Education gets a boost, but preschool advances remain elusive

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 2:04 p.m. MDT

Tayden Larsen and Kylee Stauffer work on watercolor paintings in Aubrey Katyryniuk's preschool class Monday, March 4, 2013, at Calvin Smith Elementary School in Taylorsville.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At the beginning of the Utah Legislature 2013 session, The Deseret News pledged to focus its legislative coverage on five key issues that matter to Utah families: early childhood education, college and career readiness, economic development, health care and well-being, and intergenerational poverty. See what transpired in each of those areas during this year's legislative session.

SALT LAKE CITY — Education funding received a boost at the 2013 Legislature, but specific attention to preschool development for children, caps on class sizes and time for teachers to seek innovative solutions were defeated and remain elusive goals for educators.

On March 4, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, held a presentation for SB71, a bill to expand high-quality public preschool for at-risk students through an innovative private funding model.

Osmond was backed by of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, Utah State Office of Education, Utah Education Association, Prosperity 2020, United Way of Salt Lake, Voices for Utah Children and Utah School Boards Association.

The next day, SB71 was defeated 11-17 in the Senate. It was only the first of what would otherwise have been several floor debates by the Senate and House of Representatives.

"I was surprised at that," said UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh. "Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, there are children in this state that need that extra push" before starting kindergarten.

Deon Turley, education commissioner for the Utah PTA, said she was disappointed by the bill's defeat but not surprised. She described the bill's funding mechanism — in which $10 million in private investment would be repaid by the state based on the success of preschool programs — as a "quantum leap" that likely made lawmakers hesitant to enact without more consideration. 

"On early education, I feel like they kind of have backed away a little bit," Turley said. "I was disappointed because I think that early childhood intervention can make a really big change."

For the second year in a row, a bill to place class-size caps on kindergarten through third grade failed to pass the Legislature. Rep. Becky Edwards, R-Bountiful, sponsored HB318, which initially would have set a limit of 20 students in kindergarten, 22 students in first and second grades, and 24 students in third grade.

After the bill stalled in committee due to a lack of funding, the class-size caps were removed and the bill was passed, requiring schools to submit annual reports on their use of class-size reduction funding.

But the 2013 legislative session included full funding of enrollment growth in Utah's public schools and legislators approved a 2 percent increase in the weighted-pupil unit, which mitigates some of the strains on funding faced by educators.

Lawmakers also approved ongoing funding for several education initiatives that until now have been funded on a one-time, annual basis, such as dual language immersion and $7.5 million for optional extended-day kindergarten.

Turley said extended-day kindergarten has been a popular option among parents and successful intervention for English language learners and low-income students.

"I'd like to see the option of extended-day kindergarten across the state. Maybe we'll get there someday," she said. "It makes a big difference in how these kids get a running start. It would be really great if every school had that option."

The public education budget also included $6.6 million for the infrastructure costs of implementing computer adaptive testing in the state. The testing is intended to provide educators with more precise and timely data for use in tracking student performance and individualizing instruction based on a particular child's needs.

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