Debate heating up for preschool, education funding bills

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 3:55 p.m. MST

Nicole Fisher plays as Voices for Utah Children play a life sized game of Chutes & Ladders at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. The chutes demonstrate how children fall behind if they lack proper support in preschool.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — If children from low-income households with little English language ability enter public schools at grade level, the state could save millions of dollars in special education costs and potentially millions more further down the road in crime prevention and rehabilitation.

And if private investors are willing to foot the bill for those same students' preschool education, the potential savings for the state are even greater.

Those are the arguments put forward in HB96, a bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, that would allow for private firms to invest in early education for at-risk students and be reimbursed by the state if, and only if, those students successfully avoid remediation in elementary school.

"This creates opportunities for those that would be interested in investing in these children," Hughes said.

Hughes' bill was approved by the House last week, but not before generating some of the most active floor debate yet of the 2014 Legislature. House members spent more than an hour weighing the merits of the bill, with some arguing for a need to close the achievement gap in education while others questioned if government should be involved in the education of 3- and 4-year-old children.

But in passing the House, Hughes' bill has cleared a major hurdle. A similar bill setting up a private-public funding model for preschool was sponsored in the Senate last year but failed in an 11-17 vote.

That bill's sponsor, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has introduced another preschool proposal this year, this time abandoning the public-private funding model for a more direct state appropriation that would be focused toward children affected by intergenerational poverty.

"I did not anticipate such a positive response," Osmond said of the House vote to approve Hughes' bill.

Hughes said the time since last year's bill has allowed lawmakers to gain a better understanding of the public-private funding mechanism. But he added that in drafting HB96, he took into account the concerns raised last year and put that information into creating a better piece of legislation.

Where last year's bill would've worked within the high-quality preschool programs at Utah's public school district, HB96 allows for investment in private and home-based early education.

"That takes us out of the conversation of pulling kids into some facility because when you have a three-pronged approach, it really does enable this effort to reach wherever that child is spending their day today, right now," Hughes said.

Osmond said the vote on HB96 makes him optimistic about the chances of his own bill, SB42. He said both proposals face an uphill battle in the Senate, but the vote in the House suggests that the conversation had shifted from one of "if" something should be done to close the achievement gap to "what" specifically should be done.

"I think we’ll get through that and we’ll pass something this legislative session," Osmond said.

SB42 was heard by the Senate Education Committee on Friday and received a favorable recommendation. It will now go before the Senate for floor debate.

But many lawmakers question whether the state should be involving itself in the education of 3- and 4-year-old children. With the state already struggling to adequately fund kindergarten through 12th grade, is it wise to take on the burden of an additional two years of schooling?

Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, was one of the 24 lawmakers who voted against the bill. During floor debate, Kennedy asked rhetorically why the intervention begins at age 3 and whether the state should be funding classroom learning for 2-year-olds as well.

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