SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County will soon offer high-quality preschool to an additional 600 at-risk children in the Granite and Park City school districts thanks to a new kind of public-private partnership first sought on the state level.
The Salt Lake County Council unanimously voted Tuesday morning to approve Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' request to take part in the partnership. Firms Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker will contribute about $1.8 million to the school districts in addition to the county's payout of $350,000 for the program.
McAdams called the results-based financing a "shifting of government spending." He said United Way of Salt Lake and Salt Lake County will pay back investors, with interest, from anticipated savings in special education costs later.
McAdams said it is better to spend $1 for prevention than $4 later for remediation.
Richard Snelgrove, Salt Lake County councilman, said the partnership is a "no-brainer" for taxpayers.
He said with the fiscally conservative approach, investors assume risks instead of risking tax dollars. Snelgrove said the long-term impact will be breaking a cycle of welfare dependency and poverty and save taxpayers money in the process.
Brenda Van Gorder, Granite School District director of preschool services, said the district has been able to track the success of a high-quality preschool in 15 classrooms — a total of of 300 children. According to the study results, the achievement gap was closed and academic performance improved.
"Once they enter school behind, it is nearly impossible for them to fully catch up with the rigor of the state's standards and the curriculum that needs to be taught each year," Van Gorder said.
The study also projected a decrease in budget demand in Salt Lake County for substance abuse, delinquency and after-school services, and criminal justice with participation in pre-kindergarten programs.
Rebecca Dutson, executive vice president of United Way of Salt Lake, said the high-quality preschool program "is the type of program that you need to have in order to make a results-based financial model work."
She said she doesn't see any drawbacks and that this is an opportunity to prove that results-based financial modeling works to the Utah Legislature.
McAdams said the model is similar to SB71, but on a smaller scale. That bill, sponsored by State Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, gathered attention but failed to pass in the recent legislative session. McAdams said this program is on a one-time basis that he hopes will "show that the private sector partners are out there, are willing to make this investment."
He said he plans to take this model back to the Legislature next year to "show what was conceived in the past is actually possible and use this as momentum to see the state finally adopt a results-based financing model for early education."
Osmond could not be reached for comment.
Many families are able to prepare their children for kindergarten on their own, Van Gorder said, and can choose whether to take part in the program.
"Who we're talking about and who this money will focus on are the families who live in really at-risk conditions and there isn't another choice," she said. "These are children who don't have those advantages, and they're not children with disabilities and they're not families who are trying to take advantage of the system."
She hopes the partnership will help the Utah Legislature "wrap their heads around" what they're doing and make it an option for all students in the state.
Van Gorder said if the program is "good for Granite School District kids, it's good for all kids."
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