A Utah senator has an answer for the national push for public preschool: Pay instead to keep early childhood education in the hands of parents, and give them the know-how to do it well.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, wants the state to spend up to $7 million to train a team of specialists to give parents, preschools and day-care centers the tools they need to make sure children are ready for kindergarten.

The specialists would reach out to all families and help those who are disadvantaged due to income or limited English skills understand how to access available services, including Head Start preschool programs.

Stephenson says his is a cheaper, more family-friendly alternative to publicly funded preschools. He has requested a bill to forward the proposal in the 2007 Legislature, but legislation could come to the Education Interim Committee as early as October, he said.

"We don't intend to provide state-funded (preschool) programs; what we intend is to support parents in decisions they've already made and empower them to prepare their children for kindergarten," said Stephenson, co-chairman of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

The proposal is being fleshed out with other groups, including child care and preschool providers, the Department of Workforce Services and the State Office of Education. The State Board of Education next month is expected to receive details on the proposal for input, state curriculum director Brett Moulding said.

The concept of better preparing children for school is strikingly similar to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s proposal targeting optional, full-day kindergarten programs for low-income children. They even would have the same price tag.

But tactics would differ. Huntsman's would target using the money for disadvantaged children, who research shows are more likely to be less prepared for school. Stephenson's seeks to benefit everyone.

Stephenson said his bill is not aimed at competing with the governor's initiative, which he opposes.

"But as far as early education goes, I think it would be interesting to compare them side by side," Stephenson said. "We have to evaluate what we expect of each and give it the best educated evaluation we can."

The governor's office would not comment on draft legislation.

"The governor strongly supports voluntary, full-day kindergarten, especially for targeted groups, specifically, Title I schools," Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said. "It's offering them help and another option."

Moulding believes Stephenson's proposal would complement optional full-day kindergarten programs, which also are a state school board priority.

"We really see this pre-K program ... as an obvious lead-in, or direct link to full-day kindergarten," Moulding said. "I don't see them as competing programs ... I would hope they would both be funded."

The Council of Chief State School Officers recently gathered leaders from 10 states without publicly funded preschool, Moulding said. They discussed programs and research showing students who have quality preschool programs are more likely to be successful in school.

But since Utah already spends the least per student in the country, funding preschool is unlikely, Stephenson said. Universal preschool also might run afoul of conservatives in a state that doesn't even require children to attend kindergarten, and who have given past full-day kindergarten initiatives the cold shoulder.

Stephenson's proposed "kindergarten readiness initiative" would spend up to $7 million to train about 100 experts statewide to help parents prepare children for kindergarten.

It would offer training to day-care centers and existing preschools. It would provide outreach for low-income, immigrant and otherwise disadvantaged families, including home visits, creating small groups and working with public libraries and neighborhood schools, Stephenson said. Families also could attend "learning parties" at public or private schools to acquire such skills and build school community bonds.

Moulding says it would give school districts staff needed to effectively work with preschoolers and their parents. He also believes the initiative would help preschool providers put in place "Pre-Kindergarten Guidelines" set by the State Office of Education and Utah Department of Workforce Services' Office of Work and Family Life.

Utah would be the first state in the country to attempt such a "parent-focused program," Stephenson said.

Salt Lake District Superintendent McKell Withers praised a statewide focus on building preschoolers' skills.

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"The parents want to be able to do that," said Withers, whose district has preschool programs — some for students with disabilities, others federally funded and some for a fee — in 17 schools.

But he's uncertain if it's the best response to the nation's preschool push.

"If you look at the numbers of children who would benefit from pre-K experiences, that would pay off huge dividends for all communities," Withers said. "If this is the whole reply for the state, then it's a pretty thin reply, not as robust as you would want to have happen if you really want people to be reading by the end of third grade."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com