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Clad in sharp suits, bright sneakers and the paper racing bibs usually worn by competitive runners, leaders of Education First and Prosperity 2020 on Tuesday invited Utahns to join the "race" to make the state's education system among the 10 best in the country.
The two organizations, representing an advocacy coalition of Utah business professionals, threw their support behind three education bills that would expand full-day kindergarten and public preschool and provide grant funding for teacher-training programs.
Richard Kendell, co-chairman of Education First, said there is a need for lawmakers and educators to unite behind the strategies and investments that will have the greatest impact on school outcomes.
"We have more plans than we know what to do with," Kendell said. "We just don't execute them. We just don't get it done."
Utah, Kendell said, is not the magnet for talent that it should be.
With a graduation rate of roughly 80 percent, Kendell said, the state loses between 9,000 and 10,000 high school seniors each year who are bound for poverty and dependence.
"Our future is all about talent," he said. "You want the best engineers and the best accountants. You want the most proficient, productive, energetic and inventive people you can find to drive your business and drive this economy."
But the Race to the Top 10, as described by organizers, is a marathon and not a sprint.
And as with building the stamina to run a 26-mile race, educational improvement will come with time, said David Doty, a former Utah school district superintendent.
"You don't get up and do it in one day," he said. "You have to train for it and you have to set metrics along the way."
Doty said the state is already making progress, based on the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card.
The test, given every two years to a sample of students in each state, showed that Utah's scores remained statistically unchanged in 2015, while most states saw a drop in math and reading performance.
The national decline resulted in a bump for Utah's rankings, from 28th to 16th in eighth-grade math and 15th to 10th in eighth-grade reading.
"Essentially," Doty said, "we held steady."
In addition to announcing support for three education bills, Prosperity 2020 and Education First have developed a proposed five-year budget aimed at lifting school performance.
The budget recommends $592 million in new per-pupil funding over five years, with additional investments for school technology, high school counselors, and training and salary increases for educators.
"Our teachers are so critical," Prosperity 2020 vice-chairman Keith Buswell said. "They have new challenges and we want to keep the best and brightest."
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said school funding will be a critical issue during the 2016 legislative session.
He said lawmakers are facing both a surplus in the education fund and a shortfall in the general fund.
That scenario, he said, could stymie new school investments as legislators attempt to free up general fund revenue.
"That pressure will be great," he said. "We've got to be careful about that."