Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
A preschool teacher works with the kids in her class Monday, March 4, 2013. Members of the Senate Education Committee approved a bill Friday that would extend public preschool services to at-risk students.

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to expand public preschool programs for at-risk students cleared the Senate Education Committee Friday and will now go before the Senate.

SB42, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, seeks $3 million in ongoing funding to increase enrollment at public school-based early education programs.

The bill focuses on children affected by intergenerational poverty and would allow roughly 2,500 additional students to take part. Participation in preschool would be voluntary, and parents would be required to be involved in their child's classrooms.

"High-quality (preschool) programs have been proven to remove, or significantly reduce, the achievement gap for these kids," Osmond said.

Osmond's bill is one of two proposals aimed at extending early learning opportunities to low-income children. The other, HB96, would allow for private firms to invest in public, private and home-based preschools and be reimbursed by the state if students successfully avoid special education upon entering the public school system.

During his presentation of the bill Friday, Osmond said he is aware of HB96 and has discussed with its sponsors ways that the two bills could be combined should they both be approved by lawmakers.

"They are overlapping, and we would probably have to have some sort of conference committee," Osmond said.

Ray Ruetzel, director of the Emma Eccles Jones Early Childhood Education and Research Center at Utah State University, said research suggests the most effective methods of combating poverty are so-called "two generation programs," in which interventions are made at both the parental and child levels.

He also said children in low-income families typically do not have the same access to technology as their peers, but through preschool programs can gain a "portal to the world" that grows their knowledge and gives them opportunities to learn.

"Directing funding toward children who live in poverty is a good expenditure of state funds," he said.

But Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis Board of Education, cautioned that the bill could have unintended consequences. He said the bill's focus on existing programs could dissuade individuals from launching preschool facilities.

He suggested that rather than encouraging children to go outside the home, the state should look at ways of bringing educational opportunities into the home.

Cannon also questioned the efforts to push institutionalized learning to an ever-younger generation of students. He said government first got involved in kindergarten — which most children participate in despite being voluntary — and now the debate has shifted to 3- and 4-year-olds.

"I’m telling you, by the time my children and grandchildren are in our seats, we’ll be discussing whether the program should start to teach children in the labor and delivery room," he said. "That’s not the way to go and there are many of us in the state that don’t want that to happen."

The bill ultimately passed out of committee unanimously. It will now go before the full Senate.

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