Friday, March 30, 2007

April 3: The Ultimate MPS Survey

In a few days, Milwaukeeans will elect members of the Milwaukee School Board. Let's hope we choose board members who pay attention to their constituents.

Over the past 30 years, Milwaukee’s children have been subjected to massive busing and racial desegregation; plans to split the district into pieces; efforts to take the schools out of the hands of an elected board and turn them over to the state or the mayor; decentralization; the return to neighborhood schools; No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing; school to work; school vouchers; and now recentralization.

These reforms add up to one rule of life: Education reform is rarely about education. It tends to be about ideology, politics, power, business and money. And often the powers that be don't listen to what children and their parents want and need.

That’s why the Forum, at the request of MPS administrators, conducted telephone interviews last year with 900 city residents. The findings read like a primer on priorities for the newly-elected Milwaukee School Board.

First, most people envision schools as being more like full-service social service agencies. They want MPS to provide adult mentors for children, before/after school programs, employment counseling, measures to improve attendance, nursing services, social services like mental health counseling, housing assistance for poor families, and measures to reduce poverty.

Also, more than 80% think it is extremely important that MPS provides violence prevention services, as well as other measures to improve safety and discipline – such as scanning everyone who enters school buildings for weapons, assigning police officers to work in middle and high schools, using dogs to search student lockers for controlled substances, and drug and alcohol prevention programs.

A related finding is that the worst perceived problems in MPS have nothing to do with the schools themselves – as we think of them with today’s blinders on. The biggest problems - lack of resources, parental involvement, discipline, drugs/alcohol, and student safety - are not internal, in fact, to the actual school system as it is currently constituted. Things more within MPS’s control, such as efficiency, discrimination, quality of principals and teachers’ ability, are not perceived to be major problems.

If MPS is going to listen to its customers, school board candidates – and certainly next week’s winners – need to address these findings.

Specifically, candidates need to contemplate this question: What would schools look like if they were full-service agencies that combined the functions of state, county, municipal and school governance?

The list of “what-ifs” is long and may be helpful for sparking discussion and thoughtful debate:

  • What if all three of the largest governments in Wisconsin, not just MPS but also the city and county of Milwaukee, were major players in all MPS schools – and were responsible for MPS outcomes?
  • What if current partnerships – such as the new Browning School that shares a building with the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, or Metcalfe that shares a building with the Boys and Girls Club -were replicated system-wide?
  • What if MPS provided more direct services -adult education, health care, job placement, parenting education?
  • What if the schools were more of an information clearinghouse and referral service for the families of their students?
  • What if every school had social workers doing case management and coordination for all their students and their students’ families?
  • What if the informal triage that divides children into future productive citizens and future prisoners were replaced with a coordinated state/county/city/MPS partnership truly aimed at leaving no child behind?

Suppose the school board got creative to address the real concerns of actual children and their families? Then this election could get interesting.

        Thursday, March 29, 2007

        PPF voucher research and the Supreme Court(s)

        Jay Bullock, a MPS teacher and blogger (Folkbum's Rambles and Rants), notes that the Forum's latest research on Milwaukee's voucher program did not get great media coverage. His blog entry comes in response to the introduction of the voucher program as an issue in the race between Annette Ziegler and Linda Clifford for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

        Whether or not you agree with Folkbum's point, if you're a potential state Supreme Court Justice you might be interested in knowing that there is precedent for the Forum's research to be considered at a "supreme" level. In fact, our work was cited by U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter in his dissent in the Zelman case, which held 5-4 that Cleveland's voucher program is constitutional.

        Tuesday, March 27, 2007

        Irony at MPS

        Does anyone else see the irony here? First, MPS officials decide that cell phones contribute to violence and start enforcing a no cell-phones rule. Now, MPS decides that videos of fights are helpful in finding all the participants. Good thing the student doing the taping had "illegally" brought a cell phone to class!

        Monday, March 26, 2007

        UWM student journalist punctures Mayfair Mall media hype

        A story on Frontpage Milwaukee, an online newpaper run by UWM journalism students, illustrates how the local mainstream media has focused disproportionately on Mayfair Mall's crime problems. The author, Matthew Hrodey, found:

        In 2006, police made 731 arrests at Mayfair Mall, only 11% more than Mayfair's five-year average - and about half the number arrested last year at Southridge Mall, a mall in Greendale that had about 30% fewer visitors in 2006.

        In addition, the mall arrest statistics show that adults committed twice as many crimes as junveniles and that most thefts were committed by women and girls. Read the whole article for an in-depth analysis of the arrest statistics for both malls, including demographic data.

        The article is a great example of the facts calling our perceptions into question. And yes, I'm tagging this post "race relations."

        Hat tip: Mobile's Take

        UPDATE: The mainstream media jumps on the bandwagon.

        Tuesday, March 20, 2007

        Defense Department cares for children best, Wisconsin is 8th

        The National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) has released new state rankings on child care standards and oversight. The report, "We Can Do Better: NACCRRA’s Ranking of State Child Care Center Standards and Oversight," which looked at all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), found that “the DoD child care system stands alone as a model for the states” and is the only system to be ranked in the top 10 for both standards and oversight.

