Congress has an opportunity now to rectify an inequity that has shortchanged Utah students for years.

Sen. Orrin Hatch's recently announced proposal to revamp federal guidelines for distributing education funds could bring much-needed federal funds into Utah. The increase could be a welcome shot in the arm to programs mandated by the gov-ern-ment.The senator's "Educational Equity Act of 1991," which has the support of all of Utah's delegates, would benefit not only Utah but 23 other states that also come up short when Uncle Sam divvies up his dollars.

Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, became concerned with apparent inequities a year ago and asked for a study. That study confirmed their suspicions - Utah does, in fact, receive the least per student from the U.S. Department of Education. In the study year, Utah received $130 per student, while Alaska got $972. The average is $208. If Utah had received just the average, it would have added more than $30 million to educational programs last year.

Utah has suffered under current federal criteria that use the so-called Chapter 1 formula to determine what the various states receive for education programs.

Chapter 1 is the basic program that provides federal money for the education of poor children. The assumption is that children who are economically deprived also are educationally deprived. The federal infusion of funds helps school districts provide enrichment for children whose homes often are educationally sterile.

Chapter 1 funds have been distributed to the states based on census figures that quickly become outdated. Between census-takings every 10 years, some states grow significantly in population while others shrink. As a high-growth state, Utah has been penalized when funds were divided based on stale census figures. States that have declining population continue to receive a higher amount based on those outdated figures.

Another flaw in the process, which will be resolved if Hatch's bill passes, is that a state's portion of federal funds has been tied to the state's per-child expenditure for education. Because Utah spends less per child than any other state, it has received less per child from the federal pot.

The process, however, ignores the degree of effort a state's taxpayers are making in behalf of education. Utahns are right up there close to the top in the per-capita contribution to education, and their effort should be rewarded.

It is, as Hatch noted, ironic for the federal government to provide $1.50 per poor child in Connecticut, the state with the highest per-capita income, while giving only $1 for each poor child in Mississippi, the state with the lowest per-capita income.

The current formulas make poverty relative in an inverse way so that the poorest become even poorer by comparison.

Hatch's proposal to use the national per-student expenditure is without question more fair. It gives a poor child living in Utah the same amount of federal support as a poor child living in a richer state whose taxpayers are able to provide a higher per-pupil contribution.

Because the Chapter 1 formula is used to calculate other federal programs to support education, the effect in Utah is cumulative.

Hatch isn't expecting an easy passage of his proposed changes in the federal formulas, but it is consoling to anticipate that about half the states, which find themselves sharing Utah's boat, might have the same interest in getting some equity into the process.

It's a bit of legislation that Utah's education leaders will be watching with considerable interest.