She said early intervention programs for at-risk students, particularly those with linguistic challenges, have proven to be very successful, but many of those same families do not have financial ability to take advantage of preschool or at-home early learning resources.
"If the family can’t afford to have books around the house, they probably can’t afford to have a computer in the house either," Hales said.
All-day kindergarten is another option, she said, one that more and more Utah schools are considering as a way of targeting achievement gaps and improving language skills. The latest budget proposals from the Legislature call for $7.5 million in funding for optional extended-day kindergarten.
When asked about early intervention for at-risk children, Gov. Gary Herbert spoke specifically in favor of extended-day kindergarten.
"It may not be for everybody, but it is for some," Herbert said. "We know that those early years, those formative years have a big impact on the outcome."
Hales says states that have been most successful at targeting their achievement gaps have done so through a combination of preschool for at-risk students, all-day kindergarten and small class sizes. But each of those initiatives cost money, she said, and to implement all three is "horribly expensive."
Dubno said in her research of areas such as Maryland and Florida, where achievement gap efforts were successful, she saw the same three initiatives: targeted preschool, extended-day kindergarten, and small class sizes.
"Those are the three things that we know work," she said.
Utah currently ranks lowest in the nation for per-pupil spending, and financing educational initiatives is a perennial challenge in the state.
Osmond's preschool bill, for example, would have funded the expansion of high-quality preschool through private investments that the state would repay with interest if improved student performance and costs savings to the state were achieved.
Another bill currently being debated by lawmakers originated as a class-size reduction bill with caps on kindergarten through third grade. But after a lack of funding stalled the bill in committee, it was dramatically revamped by removing the class-size caps and instead requiring school districts to submit reports on the way its class-size reduction funding is being used.
Hales doesn't fault lawmakers for the funding realities in education. She said a low tax burden and Utah's large families simply result in challenges to public schools.
"It's not that the Legislature isn't trying their best," Hales said. "If you just want to pick one grade, then lower class size in kindergarten and have it be all day long."
When asked what one thing should or could be done to start the process of shrinking the achievement gap, Dubno said an either/or option is insufficient. She said to effectively target an at-risk population requires the combination of prevention and remediation initiatives.
"I wouldn't do just one thing, but I would definitely invest in preschool," Dubno said.
A financial argument
It's not just about performance. Investing in 3- and 4-year-old children is not only an effective option but also a fiscally conservative one, Dubno said.
Most education experts agree that preventative efforts like high-quality preschool is less costly than special education and remediation, not to mention the eventual expenses in welfare services and criminal justice that are avoided by an educated population.
"It is truly fiscally conservative to invest in young kids," Dubno said. "We feel that this is one of the smartest and most effective uses of state dollars."
Pam Perlich, a senior research economist with the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said the literature on early childhood education is fairly conclusive that targeted interventions for an at-risk student can make a lasting difference in their life.
Perlich also said the cost of an underachieving student population has societal impacts beyond the academic struggles of individual children.
"If you have an underclass that is not successful in connecting to the labor market, that isn't self-sufficient, that ends up not being civically engaged in a meaningful way, that leads to all kinds of bad outcomes," she said. "There is a cost to be paid for an underclass in any community or any society."
Herbert's comments also struck on the topic of state funding. He mentioned the recent statements by President Barack Obama calling for universal preschool and said there is merit to the idea as long as it remains optional for families.
"The biggest problem is: Can we afford it?" he said. "As someone who used to own a day care center and preschool, I understand there is a lot of interest by families out there to have some preschool. But that ought to be something that’s developed by the private sector."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche
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