Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Pamela Perlich, research economist at the University of Utah, talks about education and demographics as the keynote speaker at the UEA convention in Sandy Thursday.

Judy Taylor's fifth-grade class at Park Lane Elementary School in Sandy is too close for comfort, with up to 30 students.

"We don't have enough room in the classroom for all the desks that need to be there," Taylor said. "Where do we put these children?"

A Dan Jones & Associates poll of 600 Utah residents in May shows 71 percent believe class sizes are too large. And 66 percent of those surveyed believe funding for Utah's public schools is too low. The poll was commissioned by the Utah Education Association and had a margin of error of 4 percent.

Utah is last in per-pupil spending, thanks largely to having more children per family than any other state. But it can't continue on this path of low spending and increased class sizes, say UEA leaders.

Further, with the influx of immigration, the state needs to keep up with changing demographics, UEA leaders said, addressing thousands of teachers Thursday at the group's annual convention in Sandy.

"The state needs to make some choices and invest in our kids, or we will pay the price for this," said John Lundstrom, who teaches language arts at Jordan High School in Sandy.

When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how the state should get more funding for public education, increasing corporate income taxes received the highest rating of 3.16.

UEA president Kim Campbell said Utah keeps giving tax incentives and special breaks to corporations to move to the state when that's not the factor that decides whether they come here. The top factor is an educated work force and the quality of the education system.

"And the factors they use to decide the quality of the education system are per-pupil funding and class size," Campbell said. "We're being short-sighted in giving those incentives. It's a corporate welfare project that doesn't really contribute to the long-term future of the state."

Utah's lack of per-pupil spending is a slap in the face to educators, agreed teachers attending UEA workshops Thursday.

"We don't have enough funds to make sure every student has books, computers, music, art supplies, PE supplies. No matter what it is, we don't have enough," said Rick Steadman, who teaches music at Crescent View Middle School in Sandy.

Taylor said people need to look at education as an investment, not an expense. "You are educating the future. You are investing in the people who are going to be building businesses, who are the taxpayers of the future," she said.

UEA officials say funding is needed as the state population continues to grow.

The state is also becoming more diverse, said keynote speaker Pamela Perlich, University of Utah research economist. She presented data showing Utah will have a 19 percent minority population in 2010, compared with 35 percent for the United States. By 2050, Utah is predicted to be 30 percent minority, while the country may be 54 percent.

Kathryn Parry, who teaches health and science at Millcreek High School, an alternative school in St. George, said teachers need training in handling the influx of students from different cultures. For example, she is dealing with sexist attitudes from some students, as it is ingrained in their cultural traditions. "Having me as a female teacher is quite hard for them sometimes, because I'm not revered in their culture as much as a male would be," she said.

Schools also need to implement programs to reach out to minority students and encourage them to seek post-secondary training or education, Parry said.

"We've got a lot of immigrants who are hard-working people. The parents want their kids to not have to do such hard physical labor. But the kids aren't buying into it," she said. "They think they can flip hamburgers for $8 an hour, and it will be OK. They need to see the long-term picture."

e-mail: [email protected]. TWITTER: AKStewDesNews