This Utah preschool program helped inspire a U.S. law that will create a $100 million fund. Here’s what it’s for

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A Utah preschool program that has helped hundreds of severely at-risk 4-year-olds avoid costly special education programs is making waves across the country.

And it didn’t cost taxpayers a penny to pilot the program.

The Utah High Quality Preschool Program, which launched in 2013, uses a new model called “pay for success” in which private investors, mission-based organizations and the government team up to address social issues, such as criminal justice, health care access, graduation rates and youth employment.

In this model, the government doesn’t pay for any social program that isn’t successful. If there isn’t a measurable impact, private investors take the financial hit — not taxpayers. If carefully measured data proves that the program was successful, only then does the government pay back investors.

Utah’s program was the second in the nation — and the first addressing early child education — to employ the pay-for-success model, which was first explored in 2011. Now, around 83 pay-for-success programs have launched nationwide amid rising excitement about the model’s potential to cut wasteful government spending while improving the quality of social services delivered.

It also laid the foundation for a piece of federal legislation that Congress passed in February 2018 that set aside $100 million in federal funds for state and local governments to implement pay-for-success programs to address social problems in their communities. Applications for the funds opened Feb. 8.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what the United States spends annually on social services, but a 2017 report from the Congressional Budget Office showed $1.2 trillion had been collected to fund social services. However, sometimes it can be difficult to tell if that money is being spent effectively or if real results are being achieved, said Jeremy Keele, former president and CEO of the Sorenson Impact Center, who was involved in implementing the preschool program.

On the other hand, the Utah preschool program has measurable results. Its pay-for-success component ran from 2013 to 2018, serving about 4,000 preschoolers in the Granite and Park City districts and four nonprofit or private preschools. To date, only 10 percent of the 454 preschoolers originally determined to be severely at risk for needing special education services have actually needed to access those services, saving the state of Utah $2.5 million. Before the program was instituted, 100 percent of those children would have been expected to access remedial services, said Bill Crim, the president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake, the project facilitator. Goldman Sachs and the Pritzker Family Foundation were the private investors that backed the project.

As those kids continue through the public school system, Utah will ultimately see savings of $18 million in special education costs, Crim said. Because of the proven effectiveness of the program, the Utah Legislature decided in 2014 to take over funding after the initial five-year period, and another 1,200 preschoolers entered the state-funded program this past fall. The state has begun to repay investors, but even after all loans and interest are paid, it will still see overall savings of $10 million, Crim said.

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