Utah’s declining educational effort has been well publicized. The Utah Foundation described that decline in a June 2011 report, “…There has been as significant decline in the public education funding effort since 1995.” Emphasizing that fact, the report concludes, “Utah is not exerting a heavy effort.”
Imagine, therefore, my surprise when I sat in a public meeting in early January of this year and heard Representative Jim Nielson emphatically counter the criticism by describing the effort of the Utah Legislature to fund education, insisting that it was actually increasing. Since that time, I have heard other politicians make similar claims.
After reviewing various reports and talking to economic analysts, I learned that it all depends on what comparisons you are making. In determining the validity of the legislator’s figures some questions require answer: “To what is a comparison being made? What is being left out? What is being included?” The answers to those questions proved illuminating.
I later went to the Representative’s blog site and read his actual figures. He claims that “total public education funding” in Utah as a percent of “total state appropriations” has actually increased from 42.65 percent in 2007 to 50.53 percent in 2012. The analysis seemed dramatically different than I had heard and I knew I must do some investigation.
Once again, after reviewing various reports and talking to economic analysts, I learned that it all depends on what comparisons you are making. In determining the validity of the legislator’s figures some questions require answer: “To what is a comparison being made? What is being left out? What is being included?” The answers to those questions proved illuminating.
I became convinced the analysis of the legislator is another case of “only telling part of the story.” Although his figures may be correct as far as they go, key questions need to be pressed:
- When the legislator compares education funding to “total state appropriations” what is he excluding?
- Does the legislator’s analysis take into account the increased number of students during the same time?
- Does his analysis mean effort has increased or mostly that total appropriations have dramatically decreased?
- And back to the bottom line question, when all figures are taken into account, has the effort of Utah citizens to educate their children actually gone up or down?
What is being excluded? Answer: over half of the budget!
At the outset, Neilson’s analysis excludes things which other statistical comparisons include. Well publicized, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for FY 2005-11 produced by the State’s Division of Finance paints a completely different picture. That report explains that in 2011, total expenditure by Utah State government was $11,119,000,000. Total public education funding for the same period was $3,059,000,000: 27.5 percent of the total. Clearly, the official state figures produce in the Comprehensive Report differ considerably from the figures provided by the legislator. Why the difference?
The answer, I discovered, may be attributed to what the legislator excludes. It appears he does not count money spent on transportation, some restricted accounts dedicated to particular needs, and federal funds. Nielson deals with a 2011 appropriation of $4,724 million, while the official comprehensive report deals with a total of $11,119 million. Change the denominator and the results are totally different.
Nielson justifies his analysis by saying that he is only dealing with “total state appropriations.” But as we see that figure is really not the total appropriations. It may coincide with a figure in the budget which identifies part of state-funded appropriations, but does not deal with even half of the entire picture. (And if you included money spent by local taxation, you would have another completely different figures; the percentage would be even smaller.)
Is the increasing number of students considered? Answer: NO!
Neilson’s analysis also makes another significant omission. He implies that the need has remained the same. Clearly, it has not. Between 2007 and 2012, public education enrollments have included 63,742 new students: the number has grown from 524,003 students to 587,745.
Near the end of the recent legislative sessions, a chart was distributed on the floor by Representative Ronda Menlove. That research showed that “real per student appropriations to public education” had decreased from $4,100 to 3,710 during the same years for which Nielson is speaking. I believe the most significant reason for this decline is the increased number of students.
To claim that appropriations have increased but ignored that the demand has grown significantly is, in my opinion, disingenuous reasoning.
Do the figures more likely reflect declining overall appropriations? Answer: YES!
Even if one accepted the other omissions cited above, to suggest that the figures describe increased effort is misleading. Much of the difference occurs because appropriations have declined. When one creates a percentage comparison between public education appropriations and state appropriations, if the total has decreased the percentage can be give false impressions.
This is the case in the years compared. According to Neilson’s partial figures which he uses, “state appropriations” were over $5 billion in 2007 and had reached $6,043,604,778 by 2008. By the 2010-2012 period the total had declined to between $4.4 and 4.8 billion.
Obviously, if the total denominator dramatically declines and the public education figures stay anywhere near static, the percentage figure will appear to increase when no increase has taken place! I commend the Legislature for the effort they have made in difficult economic times, but it does not mean that education effort has not declined.
So, bottom line: has Utah citizens’ effort to support education gone up or down? Answer: Down.
Rather than comparing to partial and incomplete statistics, I believe a more valid comparison is to compare Utah’s effort by comparing education effort to personal income. In other words, compared to the overall wealth of Utahns, are we spending a greater or lesser percentage on education?
Statistics based on reports of the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis indicate that while personal income continues to rise in Utah, the education effort as percentage of that income has declined:
|Fiscal year||Education Appropriations (in millions of dollars)||Personal Income (per household)||Education effort as a percentage|
Undoubtedly, politicians will continue to make various comparisons to justify the failure to adequately support public education in Utah. The facts, however, indicate that such explanations are only rationalization. Utah remains the lowest funded state in education in the nation, and the effort to support public education is declining.
Kim Burningham represents District 5 on the Utah State Board of Education. Prior to joining the State Board of Education, he served for 15 years in the Utah Legislature and was an educator for many years, twice named Outstanding Teaching of the Year.