Michael Brandy, deseret morning news
Olene Walker

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Olene Walker gets tears in her eyes when she talks about one of her great-grandsons being placed in a kindergarten class with 35 other children.

The experience makes her wonder if Utah really is making education a priority.

"Thirty-five is a huge number," Walker said. "Sooner or later people in Utah are going to have to say 'this is not acceptable, we've got to change it.' I want to be there to motivate them to make that change."

Walker was speaking as the co-chairwoman of Citizens for Educational Excellence, which has been meeting quarterly since it was formed during Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s administration. The group's mission is to get elected officials to invest more in Utah public schools and higher education.

They say Utah's educational outcomes should be better by almost every measure.

"Quality education is the door to a productive life," Walker said.

But Walker, and other members of her group like Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, are worried that dropping test scores is a sign that Utah's system is in danger of outright failing a large number of families in the state.

"Yes, we are efficient, but that's not enough," Anderson said after hearing a Utah Foundation report on educational funding and performance. "Utah's focus on efficiency is the enemy of excellence. It distracts us from understanding that performance trends are down and risks are up."

The Utah Foundation reported results of its education study in October. The report's findings revealed that in comparison with peer states like Minnesota and New Hampshire, Utah's students are not performing as well as they should on reading and math performance tests.

The report also showed that public education funding as a percent of income has fallen steadily since 1995 compared to other states. The gap gets wider every year. Utah is at the bottom in public education funding per student, and more students enter the system every year.

In order to get more money in the system, Walker insists she is not talking about a tax increase. But she is talking about change. For example, giving local districts greater authority to spend money the way they see fit.

She's also suggesting changing tax policy in the long run in Utah. Right now, public education is funded through income taxes, the tax vulnerable to the most volatile fluctuations when economic conditions change.

Taking a stand on issues like that will take political will, however.

"A lot of politicians say education is a priority," Walker said. "When I was in the Legislature, we would agree education was a priority. But when I look at how we treated education, it wasn't consistent with that vote. But it was good public rhetoric."

Earlier this week, Gov. Gary Herbert's Education Excellence Commission outlined a vision statement and five "imperatives" for education in Utah. The goals are similar to what Walker outlined, but suggest less radical approaches.

And Tuesday, Herbert said, "What we can do is going to be based on what we can afford. I think that will be a discussion we will have. What we can do this year with an expanding economy may be different than what we can do next year."

Walker says she knows it will take a lot of time and effort to build public support and political will to actually make systemic changes.

"Before I die I want to get Utah out of dead last in spending per student, I will celebrate the day we get to 49th," she said.

e-mail: rpiatt@desnews.com