Newly released National Education Association figures show Utah spent the least amount per pupil on average of any state in the nation during the past school year.

While anyone with a feeling of pride in education or a love for the schools doesn't like to see Utah at the bottom of such statistical charts, education-minded proponents and the public shouldn't be too quick to draw conclusions based on the NEA figures.According to the national teacher union's "Rankings of the States, 1990,"' New Jersey was highest with an expenditure of $8,439 per student and Utah lowest, at $2,733. Nationwide, based on the NEA report, estimated spending per pupil averaged $4,890, an increase of $283 over the previous year.

The report shows Utah spent less than one-third the amount spent by New Jersey during the past year. But the public should remember that New Jersey is a state that is embroiled in a taxpayer battle over school finance.

As one Utah school official says, the ranking given Utah "is not a pleasant place to be." But there are a number of mitigating circumstances that one must bear in mind in studying Utah school finance:

- Total enrollment in Utah public schools was more than 423,000 in the fall of 1988. It had risen to more than 429,000 by the fall of 1989, to nearly 436,000 in 1990 and is estimated to climb to about 442,000 in 1991.

- A greater proportion of Utah's population is in school, which means a smaller proportion of individuals are working and able to pay taxes.

- Considering total expenditures, Utah's effort is probably greater than most other states. The cost of public education consumes more than half the state's budget. And when adding in higher education expenditures, it comes to nearly 70 percent.

- A new federal government-commissioned study recently confirmed that Utah students are being shortchanged in federal funds. Utah receives the least money per pupil ($130.26) in federal education money of all states and considerably less than the next lowest, Nevada, which receives $150.12.

The federal financing doesn't seem fair in view of the fact that states with fewer children may receive more money yet make less financial effort than Utah toward funding education.

- Despite the disparity between the New Jersey and Utah funding figures, Utah may have an easier time educating its population because of the more homogeneous nature of its student population.

Sen. Orrin Hatch and others have pledged efforts to correct some of the apparent inequities in the federal funding situation. In the meantime, Utahns should accept the NEA information but recognize that it isn't a complete reflection on what Utah does with its education dollars.