State Policy

On May 18, 2021, as it always does around this time of year, the US Census Bureau released its Annual Survey of School System Finances. This report is the authoritative source of state education finance data and rankings, including the one we are all familiar with that has ranked Utah last in the nation for per-pupil K-12 education investment every year since 1988. This year's report, which as always covered the data from two years ago (the 2018-19 school year), included both good news and bad news for Utah. 

On the positive side, Utah has finally defeated Idaho in the annual fight for 49th place. Voices for Utah Children has been tracking this annual battle for a number of years. We've come close in the past, and in FY2019 we finally won, by a grand total of $29 per pupil or $19 million overall, as illustrated in the chart below: 

Utah Idaho educ gap chart 2008 2019

 On the negative side, Utah's "education funding effort," a measure of the share of state personal income that we invest in K-12 education, continued its long decline. in the 1990s, Utah invested a total of 6% of our personal income in our education system the 1990s, but that share has fallen by more than a third, to under 4% today, as shown in the chart below: 


The blue line is total education revenue, including revenues used for capital spending (such as new school buildings), while the red line shows only current expenditures, which excludes capital spending. (Utah tends to spend a higher share of overall education revenue on capital compared to other states because our rapidly growing population requires more frequent construction of new school buildings.)

As our education funding effort has declined, so has our national ranking for education funding effort. In the 1990s we consistently ranked in the top 10 nationally for education funding effort, but now we're in the bottom 10-15, as shown below:

ED EFFORT rank 93 19

 Voices for Utah Children's most recent economic benchmarking report, comparing Utah to Arizona and to the nation as a whole, discusses the question of whether Utah's economic development strategy needs to transition away from our practice of passing regular tax breaks (on average $100 million annually for the last 25 years, adding up now to about $2.5 billion each year, intended to spur job growth) and instead focus on rolling back some tax breaks and restoring some revenues so we can address the unmet needs in our education system -- our high class sizes and rates of teacher attrition that are contributing to our low high school graduation and college completion rates, including large gaps between different demographic groups. 



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“The way we [invest in Utah] is by focusing on our kids, giving them the best opportunities, the best resources at the earliest possible help them to live better, happier and less trauma-filled lives, while also saving taxpayer money by dealing with these issues early on, before they lead to bigger problems down the road.”

Those words above, spoken by our new Governor, when he was serving as the Chair of Utah’s Early Childhood Commission in his capacity as Lieutenant Governor, capture our sentiments at Voices for Utah Children exactly!

We agree with these words, and call on all our state leaders to put them into bold action. With the coronavirus pandemic revealing the serious cracks in our state’s education system and child care sector, we need strategic investment big more than ever. 

Currently, Utah lags behind most other states with regard to investment in early care and learning support for Utah families with young children How do we lag behind, you ask? Learn more here!

Taking these five steps would constitute great progress in Utah’s championship of early education – and also promise the greatest return on investment of any educational reform.

1.         Appoint a Cabinet-level Early Childhood Investment advisor.

Early education is very different from primary, secondary and higher education. Investment in early childhood care and learning requires a dedicated focus. This advisor should act as the full-time staff director of the Early Childhood Commission, which is now chaired by Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson. Why would having a full-time commission director make a difference? Here's why.

2.         Reimburse full-day kindergarten at a full Weighted Pupil Unit.

Utah has one of the nation’s lowest rates of participation in full-day kindergarten. This is due to lack of access, not family preference. In areas where full-day kindergarten is offered, Utah families overwhelmingly participate. Okay, what's a "weighted pupil unit" and why is it important? And by the way, what is Utah's current level of participation in full-day kindergarten? 

Currently, local education authorities (LEAs) have to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten themselves – making access inequitable and unreliable. You can change this by budgeting a full WPU for full-day kindergarten programming, wherever families want it and LEAs can offer it. We've come to the conclusion that Utah is ready for more full-day kindergarten, based partly on these key reasons. 

