Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The future is today for STEM-savvy workers

The Forum's latest report, on the need for science and math skills in the state's future workforce (which was reported in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and followed-up with an editorial today) highlights opportunities for the state to strengthen policies regarding science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in K-12.

And while our findings focus on forecasted workforce needs, today's New York Times reports that the few occupations where the current recession has had only a glancing blow are those requiring skills in math, science, or technology:

[The Conference Board's] monthly count of online job openings — listed on Monster.com and more than 1,200 similar Web sites — breaks the advertised openings into 22 broad occupational categories and compares those with the number of unemployed whose last job, according to the bureau, was in each category. In only four of the categories — architecture and engineering, the physical sciences, computer and mathematical science, and health care — were the unemployed equal to or fewer than the listed job openings. There were, in sum, 1.09 million listed openings and only 582,700 unemployed people presumably available to fill them.

In addition, like the Forum's report, the Times article does not limit its observations to just those jobs requiring a college degree. The article notes that "middle skills" jobs are those hardest to fill right now, in the midst of the recession; for example, welders, electrical linemen, and respiratory technicians. These jobs require education, but often not more than high school, along with some training and on-the-job experience.

For today's high school graduates, being adequately prepared to step into a training program could mean not only finding a job when others cannot--it could mean the difference between thriving and surviving as their future arrives.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Wisconsin state-of-the-art for K-12 science and math education?

The Public Policy Forum's latest report, released today, finds that of the 10 career clusters predicted to grow the most over the next five years, seven include occupations requiring strong backgrounds in science, math, technology, or engineering (STEM). Of the 10 specific jobs predicted to be the fastest growing in the state, eight require STEM skills or knowledge and six require a post-secondary degree.

Do Wisconsin's state educational policies reflect this growing need for STEM-savvy and skilled workers? Are Wisconsin education officials focusing on STEM in a coherent and coordinated way? Our new report probes those issues by examining state workforce development data and reviewing state-level policies and standards that impact STEM education.

We present several policy options that could be considered to build on localized STEM initiatives and establish a greater statewide imperative to prioritize STEM activities in coordination with workforce needs. Those include:

* Strengthening state standards in science, math, and other STEM fields, creating model curricula in STEM fields, and aligning standards to workforce needs and college matriculation requirements.

* Creating incentives to recruit and retain qualified STEM teachers and ensuring districts use teacher standards and professional development goals in hiring, evaluation, promotion, and possibly compensation.

* Creating incentives for more coordination of local efforts and increasing support, both financial and regulatory, for district-level STEM initiatives.

The data indicate that a coordinated state-level focus on STEM education will be critical in meeting our state's future workforce needs. Is Wisconsin up for the challenge?

Go to the full report: PREPARING THE FUTURE WORKFORCE Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Policy in K12 Education

Friday, June 26, 2009

The art of selling tap water

In a bid to solve some of the city's budget woes, a proposal was floated last fall to privatize the city water works. Opponents of the idea noted that privatization would likely mean higher costs to water users, which in turn caused the common council to consider keeping the water works and just raising prices themselves. They are currently studying their options. But how will they convince city water users that the higher price is worth it?

According to Governing Magazine's blog, many cities are now marketing their tap water, although not necessarily to justify higher prices. New York and San Francisco market tap water as a means to reduce bottled water consumption and "green" their cities.

But over in Europe, Venice, like Milwaukee, is struggling with budget problems. Without streets, garbage collection in Venice is quite costly, so the city is aiming to reduce bottled water usage, and the amount of garbage collected, by promoting tap water. Venetian water has been branded "Acqua Veritas," complete with fancy logo and promotional appearances by the city's mayor.

Could "L'eau Milwaukee" be the next hip drink? Imagine the advertisements covering every bus shelter: "Tom Barrett drinks Milwaukee tap water, do you?"

Friday, June 19, 2009

Child care quality: Third time is not a charm

Governor Doyle's third attempt to include a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) for child care made it through the joint finance committee this time around, but appears not to be included in the Assembly and Senate versions of the budget bill. A QRIS is a voluntary rating system for child care providers that is designed to recognize quality and provide incentives to improve quality, while also allowing parents to compare quality across providers.

The most simplistic explanation for the failure of the QRIS in the past three budgets has been funding. In the first go-round, the system was introduced with an assumption of no net fiscal impact, which was unrealistic at best and disingenuous at worst. Last biennium, the price tag was attached and was deemed too pricey. This time, the Governor's proposed budget included the policy framework in this biennium, with the funding to be appropriated in the next biennium; in these uncertain times, lawmakers were reluctant to commit future funds.

Not having a child care QRIS puts Wisconsin out-of-step with other states, the majority of which have or are planning one. So how do they fund theirs? Most do as Wisconsin might have, with a tiered child care subsidy program that re-distributes the federal TANF (commonly known as welfare) funds for child care unevenly--recipient parents choosing higher quality child care get subsidized at higher rates. This, of course, necessitates that low quality child care is subsidized at a lower rate. (This lower rate would have to be lower than the current rate in order for the QRIS to cost the same as the current subsidy program.)

