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Utah faces mounting education challenges

By Sun Advocate

Utahns continue to shoulder a high tax burden and the state dedicates the majority of the revenues to public education. But Utah faces several major hurdles in addressing mounting public education demands in the future.
Utah’s per pupil spending currently ranks the lowest in the nation and classroom sizes are the largest, due primarily to the state’s school-age population. The latest data indicate the state spends approximately $4,200 per student and classrooms in the public schools have an average ratio of 22 pupils per teacher, pointed out the Utah Foundation in a report recently compiled and released by the independent public policy organization.
The 1990s brought extremely favorable conditions for public education in Utah, allowing increased per pupil funding and lower class sizes.
However, the proportion of spending for kindergarten to 12th grade education dropped as state revenues were directed to capital projects, including highway improvements.
Tax revenues increased, while public school enrollment slowed across Utah during the 10-year period.
But a different landscape is expected for the current decade, with an enrollment boom, the prospects of slower economic expansion and the education outcome guidelines implemented by the federal government.
In 1997 and 1999, the Utah Foundation analyzed the state’s education paradox.
Utah has consistently exercised a significant effort to fund kindergarten to 12th grade and higher education.
But the effort continues to yield low per pupil funding because of the unusually large number of children.
When measured in proportion to personal income, Utah has a high tax burden.
In 1998-19999 , the burden was 15.2 percent of personal income, ranking ninth highest among the 50 states.
Constitutionally earmarked for public education, Utah’s individual income tax ranks 16th highest in the U.S. Utah’s rates are not unusually high, noted the foundation. But the highest rate applies to more taxpayers than in most states. For example, married Utahns reach the highest rate after earning a little more than $8,600 in taxable income.
Utah sales taxes rank eighth highest in the nation. The third-largest assessment in Utah is the property tax levied by cities, counties, special districts and school districts. Utah’s property tax registers 36th highest in the nation, while the state ranks 25th in reliance on corporate income taxes.
In Utah, 18.3 percent of all state and local resources go toward fund higher education.
During the mid-1990s, Utah’s budget effort for K-12 schools was among the highest in the nation.
Utah ranked fifth highest in 1996, but fell below the national average by 1999, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 2000 census indicated that Utah has approximately 500,000 school-age residents or 22.8 percent of the state’s total population – the highest percentage recorded in the nation.
When comparing the number of school-age children to the adult working population between the ages of 18 to 64, Utah ranks first in the nation.
For every 100 working adult Utahns, there are 38.5 children, noted the foundation.
Utah also has the highest fertility rate in the nation, at 91.4 live births per 1,000 women of childbearing years.
Arizona is second in the nation, with a considerably lower rate of 78.2 per 1,000 women, explained the foundation.
In 2000, children ages zero to five comprised 9.4 percent of Utah’s population, ranking the highest in the nation.
Projections from the Utah Office of Education show public school enrollments increasing by 102,434 from 2001-2011.
According to 2001 preliminary figures, Utah has the 35th largest economy in the nation, continued the foundation. But when divided by the population, Utah drops to 44th place with a per capita personal income of $24,202.
In 2000, the average annual salary in Utah registered at $29,229. When divided by a 2,080 hour work year, Utahns rank 32nd in the nation with an average hourly salary of $14.05.
The wage for workers in Utah equals approximately 83 percent of the national average.
Utah students perform at an average level on standardized tests. But most racial groups, including white students, score below average compared to national counterparts, noted the foundation.
Examination of comparison test scores indicate Utah would be below average if it were not for favorable demographics, including a high proportion of white, middle class students.
Utah has historically scored at or near the U.S. average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in all areas, except science. Utah students have scored better than the national average in science. Utah students score significantly below average in writing.
The Stanford Achievement Test is a norm-referenced evaluation administered to fifth, eighth and 11th graders since 1997. The norm-referenced tests measure an individual student’s ability versus a representative sample of pupils.
Utah’s overall performance has remained relatively static in the last five years. Students score better on the complete SAT battery as youth get older. Scores for fifth graders register slightly below or barely above the 50th percentile, while Utah’s 11th graders approach the 60th percentile.
In SAT subjects, third graders lag behind the national average in language or writing skills. Utah’s language scores remain below or at the national median in the fifth, eighth and 11th grade results.
