High Birthrates and Education

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

Adequate funding for education has been the single most-difficult problem Utah has faced. At 21.8 per thousand people in 1990, Utah had the third highest birthrate in the nation after the District of Columbia and Alaska, and a rate higher than the national average of 16.7 per thousand. Two urban counties, Utah and Salt Lake, had the first and second highest birthrates of any counties in the nation. In 1992, Utah’s average family size at 3.66 was above the national average of 3.16. There is little wonder that between 1980 and 1990 the number of school-age children in the state actually grew from 24 to 26 percent of the population.

Utahns can gain some comfort since its birthrate has declined, just as the birthrate of the remainder of the nation, but at a slower rate. The fertility rate for Utah women declined by 25 percent during the 1980s. In 1992, Utah’s fertility rate was just 2.6 births per woman compared with a national average of 2.0.

Still, with large numbers of children flooding its schools, Utah financed its public education through large classes and low teacher salaries. In 1989, with 24.8 students per teacher, Utah had the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the nation. With a per pupil expenditure of $2,579, Utah ranked dead last among the states. By the 1992–93 school year, Utah had reduced its class size but only to 22.78 students per teacher, which was still significantly above the national average. The average salary of $28,825 for teachers in 1991–92 ranked Utah forty-sixth among the fifty states and District of Columbia.

Utah has not suffered as some states might have under the pressure of under funded education because the state attracts excellent teachers who prefer to live in Utah, and the strongly pro-family Mormon culture, which emphasizes a strong sense of community, has served as a surrogate for adequate funding. The relatively homogenous population with more than 70 percent Mormons used its small resources to great advantage by supporting education through volunteerism, strong family values, and positive cultural attitudes. As a result, Utah ranked ninth in the nation in 1989 with a high-school graduation rate of 82.1 percent and forty-third with a dropout rate of only 17.9 percent. Moreover, the scores of Utah high-school graduates ranked above the national average on both the ACT and SAT and fifth in national standardized tests in 1994, while eleventh graders ranked in the fifty-third and fifty-fifth percentiles and eight graders in the fiftieth percentile. The students seemed to do best in math and thinking skills and poorest in English and social science, but even in those areas, the students tend to rank above the national average.