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Extended-day kindergarten gets early thumbs-up from House

Two proposals to expand opportunities for families to enroll their students in extended-day kindergarten programs gained early approval from lawmakers Wednesday.
Two proposals to expand opportunities for families to enroll their students in extended-day kindergarten programs gained early approval from lawmakers Wednesday.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Two proposals to expand opportunities for families to enroll their students in extended-day kindergarten programs gained early approval from lawmakers.

The two bills were both endorsed by the Education Interim Committee late last year, but legislators were still somewhat hesitant Wednesday, debating whether $10 million set aside in one bill would put too heavy a focus on classroom technology and not enough on teaching.

While HB42 allows the money to be spent on devices and software for students, bill sponsor Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said the bill identifies teachers as being central to helping students most at risk for academic struggles.

"I am a big proponent of technology," Snow said. "But I believe that there is something that goes beyond what a child can pick up and acquire in front of a computer screen."

Utah already spends about $7.5 million each year to offer optional enhanced kindergarten in 214 schools across the state. HB42 would spend another $10 million through a competitive grant program to cover an additional 285 schools, Snow said.

The policy would use a pre-kindergarten test to identify students who are behind in vocabulary and other literacy skills so they have the opportunity to catch up to their peers through a year of enhanced kindergarten. The bill also calls for other assessments so teachers and administrators can gauge the effectiveness of their kindergarten program.

The goal is that more students will be proficient in core subjects by third grade, boosting their chances of graduating later on, Snow said.

"There already is existing an enhanced kindergarten program. But as I looked into it, the reality is that it's not really meeting the needs of a lot of students who could use additional support," he said. "What we invest early gives us better returns for those young people later."

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, expressed concern with language in the bill that calls for education leaders to contract with technology software providers to purchase a program for reading enhancement. But there's no guarantee the investment will be successful, he said.

"If we're outsourcing it, I get a little nervous. I know that that goes really well sometimes, but a lot of times, we don't see it," Christensen said.

But the bill directs schools to use the grant money in a program that "emphasizes the use of live instruction" and that is measurable in its efficacy.

Syd Dickson, acting state superintendent of public instruction, said Utah's existing enhanced kindergarten programs have made a significant difference for students who are behind in the early stages of their education.

"It's based on evidence-based practices that are really targeted intervention for those students who are at risk for not being ready for school, and it catches them up," Dickson said. "It's not just a double dose of what they've had. It's specific to their needs."

HB42 passed the House Education Committee in an 11-1 vote.

Lawmakers also supported HB41, which would allow schools to charge a fee to families wishing to enroll their children in extended-day kindergarten programs. Fee amounts would likely be unique to each district and charter school, but the money would be used to cover the cost of the additional teaching hours.

Current statute doesn't allow schools to charge a fee for additional instruction. But under the bill, schools would have the option to opt in to the policy, and parents would have the option to enroll their students in the program.

"It is completely optional for any district to participate in. Nobody has to participate if they don't want to. No family has to participate if they don't want to," said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

The bill would also allow schools to implement a fee waiver so that "no student is denied the opportunity to participate in the supplemental hours because of an inability to pay the fee."

The financial implications of having multiple students obtain a fee waiver are not yet clear, but the cost would likely have to be absorbed by the district or school, Eliason said. But districts could pursue other options, such as pooling fee revenues to cover shortages in low-income schools.

Susan Edwards, public engagement coordinator for the Canyons School District, said district leaders would anticipate schools having numerous students get their fees waived. But the policy would still be beneficial for students and families, she said.

"We would anticipate that very scenario that more of the kids would need a waiver. We will have to look at our budget constraints to be able to handle that," Edwards said. "The value of the extended-day kindergarten would be huge, and we would be seeing great, measurable success in that program."

HB41 passed the committee in a unanimous vote. Both bills now go to the full House for consideration.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen