Editorial: Readiness program worth pursuing, even with doubts

November 9, 2015
Author: The Salt Lake Tribune

"If it can't be expressed in figures, it's not science, it's opinion." — Robert A. Heinlein

A Utah plan to graft big bank thinking onto early childhood development has drawn some very skeptical reviews from some far-away experts.

We should stick with the plan. But, rather than get all defensive about the criticism outlined in a recent article in The New York Times' Dealbook section, backers of the School Readiness Initiative should take seriously the concern that the selected method of measuring the program's success is — like so much else in our world — rigged in favor of the big banks.

Frustrated by the eternal unwillingness of the Utah Legislature to properly fund K-12 education, much less preschool, the United Way, Salt Lake County and other education advocates joined with the bankers at Goldman Sachs and the philanthropists of the J.B. Pritzker Foundation to create the School Readiness Initiative. 

Investors put $7 million into "high-quality pre-school" programs that begin the educational process for young at-risk children in ways that wealthier households — with more books, more reading, more native English speakers — supposedly accomplish on their own.

Investors last week got $267,000 back. That's 95 percent of what is calculated to be the first year of savings realized by the schools because only one of the 600 children in the first cohort needed any high-cost special education services.

The first dividend was contributed by the United Way and Salt Lake County. The state has pledged to keep up those payments in future until the investors get back, with interest, whatever amount has been tied to avoided public costs. County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat, and Republicans Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Orrin Hatch are counted as believers.

The sticking point, according to the Times' analysis, is that the program assumes that all, or nearly all, of the students labeled high-risk before they ever set foot in a classroom were on a path to pricey special education programs, and not merely at a disadvantage that might lead to, say, lower grades or disappointing graduation rates. When they don't turn out to need special education, the program calls their experience a success that rewards the investors.

It is sad that the only way to pry money out of the people who have it is to pretend that human growth is as measurable as revenue growth. But that's the situation we face, particularly in Utah.

The program deserves to go forward, here and elsewhere, though with constant striving for better, more nuanced, ways to measure success. That may mean smaller paydays for the bankers, but it should provide a better educational start for children who need it, and some better data for the rest of us.