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The state budget approved by Utah lawmakers earlier this month includes an extra $2 million for UPSTART, an online preschool program children complete at home.
That funding opens the program up to 7,800 students, or 20 percent of the state's 4-year-old population, Utah-based Waterford Institute announced on Monday. Families interested in enrolling can register at http://www.utahupstart.org.
"We're pleased that UPSTART is helping an increasing number of four-year-olds prepare for school and a successful academic career," Waterford vice president Claudia Miner wrote in a prepared statement.
UPSTART an acronym for Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow was created by Waterford in 2008 after a successful bid for $2.5 million in public funding approved by the state Legislature.
Utah's stake in the program has since grown to roughly $6.7 million this year, which covers enrollment costs and in some cases free computers and Internet access for qualifying families.
The program prioritizes low-income households, and Waterford's UPSTART software is also available for private purchase.
"There is no question that UPSTART is giving Utah great and economically viable results," said Layton Republican Sen. Stuart Adams.
But some critics do question those results, and the program has been a source of controversy.
The original bill to create UPSTART was defeated by lawmakers, before the pilot program was added to an education omnibus bill that passed but was subsequently challenged in court.
And Waterford was the only bidder for the initial investment, leading to accusations that lawmakers had written the law with the company in mind.
More recently, early education experts have suggested the online format falls short of the providing social and emotional skills that a child would develop in a traditional preschool setting.
Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post in October that Utah's approach represented the "wishful thinking" of achieving the gains of preschool without spending the money.
"They've selected their outcomes that they are likely to achieve," he said, "and it's probably safe to assume that impacts on the others are zero."
Third-party evaluations of UPSTART have been generally favorable, suggesting participating students enter kindergarten with more academic preparation than their peers.
Roughly half of UPSTART students are simultaneously enrolled in traditional preschool programs, and state education managers say it is not yet clear how the program in isolation, compared to the combination with brick-and-mortar formats, contributes to academic gains.
UPSTART also costs the state less than traditional public preschool programs, and has served more than 19,000 students since its creation, including many in rural and remote areas of the state.
"This is a successful program that matches with our mission of reaching children wherever they are," Miner said.