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Paying for success: On the cutting edge in early childhood education

Published: Friday, May 9 2014 11:15 a.m. MDT

Devony Rodriguez is a preschool student in Granite School District's high quality preschool program at Hilldale Elementary School in West Valley City. The program operates in 11 at risk schools.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

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When Salt Lake City’s Granite School District wanted to expand its successful early childhood education program it dialed up one of the world’s largest investment banks for a loan.

Goldman Sachs said yes, launching the first “social impact bond” aimed at early childhood education. The program will be administered by the United Way of Salt Lake, and the state will repay investors based on carefully measured costs of avoided special education expenses down the road.

If the results aren’t achieved, Goldman Sachs gets nothing back.

Social impact bonds, or as they are often called, “pay for success loans,” are a new concept of blending public purposes with private resources and approaches.

The idea is to set out a measurable and achievable social objective. Private investors fund the project, while an experienced nonprofit organization implements it. A third party measures the results, and if results meet or surpass expectations investors get paid.

The Salt Lake bond is the world’s first focused on early childhood education. The two previous bonds — in England and New York City — both focused on reducing prisoner re-offending.

While some are skeptical about whether injecting complicated third-party deals into government social policy can save money, the idea’s supporters see it a way to test and develop ideas that otherwise get lost or mishandled in a bureaucratic morass.

“Social impact bonds completely disrupt the normal pattern of funding,” said John Hoffmire, director of the Center on Business and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin and director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd School of Business at Oxford University.

“They gives us an opportunity to change the role of government. We are no longer taxing people to pay for social programs,” Hoffmire said. “Instead, investors fund social programs, and if they continue to work they will continue to fund them.”

Building on success

In 2012, when the Rikers Island project was launched in New York, it was the first social impact bond project in the U.S. Last summer, the Salt Lake early childhood project became the second. Today, Hoffmire said, there are 18 SIBs functioning worldwide, and at least 100 more being considered.

The Salt Lake project builds on some solid data. From 2006 to 2009, Granite School District tracked its preschool program. It first proved that 33 percent of low-income students would need special education without the early education program. Then it established that with the program, only 5 percent ended up needing special education.

The Granite school program had a waiting list of 400 kids, and it needed to expand the program but didn’t have the money. If the program were fully implemented, school officials estimated the state would save $2,607 per child for 12 years.

But with state and local budgets stretched tight, the resources to fund the expanded program weren't there. In this case, even though the idea was proven to save money, the state remained skittish about funding expansion.

Goldman Sachs was impressed with the success of the current work in the Granite School District, said Andrea Phillips, vice president in the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group.

The Granite program uses a standardized pretest and then tracks kids from kindergarten through fifth grade: "They have had incredible results keeping these kids on track,” Phillips said.

The evidence was strong enough for Goldman to take the risk, Phillips said, helping the district scale its program and prove its results.

The big problems

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