It's a strange world in which a large educational organization encourages people to be poor and to declare their poverty.

But when the federal government uses the number of people in a state who are on welfare to calculate how much school aid that state should get, it's easy to see why poorer is better, from some viewpoints.So I can understand why the Utah Education Association wants to see more Utahns on welfare rolls. Under current guidelines, it would increase the amount of money Utah gets from the federal government to support education.

Even though I can understand it, I don't agree that increasing the state's welfare burden is the answer to school funding problems. Even the UEA acknowledges that it's a poor alternative to fair treatment in the distribution of federal education funds.

The percentage of Utahns who seek government help has generally been lower than in some states, possibly because of a self-sufficiency streak in the historic social fabric of the state. Government officials have promoted self-help as the better alternative.

For individuals to take care of themselves to the greatest degree possible before turning to the government for support shouldn't have to be viewed as a negative that robs Utah of money flowing out of Washington.

Utah has the dubious distinction of falling in between the haves and the have-nots. The state has fewer real pockets of poverty than many states, but it comes close to the bottom when per capita income is calculated. In essence, our collective ends meet somewhere short of the middle.

That makes us too rich to siphon off more of the government's resources, based on current formulas, and too poor to adequately educate our large number of students on our own.

Preferably, we should be able to convince the feds that their formulas for distributing money for school programs are flawed and that they need to be changed.

That some changes are needed is beyond question. Utah is getting a shamefully small slice of the federal education pie. With 1 percent of the country's students, the state receives about 0.6 percent of the federal funds for education. It's the lowest per-student amount in the country and doesn't in any way reflect need, taxpayer effort or growth.

Rep. Wayne Owens and Sen. Orrin Hatch are working on the problem. They hope to promote changes within the U.S. Department of Education - by congressional legislation, if necessary - to build a little fairness into the formulas.

Pressure for change will be applied by the Utah Legislature, as well, if a proposed resolution passes during the upcoming legislative session. The governor and other state officials are likely to add their voices to the clamor for equity, with tens of millions of dollars in additional federal funding at stake.

Owens and Hatch are proposing that the formulas consider a state's ability to generate education funding, the effort taxpayers are making (Utah is 11th in the country) and growth. Now, the department is using 1980 census figures, poverty guidelines and a state's per-pupil expenditure to determine how money will be distributed for 11 federal programs. Utah suffers by every criterion.

Looked at from one perspective, the nation has something to gain from helping Utah educate its children. In an era when many states are seeing a decline in the number of students they educate, Utah may increasingly become an incubator for workers.

Ideally, we'd like to keep our students at home. Pragmatically, we've been exporting workers for some time and are likely to continue to do so.

If all else fails, Utah's education leaders say they will pursue equity in the courts. It shouldn't have to come to that.

Utah should get a fair share of federal education dollars, and encouraging declarations of poverty is a poor way to do it.