Show me the money

Innovative finance model could provide new path for early childhood services

It was the fall of 2010, and the finance task force of the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County had worked for the better part of the year to come up with the dollar amount needed to provide high-quality early childhood services to every child in the county.

But after the task force finally nailed down the number, they never released it publicly.

“The number was so big, they were afraid it would terrify the community,” said Bobbie Watson, executive director of the council.

With the recession hitting, the board knew better than to ask voters for a tax increase, much less one capable generating the many millions of dollars the task force anticipated was needed.

Fast forward to November 2013 and the ballot box defeat of the school finance measure Amendment 66, which would have made possible universal full-day kindergarten and thousands more preschool slots for at-risk children. With that funding opportunity gone, Watson and her board quickly decided to pursue an innovative financing model they’d begun to explore.

Called “Pay For Success,” or PFS, it had bubbled up in policy circles for a few years, but is largely untested.

The idea behind the model, which is also sometimes called “Social Impact Bonds” or “Results-Based Financing,” is that private investors—commercial banks or foundations–pay upfront for evidence-based programs, such as high-quality preschool.

In turn, the programs prevent costly interventions such as grade retention or the use of special education services during the child’s K-12 career. If the school district or state realize the expected savings from reduced special education or grade retention costs, the investor is repaid with interest. Thereafter, the district or state reaps any additional savings.

While there are no active Pay For Success programs in Colorado, the concept is gaining traction. The city of Denver and the state now share a fellow from Harvard University’s Social Impact Bond Technical Assistance Lab whose job is to evaluate possible PFS projects. In addition, the Rose Community Foundation has convened a group of about 20 Colorado foundations for ongoing discussions about how they might facilitate or fund Pay For Success projects in early childhood.

Watson, who with her board has hired consultants to lead the Pay For Success planning process, said, ““We’re not talking about this. We’re doing this…This is the only option we see on the horizon that will bring millions of dollars into the birth-to-five space.”

Skepticism, then excitement

If Pay for Success were a child, it would still be in preschool. It was launched first in England in 2010 with a program aimed at reducing recidivism—and thus the high cost of prison stays–by helping freed inmates transition back into their communities

While there are a number of Pay For Success programs in the works around the world, fewer than 10 are actively running. Just one of those—in Utah’s Salt Lake County—focuses on early childhood. In New York, projects focus on adult and juvenile recidivism and in Massachusetts they address recidivism and chronic homelessness. A health care-based program launched last year in Fresno, Calif., aims to cut emergency room visits by low-income children with asthma. None of the programs have reached the pay-out phase yet.

Mary Wickersham, who is one of the consultants working for the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County, said a state senator first proposed a PFS-like concept to her in 2008 when she worked in the state treasurer’s office.

“At the time, I was extremely dismissive,” she said. “It just seemed horribly impossible to me.”

But proponents of the idea, including U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat who formerly served on the State Board of Education, kept talking about it and policy-makers, foundations executives and law-makers started listening. Wickersham, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, is now part of several efforts to move Pay For Success forward in Colorado.

“It’s been an idea that’s really exploded over a short period of time,” said Wickersham.

Part of the appeal of PFS in the early childhood realm is that there’s already a large body of evidence demonstrating the positive outcomes that stem from effective early childhood programs. Because those positive outcomes — from improved school performance to lower unemployment — help save the government money, the idea of staking a claim on those future savings to expand programs now seems to make sense. In fact, many in the early childhood community believe PFS has the potentional to address what they see as chronic underfunding of important early childhood programs.

“In early childhood, [the lack of funding is] even worse than the K-12 education system, if that’s even possible,” said Elsa Holguin, the senior program officer at the Rose Community Foundation who’s leading the coalition of foundations interested in PFS.

Aside from federal child care subsidies and targeted programs like the Colorado Preschool Program, “there’s not a really robust financing mechanism for comprehensive early childhood programs,” said Karen Rahn, director of the Boulder County Department of Human Services.

She believes PFS is a promising finance tool as well as “a way of bringing stakeholders together around an issue.”

Nuts and bolts

Pay For Success deals are complicated transactions that may involve eight or more partner organizations, including investors, government entities, service providers, account managers, evaluators, and an “intermediary” whose job is to recruit investors and manage the overall program. Such projects also require extensive planning and number-crunching to determine the target population and intervention that will provide the savings needed to make the concept successful.

In a hypothetical example, an investor pays a school district to create 500 new preschool slots for low-income children in the hopes of preventing the students from repeating third grade. The contract would establish  specific performance targets that would need to be achieved for that cohort at the end of third grade, or approximately five years after the start of the PFS project. If the outcomes do not materialize, the school district would not have to pay back the investors.

Under Utah’s PFS deal, launched last summer, private investors will provide up to $7 million to pay for thousands of new preschool slots for low-income three- and four-year-olds over the next several years. The program is based on data that shows children who attend high-quality preschool are less likely to be identified for costly special education services once they start elementary school. Because children rarely discontinue special education once they are found eligible, reducing their chances of needing services can yield a huge cost savings over the course of a 13-year school career.

Janis Dubno, a Wall Street banker-turned-children’s advocate, started some of the early work on what’s called “The Utah High Quality Preschool Program” in 2010 and said the process required much collaboration among partners. Among them were  two school districts, the local United Way, a local community foundation, Salt Lake County, a children’s advocacy organization, an investment firm and two private investors—the bank Goldman Sachs and Chicago philanthropist J.B. Pritzker.

“We were all aligned with what we wanted to achieve,” she said.

Even so, there were stumbling blocks. Legislation that would have enabled Utah’s state government to participate in the deal failed last year and leaders of the PFS effort had to settle for a one-year “proof of concept” approach under which the United Way and Salt Lake County contributed to a repayment fund instead of the state.

