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Many conservative Utah lawmakers have long resisted the idea of state-funded preschool for financial, ideological and social reasons.

But one Republican lawmaker plans to challenge that attitude this coming legislative session with plans to run a bill to create a preschool program aimed at students at risk of academic failure.

"We have to start talking about solving long-term problems with long-term solutions," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan.

Osmond said the state now spends more than $370 million a year on special education, a cost that could be shaved with earlier help for some children. Brenda VanGorder, Granite District director of preschool services, said some students now wind up in special education programs because they started behind and never caught up.

Osmond told the Education Interim Committee on Wednesday that he knows there are hurdles to implementing such a preschool program. Some Utahns worry it would amount to little more than government-funded day care, and some feel it would force private preschools to compete with the government, Osmond said.

Over the years, some have also said they don't want to see government programs take children out of the home too early.

But Osmond said his bill would model the program after one in the Granite School District that researchers have proved is effective at helping at-risk children catch-up with their peers. Children in that program who were potentially eligible for special education when they entered preschool as 3-year-olds were typically ready for regular kindergarten by the time they left preschool two years later, as measured by vocabulary tests.

Data also shows that students at high poverty schools who participated in the program had caught up with children statewide in math and nearly caught up in language arts by third grade. Granite's program is half a day long, four days a week.

For his bill, Osmond is asking for $5 million a year for a five-year pilot program. Up to seven districts or charter schools could win grants to implement preschool for at-risk students, and schools would be encouraged to partner with private groups to help offer it. Class sizes would be limited to 20 students with one adult for every 10 kids and would have to include family involvement. Teachers would have to hold at least bachelor's degrees or child development certifications.

A number of Utah districts already offer preschool, but they do so on their own, not as part of a specific state program.

Osmond's proposal met with mixed reaction on Wednesday, largely along party lines. Several Democrats praised the idea, saying it would be an investment in the state's future.

"We know when children come to kindergarten prepared it makes all the difference in the world," said Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights. "If we are serious about increasing graduation rates and college and career readiness in this state we have got to look at getting these children in their preschool years the help they need."

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said she only wishes she could take the program statewide.

A number of Republicans, however, questioned the proposal, mainly aiming their comments at its price tag.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who co-chairs the Executive Appropriations Committee, said he doesn't expect large budget surpluses this coming session. The governor recently announced that the state ended this past fiscal year with a $98 million surplus, $46.5 million of which will be available for spending next legislative session. But education will already need another $25 million more than this year because of a State Office of Education miscalculation in addition to more cash to cover growing enrollment.

"We need to dream, we need to talk about things like that, but ... we don't print money in this state," Hillyard said.

Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, who runs private early childhood education centers, said he worries there's not enough education money to help such a program grow. Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, added that it takes families and teachers working together to help children succeed. "It isn't just government in isolation," he said.

And Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, asked Osmond if he'd be open to amending the proposal to see if there is a way to limit costs by integrating it into existing programs, such as federal Head Start or UPSTART, a state-funded, at-home, software preschool program.

Osmond said he's open to hearing feedback and looking at all options. He said he hopes to bring the proposed bill back to the committee before the legislative session to get its endorsement. —

The model

Osmond's bill uses a Granite School District program as its model. Children in that program who were potentially eligible for special education when they entered preschool as 3-year-olds were typically ready for regular kindergarten by the time they left preschool two years later.