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The Utah Education Association's PAC has endorsed Gov. Gary Herbert over challenger Peter Cooke in the race for governor, saying the board felt Herbert could be a valuable ally to the association.

"There is nothing more essential to Utah's long-term economic prosperity than our ability to educate our children and ensure they are competitive in a global economy," Herbert said in a statement. "I appreciate that our educators have validated Utah's ongoing efforts to prioritize educational excellence and actively engage the full range of stakeholders in pursuing higher levels of attainment."

Herbert said he remains committed to the goal of having two-thirds of Utahns get a post-high school degree or certification, and touted additional funding for education during the past legislative session.

Kory Holdaway, UEA's government relations director, said the political action committee's board interviewed both candidates and liked them both, but opted to support Herbert. The vote was 10-3.

"At the end of the day, they felt like an endorsement of Governor Herbert would be a better position to be in," Holdaway said.

"We've got a supermajority [Republican] Legislature and, whether it's Cooke or Herbert, who is going to be able to have the most influence with that group? And [the PAC board] felt like Herbert would have a greater opportunity for dialogue and policy discussions," he said.

The PAC is the political arm of the UEA, which represents 18,000 Utah teachers.

The association issued a dual endorsement in 2010, backing both Herbert and his Democratic challenger, Peter Corroon. It had previously endorsed Jon Huntsman Jr., as well.

Cooke, a businessman and retired two-star general, said he remains committed to improving education and wouldn't let the UEA endorsement distract him.

"The current administration has failed to provide the leadership and support our state's education system desperately needs," Cooke said. "Utah's teachers and students have been put last for far too long, and the numbers make that clear."

He said Utah remains last in per-pupil spending and has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"It's time for a change, and come November, I will lead a reform of our education system," Cooke said.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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