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Bill to expand optional enhanced kindergarten passes House on 48-21 vote

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Students seated at desks face a teacher in a classroom.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would expand opportunities for enhanced kindergarten early intervention programs statewide passed the Utah House of Representatives Wednesday by a vote of 48-21.

The latest version of HB99, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, would provide additional resources to expand the reach of the program, intended to help bring struggling students to grade-level proficiency and above as they enter first grade. The program is optional to parents, school districts and charter schools.

“The data shows from those schools who use this program have significant improvement in children who start kindergarten and who have been assessed and who are behind their peers,” Snow said.

The program has existed since 2007 but the appropriation has only been adjusted once, three years ago, with resources that included federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program funds, Snow said. That funding has been expended.

The bill carries an $18.6 million price tag, which reflects expansion and replacement of the federal funds.

Snow said research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says students who read on grade level when they complete third grade are more likely to graduate and become economically successful.

Those who reach that benchmark are far less likely to require special education services, become involved in the criminal justice system as juveniles or adults, and are 50% less likely of becoming a teen parent.

“Utilizing enhanced kindergarten is a way of addressing those children who have those needs when they start kindergarten. The data shows that those who go through the program, by the time they finish kindergarten, are at the level of their peers or, in many cases, exceed that,” Snow said.

Snow said about 40% of Utah students entering kindergarten need intervention. “About 20% are currently being helped. So this bill expands the program to meet the need,” he said.

Schools that don’t want to participate aren’t required to do so. Participating school districts and charter schools must apply for grant funding.

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, spoke in support of the bill, calling it a “headwaters” bill that helps to address educational, emotional and developmental challenges before they manifest later as poor academic achievement, mental health issues or vaping.

“If we want to avoid future pain, future expense, this is an excellent way to begin that process,” Waldrip said.

But others like Rep. Stephen Christiansen, R-West Jordan, questioned providing a separate funding stream for optional enhanced kindergarten instead of placing the funding in the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of education funding appropriated by state lawmakers.

Snow said elected leaders have the responsibility to lead out on important statewide education policy initiatives.

“I’ve had school superintendents and members of some school board members tell me if we don’t fund this, even though many of them see a need, it is not accomplished,” Snow said.