New Jersey, in the midst of a heated taxpayer battle over school finance, spent the most per pupil on average of any state last school year - $8,439, according to an annual teacher union survey.

Utah spent the least per pupil in 1989-90 - $2,733, according to the National Education Association's "Rankings of the States, 1990," due for release later this week.Utah Education Association leaders looked at the figures with a tiny bit of optimism, predicting a rebound for next year that could bring Utah out of the per-pupil spending cellar.

The 1990 Legislature's infusion of money into public education may reflect more positively in the next go-round of statistics, said Dee Burningham, UEA associate executive director. "Comparisons with other states are not available at this time, but it is anticipated that this year's appropriation for schools will mark the first year of rebound from the decadelong decline," Burningham said. Utah's teachers received their first significant raise in several years this year, moving them up the rankings from 46th to about 39th, he said.

New State Superintendent Jay B. Taggart also said he sees the ranking as an effect of "Where we are and what we are," not a lack of interest or support for education. "We are a state with lots of kids and limited funds."

The amount of personal income earned by Utahns, divided among the number of pupils is lowest in the country at $51,871.

Taggart also viewed the 1990 legislative push for more education funding as a commitment by the Legislature and the governor to improve the situation to the degree possible.

Nationwide, estimated spending per pupil averaged $4,890 in 1989-90, up from $4,607 the previous year, according to the report.

Spending per pupil actually declined in two states: in North Dakota, where it fell to $3,581 in 1989-90 from $3,662 the year before, and in Montana, where spending dropped to $4,147 from $4,176.

In North Dakota, a voter referendum last December repealed three previously approved tax increases.

Among other findings, teacher salaries nationwide averaged $31,166 in 1989-90, compared with $29,570 the previous year, according to the NEA.

Utah teachers were paid an average of $23,735 in 1989-90 and $22,852 in 1988-89, the report said.

Alaska, with its high cost of living, paid teachers the most on average: $43,153. South Dakota teachers ranked last: $21,300.

Connecticut's teachers got the biggest year-to-year pay boost last year, and now rank second nationally. Average pay was $40,461 in 1989-90, up $3,000 from $37,343 a year earlier.

Educators differ on whether more spending necessarily means superior schools.

Will Myers, a school finance consultant who helped compile the annual NEA statistics, said per pupil spending correlates closely to average class size.

Utah had the highest pupil-to-teacher ratio in 1989-90: 23.6. New Jersey's ratio was 13.4, third-lowest among the states for which such statistics were available.

Other factors accounting for state-to-state spending disparities include how homogeneous the student population is and the cost of living in a given state.


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Per-pupil spending

Following are state-by-state estimated figures on per-pupil spending for the 1989-90 school year, listed in order, as compiled by the National Education Association using data from state departments of education. The national average was $4,890.

1. New Jersey $8,439 $7,571

2. New York $8,094 $7,717

4. Wash., D.C. $7,407 $6,376

5. Alaska $7,252 $7,151

14. Wyoming $5,281 $5,244

17. Oregon $5,085 $4,904

24. California $4,598 $4,303

26. Colorado $4,580 $4,315

27. Hawaii $4,504 $4,238

30. Nevada $4,387 $3,833

39. Arizona $3,853 $3,632

50. Idaho $3,037 $2,935

51. Utah $2,733 $2,579