Utah's members of Congress launched a drive Thursday to change "unfair" federal education funding formulas that now give Utah less per pupil than any other state.

Utah receives $130.26 per student, far below the national average of $207.86. Alaska gets the most: $971.92, according to interim results released last fall in a study Congress ordered at the urging of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.That led the delegation to propose changes that would give Utah 21 percent more per student - or $3.73 million more per year. But because giving Utah more aid requires taking some away from children elsewhere, the members predicted a long, tough fight.

"While we seek to increase the funding that Utah receives on a per-student basis - funding that is vitally needed in our state - the change we are proposing . . . is fundamentally fair for all states," Hatch said.

He and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, introduced a bill to change funding formulas in the Senate Thursday, as Owens and Reps. Bill Orton, D-Utah, and Jim Hansen, R-Utah, introduced identical legislation in the House.

Current formulas hurt Utah for several reasons.

First, they are devised so that those states providing the most local money per pupil also receive the most federal money per pupil. Utah provides the least local money per pupil of any state - but that's not because residents are skimping on taxes.

Utahns pay relatively high taxes for education, but the state has an extremely large population of children and among the highest birth rates in the nation. In fact, no other state has fewer taxpaying adults supporting the education of more children.

The delegation's bills seek to remedy the funding problem by using a national average of local spending per children in formulas instead of the individual state per-pupil figures.

Another problem for Utah in current formulas is they are based in part on U.S. Census figures for children living in poverty.

The delegation said those data are always two to 12 years old. That hurts states like Utah that have rapidly growing populations of children.

Owens noted, "This rewards those states with a declining student population by having the same funds distributed over fewer and fewer students."

Yet another problem for Utah is those formulas - devised for programs to help educationally disadvantaged children - also are used as a basis for many other federal education programs.

Hatch complained that formula "should not be used for math-science programs, teacher training, drug-abuse prevention or any other programs that are intended to assist students generally."

He added that all those problems add up so that "we're finding the large cities are sopping up this money in what is really an unfair formula. All we want to do is make it fair."

That could make for a tough fight, especially because large cities have a powerful delegation in the House. On the bright side, Owens noted that under the proposed changes, "24 states would receive increases in allocations, 23 states would receive decreases and five states would remain the same."

Hatch said that means a close battle in the Senate, but his side should win there because a majority of states and senators would either benefit from the changes, or are from Western states whose situation would not change but are likely sympathetic to the problem.

"We don't have any illusions. This is going to be a tough, hard battle." said Hatch, predicting it will take years and likely would not pass before education laws are scheduled to be reauthorized in 1993. "But we're laying down our marker now."

Other members of the delegation said it is an important fight worth waging.

Orton said, "Federal education funding discriminates against rural states like Utah. This measure will go a long way to ensuring that our students receive the support they need."

Hansen said, "It is alarming that Utahns pay equal amounts of taxes, and yet our children do not receive equivalent amounts of federal funding.."

The bill also is supported by the Utah Legislature, which passed a resolution endorsing it; Gov. Norm Bangerter; the Utah Education Association; the Utah School Boards Association; the Utah State Office of Education; and the Utah Congress of Parents and Teachers.

"I'm completely supportive," said Jay B. Taggart, Utah superintendent for public instruction, who spent part of this week in Washington and visited with Hatch about the proposed funding changes.

The change in Chapter 1 funding distribution as proposed would give Utah approximately 20.7 percent more money, Taggart said.

He said Texas and California - two states with large representation in Washington - support Hatch's proposals, increasing the chances the legislation will pass.

Rep. Kim Burningham, R-Bountiful, also welcomed Hatch's attempt to get equity into the federal formulas. Burningham sponsored a resolution in the 1991 legislative session putting the weight of Utah's legislators behind attempts to build more fairness into the criteria.

"We ought to keep pushing in every direction we can for fair distribution of all funds," said Burningham.