One bill already generating discussion is a proposal by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, to create a statewide high quality preschool program for at-risk children. The program would be based on several successful models in the state, particularly one implemented in Granite School District.
By investing early in at-risk children, Osmond argues, the state can save millions down the road in special education costs and help narrow the achievement gap of Utah's increasingly diverse population.
"We're spending about $310 million in special education," he said. "My view is, we need to figure out how to spend our money more wisely, how can we get a better (return on investment) for taxpayer dollars spent."
Brenda Van Gorder, director of preschool services for Granite School District, said the program is directed toward English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. She said by targeting students who would otherwise enter kindergarten behind their grade-level peers, the program has resulted in "monumental change" in student performance and has proven successful at keeping children out of special education over the long term.
"Once you enter school ready, you typically stay ready for the next grade level," she said.
Granite has had a preschool program for several years, but revamped the program to its current form in 2006 after receiving a $4.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Van Gorder said in the first three years, the program served approximately 250 students who appeared to have learning disabilities. Today, those students are in the fifth, fourth and third grades and only 11 have been placed in special education programs.
"These students are not disabled," she said. "Many of these families are just limited in their choices."
She said the cost of putting a student through a year of preschool is $1,500 compared to roughly $2,800 in additional per-pupil costs for each year a student requires special education. Granite officials estimate that the 250 students who participated in the programs first three years – not including students who have participated since then – have saved $1.7 million.
"It's way less expensive to do high quality preschool than to do special education," she said. "You could save 12 years, 13 years of special education, maybe even more. That's a long time to be spending $2,800 a year."
But beyond the financial benefits, she said the program has made a significant difference in the lives of the students. Because of the preschool program, she said, students who were once considered learning disabled due to low test scores are now at the tops of their classes and talking about someday earning their bachelor's, masters and even doctorate degrees.
"It changes the trajectory for their entire education," Van Gorder said. "This is a possibility that could change the statistics in our state."
Public preschool has traditionally been a sticking point for conservatives, a challenge Osmond hopes to minimize by creating a funding model where private donors invest in the program and are repaid based on its success. Even so, groups like the Utah Eagle Forum say the state should not be running a preschool program.
Osmond said government should be limited. But he said the unavoidable reality is that each year more English language learners enter the public school system and the state needs to take steps to enable them to succeed.
In Salt Lake City, half of preschool-age children are minorities and the city's white population is shrinking. That trend, seen in greater numbers nationally, will continue over the coming decades throughout Utah.
"We have an obligation under our constitution to provide a quality education to every child," he said. "Right now we are failing these kids."
He said preschool would be voluntary and participation would require a parent to volunteer at their child's school. In that regard the program would be similar to some private and charter schools which, because of their elective nature, are able to mandate parental involvement as a requisite for participation.
"I am not promoting, or proposing, preschool for all students," he said. "It is a voluntary program, involving parents, and there is a home-based option."
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