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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Preschool teacher Aubrey Katyryniuk gives Connor Klein a high five as they work Monday, March 4, 2013, at Calvin Smith Elementary School in Taylorsville.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker believes the fight to close Utah's educational achievement gaps begins in preschool, and he's proposing a whole new way to pay for it.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said his bill would create public-private partnerships in which private investors would contribute the money necessary to expand high-quality preschool programs for at-risk children. The investors get tax incentives, but would invest with the understanding that their funds would be repaid only if the programs are successful in improving student performance and resulting in cost savings to the state.

"It enables us to expand now, immediately, on these programs with contracts between our private investment community and the school districts that will provide these services," Osmond said.

If passed by the Legislature, SB71 could be implemented as early as the next academic year, Osmond said, adding that he already has received $10 million in commitments from private investors in the banking sector. Goldman Sachs, he said, was among those committed to the program.

In public money, the bill would set aside $1 million each year for a fund to repay investors.

Osmond said investors to the program would receive the federal tax incentives as well as interest from the state on their initial payment if the performance outcomes and cost savings measurements were met.

"We're tying performance to the financing. We're bringing the private industry to the table to support the expansion of these programs," Osmond said. "It's so innovative that many of my colleagues are confused by it."

And some oppose it.

Utah County Republican lawmakers Sen. Margaret Dayton and Rep. Keith Grover held a press conference of their own just hours after Osmond's presentation.

Their criticisms of the bill included skepticism of the successes of early childhood programs;  the lack of transparency and accountability for private investing organizations; and slippery-slope concerns that voluntary preschool could evolve into a mandatory education program pulling 3- and 4-year-olds out of the home.

"We all know what happens to optional programs," Dayton, R-Orem, said.

Grover, R-Provo, compared high-quality preschool programs to the federal Head Start program, which he said has continually encroached into the role of the nuclear family while failing to demonstrate lasting educational gains for students.

"It further allows parents to simply relinquish their responsibilities in raising their own children," he said.

But Osmond maintains the bill's aim is to provide preschool options for the families who need it most, particularly those in low-income households or those for whom English is a second language.

He said there are a number of "shining examples" in the state of successful programs for at-risk students, such as the Granite School District High Quality Preschool program. Such programs have proven successful at preparing at-risk students for grade-level education while also translating into measurable savings.

Since revamping its preschool program in 2006, Granite has served approximately 250 students whose assessments indicated a learning disability, district officials said. To date, only 11 of those students have required special education, which the district estimates has saved $1.8 million.

Osmond sees the potential savings of such programs going beyond remedial education. He said closing the achievement gap of Utah's ever-diversifying population translates into savings in social assistance programs and the criminal justice system, as well as an overall economic impact of more individuals being educated and career ready.

"We need to recognize as a state the growing population that we define as at-risk," Osmond said. "We cannot continue to expect a different result by doing the same things."

Osmond  was joined Monday by representatives from the Utah State Office of Education, Utah Parent Teacher Association, Utah Education Association, Prosperity 2020 and other education stakeholders in support of the bill.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, the bill's House sponsor, spoke of the state's struggles to fund a large student population; Utah currently ranks as the lowest in the country for per-pupil spending.

Hughes said the bill is a way to fill in some of the gap between what funding is needed and what is available, while also promoting greater student achievement.

"I have scrubbed this bill. I have looked at this bill to see what could ever be the problem with this kind of public policy, and I can’t find it," he said. "It’s exciting to think there are private investors in this state who want to invest in our kids — not just our kids, but our high-risk kids."

Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said the State School Board supports the bill and recognizes the critical nature of what happens when a student enters the public school system unprepared.

"We’re anxious to be part of the implementation of this new program as we do everything we can to try and meet the needs of every student in Utah," Menlove said.

Karen Crompton, director of Voices for Utah Children, also praised the bill. Students who start school behind grade level typically stay behind grade level, she said, but with early intervention, there's a chance to change the course of their academic lives.

"If we truly believe that every child deserves the chance to climb a ladder of success and reach their full, God-given potential, then we at least need to make sure they can get to the first rung on that ladder," Crompton said.

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The bill's language states that the primary responsibility for the education of children resides with parents and guardians, and that most preschool-age children are better off being educated at home by their parents. The bill also calls for funding to go toward helping families access home-based educational technology, such as online programs for preparing students for kindergarten.

"This is not to replace parents. It's to help them," Osmond said. "It's time we do something different."

Under the terms of the bill, pre-school class sizes would not be allowed to exceed 20 students and would be limited to 16 hours per week for 4-year-olds and 12 hours per week for 3-year-olds. Participation in a high quality preschool program would also require the engagement of a child's parent or guardian, including monthly classroom participation.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com