The U.S. Census Bureau ranking released Monday uses financial figures for the 2003-2004 school year - the most recent available. It puts Utah's per-pupil funding at $5,008, compared with a national average of $8,280 and a high of $12,981 in New Jersey.
In order for Utah to match the next worst state in the ranking - Idaho, which spent $6,028 per pupil - lawmakers would have had to spend another $357 million in addition to the 6 percent increase they approved just to match Idaho's 2003-04 spending level, according to an analysis by Patty Murphy, Utah State Office of Education school finance specialist.
Even the Utah Education Association didn't ask that much of the Legislature: UEA wanted 8 percent.
"What we got was a status quo amount when you include rising costs," UEA President Pat Rusk said. "It's better than in previous years, but it was not an investment that moves us forward."
Meanwhile, Idaho and other states are taking advantage of renewed economic prosperity by increasing their own education funding, and Utah is expecting a boom in the number of schoolchildren.
Utah hasn't loosened its stranglehold on last place in per-pupil spending, but there is some good news in the Census Bureau report.
Figures comparing spending with personal income give a new way to look at the problem, Murphy said.
For every $1,000 earned by Utahns, about $50 went to taxes that support public education - a figure that places Utah 27th in the nation when education spending is compared with personal income.
That means Utahns' personal support of education is near the national mean.
"Comparing expenditures to personal income is one of the few ways we can rank our effort," Murphy said. "The way schools are funded state by state varies so greatly - how do you really compare it? Using personal income is a terrific way to do this."
Education funding in Utah presents legislators with a challenging task, said Pam Perlich, a statistician on the faculty of the University of Utah's College of Business. Utah has the nation's highest fertility rate and highest ratio of schoolchildren to wage earners, Perlich said. And, the fertility rate among Latino immigrants, who have come to Utah in large numbers in recent years, is even higher than that for Utah's white population.
Utah's high birthrate and a high move-in rate will lead to a dramatic increase in school population during the next decade, she added, and costs for education are increasing, too. Schools must spend more on technology than in the past. And, students migrating from other cultures - including Utah's influx of refugees from other continents - have expensive special needs, Perlich said.
In view of the challenges, Utah's effort to fund education is not as bad as its last-place reputation indicates, Perlich said.
"We're spending on education. We're way up the list in terms of our effort. We still have to fund all the other functions of government."
Mike Jerman, vice-president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, offered another reason why funding for K-12 education is low in Utah.
"Utah ranks at the top in education spending when you include money spent for higher education," Jerman said. "Utah has made a decision to spend a higher proportion of its education money on higher education than other states do."
The Utah Foundation, an independent group that studies education policy, has explored the dichotomy between Utah's efforts to fund education and its low per-pupil spending Ð a phenomenon termed "The Utah Paradox" in a Utah Foundation report.
Stephen Kroes, director of the Utah Foundation, said the only solution is for Utahns to examine their priorities and spend accordingly. His foundation doesn't advocate a particular course of action, but Kroes sees the obvious.
"If we are in the middle of the pack in education spending in proportion to personal income, one way to improve is to sacrifice other things in the public budget, and dedicate the money to education," Kroes said.
"With this wave of student growth that is coming into the system now, and will continue to come, we just might need to take some money away from other areas and put it into education if we want to make significant improvements in education funding."