The Utah Foundation recently released a study titled “Making the Grade? K-12 Outcomes and Spending in Utah” that tries to make sense of why Utah, which spends less on K-12 education than any other state (at $7,179 per pupil, $5,000 below the national average), still does well in most areas measured and even outperforms many higher spending states. Although Utah lawmakers and other state leaders may congratulate themselves on these academic outcomes at bargain basement prices, if you scratch the surface the results show a large gap in educational attainment that desperately needs addressing.
Many Utah students have a lot going for them. When compared to both neighboring and peer states, we have a higher percentage of children in two-parent families with at least one parent who graduated from college. This is a huge predictor of a family’s socioeconomic stability, and thus, student success. The study states that these factors are a “strong indicator for student educational outcome due to influence, economic and social capital.” Even if our classrooms are overcrowded and teacher pay is low (and don’t forget we have a serious teacher shortage in Utah in part because of our low salaries), the negative impact is mitigated for those with a strong parental base.
But what about the students who don’t have as much “economic and social capital?” The numbers tell a different, less impressive story. While over half of higher-income students test proficient in standardized math and language arts tests, less than one third of lower-income students are proficient, and not even 20% of students with disabilities or English learners are proficient. While all groups have improved on these tests over time, the large gap between student outcomes is not closing. This is true for graduation rates as well. Our overall rate is 86%, one point higher than the national average. But when comparing school districts within Utah, the gap can be as wide as 20 points. Hundreds of thousands of Utah children are continuing to be disadvantaged because of the lack of funding available to educate them.
While there is little evidence that large spending increases will guarantee better education, a new report from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) demonstrates that there is a relationship between school funding and outcomes, especially for economically-disadvantaged, disabled, and minority students. The study reveals that even small increases make a difference. The report shows that boosting K-12 per-pupil spending by 10% improves the probability of high school graduation by 7% for all students, “and by roughly 10 percentage points for non-poor children.” Some may argue that we can’t afford to increase our per-student spending. But the alternative is to ignore the disparity that exists between students, and there is a price for that too.
While increases, however modest, would be of greatest assistance to underprivileged students, remember that everyone would benefit. The Utah Foundation report warns that low level spending has “a decisive effect” and that Utah may be falling “short of its potential.” I would argue that Utah is most definitely falling short of its potential. Should Utah be proud that states with higher teacher salaries, more resources, and smaller classes don’t do as well as we do? No. It’s time we acknowledge that while many of our kids succeed despite those factors, others are being left behind. And all of our kids deserve better.