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Call it the year of preschool on Capitol Hill.
A third preschool bill, this one aimed at classroom preschool for at-risk kids, gained committee approval Friday.
The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to advance SB42, which seeks $3 million a year for eight years to expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for the state's most at-risk kids.
Bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said schools with existing programs could apply for grants to serve more kids. Their programs would have to include technology and they would also, in most cases, have to partner with private providers to offer services. He estimates his bill would mean preschool for about another 2,500 Utah kids.
He said the bill could save the state money in the future by keeping more students out of special education and helping them succeed.
"Many of these kids, all they feel, all they hear and understand year after year in the education system is, 'I can't succeed ... why do I bother,' and that message leads in many cases to kids just dropping out of school," Osmond said. "When you think of the social cost associated with that down the road, it's significant."
D. Ray Reutzel, a professor and director of the Emma Eccles Jones Early Childhood Education and Research Center at Utah State University, said 40 years of research has shown preschool for at-risk kids to be hugely beneficial. He said Osmond's bill would give kids living in poverty opportunities they can't get at home.
"What we're suggesting here ... is these parents receive some help and receive some support to get their children into educational experiences that will actually benefit them," Reutzel said.
"Leaving them in the home with parents who are not optimal parents, who are stressed out because of economic concerns and other social ills often puts these children at great risk when they enter school," he said.
Peter Cannon, however, opposed the idea of expanding state-funded preschool, saying young kids do best in their homes. He said first came kindergarten, and now comes preschool.
"I'm telling you, by the time my children and grandchildren are in our seats, we'll be questioning whether the programs should start to teach the children in the labor and delivery room," said Cannon, a Davis School Board member who spoke as an individual Friday.
Ultimately, however, the committee sided with Osmond.
Osmond's is the third preschool bill so far to advance this session, after years of resistance to state-funded preschool from conservatives.
Earlier this week, the House approved HB96, which would award grants to schools, families and/or daycare centers to implement high-quality preschool for at-risk kids, using a public-private funding model. Also, the Senate has passed SB148, which would continue UPSTART, an at-home preschool software program that's otherwise set to expire.
A public education budget committee has recommended $5 million for Hughes' and Osmond's bills, meaning if they both pass, the two lawmakers will likely have to work out a solution, Osmond said.