Some question why public money is going to pilot pre-school program

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Parents can now start enrolling their 4-year-olds in a free, at-home, computer-based program to prepare kids for kindergarten.

It may sound like a great idea, but state lawmakers already rejected the program once. Then it was lumped into an omnibus bill that passed in the final hours of the 2008 legislative session.

The program is UPSTART, and it's powered by the Waterford Institute. No one we talked to is questioning the quality of the program itself. What they are questioning is why, during a time of tight budgets, is a pilot program getting precious public money?

That money ads up to about $2.3 million. It will allow 1,300 4-year-olds to try out the preschool program, which only takes 15 minutes a day, five days a week.

The program boasts reading, science and math lessons camouflaged in games, songs and activities. "It's all tailored to their needs. It's a very responsive program and very easy for families to use," said Kathy Maksimov, of the Waterford Institute.

Nine hundred of the 1,300 families will get software only; that will cost taxpayers $1,400 dollars. For $2,800, another 400 families will get a computer to use and free Internet.

When compared to what it costs to educate K through 12th graders, it's actually not that expensive. In 2008, it cost the state a little more than $6,300 per student. For the Utah Education Association, that's not the problem.

"We should be funding the basics first. Until that's funded, should we even be considering experimental programs?" said UEA President Kim Campbell said.

Campbell's complaint: priorities and what she calls "picking and choosing" by legislators of what gets funded. "We think that ought to be the role of the elected officials, the state school board, [and] the local school boards, with a lot of input from the educators who actually do the work in the classroom," she said.

The Waterford Institute won the bid for this program, but Waterford was the only bidder. Some allege the legislation was written with them in mind, but one of the bill's sponsors says that's not true.

"It has to be written, and the attorneys are the ones who write it so that it will be circumspect in the way it's written, and sole-sourced providers are not appropriate in Utah legislation. They're not allowed," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

That omnibus bill lawmakers passed in 2008 is the subject of a lawsuit that claims the bill was unconstitutional.

For more information on the UPSTART program, visit


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Courtney Orton


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