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Utah continues to rank dead last in the nation on money spent per student but it distributes that cash more fairly than any other state in the country, according to data from two new reports.
At $6,064, Utah spent less per student in 2010 than any other state, according to a U.S. Census report released Thursday. But according to a separate report released this week by Rutgers Graduate School of Education and the Education Law Center, Utah ranked first in the country in 2009 when it came to distributing that money fairly.
That means students in high poverty school districts in Utah get more funding than those in wealthier areas, according to the report.
The Rutgers report, however, also gave Utah a grade of F for effort, for the percentage of the state's Gross Domestic Product given to education.
"It's an interesting dynamic that we have in our state where we have excellent distribution methods, just not enough in the pipeline to distribute," said State Superintendent Larry Shumway.
For years, Utah has ranked among states that spend the least per student. The new report shows the state was more than $1,000 below Idaho, the next lowest spender.
Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh calls it the "great Utah Paradox." Utah just has too many students and not enough money, she said.
Low per-pupil spending and lots of kids means crowded classrooms. Utah had the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation 27 students per teacher in 2008-09, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Finding solutions to the low funding is going to "require some serious commitments on the part of everyone," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
Shumway said the low per-pupil spending and big class sizes are directly connected: Fewer dollars means fewer teachers and less professional development, which results in less attention for each student.
Still, Utah students often perform at or above the national average on achievement tests.
"I think we have a system that's worthy of the public's investment. We're the best bang for the buck," Shumway said.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, Senate Education Committee chair, said he'd like to see funding made even more fair. He said he hopes to run legislation next session to equalize commercial property taxes.
He said he's also part of a governor's work group, a subcommittee of his Education Excellence Commission, that's re-examining school funding in Utah. The commission is working toward a goal of having 66 percent of all Utah adults with postsecondary degrees or certifications by 2020.
"I believe that we need to figure out how to get more money for public education, there's no doubt about that," Osmond said. Still, he said, he's looking into whether spending money differently would help. "I don't know if we're using those funds as wisely as we could or as effectively as we can and that may impact how much incremental funding that we really need."
Per pupil spending across the country
$18,667 • Washington, D.C.
$18,618 • New York
$16,841 • New Jersey
$15,783 • Alaska
$7,896 • Oklahoma
$7,848 • Arizona
$7,106 • Idaho
$6,064 • Utah
Source • U.S. Census Bureau