Editorial: Utah’s changing preschool attitude long overdue (Salt Lake Tribune)

Early education may finally be shedding some of its baggage in Utah, and not a moment too soon.

A report from the U.S. Department of Education this week showed that only New Hampshire had a lower percentage of preschool-age children going to public pre-school. In Utah, 87 percent of 4-year-olds do not attend, compared to 59 percent nationally.

Two impediments – one practical and the other perceived – have kept Utah at the bottom of such rankings.

The practical one is money. Utah demographics leave taxpayers struggling to cover the costs for kindergarten through 12th grade. Preschool has been viewed as an unaffordable luxury for school districts.

The perceived one is socialism. Encouraged by the Eagle Forum, Utah legislators for years have bought the argument that parents, not schools, should provide preschool education. No doubt that works for some, but in the age of two-earner families and a large segment of less educated parents, that task is not being accomplished in many families. That hurts all of us.

The practical problem of money is beginning to be addressed, thankfully, with the realization that spending on preschool may be cheaper than not spending on it. That is, the cost of a less prepared student years later exceeds the price of that student's preschooling.

One notable experiment in that regard has been Salt Lake County's "pay for success" initiative. The county recruited investment bank Goldman Sachs and venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker to pay for expanding preschool classes for low-income students in the Granite School District. If as expected that early education leads to less special education and fewer kids in trouble, the district will see cost savings that would, in part, be passed back to Goldman Sachs and Pritzker. The early results were encouraging enough to help convince legislators last year to fund a similar public-private venture.

In addition to their cash, having such stalwarts of capitalism on board helps to allay the socialism fears in conservative Utah. They are money people, and they are embracing public education. In fact, they're not just embracing it. They're expanding it to 4-year-olds to keep America competitive with other industrialized nations.

Like its last-in-the-nation status for per-pupil spending, Utah's bottom ranking for pre-school participation isn't going to be solved quickly. But it's not so much about where we are as where we're headed. If Utah can continue to build on the little momentum it has created, the dividends will be seen for decades.