3.         Build a statewide High-Quality School Readiness (HQSR) mixed-delivery system.

Utah’s only state-level investment in high-quality preschool hasn’t grown since it began more than seven years ago. Arguments over assessments and oversight have stymied expansion. It’s time to put the turf battles aside and get serious about extending performance-based preschool grants to more schools, child care providers, and community programs. Um, what is a "mixed-delivery system" for preschool?  And what is the state's current investment in preschool? 

4.        Use federal COVID relief money - and after that, state funding - to stabilize, strengthen and build Utah's childcare system for the future.

Working families need their kids to be safe, cared for and progressing developmentally while breadwinners are at work. In the past year, Utah has received a flood of emergency funding from the federal government to make sure Utah families continue to have access to safe, quality childcare throughout the pandemic - and beyond the recovery. Utah should waive parent co-pays for families receiving childcare subsidies, pay childcare providers based on the enrollment (not attendance) of children using subsidies, and continue its successful Operations Grant program. When the federal relief funding runs out, Utah should replace it with state dollars. How do childcare subsidies work, and why are these changes important? 

5.         Support regional coordination to improve kindergarten transitions.

Utah’s sprawling, mixed-delivery early childhood ecosystem can’t be managed by state administrators in Salt Lake City. Parents, community leaders, child care providers and educators need support to organize locally, and coordinate services at the city, county and school district levels. Utah should increase, significantly, its financial support of regional Child Care Resource & Referral (CCR&R) agencies, to staff up efforts at regional coordination. What, precisely, do you mean by a "sprawling ecosystem?"

We loved how Governor Cox and Lieutenant Governor Henderson talked about educational opportunity, early education and education equity on the campaign trail.

“It is absolutely critical that education funding is our first and foremost priority,” said then-candidate Cox on the campaign trail. “We have to make sure that kids in rural Utah, as well as the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, get the same opportunities, the same education as kids in Park City.”

We could not agree more heartily. Park City has full-day kindergarten, public and private preschool, community investment in child care access, and an Early Childhood Alliance that supports regional coordination of programs for young children. Governor Cox is right: every Utah community deserves the same - and they will need bold state leadership to support them in getting there. 

If Utah is serious about every Utah family having equitable access to these same opportunities, these five steps will be central to our work in the next four years.


Answers to Your Totally Common Sense Questions
About Early Childhood Care & Education in Utah 

How do we lag behind other states?

As a state, Utah contributes very little funding toward important early childhood interventions, including: home visiting programs, preschool (including Head Start and Early Head Start), child care subsidies, and full-day kindergarten. Where these programs exist, they are made possible almost entirely by federal funding. 

Many other states extend the impact of federal funding for home visiting, Head Start, child care subsidies and other early childhood interventions by adding their own state dollars to grow those programs. Utah does not. As a result, fewer families can benefit from these programs in Utah communities, than would be possible with additional state funding. (Okay, take me back to where I was!)

Graph Estimated Funding Allocations

Why would having a full-time commission director make a difference?

When Utah’s Early Childhood Commission was proposed via legislation by Rep. Lowry Snow and Sen. Ann Millner during the 2019 General Session, the original concept contained funding for a full-time staff member to support the functioning and forward momentum of the new Commission. When the bill finally passed, this funding was removed. Since then, staffing for the Commission has bounced between the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and the Office of Child Care (in the Department of Workforce Services), with those responsibilities always falling to a hardworking public servant already tasked with multiple other critical education and child care projects. 

One persistent issue with the coordination and alignment of Utah’s early care and education system is that there is no single entity, agency or individual committed to that effort. 

Leadership, intention and single-minded commitment is needed to shepherd Utah’s early care and education system to the next level of improvement; currently, all stakeholders at the Early Childhood Commission table must juggle their early childhood work with multiple other state government responsibilities. (Thanks. Now take me back to where I was!)

What is a "weighted pupil unit" and why is it important?

A “weighted pupil unit” or WPU is the designated funding allocation provided by the state legislature to support the education of a single Utah public school student. Each year, the state legislature and the executive branch (including the Governor’s Office and the Utah State Board of Education) come to an agreement as to how many state dollars will be provided to each school, through its local education authority (or LEA, which can be a school district or a charter school) for each student enrolled for the next school year. 