“A lot of people in the legislature couldn’t get their heads around this financing mechanism,” said Dubno, a senior policy analyst for the advocacy organization Voices for Utah’s Children. “There was a lot of convincing to do.”

Those efforts paid off this year with the passage of the enabling legislation. It was signed into law on Tuesday.

Movement in Colorado

In Boulder County, the early childhood council will work with its consultants over the next year to determine what type of PFS pilot would work best there. It could be an expansion of an existing preschool program, a home visiting program for families with young children, or something else, said Watson.

“It’s investing in our current capacity and just expanding the bandwidth,” she said.

Boulder County isn’t the only one considering Pay For Success right now. A number of other organizations also crafted PFS proposals last fall in response to a “Request For Information” by the state. All told, 43 proposals came in, with 12 of those focused on early childhood , 14 on disconnected youth,  five on homelessness, four on health and even one on forestry.

Among the early childhood respondents were big players like Mile High Montessori and Clayton Early Learning as well as smaller organizations like the two-employee Adams County Youth Initiative. Tyler Jaeckel, the PFS staff member shared by the City of Denver and the state, said the next step in the process is determining the feasibility of the proposals and building the partnerships that would be required to launch them.

One promising proposal came from the Merage Foundations, which proposed an expansion of an existing program called “Early Learning Ventures” that helps small, independent child care providers band together in “alliances” to achieve economies of scale when it comes to business and administrative functions. Sue Renner, the foundations’ executive director, said the program already shows a return of $8 for every $1 invested, has cut state costs for processes like licensing, and has given providers more time and money for quality improvements.

“We know we’re on to something,” she said. “How do we make sure we can scale this and do more of this work?”

While Merage, Boulder’s Early Childhood Council and other interested parties will have to spend months more on data collection and analysis before launching Pay For Success in the state, some observers believe it won’t be a theoretical discussion for much longer.

“It’s in the early stage, but this is going to move fast,” said Holguin. “My goal is let’s position Colorado…to be part of this national wave.”

Not without challenges

While PFS has an enthusiastic cadre of supporters, it has its skeptics too. Some worry that it could represent the privatization of social programs. Others wonder about the intentions of corporate banks that might serve as investors and question whether they should be making a profit off social programs.

Jaeckel said the privatization concern isn’t warranted because PFS money funds non-profit providers or government entities that are already providing services. As for concerns about corporate motives, he noted that commercial investors may care about the social good and see investments in early childhood PFS projects as a way to ensure a quality work force down the road. In Colorado, he added, key PFS investors are more likely to be foundations than Goldman Sachs-type companies.

While investors do earn interest through PFS deals–if the desired outcomes are achieved– the rates are not particularly lucrative. Typically, foundation investors might only get a return of around 2 percent and commercial investors might only get a risk-adjusted rate of around 4 percent, said Jaeckel.

Besides concerns about corporate profits, advocates of PFS initiatives may also have to grapple with the same public perception problems that have sometimes derailed early childhood proposals seeking funding through traditional means.

Pamela Harris, president and CEO of Mile High Montessori in Denver, said, “There’s…this cultural piece that the majority of people think kids should be at home with their moms.”

On top of that is the challenge of getting the public, which may be familiar with K-12 per-pupil costs of around $6,600 a year, comfortable with the higher price tags that often accompany early childhood programs. For example, Harris said, a comprehensive, high quality preschool program can run $9,500-$15,000 a year.

“The cost of quality early education is really high and…that’s been shocking for people.”

School Finance

Burdened by school retiree costs, Memphis leaders explore dropping new-hire benefits

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Chief of Human Resources Trinette Small presents during a 2016 board meeting for Shelby County Schools.

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

The proposed policy change was presented Tuesday to school board members by Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. (The original proposal would have applied to employees hired this year too, but was amended before the meeting.)

At issue is the $1.2 billion obligation known as OPEB, or “other post-employment benefits” such as health and life insurance. The liability is the projected cost based on employment, mortality, and healthcare trends. (OPEB does not include pensions. Retired school employees receive their pensions from the state.)

Two years ago, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the OPEB liability “a huge gorilla around our neck” as his administration offered up options that included cutting spouses from coverage. He backed off, though, following a series of protests from retirees.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a 2015 forum to discuss a cost-cutting plan that later was tabled.

The liability has not gone away, however. It remains a point of serious concern for the cash-strapped district and for the county commissioners who allocate funding for schools. The district now pays out retiree benefits as they occur — and sets aside millions each year to offset future costs.

Currently, about $570 out of $8,800 per-pupil costs, or about 7 percent, goes toward the obligation.

“We could be putting that money into the classroom instead,” Hopson said in 2015.

While district leaders haven’t said publicly how much the newest proposal would save, Small said the change would go a long way toward relieving longstanding tension surrounding the obligation.

“Long term, this will allow us to invest more in our teachers and not have to fund an ever-increasing OPEB debt,” Small said according to a report in The Commercial Appeal.

At the same time, some leaders have worried that cutting future benefits would make the district less competitive at a time when it’s seeking to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Shelby County Schools has had to shoulder the responsibility for OPEB costs amid a tide of changes in the local education landscape.

While the district’s funding is based on student enrollment, the population of Memphis has declined in recent decades and more students have headed to charter schools in recent years. Exacerbating the problem, six suburban municipalities pulled out of Shelby County Schools and created their own school systems in 2014, the year after city and county schools merged. All of the changes have left the Memphis district with a smaller pool of funding to pay for the legacy costs for retirees.

The school board is expected to review the OPEB proposal at its Nov. 28 and Dec. 5 meetings.

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscience I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”