Monday, June 30, 2008

School Choice: Is Milwaukee still state-of-the-art?

Milwaukee has long been called "ground zero" of education reform in America, due mostly to our nearly two-decade-long "experiment" with publicly-funded private school vouchers. Now New Orleans, LA (NOLA) threatens to revoke our title as the epicenter of school choice by heeding the lessons learned here in Milwaukee and advancing the policy design with its new voucher program.

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is set to sign the nation's fifth voucher program into law, allowing impoverished students in under-performing New Orleans public schools to leave for other options. The NOLA program's legislation looks designed to avoid many of the failings of Milwaukee's program: it borrows certain elements of our program, building on Milwaukee's strengths, yet limits our deficiencies.

For example, NOLA has learned from us that supply and demand are insufficient accountability mechanisms. Voucher recipients in New Orleans will be required to take the regular state standardized tests, including the graduation exit exam, and school level testing data will be reported to the public annually. In addition, private schools in Louisiana are overseen by an advisory committee of school representatives who advise the state school board on standards. The board approves new private schools and discontinues approval if a private school is not maintaining its standards. By having access to school performance data, parents will be able to make better informed decisions. They will also be able to rely on the added level of accountability provided by the state school board and its advisory committee.

Anticipating that a program designed to allow parents to "vote with their feet" will find parents actually doing so, the New Orleans program provides that students who find themselves in unacceptable choice schools have priority in transferring to another participating school. This not only helps parents feel comfortable about taking the risk to change schools, it also avoids the problems that have been experienced in Milwaukee when a school fails mid-year and leaves students with no other options.

Further accountability comes in the form of a probationary period for those schools failing to comply with the statutory provisions requiring a healthy audit. During the one-year probation, the school will not be permitted to enroll additional voucher students. If the school has not come into compliance by the end of the probationary period, it will no longer be eligible to participate in the program. This requirement protects students and taxpayers alike and avoids situations like those in Milwaukee where a school finds itself closing its doors due to unexpected financial problems.

New Orleans' new program also reflects the lessons that parents cannot be empowered without information and shopping for schools is difficult. In addition to testing students and reporting the results, choice schools in New Orleans will be required to inform each family about all school rules and policies, including academic and disciplinary policies, prior to their enrollment. Schooling information will be obtained not only from the schools, but also from the state education department, which determine voucher eligibility as a first step. Once a student has the voucher in hand, he or she can choose from among the participating schools, which will hold a simultaneous enrollment period.

Parents who are shopping for schools in Milwaukee have to call or visit schools individually to gather any schooling information, limiting the number of schools in competition for that student. In New Orleans, schools will compete amongst themselves for the limited pool of voucher recipients during the mutual enrollment period. In this way, the NOLA program encourages schools to market themselves directly to these parents, likely giving New Orleans parents opportunity to obtain more complete information than Milwaukee parents.

Finally, unlike Milwaukee, the NOLA program is designed to ensure public schools compete for students based on school performance. It does this in two ways. First, it grants eligibility only to those students enrolled in an under-performing public school (and new Kindergarten students). Current private school students cannot receive vouchers. Secondly, it provides additional money on top of the voucher amount for special needs students. Thus, the playing field is more level as the private schools' disincentive to accept special needs students is reduced, while the focus of the parents' choice is squarely on the relative performance of the schools. In Milwaukee, parents cannot consider school performance, as no such data on individual private schools are available. Furthermore, one of the biggest complaints about Milwaukee's program, from both sides of the issue, has been that the voucher amount does not cover the entire cost of educating special needs students.

While the New Orleans' program looks promising from a policy design point of view, it is obviously too early to tell whether implementation will be successful. If it is, Milwaukee's 18-year-old program just may have been replaced by an updated model.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Questions we need to ask after the Coggs Center incident

In the wake of Monday's unfortunate events at the County's Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center - in which a huge crowd seeking emergency food stamp benefits became dangerous and unruly - it was inevitable that we would see those from both the right and the left using the situation to buttress their longstanding beliefs. As a former county health and human services director, I would like to offer my own observations:

  • This incident should serve as a wake-up call to state and county elected officials regarding the dysfunctional nature of the state-county relationship when it comes to human services. The two entities are supposed to be partners, but seldom act that way. In this case, the state gave the county little notice before announcing the new benefit, despite knowing full well that the county can't adequately handle its existing food stamp caseload, let alone a surge of thousands of new applications. In the rush to announce the availability of the benefit, did the state genuinely try to coordinate, to jointly plan, or to say "hey, can we give you a hand?"

