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SENATE OKS BILL BENEFITING UTAH SCHOOLS

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The Senate passed an amendment Monday that would give Utah - which now receives the least federal money per pupil of any state - a 7 percent increase in federal school funds.

Utah officials have fought hard for such increases for years - and appear to have finally won one during the last chance expected for five years to revise school-funding formulas.That came as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, passed by voice vote an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It benefits 38 states, hurts eight and did not affect four - buying it enough allies to pass easily.

If enacted into law, Hatch's amendment would increase federal funds for Utah schools from the current $33.07 million to $35.4 million - or $2.33 million more a year.

However, the House-passed version of the bill would provide only $34.05 million a year. That is $1.35 million less than the Senate version provides but still is an increase over current levels.

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration had proposed formulas that would cut Utah grant levels down to $28.6 million - or a whopping $4.47 million less a year than the already low levels it receives.

Utahns have long complained that the federal formulas targeted to help "educationally disadvantaged" children were based too much on how much states themselves paid per pupil for education.

Utah has a low per-pupil state spending rate because it has large families and relatively low wages, meaning each taxpayer supports more children while making less on average.

Hatch told the Senate on Monday, "I have been told that we in Utah don't need the money" because the state has a relatively low poverty rate.

"The heck we don't. Utah has the nation's worst-case scenario when it comes to school finance. We have the highest percentage of school-age children and the lowest percentage of working-age adults," he said.

"We have a per capita income $3,000 lower than the national average," he said. "Nearly 30 percent of our school children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Does that sound like a state that's rolling in dough?"

Hatch noted that Utahns spend $73.87 of every $1,000 on public education, compared to the national average of just $42.87.

The average expenditure per student in Utah during the 1992-93 school year was $3,218, whereas the national average was estimated at $5,616, said Jay M. Jeffery, Utah State Office of Education director of school finance.

"We've been penalized because our expenditures for students were lower and the government didn't think we were making a local effort," Jeffery said. "This new formula would be giving more recognition to our efforts."

Changes adopted by the Senate help Utah by shifting emphasis away from states' per-pupil spending and giving bonuses to states that pay large shares of their tax base for education (which Utah does) and bonuses for taking steps to equalize revenues among school districts (which Utah does).

Many of those changes were made earlier on the bill by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, on which Hatch serves. Committee changes benefited Utah by about $1.64 million a year, and expansion of it by the amendment Monday brought another $694,000 in benefits.

Jeffery said he is hopeful the amendment will be enacted, but he noted that federal funds make up only 7 percent of total school funds. "An increase isn't going to let us go from Chevrolets to Cadillacs, but every little bit helps," he said.

Granite Superintendent Loren Burton also called the potential increase positive "if there are no strings attached."

"We always have concerns about how federal funds are supposed to be spent, and I don't know what restrictions there are," he said. "The next step is to look at the details."

Yet the prospect of Utah being treated more like other states is encouraging, he added.

Hatch said, "For years, Utahns have been shouldering the burden of an unfair `Chapter One' formula. Utahns should not have to pay more so citizens in other states can pay less to support their own educational systems."

Several years ago, legislation by Hatch and former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, ordered an Education Department study that found Utah receives by far the least per pupil of any state in federal funding.

In 1988, it received $130.26 per student - far below the national average of $208 per pupil. Alaska received the most among the states: $972 per student.