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Legislature Okays Pre-K Funding Bills

House Speaker Becky Lockhart joins House Majority Leader Brad Dee to address the media.

Early education won big this legislative session. State lawmakers set aside $6 million for preschool programs.

The Utah legislature had been reticent to fund preschool programs in previous years. Some were concerned about taking kids out of the home too soon. But Republican House Speaker Becky Lockhart says this year legislators were swayed by information about the value of preschool, especially for at-risk kids.

“The value that gives to those children and to those families so that when they enter regular Kindergarten and regular school that they’re in a much better position to succeed,” Lockhart says.

House Bill 96 sets up a school readiness board that will award grants to qualifying preschool programs. Private investors are in line to provide the funding in the form of a loan. But the state is only obligated to pay it back if the preschool expansion saves money in the long run.

Supporters say preschool helps kids avoid special education. The state put $3 million into that initiative and set aside $3 million to expand an existing online preschool software program called UPSTART, which is free for families.

Senate Democrat Pat Jones said the public, private partnership is innovative.

“And it’s well-thought out,” Jones says. “It’s not something they’re springing on us at the last minute at all. They’ve worked on it for a long, long time. It will make a difference in people’s lives as well as saving money in our state budget.”

Utah’s Public Education system in general received a 2.5 percent boost in the amount of money it spends on each student. While some districts are going to have to deduct mandated retirement costs from that increase, State School Superintendent Martel Menlove says there should be some left over for raises.

“We don’t regulate that,” Menlove says. “Those are things that are negotiated at the local level. So we’ll have to see what happens. But hopefully there is some money there for at least some minor compensation increases.”

In addition to funding increases, teachers can expect more time for teacher development, albeit in Lieu of time in the classroom. 

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