Public Education in Utah: It’s Time to Innovate

By Christine Kearl
Education Director for Governor Gary R. Herbert

The 2009 Census Bureau Reports indicated U.S. public school systems spent an average of $10,499 per pupil (i) . At $6,356 spent per pupil, Utah is at the bottom of the state-by-state rankings. The next lowest is Idaho at $7,092. States spending the most per pupil are New York at $18,126—nearly three times what Utah spends—Wyoming at $16,408, and New Jersey at $16,271.

While Utah’s low ranking in the spending charts may seem alarming, Utah’s educational outcomes are anything but below average. The Utah State Office of Education calculates graduation rates for Utah high school students at 88% (ii), which puts Utah well above the national rate of 72% (iii). Further, Utah has the highest graduation “efficiency” rating in the nation, meaning that we have more graduates per dollar spent than any other state.

In Utah, our average 2010 ACT scores, coming in at 21.8, are above the national average of 21.0 (iv) . Utah’s ACT scores are higher than other states that spend substantially more per pupil, including Florida (19.5), the District of Columbia (19.2), Colorado (20.5), Arizona (20.0). Approximately 70% of Utah students take the ACT, a higher percentage than most states.

Clearly, dollars are not the only indicator for success. Not only is Utah the best managed state in the nation, it has an effective and efficient education system with a high return on investment – a great credit to our dedicated educators.

Despite our successes, the Governor tells me that we must do better. Our graduation rates and test scores may be above average, but they’re not good enough. In today’s interdependent, competitive, global economy, we have a responsibility to provide Utah kids with the best education possible. The type of education which will prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow.

Now, have we come a long way? Yes, Utah’s progress is noteworthy. Despite our current economic challenges and the fastest-growing student population in the country, Utah’s funding for public education increased by 10.3% over the previous year.

Can we do better? We must, if we are to reach the Governor’s 2020 goal of 66% of the population achieving advanced degrees or certification.

We have to take the time to look beyond dollars and test scores. We must determine what is working and what needs revamping. We must identify the key variables we can affect in the most meaningful way and target improvements where our limited resources are most potent. Then, it’s time to innovate.

That is precisely the focus of the Governor’s Education Excellence Commission—to ask questions, probe deeper, work together, create solutions beyond our current ideas and budget.

Many thanks to the strong leadership of district superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents who want the very best for their children. Working together, we will ask the right questions and find the right solutions. Working together, everyone achieves more.