Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Both chambers of the Utah Legislature have now approved a bill that allows private firms to invest in the early education of at-risk children.

HB96, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was amended in the Senate and will require a final vote in the House. It is expected to succeed after clearing that chamber in a 49-24 vote last month.

The bill creates a unique funding structure in which public, private and home-based preschool programs can be funded through private loans. Those loans, managed by a school readiness board, are repaid only if students who would otherwise require costly special education in elementary school successfully avoid remediation.

"It's only paid back from avoided costs," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, the bill's Senate sponsor.

A similar bill was sponsored last year but failed to gain traction during the session. Deborah Bayle, president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake City, said she believes this year's success was partly due to the work of preschool advocates who tried to provide information to lawmakers on the benefits of early intervention.

"The proof is in the pudding," she said. "We know it works."

Bayle pointed to the success of existing high-quality preschool programs, such as one operating in Granite School District. She said the first cohort of students from that program are now in the sixth grade, and with a few exceptions have stayed level with their peers and exceeded the performance of other low-income students.

For the population the bill targets — students who are both impoverished and performing at levels that suggest a need for special education — the issue is often an opportunity gap rather than an inability to learn, Bayle said. She described 3- and 4-year-old children as "sponges" of knowledge and said access to high-quality preschool can set them on a path for success in school.

"They don’t have the same opportunities in the home or in their neighborhoods that other kids have," Bayle said. "There’s just so many barriers that this program helps to eliminate."

Still, some lawmakers expressed hesitation that the funding model created by the bill could deliver as expected. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, cautioned against creating a financial burden for future Legislatures in the event that decreased special education funding is insufficient to cover the repayment of loans.

"If this is effective, we will have to pay for these services," Madsen said. "There is no way that we can assume that there will be overall fewer (individualized education programs)."

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, was also skeptical that the future academic success or failure of a student could be adequately predicted at such a young age.

"The biggest concern for me is that we take 3-year-olds and we test them for the kinds of skills that I don’t think can be really evaluated effectively," Stephenson said.

Urquhart emphasized that repayment of the loans would only be required if specific, individual students avoid several years of special education costs while in elementary school. The bill also calls for $3 million to be set aside, which he said ensures that the state is able to meet its obligations.

Beyond the costs structure, the bill would extend valuable preschool services to a needy population, Urquhart said.

"It will really help these kids have an opportunity in life," he said. "We’re doing some phenomenal work with this bill, and I would encourage your support."

The bill ultimately advanced with a 17-10 vote. Members of the House will have until the session ends Thursday night to concur with the Senate amendments.

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