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Utah public school students still get the smallest chunk of government education funding in the country.
A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau Tuesday ranked the state's 2013 per-student spending $6,555 a year at the bottom of the heap for U.S. states.
The analysis found that per-student spending increased by nearly 1 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2013, to an average of $10,700.
But Utah's per-student funding earned a ranking of 51st behind all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Utah's spending level was also less than one-third of the highest-ranked state, New York, at $19,818 per student.
However, the state can brag about its effort to increase school spending. Between 2012 and 2013, Utah schools marked the largest percentage gain in per-pupil funding 5.6 percent.
It still wasn't enough to lift Utah off the bottom rung of the ladder, as taxpayer dollars continue to be absorbed by an atypically large student population.
"We've got an economic and demographic reality that we can't leap over," said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education.
Peterson said the national rankings can mask the effort being made in Utah to increase school spending. Because the U.S. Census Bureau report is based on 2013 data, it does not reflect additional funding approved by Utah lawmakers in 2014 and 2015.
And the report also showed that Utah spends less on school district administration and more on teachers and classroom instruction than most states, which Peterson cited as evidence of efficiency within the school system.
"Yes, additional money would be welcome," he said. "But the important thing is to spend whatever money you have wisely."
Last week, in a speech to Utah Taxpayers Association members, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brad Smith dismissed repeating the "same old tired statistic" of Utah ranking last in the nation.
"There is no virtue in rising higher on that list," he said. "And there is no particular vice in being low on it."
Instead, Smith said, Utahns should focus on student achievement data. Smith was not available for comment Tuesday.
But Stephen Kroes, president of the Utah Foundation, said the last two decades have racked up corresponding drops in Utah's education performance and the state's funding "effort" the proportion of personal income dedicated to public schools.
In the mid-1990s, Kroes said, Utah ranked in the Top 10 for school funding efforts and the Top 15 for performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But the state has dropped by both measures to the middle of the pack as Utah schools have become more diverse and funding has failed to keep pace with income growth as lawmakers cut and flattened taxes in 2007 and funneled income taxes to other programs.
"What we've been seeing as a general trend for the last 20 years is that public schools have taken all of the hit from reduced taxes in the state," he said.
Kroes said school funding isn't necessarily responsible for the drop in performance, and there's no guarantee that new money would lift test scores. But initiatives to reform education and serve struggling students come at a cost.
"It costs money to provide an environment that fosters greater learning," he said.
Kroes described the 2015 legislative session as a "banner year" for education, and said the state's funding effort will likely increase when new data is analyzed.
But it is unclear if lawmakers' check-writing will lift Utah out of last place in future rankings, because other states made their own changes to education funding.
In order to match the per-pupil funding level of Idaho, the second-lowest ranked state, Utah would have had to spend an additional $141.8 million in 2013, according to the report.
Peterson pointed to the recent passage of SB97, which raises $75 million for schools through a statewide property tax, as an example that Utah lawmakers and policymakers are working to increase school funding.
"An effort is being put forth to move the needle," he said.
Highest per-pupil spending in the United States:
1. New York $19,818
2. Alaska $18,175
3. Washington, D.C. $17,953
4. New Jersey $17,572
5. Connecticut $16,631
6. Vermont $16,377
7. Wyoming $15,700
8. Massachusetts $14,515
9. Rhode Island $14,415
10. Pennsylvania $13,864
Lowest per-pupil spending in the United States:
41. South Dakota $8,470
42. Florida $8,433
43. North Carolina $8,390
44. Nevada $8,339
45. Texas $8,299
46. Tennessee $8,208
47. Mississippi $8,130
48. Oklahoma $7,672
49. Arizona $7,208
50. Idaho $6,791
51. Utah $6,555. › XX