        Wisconsin ranks 8th for standards, scoring 62 out of a possible 100, for things such as student-teacher ratios, teacher certification and training, and teacher background checks. Wisconsin does not satisfy the industry recommended standards for child care center directors' credentials because our state does not require center directors to possess a post-high school degree.

        Unfortunately, on the oversight rankings,
        Wisconsin plummets. Our state ranks 47th, scoring 11 out of a possible 50, mainly because the state does not visit licensed child care centers frequently enough, the state licensing staff is not required to have any degree higher than an associate's degree, and parents cannot access licensing reports or complaints online. What does this mean? According to NACCRRA:

        It is not enough to be moving in the right direction with strong child care standards if a state’s oversight system doesn’t measure up. Without adequate oversight, there is no way to evaluate whether state standards are actually being met.

        Thus, we have an accountability problem. For a government watchdog group like the Forum, this is an issue...why are we spending taxpayer money to license these child care providers in the first place if we don't follow up and ensure they continue to meet the requirements?

        (Note, too, that not only are taxpayers on the hook when licensing standards aren't enforced, parents, who pay a pretty sum, are as well. The report finds the average annual cost of child care in
        Wisconsin is $11,855 for infants and $6,959 for preschoolers.)

        Monday, March 19, 2007

        Welcome to the new economy, 7 years late

        Way back in 2000, the Forum wrote a white paper for the Governor's economic summit (remember those?), which found that while joining the "new economy" was necessary, it could actually harm our tax base in certain ways. We noted especially that our sales tax policies had not caught up to the new phenomenon of Internet sales. At the time, many people assumed that treating Internet stores like mail-order catalogues would suffice...if they had a physical presence in the state, then they would collect sales tax from customers in our state and, if not, then customers in the state would pay a use tax on the goods they purchased. The problem is that this assumed sophisticated retailers, compliant consumers, and tangible goods. And although we did not predict eBay auctions or iTunes (if only I had that kind of prognostication skill!), we concluded that using current sales tax policy to govern Internet sales would surely result in missed opportunity for a larger sales tax base.

        Of course, Wisconsin was not the only state grappling with this issue at the time. The National Conference of State Legislatures' Executive Committee established in 1999 a Task Force on State and Local Taxation of Telecommunications and Electronic Commerce, which has resulted in the "Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement" that will not only make collection of sales and use taxes on Internet transactions feasible, it may also make it constitutional. The agreement attempts to remove the burden of tax collections from retailers, level the playing field for bricks-and-mortar retailers vs. e-tailers, and retain states' sovereignty over their own tax policy.

        The streamlined agreement is voluntary for both states and merchants and has the support of many retailers and their associations. The intention is for the agreement to serve as the basis for Congress to grant authority to states to require all sellers, regardless of location, to collect sales and use taxes. Currently, as stated in the Supreme Court's Quill case, under the Commerce Clause, unless Congress specifically provides as such, states cannot impose sales taxes on out-of-state merchants. According to NCSL:

        The Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement provides the states with a blueprint to create a simplified sales and use tax collection system that when implemented, provides justification for Congress to allow states to request remote sellers to collect sales taxes as was intended in the Quill decision.

        Today, 21 states are full members to the agreement...but not Wisconsin. Wisconsin co-chaired the NCSL task force and was lauded by the Forum in our white paper for showing leadership and forward-thinking. But seven years later, we still haven't fully joined the agreement. Our state has debated the issue and did pass legislation in 2001 that got us part way there. Now Governor Doyle's budget proposal includes the necessary legislation to fully join the agreement. This is not a partisan issue; Wisconsin can either lose tax revenue (nationally, state and local tax losses to e-commerce in 2008 are estimated to range from $11.8 B to $17.8 B) or capture it via merchants who will collect it voluntarily. We, as consumers, are already supposed to be paying these taxes...we just aren't. It really doesn't seem like a hard choice.

        Wednesday, March 14, 2007

        Wisconsin ranks 7th for pre-K access

        The 2006 State Preschool Yearbook released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers (NIEER) ranks Wisconsin seventh for access to government-funded pre-K programs for 4-year-olds. The state ranks 22nd in access for 3-year-olds.

        The report finds that 49% of all 4-year-olds in our state in 2006 were enrolled in either state-funded K4 (32%), state-funded or federally funded Head Start (9%), or a state-funded special education program (8%). For 3-year-olds, the total figure is 15%.

        From the report:
        Wisconsin’s state constitution has included a commitment to provide free education for 4-year-olds since it was adopted in 1848. The Four-Year-Old Kindergarten (K4) program dates back to 1873. This initiative continues today, though there was a suspension of state funding from 1957 to 1984. The K4 program is currently available in about half of Wisconsin’s school districts, which receive 50 percent of the standard state per-pupil funding amount to provide half-day classes for 4-year-olds, or 60 percent if the school also offers parent support. Public schools may offer prekindergarten directly, or contract with Head Start, private child care centers, or family child care homes to provide services. The state has pushed successfully for program expansion in recent years, serving more children in districts with existing programs and opening programs in districts that did not have K4 previously. The growth continues, with 23 new districts implementing K4 in 2006-2007.

