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Preschool Funding, and How to Get It

Two interesting articles have recently appeared that outline the ways some communities are getting money for early-childhood education.

First, there's my colleague Sean Meehan's article on the social-impact bonds that will be paying for preschool in the 67,000-student Granite district in Utah. Sean does a great job outlining a pretty complex mechanism that supporters say will earn investors money for helping pay for a useful community good. First, Goldman Sachs and investor J.B. Pritzer agree to loan the district $7 million to expand its preschool program. And then:

The idea behind the preschool investment plan is that if fewer children start school behind their peers, the district will save money on special education costs. Though the money saved is state funding, district officials hope that by demonstrating that such savings are a result of the preschool program's expansion, they will be able to persuade state lawmakers to pass the savings on to the school system, where it will be used to pay back the loan, plus 5 percent interest.

The article also includes a neat calculator that allows you to determine how much the district might save if it is able to reduce the number of children who need special education services.

This idea brings up a few issues. First, many supporters of pre-K point to studies such as those undertaken at the Perry Preschool, which connect quality early-childhood education for children in poverty to many positive benefits later in life. But the operative term is "later in life." Is it realistic to expect to see that investment pay off during the relatively short time that a child is in school?

A second question is how a child would be identified as needing special education services. There's still an element of subjectivity to diagnosing learning disabilities, for example. And even if a student is exhibiting learning difficulties, schools could place that child in a response-to-intervention framework that is not the same as formal identification. (In fact, parents have criticized some districts for delaying special education identification while working through the RTI process.)

And then there is the point that a few commenters to the article brought up: Is preschool education an area that should be above concerns about monetary profit or loss? Or is this kind of innovation what is needed in the field? A question to ponder.

Also worth reading: The American Prospect's article on attempts to fund early education in Houston. The Prospect, a magazine that covers news from a liberal perspective, notes that supporters have managed to get widespread support to place an initiative that would use a property tax increase to raise $25 million to $30 million for the effort. The money would be used to improve quality at day cares, so infants and toddlers would be potential beneficiaries, as well as the 3- and 4-year-olds traditionally served by preschool:

Ideally, the Early to Rise program would turn day care workers into teachers who encourage toddlers in their emotional and intellectual development. The program would also provide parent training so that when kids came back home, parents have strategies to continue cultivating the same brain development preschools target.

Writer Abby Rapoport outlines the challenges of the plan, including concerns about using public money for private child-care providers, as well as the creation an unelected board to handle this money. Other states and cities will be watching this effort to see if it is successful, and so will we.

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