Currently, Utah ranks dead last in the nation - behind all others states and the District of Columbia - with regard to “per pupil funding.” This ranking has remained unchanged for years. 

The state gives each school district only 55% of a weighted pupil unit for each enrolled kindergartner. All state-funded LEAs are required by law to provide at least one half day (two or more hours) of kindergarten education for interested families.  (Okay, take me back to where I was!)


What is Utah's current level of participation in full-day kindergarten? 

Across the United States, approximately 80% of kindergarteners attend a full-day kindergarten program. This figure has grown dramatically over the past twenty years (approximately 56% in 1999). 

In Utah, however, as recently as 2019, only 20% of kindergarteners attended full-day kindergarten (with an additional 4% attending an “extended” day of schooling, such as an additional 45 minutes or more of academic intervention on top of the traditional half day of kindergarten education). (Thanks. Now take me back to where I was!)

Full Day K Percentages

Indications that Utah is ready for more full-day kindergarten access.

In our report, “Three Things Utah Can Do to Ensure Right-Sized Access to Full-Day Kindergarten,” released in February 2020, we noted the following:

    • In response to both parent interest and educator confidence in full-day learning interventions, multiple districts and individual schools have tapped federal and local funding (in lieu of sufficient state support) to open more classrooms for a full-day of kindergarten instruction;
    • In every school district that has expanded access to full-day kindergarten (including Carbon SD, Rich SD, Ogden SD, Murray SD, Washington County SD, Grand SD, Granite SD, Salt Lake SD and Canyons SD), participation has been robust; and
    • Families living in districts offering little or no access to full-day kindergarten in their neighborhood school, admit to registering their kindergarten-aged children in a different district, in order to enroll their child in a full-day program. (Okay, take me back to where I was!)

What is a "mixed-delivery system" for preschool?

A “mixed-delivery system” for preschool programming is one where a variety of different preschool providers are part of delivering preschool opportunities to families. A “mixed-delivery system” includes preschool classrooms in: public elementary schools; private child care centers; and community-based non-profit programs (such as the YMCA). In some mixed-delivery systems in other cities, counties and states in the U.S., government funding is used to provide access to preschool for families, who are allowed to select which type of preschool program (school-based, community-based or private provider) is the best fit for their child. (Thanks. Now take me back to where I was!)

Mixed Delivery System

What is the state's current investment in preschool? 

The only state funding explicitly available for preschool programs is the amount allocated annually, since 2014, for the High Quality School Readiness (HQSR). The program started with an allocated $7.5 million of baseline funding; there has been no increase since. This program was a state-funded continuation of a Pay-For-Success initiative pioneered by the United Way of Salt Lake in 2013. Under the HQSR program, school districts and private child care providers can apply for a performance-based grant to fund preschool “seats” in their classrooms. Since 2014, approximately 5,000 Utah preschoolers have participated in the program. 

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) produces an annual report on which states in the U.S. have state-funded preschool programs. With the exception of the 2019-2020 report, each year, Utah’s state-funded preschool program has failed to meet the minimum criteria to be included in NIEER’s annual report. (Okay, take me back to where I was!)

How do childcare subsidies work, and why are these changes important?

Thanks to the federal government's Child Care and Development Fund, Utah is able to help low-income parents cover the cost of childcare while they are working, looking for work or training for work. During the current budget year (from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021), Utah will receive approximately $139 million in CCDF money, including an additional $40 million in one-time CARES Act funding to help with pandemic-related child care support. The federal government requires that at least 70% of this amount must be used to help families directly, through child care subsidies. 

This additional funding, with more COVID relief dollars on the way, has allowed Utah to make several positive changes in its childcare subsidy program. These changes have made it possible for more families to get help paying for childcare services. The changes have also helped stabilize and support childcare providers, whose businesses have been hit really hard by the pandemic.

