SALT LAKE CITY — Legislators at the state Capitol on Tuesday found themselves among children hopping, skipping and even rolling on a life-size game of Chutes and Ladders.

The games for children were an effort by Voices for Utah Children to promote high-quality preschool in Utah and two bills they're hoping to see passed during the 2014 Legislature.

"If you look at the ladders, this is public policy," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "We have to provide those opportunities to lift these kids up. And if we don't, you see the slides. You see what happens."

Hughes is in the process of drafting a bill that will push for high-quality pre-K education to close the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.

Janis Dubno, Voices for Utah Children senior early childhood policy analyst, said high-quality preschool "is the most effective intervention to improve the academic performance and reduce remediation costs that we know of."

By the time a child enters kindergarten, their brain is 85 percent developed, Dubno said.

"After that, it becomes harder and harder to close the achievement gap," she said. "High-quality preschool closes that gap."

Hughes said the bipartisan bill will seek an ongoing $5 million appropriation to deliver quality pre-K education — a massive savings compared with what he said could later be $10 million to $30 million spent on intervention.

"We're seeing 3-to-1, maybe 4-to-1 savings in terms of getting those kids prepared early and not having to spend those dollars," Hughes said.

The money would be fronted by foundations or people wanting to invest in Utah's children. Later, if intervention is not required and pre-K education is successful, the state would reimburse the donors.

Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children, said a report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation on fourth-grade reading scores shows room for improvement.

Haven said the good news is across-the-board reading scores were up, but the disparity between low- and upper-income kids widened by 22 percent.

"We know that the best way … to reduce that disparity is equality for school for at-risk kids," she said.

"If you want an educated workforce, if you want children who are reaching their full potential, if you want to close that disparity gap in terms of the learning curve, preschool's the way to go," Haven said.

A cohort of fifth-grade students in the Granite School District who attended a high-quality preschool went from testing at special education levels to testing with or above their peers, she said.

"These kids suddenly have a future," Haven said. "And we have a future because they're all going to be educated and do what they need to do."

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, is also sponsoring a bill that would give grant funding to school districts to offer pre-K classes for at-risk students.

SB42 would specifically benefit intergenerational poverty students or those who speak English as a second language and are also at an economic disadvantage.

Osmond said he is asking for $6 million over the next eight years to run the pre-K pilot program to provide evidence to the state that such programs can help reduce intervention later on.

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com