Utah preschool advocates show support before upcoming debate

April 4, 2013
Author: Lisa Schencker | Salt Lake Tribune

Parent, teacher and business groups support it, as do at least two Republican lawmakers.

Now, the question is whether the rest of the Utah Legislature will give a thumbs up to a bill to create a preschool program for at-risk kids in Utah.

The Senate may weigh in Monday afternoon when the bill, SB71, hits the floor for the first time.

Leaders of the Utah Education Association, Utah PTA, the United Way Salt Lake and Prosperity 2020, a business-led initiative to boost education, joined Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, and Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, on Monday morning to show their support for SB71.

The bill would beef up and expand high quality preschool programs for at-risk children in Utah. To do so, it would seek $10 million from private investors whom the state would pay back in the future only if the program were a success. The state would put about $1 million a year into a fund to prepare to eventually pay investors back, if needed.

The goal is to both better prepare at-risk kids for later success in school and to save the state money. Bill sponsor Osmond said results from a similar high quality preschool program in the Granite School District show that many students who might have needed expensive special education services as they grew older were able to avoid them thanks to the extra preparation.

"We believe that the state can save millions of dollars in cost avoidance and most importantly help these kids succeed academically," Osmond said Monday.

Karen Crompton, president of Voices for Utah Children, said affluent Utah families are already enrolling their children in preschool and children from lower-income homes deserve the same chance.

"If we truly believe that every child deserves the chance to climb the ladder of success and reach their full God-given potential then we need to make sure they can at least get to the first rung on that ladder," Crompton said.

Osmond said he already has commitments of $10 million from private investors. He declined to name them, but confirmed he’s been in discussions with Goldman Sachs. The company has participated in a similar funding model for a New York City effort to reduce recidivism among teenage offenders.

Though Osmond’s bill has gained wide support among education advocates, some far right conservatives are wary. Some in Utah have long felt that the state should not run preschool programs, arguing that young children belong in the home with their parents.

Under Osmond’s bill, the preschool programs would be voluntary, require monthly family involvement and ask parents would to possibly pay a portion of fees. The time children spent in class would be limited to 16 hours a week for 4-year-olds and 12 hours a week for 3-year-olds. Class sizes would be capped at 20 students with one adult for every 10 kids.