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Is lack of preschools hurting Utah children?

State is lagging in early education

SHARE Is lack of preschools hurting Utah children?

Thirty-nine states and Washington, D.C., spend more than $1.9 billion a year on public preschools.

Utah spends nothing.

And that, early childhood education advocates say, creates an achievement gap before kids set foot in the schoolhouse door.

"When we reach children at younger ages — which is a big opposition issue in Utah — and help them develop readiness skills, children come to school well prepared," said Cheryl Wright, University of Utah associate professor of family and consumer studies and director of its Child and Family Development Center.

"Our lack of investment, in the long run, probably hurts us. Because then, we are forced to invest in remediation, which tends to be more costly and sets these children up for school failure."

States' attention to early childhood education is detailed in an annual report issued by Education Week, a national magazine that explores school issues. "Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success" can be viewed online at www.edweek.org/qc.

The report shows Utah has made some early schooling strides. It requires school districts to offer kindergarten — nine states don't — and has set up kindergarten standards, testing and teacher certification requirements.

About 35,000 children attend kindergarten, but they don't have to under state law. The state gives no funding for preschool programs, nor does it give child-care tax credits like other states.

The state accepts about $27.8 million in federal funding for Head Start, a program to prepare low-income 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten. But it kicks in nothing extra. The federal program reaches about 5,000 children statewide, just 52 percent of the eligible population, said Erin Trenbeath-Murray, Salt Lake Community Action Program Head Start director.

Early childhood education advocates attribute the matters to money and culture.

"Utah's overall conservatism and the influence of the Mormon Church have combined to subtly discourage the development of government-supported early-childhood programs," Education Week says.

Head Start officials had been discussing possible preschool legislation, but the idea dissipated with Salt Lake Democratic Sen. Pete Suazo's unexpected death, Trenbeath-Murray said. A 2000 bill to require full-day kindergarten, funded in 25 states and a few Utah school districts, went nowhere.

"(Legislators) think that's the parents' responsibility and the state should not get involved," Wright said. "The problem is, for middle and upper-class families, the great majority of their children are attending preschool. So you have a gap that exists with children having resources . . . and children without."

State curriculum and early childhood education bosses believe investing in preschool would be sound but nearly impossible, given Utah's financial state.

"We're bleeding the turnip to take care of grades K through 12," state curriculum director Vicky Dahn said.

Utah spends the least per student in the country and has the nation's highest birth rate. The state is shouldering an estimated $200 million budgetary shortfall this year, and the economy is slowing.

Still, it funds some preschool education programs.

Each year, the State Office of Education spends $100,000 on programs teaching parents how to cultivate childhood literacy, said Teresa Oster, early childhood specialist at the State Office of Education. About 4,000 to 5,000 parents participate in the programs, offered through school districts and Head Start.

It also spends $20,000 on early literacy kits for new mothers. The State Department of Health puts another $25,000 into the program, but the state money source dries up this year, Oster said.

"Personally, I would love to see (more programs), but I understand the dynamics of the funding," Oster said. "Until Utah policy-makers make early childhood education a top priority, I don't think we'll see changes. . . . There's only so much to go around."

In other "Quality Counts" issues, Utah's report card remains lackluster:

C in standards and accountability (Utah doesn't grade schools for student performance);

D in improving teacher quality (Utah doesn't require teacher tests or give bonuses to teachers receiving national certification);

F in resource adequacy (Utah spends the least per-student in the country);

B+ in resource equity (Utah attempts to spread money to tax-poor districts).

Utah also is among nine states that seem prepared for the federal "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," which requires states to test third- through eighth-graders in reading and math. Utah tests all first- through 12th-graders in math, reading and, from fourth grade on, in science.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com