Utah will lead a crusade to get a more equitable share of federal education dollars, seeking national legislation to change formulas on which the dollars are distributed.

Failing that, the state could join others at the low end of the stick to look for equity through court action, said Scott Bean, deputy superintendent of public instruction.The statistics that have riled Utah and other states that do not get a fair share of federal money came from a study pushed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. The study affirmed what Utah education leaders had long thought: The state has 1 percent of the students in the nation, but gets only 0.6 percent of the federal money spent on education.

Utah receives $130.26 per student from the U.S. Department of Education, the lowest amount of all the states. By contrast, Alaska receives $971.92. The national average is $208 per student. If Utah received just the national average, federal support of education in the state would increase by about $34 million, based on 1989 figures.

States receive money from the federal government in 11 categories, including support for schools with high numbers of children in poverty, vocational education, special education and others. Approximately 4 percent to 5 percent of Utah's education budget comes from federal programs. If the state received the additional $34 million estimated, the federal share would be approximately 7 percent, Bean said.

Utah's Legislature will be asked to push for reform of the Department of Education formulas for distributing funds, said Rep. Kim R. Burningham, R-Bountiful.

In the session beginning Jan. 14, he will sponsor HCR4, a resolution pushing Congress to pass legislation if necessary to build more equity into the formulas.

"The amount of money we get from the federal government is dismally low," he said during a news conference Thursday. Owens also was expected to attend the conference, but did not arrive in time.

The Utah Education Association also will put its weight behind the Utah resolution and the effort to increase federal funding to the state, said Lily Eskelsen, UEA president.

"Now, this state's students may well have the dubious distinction of getting less state and federal funding for each student," she said. "What seems to be happening is that the rich get richer, and the poor get cheated."

Some of the funding formulas that mitigate against Utah include:

- Poverty guidelines - Utah has few pockets of poverty, but has low per-capita income overall. Utah also has comparatively fewer people enrolled in public assistance programs.

- Per-pupil spending - Utah spends less per student than any other state, but has more children of school age and fewer taxpayers to support them. Formulas based on the per-student figure overlook the greater effort Utah taxpayers make to educate the state's children.

- Population - Many formulas are still based on 1980 census data. Utah's population has increased, while many other states have remained virtually stagnant or lost population. Utah's school population has increased by 27 percent in the past 10 years. By 1992, population figures from the 1990 census will be incorporated into formulas and that will help Utah somewhat, even if other changes are not made.

The federal education agency should consider a state's ability to support education, as well as the effort being made, when it develops criteria for doling out its money, Bean said. While it is 51st in its share of federal funds, Utah is 5th in rankings of tax effort, he noted.

He said Utah education officials have been in touch with those in other states that feel shorted on federal funds, and a court challenge to inequities would not be ruled out if the formulas do not change.

There is no precedent for a suit against the federal government on financial equity, although there have been cases involving civil rights, he said. A suit would be difficult, but not impossible.

Bean also pointed out that Utah loses tax revenues because two-thirds of its land is federally-controlled and cannot be taxed.

"That's a huge loss to the public in Utah," he said. If the state received in-lieu compensation for that tax loss from the federal government, it would have fewer problems financing essential government services.

Eskelsen said that large class sizes in Utah could be considered on a par with poverty when it comes to putting schoolchildren at risk. The state has the largest class sizes in the country.

Burningham said he will seek the governor's support, as well as that of his fellow legislators, in the effort to gain equity in Washington.

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Short-changed

Utah has 1 percent of the students in the nation, but gets only 0.6 percent of the federal money spent on education.

Alaska receives the most per student, $971.92. Utah receives the least, $130.26. The national average is $208 per student.