One state has gone about it differently, however. Louisiana has created four different tax credits to provide the fiscal incentive for participation in the state's QRIS and for improving quality. Notably, three of the four tax credits are refundable, meaning that even taxpayers who don't owe taxes can take advantage of them. The tax credits are supplemental to the state's child care subsidy program and do not replace the subsidy rates. But they are intended to provide incentive for parents and providers to participate in the QRIS and to help make quality improvements affordable.

The credits are for families who choose providers in the QRIS, with higher credits for those choosing higher quality care; for providers who participate in the QRIS, based on their quality rating and the number of subsidized children they serve; for teachers and directors who work in centers that participate in QRIS, based on their level of training and education; and for businesses that make donations to QRIS providers.

The hope is that the credits will impact consumer behavior by creating fiscal incentives for parents and providers to create a demand for higher quality in the child care market. The theory is that the tax benefits will be widely marketed by the industry, similarly to the home mortgage tax deduction, which is promoted by real estate agents, banks and developers who encourage home buyers to take it into consideration when making decisions about the home they purchase. Louisiana has hired a marketing firm to create a social marketing campaign for both the ratings system and the tax credits.

As these tax credits have been in place for just one year, it is too early to tell who is taking advantage of them and to what extent. The state estimates 1,247 teachers and directors and 73 centers were eligible for them, totaling approximately $3.5 million in state tax benefits. As centers improve their quality and earn higher ratings, and as more centers participate in the QRIS, that dollar figure would grow.

Whether Wisconsin might follow in Louisiana's footsteps is highly questionable. Supplementing federal child care subsidy dollars with state tax credits hasn't been on the table here even when a QRIS was on the table. Also, Louisiana, which passed the legislation creating its tax credits last year, before the recession was in full swing, was one of the few states not running a budget deficit at that time.

Unlike a budget appropriation, which is subject to change each year, tax credits must be repealed in order to be eliminated or reduced, which is significantly more difficult politically. Thus, Louisiana's program will likely have more stability than those of other states and will thus be monitored very closely by policy researchers. Among the questions to be answered--Will it increase participation in the QRIS? Will it increase child care quality? At what cost?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Milwaukee County's disappearing budget "deficit"

While elected officials and bloggers pontificate about Milwaukee County's mysteriously disappearing budget deficit (now down to an estimated $650,000 based on a new report by the county auditor and county board fiscal and budget analyst, after earlier being estimated at $14.9 million by executive branch officials), there is a pressing need for some non-emotional context. Here goes:

  1. It is far from unusual for early year projections of Milwaukee County budget deficits to be reduced as the year progresses. This circumstance stems primarily from two factors: a) the logical and justifiable impulse for county budget officials to be extra conservative early in the year, recognizing that if action isn't taken to address problem areas by spring or early summer, then the situation can spiral out of control by fall, when it is too late to enact meaningful fixes; and b) county departments are motivated to report projected deficits early in the year so that those may be addressed, but far less motivated to report potential surpluses because of uncertainty as to future problems that those surpluses would be required to cover.

  2. Reduction of an early year deficit of $15 million to close to zero within a month is highly unusual. It is critical, however, to read the fine print of the audit/county board staff report to understand how that happened. Of the $14.3 million reduction, $5 million is attributable to assuming the receipt of revenue from UWM by March 2010 for the recently approved county grounds land sale (which the report pointedly notes is highly questionable), and $4.4 million is attributable to specific deficit reduction actions taken by the county as a result of the earlier shortfall projection. If you take those two factors out of the equation, then the swing is $5 million, which is not at all uncommon for this time of year. This swing can be chalked up mainly to new information uncovered since the original projection and reasonable disagreement between administration and audit/county board staff regarding fringe benefit expenditure trends.

  3. While it was inevitable that the county would seek to use a healthy chunk of the UWM land sale revenue to address its immediate fiscal problems, it still is not optimal fiscal policy to do so. Use of one-time revenue in this fashion does help alleviate the immediate crisis, but policymakers must recognize that it does nothing to address the county's structural deficit and, in fact, masks that deficit's true size.

Sadly, the political fighting between the two branches of county government over this episode likely has only just begun. And, while it is necessary and appropriate for the two sides to responsibly deliberate whether the depth and scope of the projected 2009 deficit justifies the painful short-term responses proposed by the executive branch (e.g. 35-hour work weeks), the worst outcome would be inattention to the long-term structural budget problems facing county government (as we have warned about here and here).

Indeed, what cannot be lost in this conversation is the fact that those problems are every bit as real for 2010 and beyond with a $650,000 projected deficit in 2009 as they were when the problem was deemed to be $14.9 million just a few days ago.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

PPF Pearls: What may Milwaukee have in common with Baltimore?

The City of Baltimore has filed a federal lawsuit against Wells Fargo bank, alleging that the bank pushed high-interest subprime mortgages on homebuyers, and deliberately did so more often to African-American borrowers than to whites.

