GORHAM — As someone with a vested interest in the future of Maine’s workforce, I have a strong incentive to join other business leaders in efforts to expand the availability of high-quality early learning so more kids are truly ready to learn when they start school, thereby reducing the likelihood they’ll fall behind, drop out and be unprepared for the jobs that will drive our economy forward.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough money from traditional taxpayer funding to meet the overwhelming need for quality preschool here in Maine. Right now, Maine’s public preschool programs serve just 41 percent of our 4-year-olds.
It is also a challenge for all schools to provide the level of quality that experts deem necessary for building the skills that young children need to succeed. That means smaller classes so kids get more attention, and healthy meals and screenings for vision, hearing and health issues that, when left unaddressed, can impair academic achievement.
Programs such as Beyond the Walls in Somerset County, which combines grants, private philanthropy and business contributions through the Maine Early Learning Investment Group, are effective but aren’t scaled to our state’s greater needs. Therefore, I was pleased when state Rep. Matt Pouliot sponsored a bill to study the potential benefits of social impact bonds as a funding source for early learning.
Commonly referred to as a “pay for success” strategy, social impact bonds use private sector, foundation and nonprofit organization funding to support social programs that are typically administered by government entities.
Projects selected for this funding differ from those funded solely by the government. They must meet measurable outcomes – and investors will expect to receive a return when those outcomes are met. University of Maine economist Philip Trostel has estimated a 7.5 percent return on investment for early childhood education.
Right now, there are over 50 “pay for success” programs in various states of implementation around the country. The approach can be used to fund preschool opportunities so children are prepared for school, thereby reducing future taxpayer costs that are often necessary when kids drop out of school and face insurmountable challenges. It can fund job training and transitional employment for people who have been incarcerated or who simply don’t have the workforce skills they need, thereby reducing costs for re-incarceration and unemployment.
And it can fund voluntary home-visiting programs that enable inexperienced moms and dads to get guidance from trained professionals who help them become better parents, thereby saving taxpayer dollars for costs associated with child abuse, emergency room visits and academic underachievement.
Teachers, nurses, counselors, social workers and other professionals who run these programs have more opportunities to prepare children and adults to succeed. Funders receive a financial reward when those programs meet their objectives.
The public benefits through savings to taxpayers and better outcomes for society. And the biggest winners are the youngsters who start kindergarten ready to learn.
When the programs don’t work, they can be halted, or revised, before more money is spent. Taxpayers are at no financial risk if the programs don’t deliver as promised. Instead, the funders take the loss.
Once the services are delivered, results are measured based on benchmarks, with independent evaluators determining if the projects met the outcomes. Evaluations are ongoing, so investors, program administrators and the public can monitor their progress.
As a result of Pouliot’s proposal, the Maine Education Policy Research Institute studied the feasibility of using the funding for early learning. Released in January, the study concluded that social impact bonds are viable for this use.
The study recognized, however, that the bonds are complex mechanisms that require funders to accept that these are high-risk investments. It also emphasized that service providers (including government agencies) must welcome rigorous evaluation to determine if their programs are meeting outcomes – a major departure from the way government-funded programs typically work.
This is good news for advocates who are seeking new sources of funding to address societal problems and improve lives. It’s also encouraging to backers of Pouliot’s legislation, and those following the progress of HR 1336-S.1089, the Social Impact Partnership Act, a bipartisan bill in Congress that authorizes the federal government to enter into “pay for success” contracts for the first time.
It probably comes as no surprise that a banker is advocating for social programs that achieve a proven return on investment, but we could all benefit from a “pay for success” strategy that saves taxpayer dollars while preparing more children for long-term academic achievement and success in life.