"We should be careful about how easy it is to put some of our most vulnerable residents in a situation outside the home," Kennedy said.
Kennedy also said the basic premise of the bill is that at-risk students are destined for a life of failure and crime, costing the state millions of dollars throughout their lifetimes.
He said the achievement gap is a significant concern, but there's little proof that early education would yield the savings that bill sponsors claim despite putting increased pressure on the state's management of the public education system.
He said he would prefer the state focus on the family challenges that lead to low-income students falling behind in school and look for ways to strengthen Utah's homes.
"I'd like to see some support for these parents," Kennedy said.
Another concern raised against the bill is inconsistent data regarding the lasting efficacy of early childhood education. Some studies suggest what is known as a "fade out," in that students see early gains upon entering public school, but the demographic realities that made them at-risk to begin with pull them back below grade level over time.
Bill Crim, senior vice president of the United Way of Salt Lake, acknowledged the potential for a "fade out," but he added that those same studies show the benefits of early education.
"Poverty doesn't go away," he said. "We have to think about addressing those problems all along the way in order to see positive student outcomes."
Crim also said that while there could appear to be conflicting reports on the efficacy of preschool programs, there is also a disparity of quality among the programs themselves.
"There’s an enormous body of research about the positive and lasting effects of high-quality preschool," he said. "But not every preschool is high-quality."
The "elegance" of Hughes' bill, Crim said, is that it would only require the state to reimburse high-quality programs. By establishing a model that leverages taxpayer dollars only in the event of success, the bill creates a common measure for determining student preparation.
"It makes it very simple to say programs that get students ready for school are high-quality," Crim said. "Whether or not they use special remediation throughout their school career is really all you have to look at."
Crim said that while the floor debate on the bill was long, it also reflected a high level of awareness and knowledge among legislators. He said there were some concerns raised based on a misunderstanding of the voluntary nature of the preschool programs, but the discussion largely focused on the potential cost savings for the state of Utah.
"We can pay for the intervention privately up front and do it in a way where we only reimburse as a state if it saves us much, much more money down the road," he said.
Hughes emphasized that his bill does not make the state responsible for the education of young children. He said the state only becomes involved through reimbursement, when students have entered public schools and are successfully avoiding what would be far greater costs associated with special education.
"If you’re worrried about government intervention, or government involvement in 3- and 4-year-olds, then you love my bill," he said, "because my bill in fact does not spend any public dollars educating these children."
Hughes said he appreciated the lengthy debate in the House and the questions raised by his colleagues. He said there has been some misunderstanding surrounding his bill, and, in order to be successful, those questions need to be raised and addressed.
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