  • Citizens and policymakers need to be aware that each and every day, hundreds of desperate people face significant challenges signing up for benefits at the Coggs Center. For years, Milwaukee County has experienced big problems in serving the tens of thousands of residents seeking eligibility determination for food stamps, Medicaid and child care. As a result, benefits regularly are delayed for those who are eligible, and the challenges involved in obtaining them often jeopardize both health and employability. Both the state and the county have known and admitted this, but neither accepts accountability; instead, the state blames the county for not administering the programs effectively, while the county blames the state for grossly underfunding a mandated service. Meanwhile, the problem never gets fixed.

  • It is certainly legitimate to question why the emergency benefit was made available by the federal government and/or the state to anyone who met income and residency criteria, regardless of ability to prove hardship due to flood damage. The answer likely lies in the desire to err on the side of quickly getting food assistance into the hands of those who truly needed it, as opposed to preventing fraud. Nevertheless, despite the probable good intentions of those making this decision, it is unfortunate that the impression left with the public is that all food stamp benefits are similarly easy to obtain by those who may not be eligible, and that further anecdotal ammunition has been provided to those who argue that safety net programs are wasteful and unnecessary.

  • In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, planning was initiated on the state and local level for emergency situations in which thousands of uprooted and otherwise desperate people would need to seek and obtain critical food and health care benefits. Does this incident tell us we are not prepared for a true natural disaster in this essential area of emergency response? Should we be questioning whether we would have similar challenges providing mental health, drug/alcohol and disabilities services in a true emergency?

Perhaps the worst outcome of this week's Coggs Center incident would be its casual dismissal. Instead, this incident must be viewed as a potential symptom of a much larger problem - an overwhelmed social services infrastructure in Milwaukee County that is badly in need of apolitical attention from both state and county policymakers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wisconsin leads in great places to work

The 2008 list of the 50 best small and medium companies to work for in America, released this week by the Great Place to Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, has more companies in Wisconsin (7) than in any other state. The rankings are the result of employee surveys and a company culture audit.

Does having happy employees make a difference to the economy? According to the Great Place to Work Institute, the firms on the list of 100 Best Places to Work have outperformed the S&P 500 every year since 1998, with some years seeing double the return of the S&P.

One explanation may be that employees seem to value training and professional development opportunities, which are frequently cited by employees in "good" companies. An atmosphere in which risk-taking is encouraged is another aspect that makes employees happy and may help the bottom line.

If the prevailing corporate culture in Wisconsin is different than in other states, that could help bolster our economy during a national recession. It's something to think about when policymakers are faced with decisions that impact employers.

Wisconsin's representatives among small companies (50-250 employees) include:
Badger Mining Corporation, Berlin
Kahler Slater, Milwaukee
Runzheimer International, Rochester
Cascade Asset Management, Madison

Among medium companies (251-999 employees):
ACUITY, Sheboygan
Stark Investments, St. Francis
4imprint, Inc., Oshkosh

In addition, Wisconsin had three companies on the 2008 "100 Best" list of larger firms:
Johnson Financial Group, Racine
Robert W. Baird, Milwaukee
S.C. Johnson & Son, Racine

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Zilber effort shows signs of avoiding philanthropic pitfalls

Judging from a recent newspaper column, I am not the only one with a wish-list of things I would love to do with Joseph Zilber’s money to help Milwaukee. The philanthropist plans to invest $50 million of his own funds (in addition to $50 million in other gifts that he announced in 2007), matched by at least $150 million from the community. While it is nice that Zilber is actively welcoming new ideas about how to spend millions of dollars in our city, what is most critical is that his initiative avoid common pitfalls of philanthropy. Some elements to watch for as this effort progresses:

Replicating a successful model

Funders who only support flashy, innovative strategies (some of which are sure to be on the wish-lists written in response to Eugene Kane's most recent column) end up throwing short-term money at long-term problems, never supporting proven strategies. Zilber seems interested in replicating the New Communities Program, a community development strategy shown to be effective in 16 Chicago neighborhoods. This could allow Milwaukee to learn from Chicago’s experience and hit the ground running.

