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Utah's female students are lowering the state's average on nationwide tests because they don't take enough math classes, according to Gov. Norm Bangerter.

Answering questions at a three-way debate with his political opponents Thursday, Bangerter said Utah's high school students scored below the national average on the math portion of the 1988 American College Testing Program. Male students scored better than females in both math and science, while females did better in English."The girls pulled the score down," Bangerter said, prompting murmurs among some of the suburban Chamber of Commerce officials at the Willow Creek Country Club.

"I'm serious about that," he said. "Women, you've got to get your daughters to take more of these courses."

Earlier this week, the Deseret News quoted education officials saying they, too, want to persuade more girls to sign up for math and science classes. Utah's students improved their grades in English and natural sciences over last year.

Bangerter responded to a question on how three tax-limitation initiatives on November's general election ballot would affect the state's education system.

He said the initiatives, which would roll back state taxes and provide tax credits to parents whose children attend private schools, would hurt students and teachers.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson, while not mentioning ACT scores, said the initiatives would create "an atmosphere of defeat" in state agencies. Utah teachers already have classes that are an average of 37 percent larger than in other states, he said.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook, who has built his campaign around support for the initiatives, blamed rising administrative costs for an overall decline in ACT scores during the past 20 years. He said the state's education system has become too top-heavy, with administrators earning most of the money.

The initiatives would not necessarily hurt education, Cook said.

"You don't have to pull away funds from teachers or students," he said. "They (Bangerter and Wilson) are so doggone tied to the establishment they won't even tell university professors to add two more hours to their teaching loads."

The debate, attended by officials and business leaders from suburbs at the southern end of Salt Lake County, was dominated by questions about education, economic development and the environment. As in other recent debates, much of the discussion revolved around the effects of the tax initiatives.

The candidates offered plenty of quick answers and creative metaphors.

Cook blamed Bangerter for a "Mount Everest" tax hike in 1986 and Wilson for "Mount McKinley" budget increases while mayor of Salt Lake City. That prompted Wilson to quip, "But you want to take us to Death Valley."

Wilson and Bangerter traded barbs over the condition of the state's economy during the past four years.

Wilson said he would return the state to the days of Gov. Calvin Rampton, when a group of government leaders known as "Rampton's Raiders" traveled the country aggressively trying to bring business to Utah.

"Maybe we'll call them `Wilson's Warriors,' " he said. "We're going to go out and bring people into this state and let them know we're a great, cosmopolitan state."

Bangerter defended his record on economic development, saying tourism is increasing and many new businesses are deciding to move to Utah.

"We've got `Bangerter's Bombers' out there working their tails off," he said.

Cook said tax breaks would lead to economic growth by giving consumers more money to spend.

The candidates declined to take a stand on a proposed road that would connect the 90th South freeway off-ramp with 94th South to allow easier access to ski resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The road has generated heated debates in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. The new road would bypass some businesses that now benefit from much of the traffic going to the canyons.

Wilson and Cook said they would wait for more public comment before taking a stand. Bangerter said he would abstain from discussing the issue because the proposed road bypasses a building he owns.