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Bill to Fund Preschool for At-Risk Students Passes Committee

by Eric S. Peterson
- Posted // 2014-02-06 -

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, helped push a bill out of the House Education committee Thursday to create a board to help fund preschool for at-risk students. The bill didn't pass easily, however, with fierce opposition coming from the conservative Eagle Forum. While Hughes pitched the bill as providing crucial intervention to children that saves the state in having to pay for special education later, Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka challenged the need for 3-year-olds to be in preschool when they should be “out running around, playing and having a good time” and not worrying about “this long list of academics.”

Hughes' House Bill 96 was a comeback for a bill presented in the 2013 Legislature by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-West Jordan, that was killed on the senate floor. Hughes says he learned from that debate to tweak the bill for this session. Instead of designating a single preschool source like Osmond's bill did, Hughes' bill would create a board that would fund preschool curricula that met certain standards and could be taught in the public or charter school system, private preschool providers and even through home-based teaching.

The bill comes with a hefty price tag—$5 million ongoing in funds, but money would only be paid out if results from the preschool programming could be verified. The School Readiness Board created by the bill would contract with private entities who would make the initial investment to fund approved preschool programming. The state would only use the appropriated money to pay back private investors—with interest—if kids in the preschool program were “grade ready” by third grade, being proficient in vocabulary, recognizing letters and shapes and others simple measures. The bill was based on research from a pilot program in the Granite School District that found preschool programming provided significant early aid in a child's preparedness.

Hughes argued that there are estimates that the up-front investment could have major long-term payoffs, but said his bill would focus only on the known costs to the state for special-education programming.

“This bill does not talk about cost avoidance from the juvenile justice system, graduation rates, job employment,” Hughes said, arguing the savings would be narrowly focused on the “$2,600 per child we would spend in special education versus the cost of going upstream and intervening sooner rather than later.”

The bill had many components to it and lawmakers on the House Education Committee had many questions, especially given the fact that they had been flooded with hundreds of e-mails, many in opposition.

Hughes clarified that the program would assess children based on a research-based evaluation, qualification would also be based on low-income status and, most importantly, the program would be completely voluntary and up to the parent.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams threw his support behind the program, arguing that kids who fall behind in kindergarten, “by third grade they are in an expensive, state-funded special-education program and it's not because they have a learning disability but simply because they were in an environment where they either were refugees and didn't have the vocabulary when they started kindergarten or their parents are working two and three jobs to put food on the table and they start disadvantaged.”

McAdams also argued that by his estimate, Salt Lake County saves $14 for every $1 spent on preschool intervention in costs saved from having to intervene when disadvantaged students fall in with gangs, drugs and street crime.

Still others stood adamant against government interceding in preschool education. Stan Rasmussen of the conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute argued that assessing at-risk students should be left to local school boards and not the state.

Eagle Forum president Ruzicka argued that it was unnecessary for the government to fund private preschool when the market can take care of itself. She also spent most of her time testifying about her 3-year-old grandson and how he spends most of his time playing and is still a smart boy despite not being subject to the kind of preschooling standards Hughes bill would support.

It was a point that committee member Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, hit upon when he pointed out that kids should have play, but perhaps not every child's experience is the same as Ruzicka's grandson.

“We would all love a world where we all have two parents at home and a picket fence and everything is great and nice,” Gibson said. “Unfortunately we don't.”

With the program being voluntary, Gibson didn't see why not to give parents another tool to help their children progress. It was a point a majority of the committee agreed upon, and the bill was passed out favorably with 13 aye votes and three nay votes and now heads to the House floor for further debate.

To read HB 96, click here. To contact Rep. Hughes about the bill click here. To find your legislator to contact them about this bill click here. For more updates from the hill visit CityWeekly.net and follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.

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