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Lawmakers turn down funding for after-school programs, early kindergarten

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to expand after-school programs to offer extra academic help and supervision for students at risk of academic shortfall likely won't be funded by the Utah Legislature this year.

But Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she hopes setting a high bar for what after-school programs should look like is a good start to giving more students a safe place to learn after regular class is out.

Members of the House Education Committee on Tuesday advanced SB125, which would direct the Utah State Board of Education to establish standards for after-school programs that use state and federal dollars. The intent is to ensure that they provide "a safe, healthy and nurturing environment," which many students don't enjoy when they're left unattended after school, Escamilla said.

Those programs also give students who are behind in their coursework more one-on-one time with an instructor to help them catch up with their peers, she said.

"To me, it's a comprehensive way of looking at a child's life because or schools really stop taking care of kids at 3 p.m. That's just the nature of how our public education system is," Escamilla said. "Schools that have quality after-school programs have high-quality scores. Test scores look better because those children are being taken care of when they (don't) have a chance to be home with mom and dad."

Escamilla's bill originally would have appropriated $500,000 to create a handful of new after-school programs in schools with high levels of poverty and other factors influencing student success and safety. Lawmakers estimated the money would have helped about 1,000 students each year.

But after SB125 failed in a Senate vote late last month, the bill was substituted without the funding, aiming only to enhance standards for high-quality after-school programs. It passed the Senate in a 20-3 vote last week and now awaits House approval.

About 9 percent of Utah's K-12 students — more than 57,000 children — currently participate in after-school programs, according to the Utah Afterschool Network. But more than 99,000 children in the state are left alone during after-school hours, often because their parents work.

Escamilla said children in low-income or high-diversity areas would benefit from additional after-school assistance that combines health and academic services for a holistic way to help kids.

"This is probably one of the best places where you have a private-public partnership that's actually working," she said.

Starting kindergarten early

Escamilla's bill for after-school programs, while on its way to final passage, is one of many education initiatives that faced late opposition from other lawmakers. Likewise, the House Education Committee turned down a proposal Tuesday to allow children younger than 5 years old to enter kindergarten.

Currently, students must be at least 5 years old before Sept. 2 of the year they begin school.

SB163 was brought forward to give parents the option of enrolling their child in kindergarten earlier so long as educators agree the child is ready. The bill limited the number of younger students schools could accept to about 74 students statewide to minimize the financial impact.

On a local level, the younger students could only make up 1 percent of a school district's or charter school's kindergarten population.

"This bill is in response to parents … whose children are very, very well-prepared and emotionally ready for kindergarten but simply can't get in because of the existing law," said bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

But some lawmakers and educators worried the bill would create administrative challenges in handling a large number of requests from parents to enroll their children early but only being able to admit one or two extra students.

Sevier School District Superintendent Cade Douglas said some preschool programs could accommodate students that are ready for an academic challenge but are too young for kindergarten.

"I've got five elementary schools. There's going to be about 30 parents calling, saying, 'Put my child in,' and then we're going to have to spend an hour a kid to assess those students," Douglas said. "I'm just not comfortable trying to tell which 1.8 of the 30 that call will get the slot. I would really prefer to see the focus in preschool."

SB163 failed in a 3-6 vote.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen