Policy Savant Panel: Can Utah become a top-tier education state with low per-pupil funding?

November 18, 2020 (UtahPolicy.com)

We regularly query leaders from the state’s policy institutes/think tanks regarding timely policy issues important to the state. Here is our latest question and responses from our panel of policy savants:

In normal (non-pandemic) times, Utah’s public education system performs quite well, despite our lowest-in-the-country spending per pupil. But if Utah aspires to be a top-five education state, can we do so at current per-pupil spending levels? At what spending level can we achieve top-in-the-country public education performance?

Peter Reichard, President, Utah Foundation. Last year, Utah Foundation published a report called Making the Grade? K-12 Outcomes and Spending in Utah, which wrestled with this question. The report found that, while Utah spends far less per pupil than peer states with student profiles similar to Utah’s, it performs respectably in terms of outcomes. And while higher-spending states tend to outperform the rest of the states, Utah outperforms higher-spending states collectively on several measures. In short, higher spending has only limited links to better education outcomes. The U.S. spends far more per pupil than all but a handful of OECD states. It spends significantly more per pupil than nations regularly mentioned among the world’s highest performers, such as Finland and Poland.

But at some level, spending can become decisive. Will extra money, well spent, get Utah into the very top tier? This is a possibility.

Currently, Utah spends $7,628 per pupil, far less than the U.S. average ($12,612). Yet, even compared to OECD countries, Utah’s per-pupil spending remains low. While it approximates Poland’s, Utah would have to spend thousands more per pupil to approximate the spending in high-performing South Korea ($12,000+) or Finland ($10,000+).

That said, perhaps we should focus less on per-pupil spending overall, and more on spending for lower-performing students. In our 2018 report, A Level Playing Field? Funding for Utah Students at Risk of Academic Failure, we found that funding for lower-income students and English language learners was far below suggested levels. To the extent that they do not perform well due to inadequate funding for targeted programs, we are leaving student achievement potential untapped.

The state has since increased funding for these groups. But providing funding per federally suggested spending levels would cost taxpayers roughly $2,500 more per lower-income and English-learning student – or about $1,000 per pupil overall…

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