Legislative audit: Is state-funded preschool's focus on low-income students slipping?

Legislative audit: Is state-funded preschool's focus on low-income students slipping?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Upstart, Utah’s state-funded, in-home technology–based preschool program appears to be drifting from its focus on children from low-income households, a new state audit suggests.

Upstart, short for Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow, was launched in 2009. The kindergarten readiness program was developed by the Waterford Institute. It is free and open to all applicants but specifically reaches out to low-income families and English language learners.

In 2014, 71 percent of participating students were in low-income families. In 2018, the number had dropped to 42 percent, according to a performance audit conducted by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.

As state funding has significantly increased in recent years, the number of students in families with no income restriction enrolled in the program has tripled, the audit found.

“With the significant growth in students in families with no restriction of income, it is not clear if the purpose of the program is for students in low-income families,” the audit states.

State code requires that 30 percent of the students that Upstart serves come from low-income families, which are defined as households with incomes 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Families with students under the poverty line can receive a free computer and internet service to access the program.

The audit notes that Upstart also received federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 fiscal years for students 200 percent under the poverty line.

"TANF funds allow for more students to participate in the program," the audit states.

While the program has met the 30-percent requirement each year, the auditors wrote that as funding increased, the participation of children from families with no income restriction has grown significantly while that of low-income families has dropped from a high of 71 percent in 2014 to a low of 42 percent in 2018.

“Over the first five years of the program, the average participation of students in low-income families was 64 percent, more than double the requirement,” the audit states.

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But from 2015 and 2018, when the state appropriations for Upstart rose steadily from $4.7 million to $7.7 million, there was significant growth of students with no income restriction.

“The most significant growth was between 2017 and 2018, when the number of students in families with no income restriction increased by 2,966. With this growth of the non-restricted income group, the Legislature should review the program and determine if the focus should be for students in low-income families,” the audit says.

If legislators determine that Upstart's focus should be students in low-income families, the audit recommends that lawmakers consider:

  • Increasing the current requirement that 30 percent of program participants come from low-income families
  • Requiring the Department of Workforce Services to verify family income
  • Requiring the Utah State Board of Education manage program registration instead of the vendor

The audit states that the registration has been handled by Waterford Institute, the vendor and sole provider of the Upstart program for the last 10 years.

Waterford Institute collects family income and student data during registration but all information "is self-reported by families with no verifying documentation being required. Without verification, the program cannot guarantee students meet the low-income requirements."

An earlier audit by the Office of the State Auditor recommended that the verification is needed "and we concur," legislative auditors wrote.

In a written response, the Utah State Board of Education said it would ask the Utah Legislature to amend state code to allow state education officials to use administrative funds for program management.

"Many of the solutions are found in our ability to work with the Legislature during the next session and get appropriate changes made to the applicable codes," wrote Deputy Superintendent of Operations Scott Jones.

While the audit raises concerns about Upstart, it also notes that annual evaluations show users "experience significant gains from the program."

Specifically, users demonstrated better word decoding skills and letter knowledge than peers that did not use the program, the audit states.

A 2017 evaluation also found that Upstart students performed nearly eight points higher on Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment tests in the first grade than peers who did not participate in the program.

Overall participation in Upstart has increased from 1,631 students its inaugural year to 14,278 in 2018.

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Marjorie Cortez


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