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No legislative bridge for achievement gap for Utah's at-risk students

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 5:30 p.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol, Friday, Jan. 27, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers rejected a bill designed to close the educational achievement gap for at-risk students through an expansion of high-quality public preschool.

Some Senate Republicans objected to the public-private partnerships that would have provided the funding; they objected to the idea of public preschool taking children out of the home; and ultimately, they objected to the bill.

But the achievement gap for at-risk students remains.

According to the Utah State Office of Education, at-risk students — generally defined as students from low-income and non-English speaking households — fall well behind their Caucasian, middle-class, English-speaking peers in academic proficiency and high school graduation rates.

Based on 2012 Criterion-referenced testing, the rate of proficiency for low-income students is 74 percent in language arts, 59 percent for math and 58 percent for science. The numbers are lower for English language learners, who are 37 percent proficient in language arts, 28 percent in math and 17 percent in science.

But for students who are both low-income and English language learners, the numbers are lower still: 30 percent are proficient in language arts, 27 percent are proficient in math, and only 16 percent score in the proficiency range in science.

"This is the big challenge," said Brenda Hales, deputy state superintendent. "It’s an important conversation because Utah’s population is becoming more diverse."

But not everybody believes it is a challenge worthy of the solution proposed by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan.

Osmond's bill would have tried to take a bite out of the achievement gap by expanding high-quality public preschool in the state. Osmond worked for more than a year on the bill, bringing various stakeholders to the table and working to draft legislation that would be palatable to both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.

But Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who together with Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, led the opposition to the bill, said closing the achievement gap is "not a noble goal."

Dayton said students should learn at their own pace, and a stated goal to close gaps could hypothetically lead to perverse incentives because the goal would be realized by either helping at-risk students or impeding high-achievers.

"Closing the achievement gap is not a worthy goal unless we want all children to always be the same at the same time," she said.

The bill would have required parents of preschool students to volunteer in their children's classrooms. It would have funded the expansion through private investment and would have also provided incentives for at-home preschool education by making instructional software available for low-income families.

"This bill has been something I’ve been working on for over a year," Osmond said. "We put an enormous amount of time into trying to create a bill that would be acceptable to both conservative colleagues and also our Democratic colleagues, and I thought we had accomplished that."

The bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate by a 11-18 vote along mostly party lines. Osmond said he was disappointed but that he learned a lot during the Senate debate. He said the bill may have simply introduced too many new concepts at once.

Moving forward, the proposal may need to be refined, simplified or split into multiple initiatives, Osmond said.

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