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Amid age-old arguments about the importance of early education versus the value of keeping young children at home, lawmakers advanced a bill Friday to expand and beef up public preschool programs for at-risk kids.
Members of the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee voted 6-1 to send SB71 to the Senate floor. The bill proposes a high-quality preschool program for children at risk of falling behind, intended both to help kids and save the state money in the long run.
Bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said research has shown that similar programs, such as one in the Granite School District, can reduce the number of kids who need special education later. He said Utah now spends hundreds of millions of dollars helping kids who might have been able to catch up earlier had they been able to attend preschool programs.
"We need to be driven by data, not rhetoric," Osmond said, referring to data on the Granite program collected by Utah State University, "and this data clearly identifies that those results exist."
Plus, Osmond said, the state would take on none of the financial risk. Instead, private investors would front the cash up to $10 million and the state would reiumburse investors only if the program proved successful. The state would set aside sums of money into a fund over the course of a number of years to pay investors back, with interest, if need be in the future, he said.
"We only pay if we have the results," Osmond said.
School districts and charter schools would be able to apply for money to implement the program, as would software providers for parents seeking options at home.
A number of lawmakers on the committee praised the idea Friday for its funding creativity and promise, though some in the audience called the idea a slippery slope.
Cherilyn Eagar, a conservative activist and former congressional candidate, worried that "voluntary usually becomes compulsory" and she said it's not fair to expect schools to solve problems that start at home. She said churches and community organizations are better suited to work on such issues.
"I do no believe that another education program, whether it's early childhood education or whatever, is going to be able to solve the problems of families," Eagar said. "We're throwing our money down a rat hole."
Several others spoke against taking children from their homes too early.
"Every argument to take youth into government education earlier and earlier is always accompanied by stacks and stacks of government studies," said Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis School Board, who spoke as an individual. "God placed children here in the care of a mother and a father, not a government. … It's not the place of public education over the next 100 years to take children earlier and earlier from the home and put them under government indoctrination."
Others, however, supported the idea, saying it could help those who don't necessarily have the same advantages as their peers.
Allen Alexander, vice chair of the United Way of Salt Lake board, said the program could mean a savings of $15 to $20 down to the road for every dollar invested up front.
"We think it's a strategy that allows Utah to continue to invest in the future of these young people," Alexander said.
And Kory Holdaway, who works for the Utah Education Association but spoke as an individual Friday, said as a former special education teacher, he knows such a program could make a significant difference.
"This is a big deal," Holdaway said. "This is a game-changer."
Osmond said he's respectful of concerns about taking children out of the home too early, but he said he believes his program creates a "healthy balance." He said he does not support universal or mandatory preschool, but instead believes that by targeting only at-risk children, the state can partner with private investors and programs to help those who might otherwise have trouble catching up to their peers.
"This is not about trying to separate parents and kids," Osmond said. "We need to engage with these kids and their parents earlier."
Under Osmond's bill, the preschool programs would be voluntary, require monthly family involvement, parents would possibly have to pay a portion of fees, and the time children spent in class would be limited to 16 hours a week for 4-year-olds and 12 hours a week for 3-year-olds. Class sizes would be capped at 20 students with one adult for every 10 kids.
The full Senate will now have to vote on the bill twice before it may move on to the House for that body's approval.
Twitter: @lschencker no