SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to extend preschool to at-risk students through a controversial public-private funding model cleared a major hurdle Tuesday, passing out of the Utah House with a 49-24 vote.
The bill has generated signficant lobbying, with one lawmaker saying Tuesday that he had received more than 1,000 emails in both support and opposition.
Discussion on the bill took up the bulk of floor debate scheduled for the House on Tuesday, with lawmakers questioning the efficacy of early education programs and whether government should be involved in the education of 3- and 4-year-old children.
"This is clearly one of the most important education bills we will consider this session," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek.
Under HB96, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, private investors would pay for the costs of enrolling at-risk students in either private, public or home-based preschool programs. If those students successfully avoid special education after entering elementary school, the loans would be repaid to investors with interest by the state.
Hughes described special education as a "parking place," saying data show that once a student falls behind their grade level, it becomes difficult to catch up. By making an initial investment in a child's early years, a student can potentially enter elementary school ready to learn and avoid years of costly remediation, he said.
Salt Lake County began operating a public-private partnership for high-quality preschool last year, and a similar bill was sponsored during the 2013 Legislature by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, that passed the Senate but failed to reach the House.
"This bill has been one that I have worked on for the better part of the interim," Hughes said. "I thought there were ways to make a bill of this nature much better than it had been before."
Hughes emphasized that the bill establishes a "post-performance" funding model, meaning the state would only be required to reimburse investors if preschool programs are successful at generating cost savings in special education.
But Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, questioned whether that model was being used as justification to establish a new level of government bureaucracy.
"I’m just wondering if post-performance is becoming the new way to grow government," McCay said.
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, who works in early childhood education, said allowing the private sector to risk its capital to better prepare students for education is a "no-brainer."
"(It's) a win for our kids, it's a win for our educational system, and it's a win for our taxpayers," Anderson said.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said many parents see a benefit in enrolling their children in preschool programs. But for economically disadvantaged families, those opportunities are not available.
"It really levels the playing field and creates equity among all children to be ready for school and ready to succeed," she said.
But Moss added that the bill potentially benefits all students, as the more students are prepared for the early elementary grades, the less teachers are forced to spend time catching up students to grade level.
"If they’re ready to learn, that means the teacher can focus on all the kids and not a handful or more who really aren’t prepared to start learning to read," she said.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said he has historically opposed efforts to expand public preschool. But he added that Hughes' bill presents a Utah solution to a Utah problem that is both cost effective and potentially life changing for special needs students.
"When we have a Utah solution, with Utah oversight to address a Utah concern, that can be very helpful," Stratton said.
Other lawmakers, however, remained unconvinced. Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, expressed skepticism that private investors would be attracted to an arrangement where they have no guarantee of repayment.
Nielson also posed the rhetorical question of why the state would extend its management of education to include 3- and 4-year-old children when the general consensus is that elementary, junior high and high schools are currently underfunded.
"Why would we take on something new?" he asked.