SALT LAKE CITY — Two programs that focus on early childhood education may not get extra funding from the Legislature after this year's round of vetoes by Gov. Gary Herbert wrapped up late Wednesday.
UPSTART, a public online preschool program, was set to receive $1.5 million in new funding, and a reading intervention program for students in kindergarten through third grade was expected to get a boost of $3 million, money that would expand both programs. The governor vetoed both appropriations, citing concerns of duplicate efforts in preschool and implementation problems for the reading program.
Both programs will still be funded through the state's base budget, which provides more than $4.5 million annually for each program. That means parents will still be able to enroll their children in UPSTART, and struggling young readers will still have access to the K-3 early intervention program.
But lawmakers are considering overriding Herbert's veto of the additional line item funding, saying the decision was uninformed and didn't involve the Legislature or education leaders.
In contrast, the governor's decision to veto three other bills involved meetings with lawmakers and education leaders, though intentions to veto the line items weren't mentioned, according to Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson, chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
"When it came to the funding line items, he did not consult with the Legislature to find out what we were thinking when we decided to fund those items," Stephenson said. "It was really surprising to me, and I was extremely disappointed that he wouldn't even ask why we did fund those items."
If the Legislature decides not to override the vetoes, the long-term impact for the programs is still unclear since there was little indication that those vetoes were coming. Education leaders also weren't made aware of the budget changes until late Wednesday, according to David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education.
"It would have been nice if the governor had given us more heads up that he was concerned with some of these issues because we could have explained our position before he actually took the action," Crandall said. "We're still trying to figure out what we'll end up doing and what our options are."
Among other education legislation, Herbert vetoed SB87, which was sponsored by Stephenson and would have made the State School Board exempt from having to hold public hearings at certain times in its administrative rule-making process.
"While streamlining the process is a good policy, I will always err on the side of public participation," Herbert said in a veto letter to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes.
Another line item appropriation of $275,000 for the Utah ProStart Teen Chef Masters program, a reality TV cooking competition, was striken from the budget by the governor's pen.
Lawmakers this year passed SB101, which the governor signed, providing roughly $11.5 million of mostly federal money to expand public preschool through private programs, public schools and online technology. The bill allows up to $2 million to be spent expanding UPSTART.
With UPSTART, Utah currently has three public preschool programs, and questions of duplicity are partly why Herbert objected to providing an additional $1.5 million for the program, according to the governor's education adviser, Tami Pyfer.
"Sometimes in our eagerness to make sure that we're providing quality preschool programs," Pyfer said, "we haven't stepped back to see where the funding's coming from and who those programs are serving. This gives us a chance to do that before we put another $1.5 million into the program."
The governor's office also claimed that UPSTART, which is operated by the Waterford Institute, has a balance of $2.4 million in unspent money in its budget. But program leaders contested that assertion, saying UPSTART will have $82,000 in carryover funding at the end of June.
The extra $1.5 million would have expanded the program to 2,300 additional children, according to Claudia Miner, UPSTART program director and vice president of development at the Waterford Institute.
"We are so disappointed that the governor received incorrect information on this point because we believe he would not have vetoed UPSTART's additional funding if he had had correct information," Miner said in a prepared statement.
But education strategies for at-risk children still remain a top priority for the governor, according to Pyfer. She said early childhood education is one of the main pillars of the state's 10-year plan to address student underperformance and intergenerational poverty.
"We support early learning," she said. "However, funding is limited, so let's make sure that we're not duplicating services or make sure that these funds are going to programs that have been proven effective."
Utah's K-3 learning intervention program was initiated by the late former Gov. Olene Walker and aims to get more students reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Teachers often use the funding for learning technology programs.
Last year, Stephenson and other lawmakers called for an independent study of the effectiveness of the learning software components of the program. That study determined that the program "worked well" for kindergartners, about 41 percent of whom were using the software according to vendor recommendations.
Results, however, showed a "slight, negative" effect for first- and second-graders, and "no significant program effects" were observed for third-graders, only 17 percent of whom showed fidelity to the vendors' recommendations.
"That was troubling that we'd add another one-time appropriation when that independent evaluation didn't seem to warrant that," Pyfer said.
Crandall said if school districts are unwilling to use the learning assistance programs as prescribed, then the funding could be more meaningful elsewhere.
"If they are using it, you expect them to use it with fidelity so that you can see the real benefit of it. That's something that we'll be monitoring as we go forward," he said.
Stephenson said the legislation behind the program "inadvertently" expanded software designed for kindergartners and first-graders to students in second and third grades. The study, he said, shows the need to adapt the program for older students, but it still shows "tremendous" promise for younger students.
Stephenson said he's confident the Legislature will vote to override the vetoes of both the K-3 reading intervention and UPSTART funding line items, especially since education technology was supported in other legislation.
"I'm working for a veto override because I think the governor's decision was done without proper information," he said. "I think we will ultimately (override the vetoes) because our Legislature is helping public education move into the 21st century, and the most significant line items he vetoed had to do with personalized learning tools that are digitally based."
Lawmakers have until mid-May to override the governor's action.
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