The leader of the Utah Democratic Party called the state's education system a "catastrophe" Tuesday, saying lawmakers and state government have failed children.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Utah Democratic Party Chairman, stood with other party leaders Tuesday for a news conference intended to draw attention to problems with the way Utah educates its children.
"It's not that our public schools are failing our kids, we are failing our public schools," Dabakis said, "and it's time that we started to talk to the parents and to the people of the state of Utah and to point out just how catastrophic the fall in Utah's public education has been."
He and other Democrats pointed to Utah's large class sizes, low per-pupil funding and graduation rates. The state's graduation rate, now 78 percent, has actually increased significantly since 2008, according to the State Office of Education. But a recent federal report showed Utah's graduation rate ranked in the bottom half of the nation. That report also showed that in 2011, Utah had the fourth-lowest graduation rate for Latinos in the country at 57 percent. Latinos are Utah's largest minority group.
"Our students of color, our minority students and our low income students are not keeping up with the rest of the population," said Josie Valdez, vice chairman of the Democratic Party. Party leaders didn't specifically outline Tuesday how to turn around education in Utah, with Dabakis saying they plan to offer more specifics later in the session.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said after the news media event Tuesday he agrees that Utah lawmakers need a plan when it comes to education in Utah.
Both Niederhauser and Dabakis praised a plan to improve education put forward by Prosperity 2020, a business-led initiative, and touted by Gov. Gary Herbert. But Dabakis said the governor should be leading such efforts, and Niederhauser said lawmakers need more substance on how to reach the goals of the Prosperity 2020 plan.
"Legislatures are reactive by nature," Niederhauser said. "I'd like to see [the legislature] be less reactive, have a plan to bring the groups together and do so here in the legislature, to get the legislature on board so we can create a long-term policy for education and then align the bills, the discussion we have, toward that target."