Progress happening nationwide as national Pay for Success conference opens (Institute for Child Success)

Advocates for young children gathered from across the nation starting June 22 in Denver for the nation’s largest conference on using Pay for Success (PFS) to expand early childhood programs.

The Third Annual Conference of the Early Childhood Social Impact Advisors launched its opening day with speeches from some of the nation’s top leaders in the PFS field. Rob Dugger, the chairman of ReadyNation’s advisory board, welcomed an audience of about 300 to Denver, by far the largest PFS conference yet.

Joe Waters, ICS’ own executive vice president and a leading advocate for PFS, opened the conference by calling the strategy a promising tool to catalyze support for programs to help young children. It’s already expanding resources for early childhood education, children’s health services, parenting programs, solutions for the homeless, and much more, Waters said. (ICS planned the conference with its partners, and is one of several technical assistance providers under a PFS federal grant. We have offices in Greenville, S.C., and New York City.)

Speakers noted that the previous night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a landmark PFS bill that would provide more than $100 million in support for such programs, with $50 million designated for early childhood. (See our ICS blog post on the bill:https://blog.instituteforchildsuccess.org/2016/06/22/u-s-house-passes-landmark-pay-for-success-legislation/).

PFS—a strategy that allows philanthropies and private entities to invest in projects that will make a social impact for vulnerable populations—is the centerpiece of President Obama’s social innovation agenda, said Dave Wilkinson, the director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, in the opening conference plenary.

Why does PFS makes sense? It allows government to try innovations without introducing work across a grand scale that might not work, Wilkinson said. Massive public housing such as Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green Homes high-rise complex ended up being a misguided strategy, he said.

“We know if we don’t try anything new, we wont improve,” he said. “The responsible choice is to try promising concepts on a small scale and roll them out gradually if they work.” Even if a PFS project fails or needs adjustment, it “contributes to evidence base” and requires rigorous evaluation, Wilkinson added.

“We need to be funding more of what works and less of what doesn’t,” he continued. “It shifts government to an outcomes mindset. … We think PFS can help drive a broader transformative affect in government.”

Challenges ahead?

The next session focused on some of the challenges advocates in using Pay for Success to expand early childhood programs across the country. Sam Aigner-Treworgy, the director of early childhood policy for City of Chicago, moderated the discussion.

Libby Doggett, head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Early Learning, said her agency will continue to support the use of PFS to develop high-quality preschool programs. She called for even more creative use of PFS, to expand access and quality of early education and for programs such as dual-language classes that help young children learn other languages.

Marcia Egbert of The George Gund Foundation in Cleveland described how her foundation has spent the past 18 months funding a child-welfare program that combines elements of early learning with efforts to help homeless families. PFS “offered that rare opportunity to do the very best kinds of interventions for the very most in need,” she said. It “helped us tailor a suite of innovations” around a local issue that needed to be addressed. “We believe passionately in the power of this mechanism.”

PFS allowed a large investment of capital up front “in a way that historically had only been used for bricks and mortar… instead for human capital” and serving young children, Egbert said. “We’re just not doing the work in early childhood fast enough,” she said.

In Chicago, the renowned Child-Parent Centers preschool (the subject of much important research in the early education field), is able to serve an additional 2,000-plus families using PFS, Aigner-Treworgy said. She noted that one challenge she’s encountered is in how to measure the success of the program.

The Chicago preschool includes the rate of its students who later qualify for special education services as one of its evaluation criteria. The goal was to help young children with learning challenges, speech and hearing issues, or other disabilities to get personal attention and referrals to the assistance they needed. Fewer children might need special education after those interventions. But some special education advocates feared children might suffer under such criteria if results were skewed to seem more favorable. They didn’t want children who needed special services to go without them. (Here’s a recent ICS blog post on that issue: https://blog.instituteforchildsuccess.org/2016/05/23/chicago-in-context-considering-pay-for-success-to-improve-special-education/).

But Aigner-Treworgy said her city is working through those issues and going out of its way to ensure equitable treatment for children. The whole idea is to help them, not withhold needed services.

Will PFS’ impact continue to grow?

The next panel focused on more of the technical aspects of financing PFS programs. Megan Golden, a senior fellow at ICS and national expert on PFS, was the moderator. She asked the panelists how PFS for their thoughts on how it will change approaches to social problems in the coming years.

Jeremy Keele, the executive director of the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah (one of ICS’ many partners in the conference, including Ready Nation and others) said it’s already beginning to change how government uses data. The promise of integrating data from different sectors—criminal justice, public health, behavioral health, education and others—can help fine-tune solutions, he said. “This concept is not exclusive to PFS” but “forces that data and analytics conversation the way nothing else does. It will help governments “to make better-informed decisions … with respect to how to solve problems for at-risk populations.”

A related effect could be “performance-based contracting” and “using the data that we collect today much more effectively to improve social policy,” said Jake Segal of Social Finance.

Rick Edwards of Third Sector Capital Partners agreed that PFS is changing how contracts call for evaluations of programs, and that taking that approach may be revolutionary. “Measuring (government) programs is going to become a norm,” he said. “That’s going to cause governments to change the way they work.”

Later in the evening, Jeff Schoenberg, an adviser to the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, another partner in the conference, touted PFS’ potential to add massive investments in early childhood programs across the nation. Schoenberg asked: If Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman’s contention that high-quality early childhood education has the greatest return on investment for families and society of any public program, then why not expand it in every community?

Already, PFS has led Utah lawmakers to make their first-ever investments in pre-K programs, Schoenberg said.

Attendees then looked ahead to June 23 sessions that focused more on local-based efforts to use PFS for early childhood programs in communities across the country. Sessions also will focus on advances in evaluating PFS programs, how PFS programs link with services for special education students, and more.

-Alan Richard

Alan Richard is a veteran national education writer, formerly of Education Week, the Southern Regional Education Board and others. He contributes to the Hechinger Report and is the board chairman of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. Follow him on Twitter: @educationalan.