whether additional funding for these students approaches adequacy.

What we found suggests that the funding levels deserve a much closer look.
The students with disabilities group is distinct from the other two in that there is a very wide range of need. Some students may have a mild speech impediment; others may have physical disabilities that require a high level of attention from educational staff. Roughly 12% of Utah’s K-12 students fall within this range. Collectively, these students are the most expensive of the three groups, in part because of the intense attention some of them require. But, perhaps surprisingly, this group is the best funded as compared to national benchmarks.

The federal government estimates that students with disabilities on average require twice the spending of other students. Utah’s combined federal and state funding suggests that Utah nearly reaches that mark. However, for our state to reach the benchmark level for this group, Utah Foundation estimates an additional investment of about $50 million annually.

In a state with a steady supply of immigrants, addressing the needs of English learners offers a unique opportunity to lift student performance. Roughly 7% of Utah’s K-12 students fall into the English learner category, and Spanish is the mother tongue for eight out of 10 of them. To the extent that the language barrier impedes academic progress, ensuring these students are fluent in English removes the impediment and paves the way to success.

That said, Utah invests relatively little in these students. To set a benchmark, Utah Foundation looked at the additional funding effort nationally for English learners and found a median state percentage increase over general student funding of 22%. In Utah, the increase is closer to 3%. Utah Foundation estimates an increase of more than $60 million per year for English learners would bring Utah up to the benchmark.

State and local officials are increasingly focused on the issue of intergenerational poverty in Utah. The K-12 education system offers a prime opportunity for intervention to break the cycle of poverty. It is well established that academic achievement is a marker for success in the workforce. More than one-third of Utah’s K-12 students can be categorized as “lower-income.”

Here, the funding gap in Utah vis-à-vis national benchmarks is most pronounced. To reach the federal target of 40% in additional funding for lower-income kids, Utah would have to spend roughly $500 million more per year.

To be clear, funding adequacy cannot be pegged to a set formula. But based on various benchmarks, it appears that the additional funding for Utah students at risk of academic failure deserves a closer look, especially when it comes to English learners and lower-income students. This is especially important in the context of Utah’s lowest-in-the-nation overall per-pupil funding. If additional funding is identified and invested effectively, Utah has a chance to reap the economic and social benefits of improved student success. Such investments could pay dividends for decades to come.

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