Building local support and rejecting one-size-fits-all solutions

The Zilber Neighborhood Initiative presumes that different neighborhoods have different needs. The initiative’s consultant, Susan Lloyd, explains that the aim is “providing long-term support in a flexible way so that efforts can be fashioned to what individual areas need and can do.” Though time will tell how closely Zilber follows Chicago's New Communities Program, that model emphasizes involving neighbors in planning, coordination by neighborhood-based lead agencies, and tailoring solutions to unique characteristics of each area. The Chicago program used 14 neighborhood-based agencies to lead locals in structured community planning processes. Three thousand people across Chicago participated in creating quality-of-life plans for specific neighborhoods. As the program website explains, it was designed to “strengthen communities from within.”

Meeting strategic objectives

If the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative follows the New Communities method, it will likely generate a roadmap of clear implementation objectives. Community visioning processes in Chicago addressed issues in the following categories: physical, family, economic, social, and government.

Collaborating and leveraging funds

Philanthropy works best when not in isolation. The Zilber Neighborhood Initiative so far has preached collaboration as an element in both the programming – with multiple nonprofits expected to work together – and the funding. A true measure of success will be whether the initiative successfully meets its goal of using the initial $50 million investment to catalyze corporations, foundations and philanthropists to give at least $150 million in additional gifts.

A long-term commitment

Long-term timelines prevent a negative scenario in which programming is expected to be successful immediately, with no plan to sustain the efforts. Zilber envisions a ten-year effort -- a lifetime in the philanthropic world -- allowing for the planning efforts that are often necessary for long-term success and sustainability.

Managing for results

At this early point, little information is available about the initiative's plans for financial management, program evaluation, organizational capacity-building, and cultural competency, elements that will be key to successful implementations. Zilber's openness in welcoming the community's ideas for how to spend his own money has the ring of good P.R., while also having the potential to help Milwaukeeans to feel engaged in and invested in the project's success. It would be a good sign if research-proven methods (best practices) carry weight along with the wisdom of local residents, to avoid the danger of funding well-intentioned intervention methods that studies show are ineffective.

Joseph Zilber’s willingness to invest $50 million in Milwaukee neighborhoods is impressive in and of itself. It will be equally praiseworthy if his bottom-up, replicated strategy continues on a path of smart philanthropy and resident engagement.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Financing Milwaukee's innovation pipeline

The announcement that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Research Foundation inked a potentially lucrative licensing deal with a local drug manufacturer is a prime example of the important role that public dollars play in spurring innovation and economic growth in the Milwaukee region. In this case, the initial public investment came in the form of a $1.2 million 5-year federal grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund research by UWM Professor James Cook. The investment paid off in the discovery of a new drug compound to treat alcoholism.

This breakthrough is welcome news not only for its potential health benefit, but also for the economy of the Milwaukee region and the state of Wisconsin, which has historically done a poor job in translating NIH grants to economic gains. A national study released this week confirms an above-average level of NIH dollars flowing into Wisconsin but a below-average return on those dollars in the form of new business activity.

Universities aren't alone in their use of public dollars to spur innovation. Local governments are beginning to delve into the innovation investment game. One recent example is the City of Milwaukee's approval of a $225,000 forgivable loan to C&D Technologies to develop a new line of lightweight lithium-ion batteries. These city funds would mix with federal dollars to finance the development of this new product line for military use.

Other cities are also creating funds that directly invest in innovative private companies. New York City and its partners have created the $2 million NYC Seed fund which will invest up to $200,000 in nascent NYC-based tech companies to aid them in the development of new ideas and products. Click here for information on other cities that have created similar funds to boost innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the past, the public sector's role in economic development has largely been to set the stage for growth (solid infrastructure, educated workforce) and then get the heck out of the way (streamlined regulation). This mindset is slowly changing. Today, public dollars are used directly to fuel innovation and economic development.

As with any investment, there is risk. However, with adequate due diligence and strategic focus, the investment of public dollars into research and development projects can be a calculated risk with a potentially large payoff to metropolitan economies.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Milwaukee has 46th worst traffic congestion in US

According to the National Traffic Scorecard, the Milwaukee region's traffic congestion ranks us 46th among the nation's cities. The national average travel time index is 1.13, meaning a trip takes 13% longer than if there were no congestion. Milwaukee's travel time index is better than the national average at 1.08, which means a trip around here takes 8% longer than if there were no congestion. This is up 1.4% from last year for our region.

