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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Josie Valdez, vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, speaks during a news conference to address the education crisis Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Saying public education is in a state of crisis, Utah's Democratic Party leaders Monday called on state lawmakers and the governor to address the problem and present a vision for the future.

Speaking at a news conference at the state Capitol, the executive committee of the Utah Democratic Party decried the state's lowest-in-the-nation per-pupil funding, minority achievement gap and burgeoning class sizes.

Utah's students have become increasingly uncompetitive, they said, and long-term direction is needed to reverse the trend.

"We have, for a long time, watched Utah education collapse," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who also serves as chairman for the Utah Democratic Party. "It's not that our public schools are failing our kids. We are failing our public schools, and it's time that we started to talk to the parents and to the people of the state of Utah and point out just how catastrophic the fall in Utah's public education has been."

Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, agreed that there are challenges facing Utah's students, but she added that public education is an annual issue that receives regular debate and discussion. Lockhart also said the crisis in public education had been "overstated."

"What we are going to be engaged in doing is looking at how we can effect change, positive change in those areas where we're beginning to see signs and symptoms of challenges," she said.

Dabakis was also critical of Gov. Gary Herbert, saying the state's chief executive has outsourced educational leadership to groups like Prosperity 2020 — a public/private partnership focused on improving student performance — instead of presenting his own plans for improving student performance.

"Give us a vision. That's what we're asking," he said. "We're ready to march. We'll follow that governor if he gives us a vision of where he wants to go."

Herbert has worked with Prosperity 2020 in developing a series of goals, most notably the call for two-thirds of Utah adults to hold a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020.

Herbert also organized the Governor's Education Excellence Commission to establish a series of educational proposals that will be presented to the Legislature for endorsement in the form of a resolution sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

The governor's proposed budget also set aside roughly two-thirds of projected new revenues for public and higher education.

"The governor has an aggressive plan to ensure education outcomes result in a skilled workforce, aligning with employer needs," Ally Isom, Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said in a prepared statement. "This is his top budget priority."

Herbert's plan was introduced at his annual education summit in October, and all legislators were invited, Isom said.

"He is now calling on all legislators to join him, Prosperity 2020, the business community and education leaders to unite behind Sen. Jerry Stevenson's resolution to adopt the goal that 66 percent of working-age Utahns will have a post-secondary degree or certification by 2020," she said.

Josie Valdez, vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, spoke at length during the news conference about the achievement gap in the state for minority, low-income and at-risk students. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education showed Utah having the fourth worst graduation rate in the nation for Latino students, the state's largest minority group.

Valdez said that by focusing on improving student performance, the state would see greater employment and economic development, as well as diminished costs in health care, food stamps and other social support programs.

"We have to remember that it is not often that a silver bullet is given to us," she said. "In this particular instance, education is the silver bullet that will solve the problems of our citizens in Utah."

Dabakis said the purpose of the news conference was to raise a "fire alarm" about the state of public education in Utah. He said the party is working on possible solutions that will be proposed in the near future.

"We will, over the next couple of weeks, be putting together our formulations," he said. "Right now, we want to lay out what the problem is."

A poll released last week by Exoro and the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration found that 55 percent of registered voters in Utah support raising taxes to fund education, compared with 43 percent who answered in opposition.

The poll also found that education is the issue voters believe lawmakers should be focusing on most, with 88 percent of voters rating it as a legislative priority.

"It's just an enormous number," said Jennifer Robinson, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration. "That's almost to the point where you say it's a mandate from the public to focus on education."

Conservatives have traditionally opposed tax increases, arguing instead for more efficient use of existing revenue.

Lockhart said it is not uncommon for tax increase proposals to come before the Legislature. But she said she doesn't anticipate an income tax bill to gain any more traction this year than in the past.

"I don't believe that appetite exists," Lockhart said. "I think we'll have the discussion. The bills will go forward and go through the process just like any others."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com