Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Devony Rodriguez is a preschool student in Granite School District's high quality preschool program at Hilldale Elementary School in West Valley City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Higher standards and expanded programs.

That's what one Utah state senator wants for preschoolers and he's put forth a plan modeled after a successful program in the Granite School District to make it happen.

State Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, wants to set aside $5 million each year of a five-year pilot program that would provide money to school districts willing to raise their standards for preschools.

To qualify for a grant, a district's preschool program would have to limit class size to no more than 20 students, with one adult for every 10 children. Teachers would be required to have either a bachelor's degree or a child development certification.

The program's curriculum would include research-based high quality early childhood standards and schools would be required to conduct ongoing professional training of teachers, frequent assessment of students and significant data collection.

The High Quality Preschool bill, introduced in the interim legislative session Wednesday by Osmond, is based on a preschool program at Granite School District, which received part of its funding through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Assessment data from students in three academic years were evaluated by researchers at Utah State University, who deemed that the high-quality standards implemented by the district had resulted in "statistically significant" improvement for both student performance and classroom output.

Brenda VanGorder director of preschool services for Granite, said the district's program serves 3,000 students at a cost of $1,500 per child. She also said there is a wait-list of more than 1,100 students to enter the program.

Osmond told the members of the Education Interim Committee that because of the need for classroom space to house students, school districts would be required to partner with private preschool education providers when possible.

"Most schools won’t even be able to accommodate this without that partnership," he said.

Osmond said the $25 million budget shortfall that the Legislature faced this year is among the obstacles facing the proposed legislation, as well as philosophical disagreement on whether the state should be involved in publicly funding preschool education.

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"There are those that feel that preschool is nothing more than a government-funded daycare solution," he said.

But the program would target students who are most at risk for academic failure – particularly those from low-income households or English language learners – and would curb the growth of special education costs, which have ballooned to more than $300 million each year.

"We have an opportunity to mainstream these students and save significant money down the road," he said. "It results in a net reduced cost in special education down the line for the state of Utah."