In normal times, a family must make less than 56% of the state median income (SMI) to qualify for a childcare subsidy. That is $44,016 for a family of four people (or 168% of the federal poverty level). Thanks to COVID relief funding, families that make up to 85% of SMI to qualify for help. That is $65,498 for a family of four people. Child care subsidies are paid directly to a childcare provider when a child enrolls. In normal times, Utah only pays for each day that the child attends childcare. This means subsidies can be an unstable and unreliable source of income for providers. Thanks to COVID relief funding, Utah now pays childcare providers based on enrollment - so providers don't suffer financially when families have to quarantine, stay home from work or become ill. We think these changes, and others made possible by increased investment in the last year, should be permanent. This will help more families in Utah access safe, affordable and quality childcare. (Thanks. Now take me back to where I was!)

What makes Utah's early childhood care and education system so "sprawling" and difficult to coordinate? 

Currently, several different federal, state and local entities (including private businesses and non-profit organizations) are responsible for providing early care and education programs for Utah families with young children. 

Office of Child Care (OCC)

The Office of Child Care (OCC), in the Department of Workforce Services (DWS), provides child care subsidies to help thousands of low-income Utah families afford child care. In addition to state licensing requirements, OCC has a new “Child Care Quality System” that gives participating child care providers a designated quality level, based on a number of different factors. The Office of Childcare also manages the High-Quality School Readiness (HQSR) program funded by the legislature, through which a limited number of three- and four-year olds are able to participate in structured preschool programs. 

Office of Child Care Licensing (CCL) 

The Office of Child Care Licensing (CCL), in the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), is in charge of making sure child care providers maintain a basic level of health and safety in their child care businesses. 

Utah State Board of Education 

In addition, the Utah State Board of Education has guidelines for preschool programs that are provided through the public school system. Those guidelines are separate from the guidelines schools and child care providers must follow if they are participating in the state’s High Quality School Readiness (Preschool) performance-based grant program. 

Private Preschool Providers & Home-Based Preschool Programs 

There are also many private preschool providers throughout the state who are not required to be licensed by the Office of Child Care Licensing and who are not governed by the Utah State Board of Education. These are the kind of home-based preschool programs that provide only a couple of hours of instruction per day, for families who are willing and able to pay privately.

Head Start and Early Head Start Programs 

There are also dozens of Head Start and Early Head Start program sites throughout the state, which adhere to a completely different set of standards, set by the federal government, and which are largely independent of any state agency. 

(Whew, that's enough! Take me back to finish the letter, please.)

Published in 2020 Issues

Amendment G one pager 10 5 20(view this as a pdf here)

The state's leading child research and advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children announced its opposition to Constitutional Amendment G in an online press conference today (Monday, October 5, 2020).  

Constitutional Amendment G is the proposal to amend the Utah State Constitution to end the Constitutional earmark of all income tax revenues for education.  Since 1946 Utah has dedicated 100% of income tax revenues to education, initially defined only as K-12 education and, since 1996, including also higher education.  The State Legislature voted in March to place on the ballot the question of also allowing these funds to be used for other purposes -- specifically for programs for children and for Utahns with disabilities.  

The arguments made by proponents and opponents are summarized in an online document prepared by the state election administrators in the Lt Governor's office. According to that document, "the state spends about $600 million annually of non-income tax money on programs for children and programs that benefit people with a disability."

Voices for Utah Children CEO Maurice "Moe" Hickey explained the organization's decision to oppose the Amendment: "We believe that the proposed Amendment not only won’t solve Utah’s state budget woes, it is likely to delay the real fiscal policy changes that are needed. Over the past decade we have been continuously ranked last in the country for per pupil spending. This is a caused by our growth in number of students, combined with a lowered tax burden in the past decade. A major question we have to ask is “if the current Constitutional earmark has failed to help Utah invest more in education, how will getting rid of it improve matters?” The unfortunate reality is that getting rid of the Constitutional earmark of income tax for education does nothing to solve the real problem, which is the fact that nearly every area of state responsibility where children are impacted – education, social services, public health, and many others – is dangerously underfunded."

