By: Miranda Collette
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House’s Republican majority whip is pushing a bill through the Legislature that directs $5 million to education, to get low-income or at-risk kids in preschool despite opposition from the powerful Eagle Forum.
During the House Education Committee meeting Feb. 6, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, drew criticism for HB96’s high price tag. Bill opponents questioned the bill based on equality arguments, asking, If the state is willing to provide funding to kids three years old or younger, then why not also to students K–12; or at least all preschool students willing to participate in the program?
“When you have preschools … for the poor, but you have children in day care centers that don’t qualify as poor … are you going to tell the other children they can’t participate,” said Gayle Ruzicka, grandmother of a 3-year-old and prominent leader from Utah’s Eagle Forum.
Hughes said that 6,000 or so students would be covered by the $5 million plan.
He said this bill provides opportunities for students with the fewest options by focusing the on low-income students. Once these at-risk students have been targeted and helped, more funding would allow more students to be covered in the future.
Others expressed concern about the state classifying children at risk, questioning how such a designation could be made at age 3.
“We believe such needs are best assessed and efforts to help are most appropriately undertaken at the local level … as a state-driven, top-down policy instrument, HB96 must use state level measures to determine at-risk status such as whether the student qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch,” said a representative from Southern University. “By this measure in 2012 nearly 40 percent of all children in K–12 schools would be economically challenged and therefore at risk.”
To be eligible for funding, the household income of a child’s family must be 185 percent of the poverty line. On top of that, in order for the student to qualify, Hughes said they must also have a verifiable, research-based way to show that, absent intervention, these children would enter public schools and need special education dollars later on.
This research can come in the form of a variety of assessment tests. One specifically mentioned in the House committee was the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. Students who take this test receive one-on-one assessments on generic colors, shapes, letters and numbers and must get a score lower than 70 to qualify as at risk.
The simplicity of the test led some to question how at-risk students would be able to understand the complexity of the curriculum the bill suggests. The categories for the required curriculum listed on the bill included social studies, oral language, listening comprehension, health safety and the basic alphabet.
“We want a third party to look at scientific data to come up with the program, to take politics out of the equation, making the curriculum agnostic,” Hughes said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams spoke in favor of the bill, saying, “(This is a) simple solution with a simple fix today, but if we let it go, it becomes a compound problem with no simple solution.”
The sooner at-risk kids are given opportunities for success the better because the next domino that falls is that they get into gangs and crimes, and that hits Salt Lake County’s budget, McAdams said.
The program is not mandatory.
The bill provides a chance for kids who may not have parents to academically develop them at home to receive that same type of fundamental education, one-on-one in the classroom.
“This is a great first step, with lots of steps ahead of us,” Hughes said.