Nationally, schools took a 5.5 percent hit during the economic slide, but the average per-pupil spending was $10,608, a whopping 70 percent more than Utah's level.
The figures appear to run contrary to the message from Utah's Republican leaders, who have touted the amount of money steered to schools, even during the economic turmoil, as proof that education is dear to their hearts.
But Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the findings don't necessarily contradict the governor's oft-stated position that education is the top issue.
"We all had challenging times there, but it was still made a priority," Carpenter said. "We just had to get creative about how we handled it in that time period."
Education both K-12 and higher education continue to consume two-thirds of state revenues and, even though the income tax base, which funds public education, shriveled by 20 percent during the downturn, the hit to education was significantly less.
During the past three years, the Legislature and the governor have been plowing millions of new dollars into education, a total of $850 million.
"We continue to make substantial investments in education," Carpenter said, "and the governor has said all along it's an important part of our investment in our future economy."
Nolan Karras, co-chairman of the business-backed group Education First, said legislators overall recognize the importance of education and support funding for schools, but more is needed.
"It doesn't surprise me we're one of the ones that got cut the most," said Karras, a former Utah House speaker. "We believe that the challenges we're going to face in terms of having these students ready for the future with technological changes, globalization, all the things you can imagine … we've just got to step up our game."
A 2005 amendment to the Utah Constitution allowed lawmakers to spend money that had been earmarked for public education on higher education, as well. Once they started doing that, Karras said, funding that had gone to higher education before was spent on roads.
"I recognize we've got infrastructure needs, and we don't have a quarrel with that," he said. "But we believe that allowing money to be siphoned off needs to be thought about. … It's part of the overall problem and it is why we continue to lag."
Steve Kroes, president of the nonpartisan Utah Foundation, which studies education policy and other issues, said he was surprised that Utah's cuts weren't smaller than other states, because the state had a healthier Rainy Day Fund to draw down.
He said the decline in per-pupil spending may have been aggravated by income tax cuts enacted under then-Gov. Jon Huntsman just before the recession that could have magnified the decline in available education funds.
Kroes' group looks at a metric it calls the "education effort," that is the percentage of income that goes to education. By that standard, Utah is still well behind other states.
"Lawmakers always seem to think we're doing everything we can for education, because it is this big chunk out of our state budget," he said. During the 1990s, Utah was near the top in the percentage of income invested in education. Now it is back near the bottom third in the nation.
Politically, Kroes said, it's possible that the Legislature could funnel significantly more money into schools if the increase is tied to some new program. Short of that, he added, it seems unlikely legislators would boost spending enough to get Utah out of the cellar in per-pupil funding.
"The idea of getting out of last place just because it embarrasses us," Kroes said, "is not something that really sells politically."
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