Health Policy Analyst Ciriac Alvarez Valle said, "Utah has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the country at 8% or 82,000 children, and we have an even higher rate of uninsured Latino children at almost 20%. It is alarming that even during this pandemic, children and families are going without health insurance. There are so many ways to reverse this negative trend that began in 2016. Some of the solutions include investing in our kid’s healthcare. By investing in outreach and enrollment efforts especially those that are culturally and linguistically appropriate for our communities of color, we can ensure they are being reached. We also have to invest in policies that keep kids covered all year round and ensures they have no gaps in coverage. and lastly, we have to invest in covering all children regardless of their immigration status. By doing these things we can ensure that kids have a foundation for their long term health and needs. It's vital that we keep children’s health at the forefront of this issue, knowing that kids can only come to school ready to learn if they are able to get the resources they need to be healthy."

Health Policy Analyst Jessie Mandle added, "All kids need to have care and coverage in order to succeed in school. We are no strangers to the funding challenges and the many competing demands of social services funding. Without greater clarity, more detail, and planning, we are left to ask, are we simply moving the funding of children’s health services into another pool, competing with education funding, instead of prioritizing and investing in both critical areas? Sufficient funding for critical children’s services including school nurse, home visiting and early intervention, and school-based preventive care remains a challenge for our state. We have made important strides in recent years for children’s health, recognizing that kids cannot be optimal learners without optimal health. Let’s keep investing, keep moving forward together so that kids can get the education, health and wraparound services they need."

Education Policy Analyst Anna Thomas: "We often hear that UT is dead last in the nation in per pupil funding. We have also heard from such leaders as Envision Utah that millions of dollars are needed to avert an urgent and growing teacher shortage. What we talk about less is the fact that these typical conservative calculations of our state’s underfunding of education don’t include the amount the state should be paying for the full-day kindergarten programming most Utah families want, nor does it include the tens of millions our state has never bothered to spend on preschool programs to ensure all Utah children can start school with the same opportunities to succeed. Utah currently masks this underfunding with dollars from various federal programs, but this federal funding is not equitably available to meet the needs of all Utah children who deserve these critical early interventions. The state also increasingly relies on local communities to make up the difference through growing local tax burdens - which creates an impossible situation for some of our rural school districts, where local property tax will never be able to properly fund early interventions like preschool and full-day kindergarten along with everything else they are responsible for. Our lack of investment in early education is something we pay for, much less efficiently and much less wisely, later down the road, when children drop out of school, experience mental and physical health issues, and get pulled into bad decisions and misconduct. If kids aren’t able to hit certain learning benchmarks in literacy and math by third grade, their struggles in school - and often by extension outside of school - multiply. We should be investing as much as possible in our children to help ensure they have real access to future success - and can contribute to our state's future success. You don’t have to be a math whiz - third grade math is probably plenty - to see that the general arithmetic of Amendment G, and the attendant promises of somehow more investment in everything that helps kids - just doesn’t add up. We have multiple unmet early education investment obligations right now. Beyond that, we have many more needs, for children and for people with disabilities, that we must be sensitive to as a state especially during a global pandemic. How we will ensure we are investing responsibly in our children and our future, by having MORE expenses come out of the same pot of money - which the legislature tells us every year is too small to help all the Utah families we advocate for - is still very unclear to me. Until that math is made transparent to the public, we have to judge Amendment G to be, at best, half-baked in its current incarnation."

Fiscal Policy Analyst Matthew Weinstein shared information from the Tax Commission (see slide #8) showing that Utah's overall level of taxation is now at its lowest level in 50 years relative to Utahns' incomes, following multiple rounds of tax cutting. He also shared recent survey data from the Utah Foundation showing that three-fourths of Utahns oppose cutting taxes further and are ready and willing to contribute more if necessary to help solve the state's current challenges in areas like education, air quality, and transportation. He also contrasted the public's understanding that there's no "free lunch" with the unrealistic election-year promises made by our political leadership -- more money for both education and social services if the public votes for Amendment G -- even though Amendment G does nothing to reverse any past tax cuts and address the state's chronic revenue shortages.

The organization shared a one-page summary of the arguments (available here in pdf format) for and against the proposed Constitutional Amendment: 

Amendment G one pager 10 5 20

Voices for Utah Children has also published a full five-page position paper that is available in pdf format

This press conference was broadcast live at

Media coverage: 

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