Rayanne Hawkins
Urban Institute
Policy Program Associate I am passionate about improvi
Urban Institute
Research Assistant

Future of PFS: Expanding access to high-quality preschool in Tempe, Arizona

A Q&A with Marie Raymond
December 14, 2017 - 1:44pm

While there are around 80 pay for success (PFS) projects under development in the US, only 20 have formally launched. Others may never launch, because for one reason or another, PFS financing isn’t the best option for those projects. Our 2017 National Symposium on the Future of Pay for Success featured a panel on what happens when PFS projects turn out to not be feasible. Our speakers, including Marie Raymond of Tempe, Arizona, highlighted the value of exploring PFS feasibility—regardless of the end result. We asked Raymond to share her story of how even though Tempe’s PFS project did not pan out, its feasibility study ultimately informed a new pilot project to expand access to high-quality preschool.

PFSI: Why was Tempe interested in doing a PFS project?

Raymond: A group of Tempe City Councilmembers brought their colleagues the idea of exploring high-quality, universal preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds in Tempe. They believed that the idea fit within their city’s five-pillar approach to education needs in the community and would also have great benefits for the economy by attracting and retaining new residents.  We knew that funding the program could be a significant challenge, so we explored pay for success. The city applied for and was awarded technical assistance from the Institute for Child Success (ICS) to conduct a feasibility study to examine a pay for success funding model. Through the feasibility study we learned that that in Tempe, we have approximately 1,400 children ages 3 and 4 whose families live at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and children under 5 in Tempe are experiencing poverty at higher rates than surrounding cities. Research has also shown that 64 percent of Tempe children have not reached basic reading and language benchmarks by the time they enter kindergarten. To address the problem, the Council Working Group wanted to provide families in need with a service that they would not otherwise be able to afford, helping both the children and the families by allowing parents to be able to focus on education or employment opportunities.

PFSI: What did it mean to be feasible for your particular project?

Raymond: Since payment in PFS funding is based on achieving improved social outcomes, Tempe's feasibility hinged on being able to measure those outcomes.  Pay for success would allow the focus to be on developing the model and bringing it to scale, since funding was the biggest barrier to the implementation of universal preschool in Tempe.

PFSI: Why did you find your PFS project not to be feasible and what challenges did you face?

Raymond: Our project was found not to be feasible mainly due to the lack of outcomes data specific to the City of Tempe for our selected interventions. We initially had intended to offer high-quality preschool with tiered support services, which included parenting education, home visitation, and an innovative teacher professional development program. Unfortunately, these interventions did not have sufficient Tempe-specific data in line with program research to be found feasible.  We eliminated the support services and continued to look at high quality preschool as the intervention that would produce better school readiness outcomes.  High quality preschool outcomes were not found to be feasible because Quality First, the Arizona quality rating improvement system’s data for Tempe used different evaluation tools than the Smart Start program out of North Carolina on which the high quality preschool outcomes were based.

PFSI: What did you learn from going through the process of developing a PFS project and a feasibility study, and how will you use those lessons going forward?

Raymond: The process was very rigorous and required a great deal of staff commitment and time. Each of the many steps involved detailed research of our selected interventions and expected outcomes at the local level. Often, there was county or statewide data available, but no local data. In addition, most programs in Arizona have been collecting data on only outputs—not outcomes.

While our project was found not to be feasible for PFS, we now have a better understanding of the data that the city of Tempe collects and stores, as well as where we need to boost our data collection. As a result of the feasibility study, we found that Tempe was well-positioned for a free preschool program, given data that showed a high child poverty rate and inadequate kindergarten readiness. Furthermore, the process enabled city officials to create a detailed picture of poverty, high-quality preschool availability, and family support within the City of Tempe. In fact, our City Council reviewed the data from the feasibility study and recognized the need and benefit of providing high-quality preschool opportunities to high-need families and voted to fund a two-year pilot. 

PFSI: If the pilot goes well, what are the next steps for the program?

Raymond: We will be evaluating the preschool investment by looking at child-level outcomes as well as teacher efficacy and program quality. Since far too few of our children are prepared to enter kindergarten, we expect that with full-day, year-round, high-quality preschool, we will see significant gains in kindergarten readiness skills. Because we are equating high-quality preschool to improved kindergarten readiness outcomes, we hope to show that our programs are achieving high-quality ratings through the statewide Quality First rating system. Finally, we hope to show that investing in teacher professional development, specifically in curriculum and evaluation tools, assists in both kindergarten readiness and program quality. If the outcomes prove promising and/or show success, we are hopeful the City of Tempe will seek a long-term funding source.

PFSI: Do you have any advice for jurisdictions going through a feasibility assessment?

Raymond: Be aware of the tremendous amount of staff time involved. Having staff with experience in data collection, research, and data sharing agreements would be advisable. Not being feasible is not a reflection of the work that was done on the project but is often due to a lack of information, inadequate research quality, and timelines which are not appropriate for a pay for success project. Regardless of feasibility, the information gained during the process will be incredibly beneficial to your organization, and can lay the foundation for a research-informed expansion of services.

This is the twelfth blog in our Future of PFS blog series.

On June 22nd and 23rd, 2017, the Pay for Success Initiative hosted a National Symposium on the Future of Pay for Success in Washington, D.C. The invite-only Symposium brought together leaders from government, nonprofits, and organizations active in pay for success to consider the big questions facing the field, as well as highlight lessons for engaging in PFS efforts. More information on the Symposium can be found here.

Over the next several months, the Initiative will be releasing a series of blogs highlighting important conversations, themes, and questions that arose during the Symposium. To join the conversation, visit pfs.urban.org, @UrbanPFSI and #FutureofPFS on Twitter, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research. Photo via Shutterstock.