By Libby Doggett and David Wilkinson
Pre-K works. Too few kids get it. Something must change.
Utah's innovative Pay for Success project is a recognition that, indeed, something must change, as the country has not equipped all our children with real opportunity. As a result of Utah's successful innovations, experts and policy leaders are gathering in Salt Lake for the 2016 Innovation Summit to learn first-hand about how Utah is expanding access to education and other important services.
Pay for Success is exactly what it sounds like: Government only pays when a service provider achieves certain measurable outcomes. Because there are upfront costs in tackling a social problem like a lack of educational opportunity, philanthropy and mission-driven investors often fund programs upfront, and are paid back only when the program — preschool in this case — has measurably improved lives based on mutually agreed-upon targets. Unlike traditional mechanisms, taxpayers don't foot the bill for failed programs, and policymakers get hard data on whether programs are working.
Because of Utah's project, thousands of children have been and will be enrolled in public and nonprofit preschool programs. The agreement is that the state will repay the investors for success in preventing these children from needing special education services after preschool, which would both improve lives and save the state money. In the first group of students (which didn't include children already in special education), only one at-risk child now qualifies for special education after preschool.
The good news has been questioned by some observers as too good. Recent news articles have asked whether the right metrics and targets were used in the program, while others by prominent early childhood leaders, such as businessman Rob Dugger and Duke University's Ken Dodge, respond that they were.
That debate is healthy. Getting these details exactly right is important. But it is the very nature of innovation that we will encounter bumps on the road to success. And a bumpy ride is better than none at all, if it leads to better education for our children and better stewardship of the taxpayer dollar.
Indeed, Pay for Success is dramatically expanding pre-K access in Utah for the children who need it most. Wait lists for preschool have shrunk in the communities where Utah's Pay for Success project has been implemented. And the state is following academic achievement closely. The data will help policymakers know if they are serving kids effectively — and send a powerful message to low income families, who often feel that no one cares about their futures, that the state values early learning.
At the U.S. Department of Education, we care about the future of all Utah's children. We believe in the potential of Pay for Success approaches, and we will help the Pay for Success model mature and continue exploring how it can help governments access often sorely missing capital to provide preschool to more children without putting taxpayer dollars on the line until the results are proven. And we will continue to support use of the most rigorous evaluation methodology available.
We are excited for the department to act upon the authority provided in the recently enacted education law, Every Student Succeeds Act, and the budget agreement to drive better outcomes through Pay for Success. These laws authorize school districts, states and our department to hold taxpayer dollars until we see real results on the ground for children, not just the promise of good work to come.
As Dodge points out, it would be exactly the wrong response to "throw the baby out with the bath water." We know the status quo is unacceptable. We need more kids in pre-K, not fewer; more innovation in how to pay for social programs, not less.
Instead of tearing down new ideas and innovative approaches before they have even had the chance to be fully implemented, let's applaud those who recognize the urgency of educating children differently and better. Let's roll up our sleeves. Let's celebrate what's working and improve where we are learning lessons. And let's keep innovating until we find the most effective ways to educate every child.
Libby Doggett is deputy assistant secretary of Policy and Early Learning in the U.S. Department of Education. David Wilkinson is director of the White House Office of Social Innovation.