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Private schools, day cares fear public kindergarten bill would cut business

FILE — Utah Representative Steve Eliason (R) works with students in Tanya Miller's 4th grade class Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, at Washington Elementary school in Salt Lake City. Eliason sponsored a bill that would allow schools to charge fees for optional exte
FILE — Utah Representative Steve Eliason (R) works with students in Tanya Miller's 4th grade class Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, at Washington Elementary school in Salt Lake City. Eliason sponsored a bill that would allow schools to charge fees for optional extended-day kindergarten, but some private schools and day care businesses opposed the move.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some day care businesses and private schools are worried a bill allowing public schools to charge fees for optional extended-day kindergarten programs would be unfair competition.

But members of the Senate Education Committee advanced the bill Wednesday, hoping it will provide schools with the means and flexibility to provide children with more opportunities for learning.

"We're not (asking) should the state offer extended-day kindergarten because they already do," said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. "This is simply clearing a hurdle that if a school district wants to charge fees to parents who are willing to participate in such a program, they may do so simply for the extended hours."

Eliason's bill, HB41, gives school districts and charter schools the option to fund the extra teaching hours required for an extended-day kindergarten program by charging fees to families who choose to enroll. A rough estimate by legislative analysts indicates the cost of providing the supplemental hours of instruction would be about $1,400 per child, per school year.

It's a fraction of what some private schools and day care programs cost for the same time period, and that has some worried.

"Once you start adding a fee, you now become direct competition — tax-funded competition — against my private business, and that's not fair," said Michael Sibbett, chairman of Dancing Moose Montessori School. "I support extended kindergarten. What I don't like is for districts and charters to be able to charge a fee for what I'm charging, but I don't have the benefit of bonds and tax-supported buildings and infrastructure."

Pat Marino, owner of Lit'l Scholars Learning Centers, said he fears that parents will overlook the benefits of private schools, such as smaller student-to-teacher ratios, simply because of the lower costs offered by public schools.

"I think there's a definite advantage" to private academic programs, Marino said. "We have good programs already going on in the community, and we should work toward developing those."

Lit'l Scholars Learning Centers' monthly rate for students is between $300 and $400, but that price is a required minimum set by state agencies that pay that amount for subsidized families, Marino said.

At that rate, a nine-month contract could cost as much as $3,600 — a sharp contrast to what could be offered by public schools under HB41.

"I think a parent would be foolish to pay $3,600 for that half extended day when they could get yours for $1,400," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said of Eliason's bill.

But Eliason said his bill doesn't aim to pit private schools against public schools.

"I'm not creating a new program," Eliason said. "These children are already going to kindergarten. They're already enrolled. If they want to stay a couple extra hours for rigorous academic training, then that's an option."

The bill also states that "no student is denied the opportunity to participate in the supplemental hours because of an inability to pay the fee."

Eliason said some districts would likely have schools where a large number of students are eligible for a fee waiver. But they could pool fee revenues to cover shortages in low-income schools, among other potential solutions, he said.

Even so, lawmakers expressed concern that such a program wouldn't be fiscally viable since schools would be obligated to absorb the cost of admitting low-income students.

That's a cost some schools are willing to bear. Charlie Evans, external relations director for the Canyons School District, said district leaders hope the program will be most impactful in low-income and at-risk student populations, giving them a chance to catch up academically to their peers.

"We are expecting to take a loss on it," Evans said. "We may find that it doesn't work. We're willing to risk the loss and try it."

HB41 now awaits approval on the House floor.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen