Day 2 of the PFS conference: What to know about taking on a project (Institute for Child Success)

The second day of the Third Annual Conference of the Early Childhood Social Impact Performance Advisors in Denver featured an array of experts on exploring feasibility, evaluation and other aspects of using Pay for Success to start or expand early childhood services.

Setting up these programs can be a large undertaking, involving multiple state agencies, dealing with the federal government around Medicaid reimbursement, political shifts, and governance, said Christian Soura, the director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. He described his state’s $30 million program to institute Nurse Family Partnership home visiting and related programs across the state. The best reason to try PFS, he said, is to build a financing bridge toward possible future programs in a state.

Before starting a project, make sure your community or state and your area of emphasis are right for this strategy, Soura said in the day’s opening plenary. “Don’t do PFS just to do PFS,” he said. “PFS makes sense for us because we hit the right conditions. … We’re working toward a more durable and sustainable funding model to sustain these kinds of services.”

Roxane White, the founder and CEO of the national nonprofit Nurse-Family Partnership, said it’s critical to know what a project can accomplish and cannot. “We’re for PFS, but more than that,” she said, the goal is to get needed services to families who need them.

The Brookings Institution’s Emily Gustafsson-Wright detailed how PFS, social-impact bonds and similar strategies are being used in early childhood services around the globe. There’s an education program for girls in India, an agriculture effort in Peru, expanding early childhood programs in South Africa, and programs to address low infant birth weight in Cameroon.

Some of the challenges Gustafsson-Wright described in other countries were familiar to U.S. conference attendees: financing, capacity, gaps in knowledge, lack of political will, the need for expanding access while stressing high quality, and more.

What’s holding PFS back? The undertaking can be complex and may involve many layers of government, financing and program decisions, experts here said.

“We need to get faster,” said Navjeet Bal of Social Finance. Knowing lines of authority and building strong relationships with political and budgetary leaders in the state are critical and can save headaches and time, she added.

What does the research say?

In one conference session, leading researchers in early childhood education described their work related to PFS—which could add to a relatively paltry evidence base that currently exists on how to make the most difference in young children’s preparedness for school and life.

Katharine Stevens of the American Enterprise Institute, discussed her recent in-depth report surveying the available research on pre-K program effectiveness nationally (available here: https://www.aei.org/publication/does-pre-k-work-the-research-on-ten-early-childhood-programs-and-what-it-tells-us/). Despite her criticism of public re-K programs that she fears aren’t always effective and aren’t based on extensive research, she supports PFS as a strategy to develop and expand early ed programs that really work. “We don’t want to waste the opportunity to move things in a better direction,” she said.

At lunch, a discussion among national funders on using PFS to start and expand programs in an era of few major state budget increases for early childhood programs. “What we’re trying to do is influence the disruption in intergenerational poverty in this country, particularly among young people,” said Woody McCutchen of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, one of the panelists.

Another session highlighted several PFS projects that are under way, and their early results.

Greg Williamson of Washington State’s Department of Early Learning said their PFS effort to expand home visiting programs may result in an overhaul of how all of state government uses data and evidence to manage many different programs better. “This could change the way we do state government,” he said. “By having better data, clearer outcomes, understanding of what we’re paying for, the philanthropic community in our part of world got interested. … They say it needs to be (done) across state government.”

Kellie Noe, of Cradle to Career Sonoma County in California and a local school board member, described in detail her county’s feasibility study to explore a major expansion of high-quality preschool. A report showed two years ago grave disparities between affluent residents in the county and low-income families whose children are prevalent in the local public schools. Only 36 percent of students show adequate readiness for kindergarten, she said, and as low as 4 percent of children in some schools read proficiently by 3rd grade.

The project may focus on serving cohorts of about 900 pre-K students in five communities in Sonoma County, she said. The system could fund preschool for families whose income is at 300 percent of the national poverty rate—because it’s expensive to live in the area, just north of San Francisco.

Billy Powers of the Sorenson Impact Center, who worked in the Westminster, Colo., schools, outside Denver, described in depth the feasibility study he’s leading to expand high-quality pre-K in the school district. The district has about 10,000 students in grades preK-12, he said, and about 70 percent of students come from low-income families. School districts in Colorado face strict limits under state law on how much they can raise local taxes, leaving many school systems unable to afford pre-K classes or other needed programs.

The Westminster schools looked to PFS as a possible strategy to expanding early childhood services. The feasibility study looks promising, Powers said:

He suggested several key questions for anyone embarking on a feasibility study:

  • What’s the need in your community?
  • What’s your proposed solution?
  • Who will implement the solutions?
  • What will success look like?
  • Who will verify the success and how?

Look for more blog updates to come, focusing on legislative developments in the PFS field and from sessions on the final day of the conference.

-Alan Richard