A group of state business leaders urged lawmakers Thursday to continue funding optional extended-day kindergarten, saying the program may be at risk.
"We implore the Legislature to fund this essential program," said Deborah Bayle, president and CEO of the United Way of Salt Lake. "If we don't make this investment in our kids' futures now, we will have to make much greater investments later."
Prosperity 2020, a Utah business-led movement to invest in education, has recommended lawmakers put an additional $128 million toward public and higher education this session, including $10 million to continue the kindergarten program. Business leaders applauded on Wednesday many of the actions lawmakers have taken so far this session to fund education, but they cited extended-day kindergarten, reducing the financial burden on college students and mission-based funding for higher education as items that still require action.
An education budget committee has recommended $10 million for "early intervention," including $7.5 million that may be used on optional, extended-day kindergarten, and $2.5 million for technology for children in early grades. But lawmakers are recommending that money come from a pot meant for one-time expenses rather than ongoing costs. And lawmakers have ranked those items eighth and seventh, respectively, on their list of priorities out of 14 items to be funded with money meant for one year only.
Bayle said Prosperity 2020 would rather see optional, extended-day kindergarten funded by money meant for ongoing expenses to help make sure the program continues. She also said Prosperity 2020 wishes the kindergarten program were listed as a higher priority.
Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said Thursday he believes optional, extended-day kindergarten will be funded this session. He said it's recommended to get one-time funding because there's already too much demand for ongoing money, which must be used for such items as enrollment growth and teacher salaries. As for why it's not ranked higher, he said, "I always say, 'Show me something that's higher than that I should cut, because I've only got so much money.' "
Ultimately, it will be up to the Executive Appropriations Committee to create an education budget bill, on which both houses of the Legislature will vote.
The state school board has listed the $7.5 million for early intervention and $2.5 million for early intervention technology sixth on its list of funding priorities for this session, after new computer-adaptive tests, enrollment growth, college readiness tests, an increase in basic per-pupil spending and restoration of some money cut last year from programs for at-risk students.
Those who spoke on behalf of Prosperity 2020 on Thursday said otherwise they are pleased with lawmakers' school budget recommendations so far.
"It's the kind of decision-making that makes us optimistic we are on the path to Prosperity 2020," said Mark Bouchard, Prosperity 2020 chairman, referring to the group's goals that 90 percent of elementary students be proficient in math and reading and two-thirds of all Utahns have postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020.