The neat thing about the scorecard is that the travel time index is computed for each hour in the day. Can you guess when Milwaukee is most congested? Between 5 and 6 pm on Fridays, of course, like about everywhere else in the nation.

The scorecard also ranks the nation's worst bottlenecks. Our worst, US45 southbound at Highway 100, ranks 1,530th nationally and is congested 16 hours per week with an average travel speed of 19 miles per hour when congested.

The good news? We have only 4% of the total congestion of the worst city, Los Angeles. (LA's travel time index is 1.45.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Applications now accepted for Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellowship

The Public Policy Forum is pleased to announce a new initiative to promote civic engagement and local policy analysis, the Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellowship. The goal of the fellowship is to encourage research leading to increased understanding of the functioning of local governments or leading to the development of programs or policies that assist a local government in addressing a critical issue or problem.

Norman N. Gill served as executive director of the Citizens' Governmental Research Bureau (now the Public Policy Forum) for over 40 years and maintained a life-long commitment to the greater Milwaukee community.

The fellowship will be granted annually on a competitive basis to a current student or recent graduate of any Wisconsin graduate degree program in law, economics, political science, public policy, public administration, urban planning, or a related field. The fellow will engage in a research project focusing on a timely and topical local, regional or state policy or governance issue of importance to Milwaukee and southeast Wisconsin.

The application, due July 21, is now available on the Forum website.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

PPF survey: Child care providers in a tough spot

The latest report of our research project on high-quality early childhood education finds that child care providers in southeast Wisconsin perceive certain quality improvements as too costly.

The findings fit with the results of our recent parent survey, which found parents do not demand certain markers of quality, such as accreditation.

The result is that providers looking to make improvements, such as obtaining accreditation, are in a tough spot: the improvements are costly and they will have a hard time passing the costs onto parents.

Which begs the question, Do policymakers value high-quality care enough to provide financial incentives to providers for making improvements? At the state level, so far the answer has been "no."

Coverage of the report is in the June 6 Business Journal.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

While southeast Wisconsin elected officials, advocacy groups and concerned citizens continue to passionately debate I-94 expansion, Milwaukee's bus system crisis and potential new commuter rail and light rail lines, another transportation issue is looming that could similarly rile people and significantly impact the region's economy. That issue is the future of General Mitchell International Airport (GMIA).

GMIA currently is updating its master plan, which includes construction of a third runway. Airport officials and others have billed this expansion as vital to efforts to add flight options, mitigate delays, and maintain GMIA's status as one of the most successful mid-size airports in the country. The notion of a third runway already has generated concern, however, from nearby residents and elected officials.

The Public Policy Forum recently hosted a discussion on GMIA's future featuring airport director Barry Bateman, Midwest Airlines executive Scott Dickson and Cudahy mayor Ryan McCue. The panelists agreed that more can and should be done to utilize the airport as an economic development tool, a concept being pushed hard by the Airport Business Gateway Association.

Interestingly, several participants also cited the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) commuter rail line as important to GMIA's future growth plans, a contention that also is being made in other metro areas across the country.

A recent article in USA Today cites at least a dozen cities that are building or planning rail systems that would connect airports to downtown areas, adding to the 10 that currently exist. Those plans are being driven for the most part by a desire to provide convenient alternatives for potential airport users.

Another recent article on Governing Magazine's web site discusses the value of airport rail links from an economic development perspective. The article notes that airports are becoming high end business centers in many metro areas, and that the users of such centers demand services that are accessible without use of a car.

It is critical to note that most of these other areas are considering light rail connections (as opposed to commuter rail) for their airports, which have the advantage of serving several downtown destinations and a greater number of station locations in between. Of course, light rail is far more expensive and, in Milwaukee, has been far more controversial. If commuter rail is to be seen as a tool for maximizing the potential of GMIA, logic would dictate that it must be accompanied by a seamless and highly convenient bus or streetcar connection between the downtown intermodal station and hotel destinations in order to make it practical for out-of-town visitors. Seamless connections also are critical at the airport terminal and other key station locations.

While the potential benefits of KRM to the growth of GMIA has not been one of its top selling points, trends in other metro areas suggest it could be. However, those touting the potential benefits of KRM to the growth of GMIA will need to carefully consider how to implement and pay for the other transportation connections that will be needed to make this a genuine asset for air travelers to and from the region.