Public preschool expansion gets early OK from House

March 7, 2016
Author: Morgan Jacobsen

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to expand public preschool offerings for Utah's youngest students is on its way to the House after getting unanimous support from a committee of lawmakers Monday.

The bill also received financial backing from legislative leaders last week as they pieced together a final budget proposal for the state.

Lawmakers hope more than $11 million set aside in SB101 will help an additional 3,000 to 4,000 preschoolers develop foundational academic skills, especially if they show early signs of struggling in school.

The bill is also intended to give parents more options in helping their children prepare for kindergarten. Those additional preschool options could include private schools, in-home online programs, or charter schools, which previously haven't been allowed to administer preschool under state law.

"We really want to be able to provide more options for parents, and we want to make sure it's high-quality" preschool, said bill sponsor Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden. "We want to make sure more of our students enter school-ready."

Originally, the bill would have spent $11.5 million in state funds for the preschool expansion effort, but the bill was amended Monday to rely more on federal funds. Lawmakers hope to use $11 million in federal grants for low-income families for the program and $695,000 in state funds, significantly reducing the bill's impact on the state budget.

The money would be allocated to the Utah Department of Workforce Services and the Utah State Board of Education to administer the grant program to connect families with preschool opportunities. Some of the funding would also be used to provide training for child development specialists.

Expanding preschool in Utah has been supported by business and community organizations, who see it as a long-term treatment for intergenerational poverty and academic shortfall.

Educators point to success in the Granite School District, which implemented a preschool program in 2005. Since then, district leaders have tracked the progress of students who went through the program and compared it with their peers who didn't attend preschool.

By fourth grade, for example, 42 percent of former preschoolers were proficient in math, compared with 28 percent of other Title I students and 37 percent of the district overall, according to Brenda Van Gorder, director of preschool services for the district.

"By implementing the high-quality standards that are included in SB101, over time, the kids actually do great," Van Gorder said. "You can see the incredible difference between those children who had Granite preschool and those who did not."

SB101 passed the Senate last month in a 19-4 vote, and it now awaits approval on the House floor.


Twitter: MorganEJacobsen