SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has secured the endorsement of U-PAC, the political action committee of the Utah Education Association.

The U-PAC Executive Council met with Herbert and Democratic challenger Peter Cooke on Saturday and ultimately voted 10-3 to recommend Herbert in the 2012 general election, according to the UEA's website

On Wednesday, Cooke issued a statement saying Utah's education system is failing under the Herbert administration and voters should not be distracted by the endorsement. He pointed to Utah's low per-pupil spending and cited reports that rank Utah among the worst in the nation for education.

"I've talked with enough teachers, principals, parents and concerned citizens to know that they are fed up with message bills from the Legislature and a governor who just signs them into law, while our public education system continues to suffer and deteriorate," Cooke said. "I will lead a reform of our education system, where teachers receive the support they need, where the state leads the nation in education — not follows behind in last place."

Herbert responded in kind, issuing a statement that stated his support for education and the goal of 66 percent of Utah's adults obtaining a higher education degree or certification by 2020.

The state Democratic Party is generally regarded as a champion of public education, although Herbert is not the first GOP gubernatorial candidate to received a UEA endorsement.

Cooke's campaign manager Rob Miller said he was surprised by U-PAC's decision but could understand the draw of someone with a voice in the "lopsided, one-party system" that has dominated Utah politics for years. He said Cooke is committed to pushing for educational reform in the state and would continue to reach out to Utah's educators.

"We believe the heart of Utah's educators are with Cooke," Miller said. "I have no doubt they will come our way."

The endorsement is notable for Herbert. In 2010 U-PAC gave a double endorsement to both Herbert and Democratic challenger Peter Corroon. Herbert's campaign manager Scott Ericson said the governor is excited to receive the endorsement and feels it is indicative of his support for education in the state.

"Where other states have laid off teachers during the economic recession, Utah has done a great job keeping teachers employed, increasing ongoing funding and finding innovative ways of improving performance in the classroom," he said.