Utah’s Education Funding Effort: State Faces Long-Term Challenges

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Each gubernatorial election year, Utah Foundation identifies the public policy issues Utahns find most important through our Utah Priorities Project. In that research, Utahns consistently rank education as one of the most important issues. In the 2010 election cycle, when voters were asked their level of concern on various education topics, funding ranked highest among all education issue areas. Because of this, information about current education funding and historical trends is vital knowledge for voters and policy makers.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released data on education spending and revenue in each state for fiscal year 2009. Utah ranked last in the nation in per-pupil spending, a position it has held since 1988.  This low ranking in per-pupil spending is in part the result of the high proportion of children to the general population in Utah.  However, Utah Foundation has also noted that there has been a significant decline in the public education funding effort since 1995, a trend that, despite additional funds from the economic stimulus package and the recent state budget surplus, still continues.

In this report, as in previous reports published by Utah Foundation regarding education funding, funding effort is defined as public education revenues per $1,000 of personal income.  This measure shows how willing Utahns and their elected officials are to collectively commit tax dollars to education.  It also shows whether education funds are growing in line with the overall growth of Utah’s economy.  The new data from the Census Bureau show that in 2009, Utah’s education funding effort was just under $48 per $1,000 of personal income, meaning that taxes paid for public education equaled about 4.8% of all income earned in the state.  Utah’s national ranking for this effort is 26th, or right about the national average.

This ranking is a marked shift from the mid-1990s and previous decades, when Utah placed within the top 10 states for K-12 education funding effort. Many observers, thinking of past performance, still argue that Utah is exerting a heavy effort to fund education, that the state is doing as much as it can, and that per-pupil ratios are only low because Utah has so many children to educate. In reality, Utah is not exerting a heavy effort and has not since the 1990s.  Previous Utah Foundation research shows that since the mid-1990s, rather than emphasizing funding for public education, state policymakers have placed a higher priority on growth in budgets for other programs or on reducing taxes.

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