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Utah public school students perform well despite low state funding

A teacher stands at the front of a classroom, pointing toward the back. Young students are sitting working at their desks.
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Studies show Utah has some of the best public schools in the country, but poor funding and a high student-to-teacher ratio keep them from being top-notch.

A new survey of public school systems around the country found Utah continues to rank among the top tier of states for its education system, but many Utah educators believe the state's schools could be among the country's elite if the state would increase funding.

A recent WalletHub study ranked Utah schools 13th overall, with high marks for education quality, campus safety and SAT scores, but dead last in per-pupil funding.

Brad Asay, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Utah, said while educators take pride in how well Utah students are performing, they need more money.

"We could definitely be doing a lot more," Asay contended. "If we spent more per pupil spending like other states do that are in the top percentile, we would be one of the top leaders in the nation."

According to the Education Data Initiative, in 2021, Utah spent just $7,951 a year for K-12 students, while the national average was just over $13,000 per pupil. The top spending state, New York, allotted almost $25,000 per student.

Asay recounted in the 1990s, Utah school funding ranked among the top 10 in the country, but in recent decades the state's Republican-majority Legislature has concentrated on cutting taxes over funding services.

Asay noted Utah also ranks near the bottom in terms of class size, with a 23-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. He said while poor funding is part of the equation, there are other reasons why Utah classrooms are bursting at the seams.

"In the state of Utah, we have large families," Asay pointed out. "There are a lot of children, which is fantastic. We think that's great, but that can also contribute to class size, and there hasn't been enough funding to lower that class size."

Asay said about 90% of all students in Utah are enrolled in the public school system. In addition to state funds, Utah schools receive $675 per pupil in federal funds and $3,655 per pupil in local taxes each year.