Utah continues to rank last nationally in the amount of money it spends per student, according to a new census report.

Utah spent $5,437 per student in in fiscal year 2006, which is just over a third of what the highest ranked state, New York, spent: $14,884.

The national average: $9,138 per student, an increase of $437 over the prior year, according to "Public Education Finances: 2006," released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Utah Legislature's $2.5 billion education budget this year includes $441 million in new money. Lawmakers also boosted the education budget last year.

However, even with the new funding, Utah isn't even close to catching up with the second-to-last state, Idaho, which spent $6,440 per student, said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education.

"The problem is our next nearest state is Idaho, which is spending more than $1,000 a pupil more," Peterson said. "That means, with roughly half a million pupils, it would be $500 million more dollars to catch Idaho, presuming Idaho didn't spend an extra penny on education."

Peterson said the reason for Utah's low per-pupil spending is two-fold. It's partially demographics, he says, noting that one in five Utahns are public school students compared to one in seven nationally.

And he said the state in recent years has undergone backward funding, or spending less of its budget on education.

"That trend is being reversed," he said. "It's not being reversed to the tune of us being able to catch anyone."

Still, Peterson said, Utah continues to hold its own academically. The state ranks ninth in the nation for students passing AP examinations in 2007. And Utah students averaged scores of 1,658 on the SAT math, reading and writing exams in 2007, compared to the 1,511 score nationally.

"Our schools are doing a remarkable job," Peterson said. "Our kids are still doing well despite the lack of resources we have here."

And he said the state's education budget spent on teacher salaries is increasing. That's a good sign, he says, considering the stiff competition Utah faces to attract teachers.

Still, he said, Utah faces the challenge of the nation's largest student to teacher ratio: 22.6 students per teacher. And that impacts retention.

"We have about seven more students per teacher than the national average," he said. "It makes us very economically efficient. ... It also tends to stress the system."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com