Utah ranks third in nation for child well-being, but educational challenges persist

Second grader Alicia Lamas Arellano colors at South Kearns Elementary in Kearns on Jan. 30. Children in Utah are faring better than their peers when it comes to general well-being, but a new report points to areas for improvement.

Second grader Alicia Lamas Arellano colors at South Kearns Elementary in Kearns on Jan. 30. Children in Utah are faring better than their peers when it comes to general well-being, but a new report points to areas for improvement. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Children in Utah are faring better than their peers when it comes to general well-being, but a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzing how children are performing in a post-pandemic society points to areas for improvement when it comes to test scores and absenteeism.

"Utah tends to do pretty well each year. This year, we're third, and last year we were second, but there are still some concerns within being third," said Martín Muñoz, Kids Count director at Voices For Utah Children.

One of these concerns is Utah student proficiency when it comes to math and reading scores, according to the Kids Count National Data Book.

In 2022, 63% of Utah's fourth graders were not proficient in reading, an increase from 60% in 2019. The numbers for math proficiency are also less than encouraging: in 2022, 65% of eighth graders were not proficient in math, an increase from 63% in 2019.

"We're struggling. Our kids are struggling," Muñoz said. "The pandemic did pretty much erase any advancements we had made with mathematics and our students being prepared."

He added that these test scores point to future problems for the state and, in the long run, they will carry an economic impact.

According to the report, up to $31 trillion in U.S. economic activity hinges on helping young people overcome learning loss caused by the pandemic. Furthermore, students who don't advance beyond lower levels of math are more likely to be unemployed after high school.

One analysis calculated the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 will reduce lifetime earnings by 1.6% for 48 million pandemic-era students, equalling a total of $900 billion in lost income.

Another aspect of the report is focused on chronic absenteeism, with 28% of Utah students classified as being chronically absent (missing at least 15 days of school in a year), slightly better than the national average of 30%.

However, Muñoz pointed out that state averages can sometimes mask disparities that disproportionately impact students of color, immigrant students and students from low-income families or students at low-income schools.

In Utah, such students record higher absenteeism rates, as students from Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander communities averaged 52%, Native American and Alaska Native students averaged 49% and Latino students 37%.

"The opportunity here is to go into these communities and try to find out what the struggle is. Why are the kids not able to get to school or what's keeping them from school?" Muñoz said. "Are minority community families struggling because parents are working multiple jobs and kids are staying home to watch siblings ... or are these kids having to help the family out by working themselves?"

Going to these communities and starting a direct dialogue, Muñoz said, is the best way to get to the root of the absenteeism issue.

Of course, doing this — along with addressing the troubling math and reading proficiency scores — takes time and resources. To that end, Muñoz said Utah needs to "put our money to work."

"That is, actually putting some good funding towards education," Muñoz said.

According to World Population Review, Utah ranks last among states for per-pupil spending in 2024, at $7,951 per student.

Despite the pandemic subsiding, Utah still has pandemic-era relief funds tailored to education available to use. According to the U.S. Department of Education and FutureEd, Utah was awarded nearly a billion dollars in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

As of the end of the first quarter of the 2024 calendar year, Utah had spent 77.5% of the funds, meaning there is around $20 million left to be used by September.

"Let's start spending more per pupil and see if that can make a difference. It's not working now, so we definitely need to increase our education funding. This should be our priority," Muñoz said.

And although Utah remains a good place for children, Muñoz wants the state to do better and work to improve the weak spots.

"We've been in the top five for several years. We tend to do pretty well but we could do better," Muñoz said. "There are pockets throughout our entire state that are struggling. Kids are struggling and it's in our rural communities and along the Wasatch Front. We can find areas that kids need help and that should be our priority."

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Utah K-12 educationUtahEducationCoronavirusFamily
Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and tech news.

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