SALT LAKE CITY — Community leaders are joining a chorus of advocates calling on lawmakers to expand funding for preschool and optional extended-day kindergarten in Utah.
That kind of investment, they say, will help level the playing field for many low-income, minority and at-risk students, narrowing a pervasive performance gap that separates them from their majority counterparts.
"When kids are given the opportunity to develop a full working vocabulary, to learn colors and shapes, to have the opportunities that most of us take for granted, they will be on grade level and be far more likely to graduate from high school prepared to go to college," said Bill Crim, president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake.
Crim and a group of educators and lawmakers voiced their support for upcoming legislation to expand early learning, as well as teacher resources, during United Way of Salt Lake's legislative preview Wednesday.
Other groups, including Prosperity 2020 and Education First, have made similar requests to make students' initial years of school a special focus during the Legislature.
United Way officials cited national research by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which found that at-risk children without quality early childhood intervention were 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 50 percent more likely to need special education and 60 percent more likely never to attend college.
"Early learning is absolutely the most critical foundation," Crim said.
Several bills that address schooling for Utah's youngest students are in line to be considered when the Legislature convenes Jan. 25. During interim meetings, lawmakers discussed setting aside $8 million for public preschool to be awarded as grants. That bill has yet to be voted on by a committee.
Two bills have already been endorsed by the Education Interim Committee, presenting ways to enroll more students in extended-day kindergarten. One bill would designate $17.5 million from the education fund to hire more kindergarten teachers to handle the students who choose to enroll in extended-day programs.
Another bill would allow schools to cover the cost of optional extended-day kindergarten themselves by establishing a fee schedule.
Either way, optional extended-day kindergarten has been identified as one of the top legislative priorities by the Utah State Board of Education, and educators agree it has lasting benefits in other areas, such as testing and college preparation.
"They're all tied together, but focusing on early childhood will certainly have an impact in the future on quality of student achievement," said Jim Briscoe, superintendent of the Canyons School District.
But the future is also prone to uncertainty for education and state leaders, especially given that Utah's population is on its way to doubling by 2050, and its student population is set to reach 1 million by the same year.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said handling that many students will require making the teaching profession more enticing for both newcomers and seasoned educators.
"We have to make teaching on par with other professionals in terms of salary, in terms of their autonomy. The teachers should be the experts, along with the parents," Moss said. "We need to look at them as the experts and give them the tools."
Reaping the benefits of having such a young population and sustaining Utah's economic growth also calls for long-term objectives and estimating what the needs of a large student population will be, Moss said.
"We have an advantage in that there are jobs waiting for these students, and that is not the case in many places. But the thing that I think is missing in the state is we've never had a long-term plan," she said. "I've seen 20- and 30-year plans for transportation. … We need to do the same for education."
Last week, the State School Board adopted a strategic plan for educational equity and other strategies. The governor's office is also working with public schools, higher education and the Utah College of Applied Technology to develop a combined 10-year education plan for student achievement in the state.
Such a plan will give Utahns clearer view of how taxpayer dollars are being spent in Utah schools and what investments are most worthwhile, according to Sydnee Dickson, acting state superintendent of public instruction.
"We've had this history of educators saying, 'We need more money. We need more money.' Well, we do; that's true," Dickson said. "But we haven't been really good about presenting data and getting really clear about our plan. We're on the cusp of that."