Building a Foundation for Success

District 51 Legislative Update February 8, 2014

The demographics of our state make it tough to adequately fund education, which is the lion’s share of our budget. Our large families mean lots of kids per taxpayer, which is a wonderful problem to have –but that shifts the tax burden across fewer individuals than in most other states. Additionally, the federal government owns 65% of our land –on which it is difficult or impossible for us to collect property taxes and/or excise tax revenue on energy resources.

It is my privilege to serve on the House Education Committee, and I’m always looking for ways to innovate in education. Anything we can do to make more efficient use of our scarce tax payer dollars is worth taking a serious look at. To that end, I am sponsoring a bill (HB 96) which I am very excited about.

This bill allows private investors to fund effective preschool programs for economically disadvantaged kids who show low testing scores, at no risk to the taxpayers. These programs are optional, and will not be imposed on any parents who want to keep their kids at home. This is a targeted approach, and I can assure you I would never support (nor would the political climate in our state support) compulsory preschool. I believe parents are always the best decision makers when it comes to their children’s education.

There are a host of studies which show that low income at-risk kids are our biggest expense to the educational process, and to society at large when they don’t get the early mitigation they need.

About 36% of 3 and 4 year old children in our state are economically disadvantaged (185% of poverty level, or below). There is a huge achievement gap between these and other students, which creates deep financial and social repercussions later in life. For example:

  • Economically disadvantaged three year olds know 500 words, compared to 1,100 words from their economically advantaged counterparts.
  • There is a 16% gap in language arts scores between these two groups. This gap is as high as 29% in some Utah school districts.
  • Without early intervention an at-risk child is 25% more likely to drop out of school, 70% more likely to never attend college and 60% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

The cost of providing these intervention programs is relatively small compared to the costs which come if we don’t help those kids early. In fact, it is estimated that Utah could save over $30 million per year if they had access to these programs. Here are a few facts that illustrate this point:

  • $15 million in annual incarceration costs would be saved if Utah increased male high school graduation rates by 5%.
  • If our state were to convert drop-outs to graduates for one year, $1.5 billion in household income would be created.
  • Salt Lake County estimates that for every $1 invested in good preschool programs, $3.67 in health, criminal justice, and youth services spending can be avoided.
  • When factoring in the economic opportunities available to the at-risk kids when they stay in school, grow up, go to college, and get better paying jobs they otherwise would not have had, that ratio skyrockets to $1 spent to $14 received.

If someone proved to you they could provide you with a 14 to 1 investment return, would you do it? You would be crazy not to. That is essentially the opportunity Utah has with this bill. In regard to the social problems at risk kids have historically faced, it’s amazing to me the amount of money we’ve spent all these years mopping up after problems –without any regard to how we might innovate our way out of the problem in the first place!

The preschool programs provided in the bill are funded through bonds funded by private investors, and (this is my favorite part) the state only pays for the programs after the programs have demonstrated their effectiveness. If the student doesn’t test at proficiency levels sufficient to keep them out of special education through 6th grade, we don’t have to pay. If the students who participated in the preschool programs leave our state, we don’t have to pay. This approach differs dramatically from the failed “Head Start” federal programs because they are provided without local control and accountability.

Although I’ve talked a lot about the cost savings associated with this bill, the most important benefits are reducing the human toll poverty places on our kids, and increasing their chances for success. Providing at-risk kids in Title I schools with an opportunity to stay in school, graduate from college, and share in the American Dream is of inestimable worth.

I believe history will judge us based on how well we take care of the weakest among us. While there is much money being spent in the name of “ending poverty” in ways that don’t turn out to be effective, this is one battle against poverty we can fight, and win.

Greg Hughes
Utah State House of Representatives,

District 51