Peter Cooke's No. 1 education priority as governor would be to reduce class sizes, the Democratic candidate said Monday during a stump speech in which he also decried the level of school funding in Utah and presented his own plan to regain federally-owned lands.
Cooke, who is running against Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, lamented Monday morning that Utah schools have lost "hundreds of millions of dollars" partly because of the state's move to a flat tax, reductions in the amount of property taxes devoted to schools, and a 1996 constitutional amendment that allowed higher education to share income tax revenue with public schools.
The retired two-star general also claims money has been diverted to non-education purposes in the state budget. When pressed for specifics, he said no one knows exactly where the money went and further examination is needed. He also noted that the state has the lowest base per pupil spending in the country and that Utah's ranking for the proportion of individual personal income going toward education has plummeted.
"In a state that values families and the future of its children, we should have the best. It's not the best," Cooke said during the speech at Salt Lake City's Highland High. "We've got to make a difference now. Public education in this country is important and Utah should be the lead."
But Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for Herbert's campaign, said Monday in response that Herbert has made education his No. 1 budget priority since he's been office. He noted that education is the largest portion of the state's budget, and he said the governor's efforts to improve the state's economy and education system have gone hand-in-hand.
"The governor believes that when you strengthen the economy you end up with more funding for things like education. And part of strengthening the economy, it's a numbers game, it's investing in our infrastructure, keeping energy rates low, attracting business here from other states, all things where we've had a solid amount of success during Gov. Herbert's time in office," Carpenter said.
Cooke said, as governor, he would restore funds to public education "now being siphoned off to other things" and he would veto any budget passed by the legislature that would use Education Fund money for non-education purposes. He said he would create a commission to study the tax code and recommend ways to increase education funding, and would limit tax incentives for businesses, though he said he would not raise taxes. He also said he'd demand that the federal government transfer more public lands not including national parks, monuments and forests back to Utah, so the state can develop them to increase tax revenue for schools.
However, Cooke said he does not approve of a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor this year demanding the feds hand over the lands by 2014 or face a lawsuit. He said he would rather create a coalition with other western states and "approach this problem with a united front against the federal government."
"I think there's a better way to do this with the federal government," Cooke said.
After the speech, Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Salt Lake City, who stood behind Cooke as he spoke, said he's long opposed the Legislature's move to take back federal lands, which critics have said will be a costly battle to nowhere. But Hemingway said he might be open to the idea if there's a way to do it that's less antagonistic to the federal government.
He said, overall, he believes Cooke is correct to reassess what Utah should be doing when it comes to education.
"I think he's right, we really do need to look at the priorities," Hemingway said. "I don't think we've done a great job at that over the years I've been up there [at the Capitol]."
Cooke also spoke Monday about boosting achievement and holding schools accountable, such as by calling on school districts to create voluntary preschool programs; creating interactive science, technology, engineering and math zones; spending more on teacher training; and reaching out to minority and female high school students to reduce the drop-out rate and encourage education beyond high school.
He said he also supports Utah's adoption of Common Core academic standards and commended Herbert for not bowing to pressure from right-wing groups to abandon the standards, which were developed as part of a states-led initiative and describe what concepts students should learn in each grade. Opponents of the Common Core have said it will lead to more federal control over Utah classrooms, an allegation state education leaders and Herbert have refuted.
2012 gubernatorial candidates
Gov. Gary R. Herbert, Republican, incumbent
Peter S. Cooke, Democrat
Kirk D. Pearson, Constitution Party
Ken Larsen, Libertarian