Education bill to prepare, prevent

A very innovative bill was discussed last week on the Senate floor. The bill is called Results-based Financing for Early Childhood Education and is sponsored by Republican Sen. Aaron Osmond. It attempts to tackle the key issues of quality education and funding in the state of Utah by creating early intervention programs targeted especially at at-risk populations by bringing private sector investment into public education.

Between 2008 and 2012, 39% of enrolled students were at-risk. The at-risk population includes children from low income families and children who speak English as a second language. Statistics suggest that low income students and English Language Learners are, respectively, 15 and 50 points below the state average. Although there have been efforts to help kids who are at-risk, the results have not been significant.

According to Osmond, over the last five years $525 million have been spent on Special Education with little or no positive results. This bill attempts to address early on the problems in education by focusing on pre-school years–a move that should lead to less remediation programs in the future and thus an effective way of reducing future taxpayers’ dollars.

The effectiveness of this bill is based on research performed and validated by Utah State University, which is acclaimed for its outstanding early childhood research programs. The bill replicates the success of the Granite School District Preschool program. Currently, the Granite Preschool serves 3,000 students and spends $1,500 per child. Between the school years of 2007-08 and 2011-12, there was a cost avoidance of $1.7 million–money that might otherwise be spent on remediation programs. Also, kids who were part of the program stayed at the top of the class in 4th grade. This program has been effective in closing achievement gaps among at-risk children.

One of the unique characteristics of SB 71 is that it will bring the public and private sector together in partnership. The private sector assumes risk for the program by loaning money with the understanding that repayment will occur only if progress is seen. There are three components to this bill:

  1. This bill will create a results-based financial board responsible for collaborating with private providers, school districts, and software providers to create contracts. It will create independent evaluators who will justify repayment back to the investor.
  2. This bill requires the public sector to work with private companies. It is mandatory for the parents to be involved with the kids both at school and home. Therefore, software providers will be extending their technologies to the parents at home.
  3. This bill requires that payment be made to the investor only if the program works as successfully as it claims. The private companies would be providing millions of dollars upfront to public preschools. The schools are expected to set aside money from the general fund–preferably one million dollars a year (by collecting the funds that the Utah State Legislature appropriates). The money should be in that restricted account for 4-5 years and can only be accessed for repayment if the independent evaluator authorizes it based on performance measures.

Most opponents of this bill emphasize that it could be overlooking the importance of a positive learning environment that parents should give to the kids at home. However, for many at-risk kids, both parents work and kids do not end up staying at home.

It is important to recognize that learning begins at an early age and that a loving and caring environment is tied to the emotional, physical and educational well being of our children. I agree with Osmond that intervention at an early age yields a bigger impact. Prevention is better than cure. It is important to target at risk students in their preschool years, rather than wait until K-12 to remediate the issues.

However, I have one concern in relation to this bill. There are kids who benefit from remediation programs in elementary school, junior high and high schools. Such programs are especially helpful to immigrant students. I hope this program will not take funds away from remediation programs that are making a difference. Nevertheless, this bill will likely be beneficial in the long term.

 

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