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The bill would provide funding for a nonprofit online learning program to reach 550-650 4-year-old students in three urban and three rural school districts in each of the next three school years.

A bill to commit $1.5 million over three years to an online early learning program for low-income children got a public hearing Thursday from the State Assembly’s Committee on Education.

The bill, AB662, and its Senate companion would pave the way for a nonprofit company to pilot its software in three urban and three rural school districts for three school years. Committee chair Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, is one of the authors of the bill, which he said was written after seeing a presentation from a nonprofit that provides such a service.

If approved, the bill would require the state Department of Public Instruction to contract with a nonprofit organization for the 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years to provide an online early learning program to low-income children in six school districts — three urban and three rural. DPI would pay $500,000 each year as part of the pilot program, while the vendor would pay $500,000 over the three years of operation.

According to the proposed bill, the vendor would be required to show past success in similar endeavors; provide instruction in reading, math and science; design a program to improve a child’s transition to kindergarten; require parental engagement including interaction with a learning coach; evaluate a child’s growth; and provide internet and a computer at no cost to families that do not have them.

Thiesfeldt said a presentation he saw from Waterford.org, a nonprofit that offers its UPSTART program in 21 states and would fit what the bill asks, helped spark the idea. The organization has registered in support of the bill.

He clarified during the hearing that the state DPI would have a normal request for proposals if the bill were to pass and it would be open to other companies offering similar services. DPI would also choose the six districts for the pilot to operate in, though spokesman Benson Gardner wrote in an email that process has not been planned yet.

The program would be open to 550 to 650 students, likely 4-year-olds, who would use it for 15 minutes a day, five days a week.

Thiesfeldt said the software would “supplement” the state’s already-existing 4-year-old kindergarten program, but could play a role in closing the achievement gap and increasing reading scores, a focus of the UPSTART program.

“There is much more that needs to be done to ensure that every child in Wisconsin is getting the best education possible,” Thiesfeldt said. “Research has consistently shown that making sure our youngest children arrive in kindergarten ready to learn is a tremendous indicator of future success.”

Many of the committee members cited the test scores from earlier this year that showed continued struggles for Wisconsin students on standardized tests measuring reading skills as well as a large achievement gap between black and white students.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, the president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in an interview he was concerned online programs like this “are trying to offer a cheap, scalable solution to something that isn’t going to be amenable to a cheap, easy fix.”

“I worry that things like this are a distraction from the hard work we need to do as societies and communities in meaningful investment in the first years of life,” said Navsaria, who also serves on the Executive Committee of AAP's Council on Early Childhood.

Some Democratic members expressed further concerns about directing education dollars to private entities.

“(Public school) funding was cut significantly over the last eight years. We’re starting to get back to where we need to be,” said Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie. “There’s no doubt why our progress has gone downhill. My preference would be to do it in the schools, in the public schools.”

Thiesfeldt replied that he hoped to avoid “semantics” in how the achievement gap could be closed.

“Bluntly at this point, I don’t really care, I just want to solve the problem,” he said. “We can do these semantic battles of where the money is coming from.”

Waterford UPSTART was launched in Utah 10 years ago and has seen positive results on a longitudinal study of participating families, Thiesfeldt said. UPSTART executive director Claudia Miner said the company also recognized Utah is less diverse than a state like Wisconsin, but it has worked in other states since its founding and is able to customize its software to state standards.

She added that parent outreach and social-emotional learning are key components of the UPSTART program, which includes an hour introductory session and weekly text messages to the parents about what their child is learning with prompts to start conversations.

“The child can use the program by him or herself,” Miner said. “It’s very simple to access. But we encourage parents to sit with them or if they’re not doing that to ask them questions afterwards.”

While text messaging programs have mixed effectiveness, Navsaria said, time for young children with caring adults and learning the social-emotional skills they’ll need to be able to productively learn once in school is the most important thing in early childhood.

“We also know that in young children, the only thing that drives development forward is interaction with loving, nurturing, responsive caregivers,” he said. “Looking at the bill itself, I’m concerned that there is an assumption being made in this that the purpose of preschool is primarily around almost a drills and skills approach.”

Thiesfeldt encouraged committee members to try out the program online, where it’s available on YouTube, as he had done. The company’s videos include songs to encourage letter identification and explanations of its five reading concepts: phonological awareness, phonics, comprehension and vocabulary, reading fluency and language concepts.

“It determined that I was ready for kindergarten,” Thiesfeldt said as the hearing ended. “There’s probably a joke in there for somebody.”

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