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The effort would be modeled on the success of the Granite District’s program, which is free to kids from low-income families.
Preschoolers from Granite’s 11 poorest schools have significantly outperformed the district’s low-income children as a whole as they’ve progressed through grade school.
Reaching Utah’s kids early
So far, two early education bills have been released:
SB42, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, seeks $6 million to expand high quality classroom preschool for at-risk kids, with additional services available outside school hours.
SB148, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, would convert the pilot UPSTART, software for preschoolers to learn at home, to a permanent program. He also wants an additional $1 million to $2 million a year to expand UPSTART.
Osmond’s bill proposes 12 hours a week of preschool for 3-year-olds and 16 hours a week for 4-year-olds.
"What’s so exciting about pre-K, especially high-quality pre-K, [is] those programs are having a significant impact on these kids because we’re catching them early," Osmond said.
He anticipates the bill would allow the program to expand in about seven districts and charter schools, which would apply for grants.
Lawmakers panned a similar bill Osmond proposed last year, which asked private investors to front the money and committed the state to repaying them if the program was a success.
Goldman Sachs and J.B. Pritzker have since funded programs in Granite and Park City School District. The United Way of Salt Lake promises to pay them back if the programs keep kids out of special education and remediation.
Even with the private funding, Granite typically has 500 to 1,000 kids on preschool waiting lists, said Brenda Van Gorder, district director of preschool services.
Inviting investors » Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, thinks Osmond’s private investment proposal from last year is worth another shot.
Under Hughes’ bill, investors would choose which proven preschool strategies to fund. They could expand classroom programs, pay for software or finance curriculum to be used by existing programs, such as in daycare centers.
A board and a third-party evaluator would ensure quality, and the state would pay investors back with interest if their programs are successful. Hughes wants $5 million set aside for his idea.
"When we look at our budget every year and look at all the needs that are out there, there’s just not enough dollars," Hughes said. "If we can leverage private dollars and find ways to avoid enormous costs for these students downstream by seeing them better prepared earlier on, the taxpayer is better served, the child is better served, the education system is better served."
Assessing approaches » Though both UPSTART and the Granite model have proved effective, no one has yet directly compared their results. The costs are fairly comparable.
UPSTART costs about $1,300 per child, including giving free computers and Internet to lower-income families, during its fourth year. The Granite classroom program costs about $1,500 a year per 4-year-old and about $950 for a 3-year-old.
Traditional preschool proponents say their approach may lead to more well-rounded children.
"Computers can teach academics, but they can’t teach social skills," Van Gorder said. "They can’t teach you the things that make you successful in school."
Van Gorder also points out the voluntary program caters to at-risk kids whose parents have already made a choice to put them in preschool.
UPSTART proponents, however, say it allows families anywhere in the state to take part. Also, young kids can stay at home with parents who can teach them the social skills a computer can’t.
"We all know how important kindergarten preparedness is and the preschool learning years are," Miner said, "but some families really don’t want their children to start any earlier than kindergarten and if they can do it in the home, it fits the children."
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