Baltimore is seeking damages from Wells Fargo because more than half of the Baltimore homes on which Wells Fargo has foreclosed since 2005 are now vacant, with 71% in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The city argues that the resulting hit to property values in those neighborhoods has affected the city's bottom line, both by decreasing property tax revenues and increasing demand for services.

Other cities around the country are watching Baltimore's suit quite closely, including, perhaps, Milwaukee. The Public Policy Forum's 2002 study of affordable housing in the Milwaukee region found a pattern of higher subprime loans to African-Americans than to whites. We found that in 1999, 41% of all mortgage loans to African-American homebuyers in the Milwaukee region were subprime, compared to just 8% of all loans to white homebuyers. This put us way ahead of the rest of the nation--the national subprime lending rate to African-American homebuyers that year was 19% (the white rate was 4%).

If Baltimore is successful in recovering damages from Wells Fargo, more cities will likely file more suits against this and other banks. What's the likelihood of Milwaukee being one of them?

If history is any guide, remember that Milwaukee was just the second government to seek damages from paint manufacturers due to the negative health impacts of lead paint on city children. On the other hand, while Rhode Island won that first suit against the paint manufacturers, Milwaukee ended up losing (after appealing all the way up to the state supreme court). The city might be reluctant to attempt another novel law suit.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Some good news for Milwaukee County

The Forum has spent considerable time during the past year researching and framing the issues facing Milwaukee County government. We began with a comprehensive analysis of Milwaukee County's transit crisis last May, continued with a Viewpoint luncheon on the structure of county government, a survey on citizen views of the county and a comprehensive report on the condition of county-owned parks and cultural assets, and then honed in on the county's ominous fiscal issues with analyses of its 2009 budget and overall fiscal situation.

The picture we have painted is grim. The county is facing a huge structural deficit that has worsened with each year of inaction and that has reached the point of crisis in light of state budget woes and the impacts of the national recession. Moreover, while citizens as of a year ago largely were satisfied with county services, mounting maintenance, repair and replacement backlogs threaten the quality of several critical county institutions and functions.

But there's also a sunnier side to county government, which the Forum will salute at our 17th annual Salute to Local Government on June 18. Our panel of judges has selected Milwaukee County programs or initiatives for four out of five program awards this year (the Village of Bayside will receive the other, while the City of Milwaukee is a joint recipient with the county for one award). A description of those award winners (plus individual award winners Ralph Voltner and Christine Nuernberg) can be found by clicking here. To sign up to attend, click here.

The county award winners illustrate the broad range of services provided by county government and the varied governance of its functions. One award will go to the county's judicial branch for an innovative self-help center in the courts; another will go to the parks for the public-private partnership that paved the way for the remarkable comeback of Bradford Beach; a third will go to the county executive and the county's housing division for their intergovernmental partnership with the city that has produced dozens of new housing units for poor persons with mental illness; and a fourth will be presented to the Code of Ethics study committee, an initiative spearheaded by county supervisor Joe Rice to re-write the county's ethics code that also was led by county legal and board staff and private sector members.

The lesson here is that even governments in severe fiscal distress and tinged with controversy have diligent and creative people working for them who are admirably playing the cards they have been dealt. In fact, the need for innovation and transparency - two attributes recognized by the Salute - is most acute when dollars are limited and cynicism is rampant. Congratulations to all our award winners for demonstrating that good government does exist in these trying times, when it is needed more than ever.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

National programs aim to help MPS, require monitoring

While we wish Milwaukee’s public schools were gaining attention for being top-ranked, or even just “most-improved”, at least the district’s notable challenges have placed it firmly on the radar screen of a number of national programs aiming to help ailing urban school systems.

Most recently, the Journal Sentinel reported that Milwaukee is the top prospect for expansion of the City Year program, which could bring 55 mentors to MPS’s poorest areas. Milwaukee is also the newest site of Teach for America – a group motivating successful college graduates to devote time to urban teaching – which plans to place 30 teachers. Rounding out the group are programs training school principals, most notably an organization in its second year in Milwaukee, New Leaders for New Schools.

One thing Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools have in common is providing entry into the educational field for non-traditional candidates – those who either lack education degrees or the usual experience to rise through the ranks to attain leadership positions.

As with any program, an intervention is only as good as its outcomes. Recent research on the Leadership Academy principal training program in New York City, different but similar to New Leaders for New Schools, offers a cautionary perspective. An analysis by The New York Times of the city’s report-card system of grading principal performance shows that schools run by Leadership Academy graduates have not done as well as those led by experienced principals or new principals who came through traditional routes. Leadership Academy graduates were less than half as likely to get A’s as other principals, and almost twice as likely to earn C’s or worse. The Times article clarified that, while Academy graduates tended to be placed in low-achieving schools, the grading system has built-in controls to accommodate for that, emphasizing progress and comparing schools with similar demographics.

The New Leaders for New Schools website details some impressive results, so one hopes their outcomes will surpass the similar principal training program in New York City. Milwaukee deserves the attention of national programs like City Year, Teach for America, and New Leaders for New Schools. Still, the Times' analysis underscores the importance of contiuously monitoring the outcomes of such programming.