Deseret Morning News graphic

When it comes to the amount of money spent on each public school student, Utah continues to rank last in the nation, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report.

The report released Tuesday shows Utah's spending per student at $4,890 in 2002 — $8,290 less than the District of Columbia, which topped the list at $13,187. The state closest to Utah is Mississippi, which spent $5,382 per student, according the census.

Utah would have to boost its state spending by more than $300 million just to bump itself off the bottom of the list, said Mark Petersen, spokesman for the State Office of Education.

However, Utah holds steady on its test scores — well above the national average in science, and is slightly above average in reading and math, Petersen said.

"Considering the resources spent, it's a remarkable bargain the taxpayers are getting," Petersen said.

Utah's total education revenues from federal, state and local sources rose about 4 percent in 2002 to nearly $2.9 billion, according to the census. That's about the same rate of growth as national education revenues, which reached $419.8 billion in 2002.

Still, Petersen said Utah would have to boost its state spending by more than $300 million just to bump itself off the bottom of the list.

Petersen attributes Utah's low per-pupil spending to the state's demographics — specifically its high birth rate.

"We have more kids per capita than anyone else," he said. "Just shy than one-fourth of our population are public school students. That's about one-seventh for the rest of the country."

When looking at the amount of money spent on education per $1,000 of personal income, Utah ranks 26th, spending $42.80, according to the census. In spending on instruction, Utah ranked 15th, spending $28 per $1,000 of income, the census said.

"For the size of our economy we're doing about average," said Janice Houston, director of research at Utah Foundation.

She said Utah has made concerted efforts to keep its building costs down and has lower administration costs than some other states because of lower salaries and larger districts, which means less duplication of cost.

"Since the majority of Utah's school revenue comes from income tax, and we already have the ninth highest income tax burden in the country, we don't have a lot of room to wiggle," she said.

Lincoln Elementary School principal Shannon Andersen says the state is in a "sticky situation" when it comes to student spending. "There's no easy answers at all," she said, mentioning property tax hikes or student head taxes as possible but likely unpopular ways to raise the state's per student spending.

She said the state, which remains largely white and middle class, is for the most part managing to do more with less, thanks in large part to family support.

However, Anderson said schools like hers, which receive federal Title I funds for low-income students, face a tougher challenge when it comes to educating children.

"It's only in those dire poverty situations where hands, like mine, are feeling tied because we don't have more funding," she said. "We are really suffering from a lack of resources. That's because our job is so much harder. Academic success is tied to socio-economic status."

E-mail: [email protected]