SALT LAKE CITY — For years, efforts to reform education in Utah have ended up in a graveyard of reports and studies, education advocates say.
Meanwhile, the state has fallen behind in several objective measures of student performance. The percentage of Utah women going to college has dropped to 12 percent below the national average, and the state has the largest college graduation gap in the country between whites and Hispanics.
But in the days leading up to this year's legislative session, a powerful ally is vowing to advocate "loudly" for concrete action — and adequate funding — to support education: Utah's business community.
In the past, legislators and business leaders have slowed progress on keeping Utah's public and higher education systems vibrant and competitive, Mark Bouchard, head of the Salt Lake Chamber's education task force, said Monday at a meeting of education officials from across the state.
Now, employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of creating a highly educated workforce to fill the jobs of Utah's new diverse, high-tech economy, he said.
"We support the governor's plan and initiatives entirely, and we hope the Legislature will follow suit," Bouchard said.
Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget calls for $50 million to fund public school enrollment growth, $7.5 million to continue all-day kindergarten and $5.5 million for other programs endorsed by his education commission.
Bouchard, senior managing director of the Salt Lake office of real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, sits on the governor's Education Excellence Commission, which recently released a set of goals to pursue this year, including restoring optional all-day kindergarten and literacy programs through third grade.
He said that 15 years ago, any corporation looking to open a new office would focus on which piece of real estate to buy. Today, those searches are entrusted to human resources directors looking for a pool of highly educated potential employees.
"The emphasis today in corporate America is almost entirely on human capital," Bouchard said.
Business and education leaders on Tuesday will announce Prosperity 2020, billed as "the single largest and most long-term business-education partnership in Utah history."
The goal, Bouchard said, is to keep pace with demographic changes that placed more than 13,000 new students in Utah's public schools last year, including a growing number of minorities. Since the state can't count on families having a parent at home full time, education is becoming more of a social responsibility, he argued.
"That isn't who we are anymore. We have failed as a society in Utah to address this challenge," he said. "We're trying to be forward-thinking before this gets too out of hand."
Larry Shumway, the state public schools superintendent, called at Monday's meeting for higher expectations at every level of education, in particular a more rigorous senior year of high school.
And William Sederburg, the Utah commissioner of higher education, said he was "appalled" that some state legislators do not see funding education as a "moral imperative."
In an interview, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, chairman of the Senate education committee, said that suggestion was "extremely offensive," adding that legislators have done their best to spare public education even in lean budget years.
"I feel as passionately or even more so about the need to step up and improve public and higher education," he said. "We're not just going to throw more money at the problem."
Stephenson said he spoke Monday to several hundred business owners who applauded his suggestion that Utah's public colleges should better align their offerings to train students for high-demand careers, especially in science and engineering. The Prosperity 2020 group does not represent Utah's business community as a whole, he said.
The group includes representatives of Citizens for Educational Excellence, several area chambers of commerce, the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, the Governor's Office of Economic Development, the United Way of Salt Lake and the Utah Technology Council, among others.
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