"The area where we get the lowest grade on is on funding, so you can't blame educators," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent, noting that Utah has the lowest per pupil funding in the country. "Every time they factor funding into their grades for education that always puts Utah low."
Utah earned its highest marks for its alignment between different levels of education and workforce needs, in which it ranked ninth in the country. It also earned a B minus for its standards, assessments and accountability.
Its lowest marks were for school finance, K-12 achievement (mostly as measured by student performance on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests) and conditions for teachers, including accountability.
The report dinged the state for not limiting class sizes, not offering state funded teacher training and not paying teachers salaries equal to those earned by people in comparable occupations, among other things.
Park, however, said that in many cases, those issues go back to Utah's low funding.
Vicki Varela, communications adviser with Prosperity 2020, a business-led initiative to improve education in Utah, said reports such as Quality Counts are snapshots from certain perspectives that don't always tell the full story. Still, she said, it's positive by anyone's measure to see Utah moving up in the rankings, though "38th in the nation isn't where anybody wants us to be positioned."
Varela said investment isn't everything, but it's a big part of the equation. She noted that the state ranks in the bottom half of the nation for the amount of money spent on education in proportion to personal income.
On Wednesday, Prosperity 2020 unveiled its priorities for the upcoming legislative session, asking lawmakers to invest $43.6 million in computer-adaptive testing; early education programs for at-risk kids; and ACT testing for all students, among other things.
The group suggested a number of options to pay for all that, including modernizing the state's severance tax system, tapping mineral lease revenues and restoring sales tax on food to its full rate, among other options.
"Our business leaders have seen education warning signs and those become red flags to the economy," said Natalie Gochnour, chief economist at the Salt Lake Chamber, during the unveiling of the Prosperity 2020 legislative priorities.
Education Week grades Utah education
Chance for success • C+ (rank of 20th in nation)
Transitions and alignment • B+ (ninth)
School finance analysis • D (No. 47)
K-12 achievement • D+ (32nd)
Standards, assessments and accountability • B- (No. 33)
The teaching profession • D (43rd)