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SALT LAKE CITY — To raise Utah's public schools from their status as the lowest funded in terms of per-pupil spending to the national average would require an investment of roughly $2.6 billion, according to data from the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.
That would require an income tax rate of 9.8 percent, said Jonathan Ball, director of the analysts office. That would cost the average Utah household an additional $4,213 each year.
To match Washington, D.C. — currently the highest per-pupil spending rate in the country — Utah would need more than $8 billion, which would require a 19.8 percent income tax rate and an additional annual household cost of $13,013, he said.
Those figures were included among presentations given to members of the Education Task Force on Wednesday during its inaugural meeting. The task force, composed of both House and Senate leadership and House and Senate Education Committee members, was created during the most recent legislative session with the intent of cultivating a long-term vision and strategic planning for education in the state.
Ball's presentation also looked at Utah's scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is currently the standard for comparing educational outcomes across state lines. In a series of graphs, he showed how the nation's NAEP scores correspond with per-pupil spending, student-to-teacher ratios, single-parent households and other indicators.
"You also have to take into account what you can influence as policymakers," Ball told members of the task force. "Can you influence single-parent households? Probably not."
You also have to take into account what you can influence as policymakers. Can you influence single-parent households? Probably not.
–Jonathan Ball, Director of Analysts Office
According to the data from the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, the link between funding and educational performance is not as statistically significant as social factors like household income and parental degree attainment. Single-parent households were shown to have the most significant relationship with test scores, with Ball saying that for every percentage point of a state's families that are headed by a single parent, NAEP scores decrease by roughly 18 points.
Responding to the presentation, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, remarked that educators have long championed the need for parental and family involvement in the education of their children.
"It kind of goes along with what teachers have been saying for a long time," he said. "We’re always trying to get educators to compensate for the failures in the home, hoping to try and get some student achievement out of that."
But Reid also questioned whether familial situations are really the answer for why some states like Massachusetts excel while Utah persists near, or slightly above, the national average for NAEP scores. Other data from the presentation showed, based on the statistical models, that an investment of $1 billion would likely raise Utah by two positions in the NAEP rankings.
"It’s hard for me to accept that it's the familial experience that’s making the difference for their high achievement," Reid said of the assessment scores. "Is there a way to compensate for familial factors that we may or may not be able to control?"
Ball responded that it's not necessarily strong families that account for other states outranking Utah, but rather that it's more likely Utah's low number of single-parent household and high rates of parental degree attainment allow the state to remain competitive despite its traditionally low spending on education.
"The reason we get away with the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation is because of these other factors," he said.
He also said the estimate that a $1 billion investment would result in Utah jumping two spots was based on the assumption that the status quo of existing spending practices continues.
"The question is, spending on what?" Ball said. "This assumes we spend it the same way we’re spending it now."
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, also spoke of the need to prioritize funds, saying that by understanding which factors contribute to educational performance, lawmakers can focus on addressing needs.
"We can, through better understanding, know factors we can influence to equalize the playing field so every child has equal opportunity to succeed," she said.
Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, also cautioned lawmakers to not look too simplistically at demographic data, as there are a number of social and financial realities that Utah's families face.
"We need to be very careful about labeling homes with a single parent as failures," she said.
The task force also heard presentations on funding and enrollment for higher education in the state, progress of the 66 by 2020 initiative, the Utah Data Alliance and remarks from various state education stakeholders.
"We'd like to know what you think are the key elements of our educational future, the most important elements that we need to focus on," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said to members of the audience.
Lawmakers also commented on a number of subjects they hope the task force considers at future meetings, such as the potential of early intervention to target the achievement gap of English language learners, special education students and other at-risk groups.
"That particular population is having a significant skew on the impact of our educational results," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan. "I would like this group to spend some time talking about the effect that early intervention has."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, also expressed the hope that task force meetings could be used as a forum to hear from currently employed educators in the state, whose teaching schedules do not always allow for participation at public meetings during the legislative session.