SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to extend preschool services to at-risk students through private investment cleared its first hurdle Thursday after surviving a lively committee hearing that questioned the government's role in early education.
HB96, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, would establish a School Readiness Board that would oversee contracts with private investors and award funding to public, private or at-home preschool programs through a grant process.
The funds would be targeted toward preparing at-risk students for kindergarten and would be repaid with interest to the investor if participating students were successful at avoiding special education and remediation in elementary school.
"It's a post-performance model," Hughes said. "It is finite in terms of its performance so you're not seeing any fuzzy math creep in."
Hughes co-sponsored a similar bill last year, along with Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, that cleared the Senate but failed to reach the House. Both lawmakers have returned with early intervention bills this session, with Hughes preserving the private-public funding model and Osmond calling for a direct use of state funds to expand high quality preschool.
But the opposition to last year's effort carried over to Hughes' bill. Thursday, conservative activist and former U.S. congressional candidate Cherilyn Eagar issued a call for Utahns to contact their representatives and urge a "no" vote on HB96. During the hearing on the bill, representatives from the Utah Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute also spoke against the bill.
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said that 3- and 4-year-old children are better served in the home with their families than in a classroom setting. She also questioned whether the state should be involved in the funding of private education.
"Putting government money into private preschools, how is that any different than putting government money into private schools?" she said.
Several members of the House Education Committee referenced a high volume of emails they had received from concerned constituents. Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, who said he had received "well over 250" communications.
But Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Holladay, categorized many of the emails she received as being based on false presumptions. She said the concerns she had heard mistakenly implied that students would be forced to participate in preschool against the wishes of their parents, that preschools would attempt to indoctrinate children into the acceptance of the Common Core State Standards and that all of Utah's children are surrounded by educational opportunities in their early years.
"A lot of the assumptions in these emails are students at home having a wonderful life," Arent said.
Joyce Kinmont spoke against the bill and described herself as a "home school mom and grandma since 1975." She said the information received at home, from a parent, is superior to a classroom setting and added that in other states, public preschool had led to funding education through gambling and lottery revenue and legal marijuana taxes.
"Moms are the best source of preschool information for children and what they’re teaching is not that difficult," Kinmont said.
But several lawmakers countered that the reality is that an increasing number of the state's student population who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners or are otherwise at-risk to enter public schools are behind their peers.
"We would all love to have a world where we have two parents at home, a picket fence and everything is nice. Unfortunately we don’t," Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said. "If a parent doesn't want to opt into this, they don't have to."
Hughes emphasized the potential cost savings the state would see by investing early in children, from the deferred costs of remediation and special education to longer-term societal expenditures in law enforcement and rehabilitation.
He said that with the bill, the state can be at the top of a cliff building a fence rather than at the bottom with an ambulance.
"I believe there are significant societal costs," Hughes said. "No one is compelled in this process."
At the end of the committee meeting, Rep. Dan McKay, R-Riverton, moved to adjourn the meeting without voting on HB96. That motion failed and the bill ultimately advanced out of committee with a favorable recommendation.