Recent U.S. Census Bureau figures confirm what many in the Beehive State have known for years: Utah is able to stretch its education dollars to the breaking point, receiving lots of bang for each buck spent.

That's the good news. The bad is the state ranks rock bottom in per-pupil spending. That keeps teacher salaries low and schools constantly under financial pressure.In a national ranking of elementary and secondary school revenues, including the District of Columbia, Utah was 51st. Using 1994-95 numbers, the state averaged $4,113 on each child educated. That was well below the national average of $6,238 and New Jersey's high of $9,904 per student.

Of course, the percentage of Utah's state and local tax dollars going toward education is high. The state receives little federal support for schooling, and nearly one-half of the state budget goes toward public education. That means fewer dollars for other pressing needs including infrastructure, law enforcement and higher education.

That is a fact of life to which educational and political leaders have long been accustomed, and one with which they have dealt reasonably well. Recent state revenue surpluses from a booming economy have helped buffer some of the difficulties in making ends meet. Would that those sunny days could go on forever, but the reality of economic cycles portends otherwise. Though not on the immediate horizon, downturns will eventually hit and be weathered as in years past.

The remarkable part of this story is that, in spite of bargain-basement educational expenditures, Utah ranks in the top 10 nationally in graduation rates, college entrance exams and Advanced Placement tests. The state's Class of 1998 continued an upward scoring trend on the American College Test. According to just-released ACT numbers, Utahns scored an average composite of 21.6, above the national average of 21.0.

That places Utah 11th among states nationally, an impressive achievement considering the 51st ranking in per-pupil spending. While test scores are not the sole criterion of a successful education, they do provide a meaningful measurement.

These achievements come from the efforts of students and dedicated educators, and from involved parents and a culture that rightly places high value on educational excellence. While recognizing opportunities for improvement, Utahns can feel reasonably good about the education afforded our children on a shoestring budget.