SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke promised Monday to decrease classroom sizes and increase funding for public education by making it a budget priority.
"We must reduce class sizes in the state," he said. "That will be the number one education priority as governor."
During a press conference outside Highland High, Cooke was introduced by Thomas Dale, a recent Highland graduate and former student body president. Dale described his educational and professional goals — a degree in business administration from Utah State's Huntsman School before one day becoming president of a company — and said that, like many Utahns, he is a product of the Utah public education system.
"I want to get the best public education I can get," Dale said. "I know General Cooke will put education on the right track."
Cooke then addressed a small crowd of supporters, which included a handful of school-age children who sat on blankets near his podium. His comments focused on education spending and his plan to reverse a trend that has seen Utah take its place among the lowest states for per-pupil funding.
"The simple truth is that our public education system is underfunded," Cooke said. "It has been for years and the problem is getting worse."
Cooke mostly avoided commenting directly on the leadership of his opponent, Gov. Gary Herbert. He instead categorized his criticisms as a reaction to nearly two decades of state leadership that has inadequately addressed the concerns of education in Utah.
"In a state that values families, and the future of its children, we should have the best (education system)," Cooke said. "Utah needs a governor that is not a salesman, but a leader, who understands this and the will to make it happen."
But Cooke has been more directly critical of Herbert in the past. In May, the Utah Education Association's political action committee, U-PAC, endorsed Herbert, prompting Cooke to issue a statement in which he encouraged voters to not be distracted by the endorsement. He said parents, teachers and principals were "fed up" with the governor signing message bills while the education system suffers and deteriorates.
On Monday, Cooke took particular issue with what he described as state leadership "starving" public education by redistributing money intended for schools to pay for other state projects. He said this accounts for hundreds of millions of dollars in lost education funding each year and that he will increase school resources by making education a budget priority and by keeping money where it's intended to be.
"My budget will not rob the general education fund to serve other purposes and I will veto any budget passed by the Legislature that does that," he said.
At multiple points in his remarks, Cooke suggested funding could be increased without raising taxes, but he also said he would support limiting tax incentives that draw businesses to the state and would create a commission to review the Utah tax code.
Cooke also borrowed a line from the current Legislature, saying that state revenue could be increased by taking ownership of federal public lands for economic development. But he said those lands should be acquired through the combined strength of a coalition of western states as opposed to a legal battle in federal court.
"Let me be clear," Cooke said. "The unilateral land grab attempt, which the Legislature passed and the governor signed in the last legislative session, is absolutely the wrong way to do this."
Cooke outlined a number of performance and achievement goals for education. He said he supports restoring funds for teacher training and professional development and instituting a peer review process to assess teacher performance. He also said if elected he would initiate outreach efforts for minority and female students and encourage school districts to implement voluntary preschool programs.
Cooke also said he supports Utah's adoption of the Common Core State Standards, and complimented Herbert for his continued support of the program despite mounting opposition from conservatives.
"I know the governor is facing pressure from the Eagle Forum and other right wing groups to abandon the common core," Cooke said. "I commend him for not bowing to their pressure this time."
A prepared statement from the Herbert campaign said education is a top issue for the governor and will continue to be his No. 1 budget priority. It said Herbert has championed funding for schools and legislation that enhances excellence in education.
"Education goes hand in hand with economic development," the statement said. "The governor firmly believes we need to grow our state economy to increase the amount of funding available for our public education system."