New plan unveiled to fund public preschool with private dollars

Published: Monday, March 4 2013 5:40 p.m. MST

Preschool teacher Aubrey Katyryniuk gives Connor Klein a high five as they work Monday, March 4, 2013, at Calvin Smith Elementary School in Taylorsville.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker believes the fight to close Utah's educational achievement gaps begins in preschool, and he's proposing a whole new way to pay for it.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said his bill would create public-private partnerships in which private investors would contribute the money necessary to expand high-quality preschool programs for at-risk children. The investors get tax incentives, but would invest with the understanding that their funds would be repaid only if the programs are successful in improving student performance and resulting in cost savings to the state.

"It enables us to expand now, immediately, on these programs with contracts between our private investment community and the school districts that will provide these services," Osmond said.

If passed by the Legislature, SB71 could be implemented as early as the next academic year, Osmond said, adding that he already has received $10 million in commitments from private investors in the banking sector. Goldman Sachs, he said, was among those committed to the program.

In public money, the bill would set aside $1 million each year for a fund to repay investors.

Osmond said investors to the program would receive the federal tax incentives as well as interest from the state on their initial payment if the performance outcomes and cost savings measurements were met.

"We're tying performance to the financing. We're bringing the private industry to the table to support the expansion of these programs," Osmond said. "It's so innovative that many of my colleagues are confused by it."

And some oppose it.

Utah County Republican lawmakers Sen. Margaret Dayton and Rep. Keith Grover held a press conference of their own just hours after Osmond's presentation.

Their criticisms of the bill included skepticism of the successes of early childhood programs;  the lack of transparency and accountability for private investing organizations; and slippery-slope concerns that voluntary preschool could evolve into a mandatory education program pulling 3- and 4-year-olds out of the home.

"We all know what happens to optional programs," Dayton, R-Orem, said.

Grover, R-Provo, compared high-quality preschool programs to the federal Head Start program, which he said has continually encroached into the role of the nuclear family while failing to demonstrate lasting educational gains for students.

"It further allows parents to simply relinquish their responsibilities in raising their own children," he said.

But Osmond maintains the bill's aim is to provide preschool options for the families who need it most, particularly those in low-income households or those for whom English is a second language.

He said there are a number of "shining examples" in the state of successful programs for at-risk students, such as the Granite School District High Quality Preschool program. Such programs have proven successful at preparing at-risk students for grade-level education while also translating into measurable savings.

Since revamping its preschool program in 2006, Granite has served approximately 250 students whose assessments indicated a learning disability, district officials said. To date, only 11 of those students have required special education, which the district estimates has saved $1.8 million.

Osmond sees the potential savings of such programs going beyond remedial education. He said closing the achievement gap of Utah's ever-diversifying population translates into savings in social assistance programs and the criminal justice system, as well as an overall economic impact of more individuals being educated and career ready.

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