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Do young children belong at home with their mothers or in preschool classrooms? That was the question at the heart of debate over two bills at the Legislature Thursday.

The House Education Committee voted 13-3 Thursday morning to advance HB96, which would award grants to schools, families and/or day care centers to implement high quality preschool curriculum for at-risk kids. The money could go toward a number of different models, including traditional, in-classroom instruction or even at-home software.

Private investors would pay for the program, and the state would pay them back if it proved successful in keeping kids out of special education later. If it failed, the state would not have to pay the investors back. The bill seeks $5 million.

The Senate Education Committee also voted to advance SB148, which would continue UPSTART, a pilot, at-home, software preschool program. The program is otherwise set to expire.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who is sponsoring HB96, said by helping at-risk kids get a head start, the state could save money down the road that might otherwise go toward special education for kids who started kindergarten behind their peers and never caught up.

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, however, expressed concern about putting money toward pre-K education when the state already has trouble funding K-12 education as much as many would like. He also said if an aim of the pre-K program is to prevent social ills, such as crime and drug use later in life, he'd rather see the money spent, "in building the social fabric that allows stronger families and allows people greater opportunity ... to do these things on their own, without living in a situation where they have to be outside the home."

Joyce Kinmont, founder of the LDS Home Educators Association, also spoke against the bill.

"Preschool is not the way children learn," Kinmont said. "Preschool is a way of life in a home. The problem is taking them out and institutionalizing them some place else for a little while isn't going to bring you the results that you want."

Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she doesn't see how anyone can support HB96, which could mean state dollars for private preschools, and not support giving state dollars to private K-12 schools. She envisions that if the state begins such a program, eventually most parents will send their kids to it, just as kindergarten has become widespread though it too is voluntary.

"Little three-year-old babies ... should be running and playing and having a good time, not a long list of academics they should know how to do," Ruzicka said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, however, said he'd like to see the program funded because it helps at-risk kids early, before they fall behind, join gangs and start committing crimes. He said for every dollar spent on pre-K education, the county could save an estimated $14 later.

"It's a simple solution with an inexpensive and simple fix today, but if we let it go ... it compounds and becomes a complicated problem with complicated and expensive solutions," McAdams said.

Hughes stressed that the programs would be voluntary, and a board would vet the curriculums to make sure they are high quality and results-based.

Later in the day, most lawmakers in the Senate Education Committee embraced SB148, with Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, saying he likes it because it allows kids to stay in the home.

"You keep children at that age at the very best location for them, and that's at their home ... It keeps the family together," Madsen said.

Sens. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, and Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, did, however, question whether the bill should target just at-risk kids or continue to serve all kids, given the state's limited dollars. Osmond is running a separate bill to expand in-classroom preschool programs for at-risk kids that hasn't yet been debated.

SB148 and HB96 now head to the Senate and House floors, respectively, for further debate.