There are, perhaps, two or three times during a Utah Legislature when you get a really fine debate – two sides taking positions and slugging it out articulately.
Such was the case Tuesday in the Utah House over HB96, House Majority Whip Greg Hughes’ attempt to aid poor young children in pre-school education.
Hughes, R-Draper, by his own admission is setting up a unique system in HB96, one where “investors” – presumably non-profits and/or interested businesses – pay for pre-school of low-income three- and four-year olds, who through testing are at-risk of falling behind in reading and other critical skills when they enter kindergarten.
The House debate was both political and personal.
Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, choked with tears as he recalled his difficult childhood.
He said his single mother was often homeless. McCay as a child was “on every” government program, from food stamps to welfare.
Yet he overcame those disadvantages to become a good student and graduate from law school.
McCay said government often tries to do too much, and that parents have the overreaching responsibility to take care of, and provide for, their children. McCay voted against HB96.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, was just as impassioned.
He said he’s an adult child of an alcoholic, as is his wife, Sherry, and thus was an at-risk child.
Noel said state government, especially under HB96 where the cost of pre-school is paid for by private entities who are not reimbursed until, and unless, the aided children prove proficient in reading in the 3rd grade, does have a role to play.
And if successful, HB96 will pay for itself times over by keeping kids out of special education, costing $2,600, and prison, costing $29,000 a year per inmate.
HB96 was also political.
One lawmaker said he’s counted more than 1,000 emails on the issue, with groups like the United Way on the side of HB96 and Utah Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute against it.
If one is gage the winner and loser on that scale, Tuesday’s vote was 49 for reason and compassion and 24 for archconservative ideals.
But the 24 opposed to the bill are not that simply categorized, for there were moderate House Republicans against the bill – several said they worry about starting a new education program when public education is already underfunded – and archconservatives who may have believed some of the rather odd arguments against HB96 -- like it would take children out of their mother’s arms and force them into pre-schools.
“This is completely voluntary,” said Hughes.
If low-income moms and dads don’t want their young children to go to an approved and sanctioned pre-school, then the kids don’t go.
Even more, added Hughes, there are provisions where a home pre-schools (which are already licensed by the state) could, with the addition of some proper curricula, actually be certified. And kids in those home settings could qualify for the help in basic reading.
Responding to some of the fear-mongering, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Holladay, said HB96 “is the most important education bill” in the 2014 Legislature.
“This does not force any children outside of their home. It does not take any kids away from their moms and dads. It does not force Common Core on anyone. It is definitely not Communism.”
Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, a family doctor, said he couldn’t believe one flier he got opposing HB96. It said that these low-income kids were just headed for prison or jail, anyway, so why waste more money on them.
“That is an inflammatory statement; and not true,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy asked Hughes if it is true what the Sutherland Institute said: That 40 percent of Utah school children could qualify for the new program; and thus bankrupt the state. Or that 6% percent of all Alpine School District kids could qualify.
Not so, said Hughes.
While it may be true in some schools that 40 percent of the students are low-income and qualify for free lunches or other programs, the second test of HB96 to qualify for the special pre-K help is that the youngsters test “at-risk” of not being prepared for kindergarten.
Study after study show, said Hughes, reading from a local PhD expert, that at-risk youngsters can be brought up to kindergarten reading levels, and thus don’t fall behind and require special education.
“As a family doctor,” said Kennedy, “I know that our needs for our children are great; and society has a deep need to invest in early education.”
Admittedly, HB96 is complicated.
In fact, the Legislature’s own fiscal analyst had trouble putting a long-term financial note on the bill, budgeters saying it was unclear how some of the money would ultimately be spent.
The bill is 511 lines long.
It sets up a special board that will oversee the program, under the guidance of the elected State School Board.
A home-school, private pre-school or public pre-school can apply for the program.
If an approved curriculum is picked, the pre-school will be matched with a sponsor, who will pay the cost of educating an at-risk child.
If, after five years, that child tests at or above the reading level the child should be at, then the investor will get its money back, plus 5 percent interest.
If the child moves out of state or doesn’t test at grade level for reading, the investor gets nothing back.
No investor is going to get rich in this program, said Hughes.
But it is a chance – assuming there are investors out there – for private folks, non-profits and businesses to help out at-risk, low-income kids.
The fiscal note says $5 million will be put into a fund next year, which may grow to no more than $15 million.
From that fund, down the road, investors will be paid back – if, and only if, the at-risk kids working through the special pre-K programs later read at grade level.
Hughes said he specifically didn’t pick a pre-K program – those will be chosen by the special board later.
He specifically declined to allow “investors” to pick either the program nor who would evaluate the children before they enter or when they reach the final testing grade.
Those, too, will be picked by the special board.
That way, said Hughes, the system can’t be “gamed” to say kids who really haven’t been helped are evaluated as successes – and the investors paid back.
Several legislators said HB96 grows government, and pushes government into parents’ homes in an attempt to get at their three- and four-year-olds.
But Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said state government is already there.
For failure of at-risk kids cost the state – and taxpayers – much more money down the road.
Anderson, who teaches in and owns private pre-schools, said he does have a conflict of interest. But he also knows the system and how it works now.
“Good childhood programs is a win for all of us,” he said. “It is a win for our kids; a win for our education system; and a win for the taxpayer.
“This should be a no-brainer” for the House, said Anderson.
But, said Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, assuming pre-school is so good, why would the Legislature want to take on yet another program when K-12 is not being properly funded as it is?
HB96 now goes to the Senate. And if the fiscal note stays as it is, then $5 million must be found in the new budget to set up the special repayment fund.