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Both inside and outside Utah, public preschool programs have come under recent scrutiny as skeptics question the long-term academic benefit.

Earlier this month, a panel of national experts discounted the reported success and methodology of the state's School Readiness Initiative, in which private investors foot the bill for preschool expansion and are repaid with interest if at-risk students avoid special education.

And a study by Vanderbilt University, published in October, found no evidence that academic gains carried beyond the third grade for students who enrolled in Tennessee's public preschool program.

That study was frequently mentioned on Wednesday, when members of the Education Interim Committee debated a proposal to fund a $7 million expansion of public preschool in Utah.

"This is for parents who want this for their children," Ogden Republican Sen. Ann Millner said. "We want to create some options for parents to choose from."

Millner specified that her bill would not involve a social impact bond like the School Readiness Initiative, which relies on a $7 million loan from Goldman Sachs and the J.B. Pritzker Foundation.

But her proposal would make use of that initiative's School Readiness Board — representing the House, Senate, state school board and Utah Department of Workforce Services — in order to distribute grants to school districts and charter schools to create or expand high quality preschool.

The size of those grants would be determined by the board, Millner said, and school districts would be encouraged to commit to match funds or partner with online and private preschool programs.

"If you partner," she said, "you would rise higher in the priority list."

Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson criticized the proposal as being school district-centric and said Utah parents should be given a greater voice in how funds are used.

"I don't trust [school districts] to make the decisions that are best for children when it comes to this bill," he said.

He pointed to UPSTART, an online preschool program developed by the Waterford Institute, and said online and home-based early education programs have a proven track record of success in the state.

"I'm a real believer in preparation," he said. "But I think we need to take a really hard look at the data and what is working."

UPSTART, an acronym for Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow, receives roughly $5.3 million in state funding each year to enroll 6,000 students.

The program prioritizes low-income families, who receive the services for free, but is privately available for any student at an annual cost of roughly $800.

UPSTART has received state funding since 2008, when the program was included in an education omnibus bill, sponsored by Stephenson, that was challenged in court by lawmakers and state education managers.

A recent third-party review of UPSTART found that participating students enter kindergarten ahead of their peers.

But Jennifer Throndsen, literacy coordinator for the State Office of Education, said it is not yet known if those academic gains persist into the early elementary years.

"Our oldest group that we have data on is in second grade," she said. "We're going to try to track them to see how they're currently performing."

She also said that 45 percent of UPSTART students are simultaneously enrolled in traditional preschool programs, and the combination of the online and brick-and-mortar format could be contributing to academic gains.

"It's certainly possible," she said.

Draper Republican Rep. LaVar Christensen said the $7 million expansion should include private preschool providers.

He said existing programs, even if not offered by public schools, could provide an immediate and effective intervention for students.

"I would just be careful that we don't lock the doors and close our minds to a public-private partnership," he said.

The suggestion that state funds intended for the public education system could be handed to private educators received pushback from Holladay Democratic Rep. Carol Spackman Moss.

"That sounds like vouchers to me," she said.

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