Utah’s public school children score well in science at all grade levels. But social science results for eighth and 11th graders continue to fluctuate significantly.
Utah’s core assessments are administered in language/reading in grades one through six, mathematics in grades one through seven, science in grades four through eight and in various subjects at the junior high and high school level.
The core assessment examinations are administered to all elementary students attending public schools in Utah. But after entering junior high or high school, students take specific subject tests for corresponding classes.
The criterion referenced tests measure understanding of the core curriculum by assigning students to one of four categories: mastery, near mastery, partial mastery or minimal mastery.
The ACT is a voluntary entrance exam taken by the majority of Utah’s college-bound juniors and seniors.
Students scored an average of 21.4, while the nationwide composite was 21. Utah’s average score falls within a statistically insignificant range of difference, indicated the foundation.
Utah benefitted from the economic boom of the 1990s, witnessing unparalleled job growth, falling poverty statewide, low unemployment rates and steady personal income increases. As joblessness fell at locations across the state, so did the poverty level.
In 1999, the poverty rate in Utah registered at 5.7 percent, representing the lowest figure on record and one-third of the national average of 14.2 percent.
In 1994, jobs in Utah climbed 6.2 percent – double the national 3.1 percent peak.
During the period from 1994 to 1997, personal income in the state expanded faster than the national average, while enrollment in Utah’s public schools slowed dramatically.
In the decade of the 1990s, Utah experienced only a 7 percent increase in the number of students attending public education institutions statewide. The vast majority of the student enrollment growth occurred between 1990 and 1993.
In 1990, per pupil funding in Utah registered at $3,400, compared with a national average of $6,023.
By 1999, Utah’s funding level climbed to $4,210 per pupil for an increase of almost 24 percent. The national average grew by slightly more than 8 percent to $6,508.
Utah traditionally posts the highest pupil-teacher ratio of any state, according to the foundation.
In 1994, the number stood at 24 students per teacher. The ratio has declined to 22 students per teacher.
As enrollments in K-12 education slowed , so did Utah’s budgetary funding efforts.
From 1995 to 2000, kindergarten to 12th grade public education spending fell from 41.2 percent of the state’s total spending to 38.5 percent.
Education spending accounts for 53.4 of Utah’s total annual budgetary expenditures and the state will face several major funding challenges in the future, pointed out the foundation.
Surging public school enrollments are projected and the state’s economy is expected to expand at a slower pace, noted the Utah Foundation.
Kindergarten through 12th grade enrollments in public schools across the state are expected to jump by 102,434 students or 21.5 percent from 2001 to 2011, noted the Utah Foundation.
Demographers predict the state’s high fertility rate and the number of women in prime childbearing years will account for 70,000 students.
In addition to scrambling to address the state’s pressing budget challenges, the federal No Child Left Behind law will require increased effort and changes in Utah’s existing education system, explained the foundation.
Key requirements of the nationwide education guidelines include the following mandates:
•All Utah teachers must be certified by the state and instruct in declared areas of study.
•By 2005-2006, all third through eighth graders in Utah must be tested annually in math and reading.
By 2007-2008 science tests must be administered at least once in grades three through five, six through nine and 10 through 12.
•All states must participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The results must be disaggregated according to membership in various socio-economic groups.
•All student groups must make adequate yearly progress on the tests.
•Schools failing to post adequate yearly progress in any designated group will be labeled as needing improvement.
The schools will be required to improve within a specified time period.
Schools failing to improve will be subject to various levels of restructuring according to a specified time table.
The federal guidelines allow states limited flexibility, indicated the foundation.
For example, states may select the tests administered to students and define adequate yearly progress. The remaining areas of the federal law are compulsory.
Foundation analysts have charted the progress of the fifth, eighth and 11th grade students in urban, rural and suburban school districts since 1997.
The results of the foundation evaluation confirm that:
•Utah’s urban and rural students continually lag behind the suburban counterparts.
•Urban students encounter the most difficulties in the fifth grade.
•Students attending Utah’s rural and urban public schools perform relatively equally in the eighth grade.
•Rural students in the state face the most difficulties in the 11th grade.
•While scores in the suburban districts have remained stable or improved in recent years, test results in urban districts have declined at all grade levels.
Rural public school districts in Utah posted similar declines.

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