Utah lawmakers gear up for fight over preschool
Backers say SB71 would help at-risk kids; critics worry about taking them out of home too early.
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When it comes to preschool for at-risk Utah kids, lawmakers are gearing up for a fight this legislative session.

Lawmakers who support creating a preschool program for at-risk kids and those against the idea held dueling press conferences Monday, praising and decrying the proposal in SB71.

Backers of the bill, including the Utah Education Association, Utah PTA, United Way of Salt Lake and business leaders, described it as a way to both give kids a better chance of succeeding in school and save the state money. Those opposed to it, such as several conservative groups and lawmakers, warned about the dangers of taking children out of the home too early.

The bill would seek $10 million from private investors to beef up and expand high quality preschool programs for at-risk children. The state would put aside about $1 million a year into a fund to eventually reimburse investors — but it would only pay the money back if the program were a success.

Bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said results from a similar high quality preschool program in the Granite School District show that many students who otherwise might have required expensive special education services as they grew older did not need them, thanks to the extra preparation.

"We believe that the state can save millions of dollars in cost avoidance and most importantly help these kids succeed academically," Osmond said Monday.

Karen Crompton, president of Voices for Utah Children, said affluent Utah families are already enrolling their children in preschool and children from lower-income homes deserve the same chance.

"If we truly believe that every child deserves the chance to climb the ladder of success and reach their full God-given potential then we need to make sure they can at least get to the first rung on that ladder," Crompton said.

Osmond said he already has commitments of $10 million from private investors. He declined to name them, though he confirmed he's been in discussions with Goldman Sachs. The company has participated in a similar funding model for a New York City effort to reduce recidivism among teenage offenders.

Opponents of the proposal, however, had a different take.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said the Legislature has been committed to transparency, but she is troubled that SB71 envisions a public-private partnership that would not have the same openness.

And Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, compared the proposal to the federal Head Start preschool program.

"I would argue there is a strong social engineering component to [Head Start]," said Grover, who is a school administrator. "I think there is an effort for certain government programs that undermine the nuclear family rather than take that responsibility and support the nuclear family."

He added: "It's an extrication from the home and into a group setting where ideas can be presented that might not be supported in the nuclear home."

Under Osmond's bill, the preschool programs would be voluntary, require monthly family involvement and ask parents to possibly pay a portion of fees. 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.

Osmond said his program would be completely different from Head Start in that it would be academically driven rather than safety and nutrition driven.

The bill has already passed out of a Senate committee and Osmond said it could hit the Senate floor for debate as early as Tuesday.