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Adding to a legislative focus on early childhood education, lawmakers gave early approval Thursday to a bill that would expand preschool offerings to Utah children.

SALT LAKE CITY — Adding to a legislative focus on early childhood education, lawmakers gave early approval Thursday to a bill that would expand preschool offerings to Utah children.

The bill comes with an $11.5 million price tag, but it would make public preschool available to an additional 3,000 to 4,000 students who show signs of struggling once they reach kindergarten, according to bill sponsor Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

Lawmakers hope providing more preschool opportunities will help children from low-income families and other at-risk populations master foundational skills before they enter kindergarten, and make them better readers later on.

The bill also seeks to offer more options for parents as they decide what preschool program is right for their child, whether through a local school, a private company or home-based online programs.

"We are trying to expand the capacity and access for parents to have choices to where they could enroll their children in high-quality pre-K programs," Millner said. "That is the goal of this — to expand access."

SB101 gives most of the appropriation to the Utah State Board of Education as a grant to expand public preschool offerings, as well as $2 million for Upstart, an existing online public preschool. Another $2.5 million would go to the Utah Department of Workforce Services to help low-income families enroll their children in preschool through scholarships and other programs, as well as to train teachers.

Millner's proposal would also change current statute that doesn't allow charter schools to administer preschool programs in Utah.

"My intent is that charter schools would be able to operate high-quality preschool," she said.

Preschool was a companion focus with optional extended-day kindergarten among business leaders and education advocacy groups in the months leading up to the legislative session. Educators and lawmakers have cited preschool as having an especially meaningful impact for low-income, minority and English language-learning students, who might otherwise lag behind their majority peers in school.

In the Granite School District, for example, 61 percent of all students have a sufficient understanding of basic principles when they enter kindergarten. That percentage drops to 44 percent for minority students and 47 percent for economically disadvantaged students, according to Brenda Van Gorder, director of preschool services for the district.

But students who attend preschool perform above average in all three populations. Sixty-nine percent of minority students who attended preschool were academically prepared for kindergarten, as well as 71 percent of low-income students.

Overall, students who participated in preschool were 21 percent more likely to be ready for kindergarten than those who did not.

And those results carry on through middle school, where former preschoolers consistently exceed the district average scores for language arts, math and science, Van Gorder said.

"We instantly see that bump up from our kids who are just in the general population whose parents come forward and want them to be in preschool," Van Gorder said. "It's a really good thing."

Millner's bill has been endorsed by United Way of Salt Lake, Education First and Prosperity 2020, who see it as an investment with long-term returns that benefit students throughout their academic careers.

"What the data doesn't show is the enthusiasm in the eyes of children who are beginning to learn to read, the smiling faces of little children who are now able to keep up with their peers and answer questions correctly in class, and the appreciation of their parents who simply want more for their children," said Scott Ulbrich, chairman of United Way of Salt Lake.

Millner said an estimated 4,400 children in Utah live in intergenerational poverty, with tens of thousands more at risk of academic shortfall for other reasons. And while the bill only expands preschool offerings for a portion of that population, it may lead to other legislative efforts to address the need, she said.

"It's a small group of our students, and we know that. But it's a starting point," she said.

SB101, which was unanimously endorsed by the Senate Education Committee, now goes to the full Senate.

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