SALT LAKE CITY — The House Education Committee opted Wednesday to hold a bill intended to maximize funds used for a full-day kindergarten program. The committee will review it and take action on it at its next meeting.
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, is sponsoring HB111, which amends current the statute to specify that only at-risk students can be eligible for full-day kindergarten funded by the state.
The Legislature has funded a pilot optional extended-day program for four years that is set to run out this summer. He said that, should the program be extended, he would like to see some changes made in how it's operated.
Anderson said some school districts are using the $7.5 million appropriated for the current pilot program to instruct children who are already proficient, and those students aren't benefiting from the funds as much as others could.
"Thirty-five percent of the kids enrolled are children who actually had the need to be there," he said.
Anderson said the students with a learning gap are the ones who fail an assessment for letter recognition, among other things, before they enter school. But some educators countered that there are children who pass that assessment and are still at-risk for falling behind.
Sara Krebs, a literacy specialist in Cache County District said she knows the assessment inside and out, and has seen students pass it only to struggle in other areas. She also said the bill isn't flexible enough, since it assumes schools will have full-day kindergarten, yet her district has seen results by simply extending the day by 30 minutes for students at risk.
Much of the discussion centered on Anderson's plan to have students in the program enroll in a morning half-day class and an afternoon half-day class rather than create a specific full-day class at participating schools. He said that's a way of stretching dollars even further, with students still getting the benefit.
Anderson, who operates a preschool, said he has seen the benefits of recurrent lessons and knows it can only help at-risk students.
"Repetition in early learning absolutely benefits the child," he said.
Some on the committee wondered if that was the best strategy, even if it meant a cost savings.
"I can't quite grasp the sense that just repeating the same program ... is as rich," said Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake. "Even kindergarten kids would say 'we already did that.' "
Several audience members spoke out against the bill, many for different reasons. Gayle Ruzicka with the Utah Eagle Forum said her organization opposes any full-day kindergarten program because kids at that age should be with their families. She did say she considers Anderson's bill "an improvement" to the current program.
The Utah Education Association also spoke out against it, though they said they appreciated Anderson's efforts to keep the program in place.
Anderson said he's sponsoring the bill because he really believes in early intervention for those who fall behind, and he wants the Legislature to expand the program. He said he feels the money hasn't been used efficiently enough to convince some legislators to keep it going, hence his proposed legislation.
"To me, that was a big target on this thing's back," he said. "I do want to preserve this program."