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The House on Tuesday voted to create a state program to award grants to schools, families and day-care centers to implement quality preschool curriculum for at-risk kids.
HB96 passed 49-24 and advanced to the Senate. The debate came after lawmakers had been deluged by emails from both sides, including conservatives who worried it could lead to mandatory preschool and lessen the role of stay-at-home moms.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said grants could go to a number of different models, including traditional, in-classroom instruction or even at-home software and would save money for overall education by helping at-risk children avoid remedial education later.
Private investors and foundations would pay for the programs, and the state would reimburse them only if the instruction succeeds in keeping kids out of special education later. The bill seeks $5 million.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, echoed several opponents saying Utah has difficulty funding K-12 education, so "why would we take on something new?"
Hughes' response: "We spend fewer taxpayer dollars giving those kids at risk a better chance" by fixing problems early. "This provides opportunity to those who have not had it before."
Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he grew up "on every special program there was" with a mother who was homeless for a time. He said he worried the government may be creating too many crutches.
In a committee hearing, Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah Eagle Forum, opposed the bill, saying it could mean state subsidies for private preschools while not supporting subsidies for private K-12 schools. She said eventually most parents might send their kids to such programs if the state creates them, just as kindergarten has become widespread, although it is voluntary.
"Little 3-year-old babies ... should be running and playing and having a good time," Ruzicka said, "not a long list of academics they should know how to do."
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, a retired teacher, said in debate Tuesday that even many stay-at-home moms now choose to send children to quality preschools "for a greater head start. This bill addresses those who don't share that advantage" because they cannot afford it.
She said if those at-risk children later arrive ready to learn in school, "that means a teacher can focus on all the kids, not the handful or more who are not ready to read."
"Let's try this," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. "This is a great investment in our children. This is a great investment in our educational system," predicting it also will help kids stay out of trouble and prison later in life.