Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Nicole Fisher plays as Voices for Utah Children play a life sized game of Chutes & Ladders at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. The chutes demonstrate how children fall behind if they lack proper support in preschool.
Poverty doesn't go away. We have to think about addressing those problems all along the way in order to see positive student outcomes. —Bill Crim, senior vice president of the United Way of Salt Lake

SALT LAKE CITY — If children from low-income households with little English language ability enter public schools at grade level, the state could save millions of dollars in special education costs and potentially millions more further down the road in crime prevention and rehabilitation.

And if private investors are willing to foot the bill for those same students' preschool education, the potential savings for the state are even greater.

Those are the arguments put forward in HB96, a bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, that would allow for private firms to invest in early education for at-risk students and be reimbursed by the state if, and only if, those students successfully avoid remediation in elementary school.

"This creates opportunities for those that would be interested in investing in these children," Hughes said.

Hughes' bill was approved by the House last week, but not before generating some of the most active floor debate yet of the 2014 Legislature. House members spent more than an hour weighing the merits of the bill, with some arguing for a need to close the achievement gap in education while others questioned if government should be involved in the education of 3- and 4-year-old children.

But in passing the House, Hughes' bill has cleared a major hurdle. A similar bill setting up a private-public funding model for preschool was sponsored in the Senate last year but failed in an 11-17 vote.

That bill's sponsor, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has introduced another preschool proposal this year, this time abandoning the public-private funding model for a more direct state appropriation that would be focused toward children affected by intergenerational poverty.

"I did not anticipate such a positive response," Osmond said of the House vote to approve Hughes' bill.

Hughes said the time since last year's bill has allowed lawmakers to gain a better understanding of the public-private funding mechanism. But he added that in drafting HB96, he took into account the concerns raised last year and put that information into creating a better piece of legislation.

Where last year's bill would've worked within the high-quality preschool programs at Utah's public school district, HB96 allows for investment in private and home-based early education.

"That takes us out of the conversation of pulling kids into some facility because when you have a three-pronged approach, it really does enable this effort to reach wherever that child is spending their day today, right now," Hughes said.

Osmond said the vote on HB96 makes him optimistic about the chances of his own bill, SB42. He said both proposals face an uphill battle in the Senate, but the vote in the House suggests that the conversation had shifted from one of "if" something should be done to close the achievement gap to "what" specifically should be done.

"I think we’ll get through that and we’ll pass something this legislative session," Osmond said.

SB42 was heard by the Senate Education Committee on Friday and received a favorable recommendation. It will now go before the Senate for floor debate.

But many lawmakers question whether the state should be involving itself in the education of 3- and 4-year-old children. With the state already struggling to adequately fund kindergarten through 12th grade, is it wise to take on the burden of an additional two years of schooling?

Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, was one of the 24 lawmakers who voted against the bill. During floor debate, Kennedy asked rhetorically why the intervention begins at age 3 and whether the state should be funding classroom learning for 2-year-olds as well.

"We should be careful about how easy it is to put some of our most vulnerable residents in a situation outside the home," Kennedy said.

Kennedy also said the basic premise of the bill is that at-risk students are destined for a life of failure and crime, costing the state millions of dollars throughout their lifetimes.

He said the achievement gap is a significant concern, but there's little proof that early education would yield the savings that bill sponsors claim despite putting increased pressure on the state's management of the public education system.

He said he would prefer the state focus on the family challenges that lead to low-income students falling behind in school and look for ways to strengthen Utah's homes.

"I'd like to see some support for these parents," Kennedy said.

Another concern raised against the bill is inconsistent data regarding the lasting efficacy of early childhood education. Some studies suggest what is known as a "fade out," in that students see early gains upon entering public school, but the demographic realities that made them at-risk to begin with pull them back below grade level over time.

Bill Crim, senior vice president of the United Way of Salt Lake, acknowledged the potential for a "fade out," but he added that those same studies show the benefits of early education.

"Poverty doesn't go away," he said. "We have to think about addressing those problems all along the way in order to see positive student outcomes."

Crim also said that while there could appear to be conflicting reports on the efficacy of preschool programs, there is also a disparity of quality among the programs themselves.

"There’s an enormous body of research about the positive and lasting effects of high-quality preschool," he said. "But not every preschool is high-quality."

The "elegance" of Hughes' bill, Crim said, is that it would only require the state to reimburse high-quality programs. By establishing a model that leverages taxpayer dollars only in the event of success, the bill creates a common measure for determining student preparation.

"It makes it very simple to say programs that get students ready for school are high-quality," Crim said. "Whether or not they use special remediation throughout their school career is really all you have to look at."

Crim said that while the floor debate on the bill was long, it also reflected a high level of awareness and knowledge among legislators. He said there were some concerns raised based on a misunderstanding of the voluntary nature of the preschool programs, but the discussion largely focused on the potential cost savings for the state of Utah.

"We can pay for the intervention privately up front and do it in a way where we only reimburse as a state if it saves us much, much more money down the road," he said.

Hughes emphasized that his bill does not make the state responsible for the education of young children. He said the state only becomes involved through reimbursement, when students have entered public schools and are successfully avoiding what would be far greater costs associated with special education.

"If you’re worrried about government intervention, or government involvement in 3- and 4-year-olds, then you love my bill," he said, "because my bill in fact does not spend any public dollars educating these children."

Hughes said he appreciated the lengthy debate in the House and the questions raised by his colleagues. He said there has been some misunderstanding surrounding his bill, and, in order to be successful, those questions need to be raised and addressed.

"It will be as lengthy of a debate over in the Senate, as well, I would expect," Hughes said.

As the legislative session nears its halfway point, more education bills are coming out of committees to see debate on the chamber floors. Among the issues under consideration are potential changes to the tax code, parental rights, per-pupil funding and an initiative to drastically increase the number of learning devices in Utah schools.

On Thursday, the Public Education Appropriations Committee finalized its list of funding priorities. Included in those recommendations were $61 million for enrollment growth and a 2.5 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit, which is used in the calculation of per-pupil funding.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said that in regards to public schools, it is still early in the session with a long way to go.

"My experience has been that education is the first place we fund and the last place we cut, but there’s still a lot of discussion to go on with regard to education," he said.

Lawmakers are also considering the specifics of a proposal by House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, which was announced during the session and would dramatically increase the number of learning devices in Utah's schools. The Public Education Appropriations Committee prioritized $50 million in one-time funding and $50 million in ongoing funding for the initiative, which is expected to be rolled out over the space of several years.

Two bills to generate revenue for schools by reforming the tax code are also under consideration in the senate. SB118, sponsored by Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, would limit the number of personal income tax exemptions a family can claim to two. SB111, sponsored by Osmond, would freeze the basic property tax rate, which currently adjusts down to remain revenue neutral as property values increase.

Both bills have received committee approval but have yet to be debated on the Senate floor.

Contributing: Madeleine Brown

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