Neighboring states Utah and Idaho share a dubious honor – low education spending on a per pupil basis. For years, Utah has been last in the nation in per-pupil spending. Idaho ranks just ahead of Utah.

Still, students in both states do reasonably well on standardized tests and assessments. But neither state is considered a top education state in the nation.

There’s a good reason per-pupil spending is low in Utah and Idaho – lots of kids. Utah and Idaho have large family sizes compared to other states. More children per household means more students to educate without a corresponding higher tax base. Utah and Idaho are also public land states, so a great deal of land is not subject to property taxes.

Despite low per-pupil spending, both states are doing well economically and in job creation. So if both states enjoy low unemployment and strong economies, perhaps low education funding not a big deal? Can Utah and Idaho low-ball education funding and still lead the nation economically?

Personally, I don’t believe so. At least not over the long-term. I believe low education funding will hurt the economic performance of both states in the future.

High numbers of young people can be an enormous asset if they are prepared for the jobs of the future – or they can be an enormous liability if they are not prepared. Good businesses will flock to both states if they have a prepared labor force. The absolute best thing Idaho and Utah can do for economic development is to provide a work force prepared for tomorrow’s high-tech jobs. There is a shortage of engineers and technically-trained workers in both states.

The reason education is so important is that the job market has changed dramatically and changes are only accelerating. The jobs of tomorrow demand hard and soft skills that require post-high school certificates and degrees.

I’m an old guy, but I remember growing up in west Utah County where a lot of girls didn’t worry about a college education and most of the guys could find a job right out of high school in one of two places – on the family farm or at Geneva Steel. Formal specialized training wasn’t really necessary to get a stable, long-term job that would support a family.

Things have dramatically changed today. It’s very difficult to get a good job right out of high school. Most people will change jobs many times. Good jobs in auto mechanics, welding and building trades require good training, apprenticeships, and certification. Certainly, not everyone needs a four-year degree.

But because advanced technology is pervasive in nearly every trade, skill and profession, advanced training is needed. Working fast food won’t support a family -- and even those jobs will go away with robotics and automation.

Utah and Idaho top the nation in many ways. So what would it take for them to top the nation in education and training and become magnets for companies needing qualified employees?

And what is the difference between the top education states in the country and Idaho and Utah? Are our children dumber? Are our teachers less competent? Are our parents less caring? Is our curriculum outdated?

No, none of those things are true. The difference is, we spend less per pupil than other states – much, much less in many cases.

There is not a silver bullet to create excellent education. The schools and school districts that are top in the nation do a lot of little things extremely well. Many of those little things require more money. Certainly, money isn’t everything. But money is important to provide the counselors, smaller class sizes, early education, intervention for at-risk students, technology, on-going teacher development, salaries that can support a family, and so forth.      

Substantially more money is needed for Idaho and Utah to become top education states.