        A Washington Post story about the report notes:
        ...[R]esearch highlighting the importance of early learning is prompting more and more states to add pre-kindergarten programs. "Virtually every state has a very strong movement toward doing a better job with pre-k," said Arthur Rolnick, a senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and part of a group of business leaders calling for giving low-income kids earlier access to public school.

        Nationally, the report finds that states spent a total of $3.3 billion last year on pre-kindergarten, up from $2.8 billion in 2005. The state figures do not include federal and local governments' contributions. Wisconsin state aid totals $62.4 million, or $2,971 per child enrolled, placing us 23 in the resource ranking.

        Of the ten quality benchmarks created by the NIEER,
        Wisconsin programs meet six. Those we don't meet? According to the NIEER, we lack teacher quality and accountability (in the form of state oversight of program sites).

        This non-prescriptive approach to program quality is the result of the balance we struck here in Wisconsin between state and local control. Wisconsin allows school districts and Head Start providers to collaborate and contract with private providers. The reasons for doing so vary from keeping costs down, to increasing access, to providing greater choice for parents. We call this community collaboration and the theory is that it will encourage public and private providers to work together to better meet the needs of parents. What we don't know is whether this model is truly meeting
        Wisconsin parent needs. The Forum is currently drafting a survey designed to help answer that question. We will be asking parents about their experiences with early childhood education, including pre-K, and gathering their opinions about the programs they desire and the programs that are available to them. This survey will be the start of a new three-year project by the Forum to measure the costs and benefits of high quality early childhood education to our regional economy. Stay tuned.

        Monday, March 12, 2007

        Getting your state budget fix

        The policy wonks over at WisPolitics are once again running a state budget blog. The blog follows all the budget hearings and meetings of the JFC (usually live-blogged), as well as most of the press releases by advocacy groups, administrative departments, and state legislators and other officials. It makes Wisconsin's budget deliberations much more transparent for citizens, which is always a good thing, as well as sometimes injecting a bit of humor into too-often dry subject matter, which is a great thing.

        Friday, March 9, 2007

        Race relation-omics?

        The Forum's public opinion survey on race relations released late last year found race relations in SE Wisconsin are poor and not perceived as getting better. But we also found that in areas of interpersonal relations, such as marriage, adoption, friendship, etc., attitudes toward people of another race have improved across the board since we last surveyed on the issue in 1991. How can one survey find such disparate results? The answer may lie in economics.

        A recent column by Tim
        Harford in Forbes magazine highlights the research economists have done on racism and concludes:
        Economists tend to assume that people respond to the incentives they face. If that's true, we have to face up to the fact that young black Americans are facing some lousy choices. There is a lot of work for all of us to do.

        Turns out economists are making a distinction between "taste-based" discrimination and "statistical" discrimination. The former is when discrimination occurs because of a dislike of minorities, the latter is when race is used as a marker for a trait to be selected out.
        Harford explains:
        Non-racial statistical discrimination is actually rather common: An insurer will consider your age and your sex when deciding how much to charge for auto insurance. Why? Because the stereotypes, however crude and however unfair to individuals, contain a bit of extra information.

        Harford's pessimistic conclusion arises from the realization that statistical racial discrimination by employers could be an economically reasonable position, if race is, in fact, a relatively reliable marker for something such as the quality of school attended. In that case an employer will respond to the positive incentive resulting from discrimination:
        A racist who turns down workers even though he knows them to be competent will take a hit to the bottom line, but statistical discrimination could improve profits, which makes it harder to stamp out. As long as an employer can learn something extra from an applicant's race that he can't learn from looking at a résumé...then the worrying possibility for profitable discrimination exists.

        So, the longer most minority children are attending the country's worst schools, the more reliable race is as a marker for quality of schooling. Even more troubling, however, is evidence that statistical racial discrimination based on an unreliable marker can cause the marker to become more accurate.
        [Roland] Fryer and two colleagues, Jacob Goeree and Charles Holt, showed how statistical discrimination could easily lead to a vicious circle. They used computer-based classroom games that assigned students the role of employers, "purple" workers and "green" workers. Students in the role of employers quickly jumped to the mistaken conclusion that purple workers were uneducated, and that view became self-fulfilling, as purple workers abandoned hope of getting hired and stopped paying for education. Once the downward spiral set in, a color-blind employer would actually lose money.
        "I was amazed," recalls Fryer. "The kids were really angry. The purple workers would say, 'I'm not investing [in an education] because you won't hire me', and the employers would respond 'I didn't hire you because you weren't investing.' The initial asymmetries came about because of chance, but people would hang onto them and wouldn't let them go."

        Thus, if people feel that the instances in which they make distinctions based on race are not due to dislike of that racial group, but to a racially-relevant factor, we can find individuals reporting that their own attitudes about race have improved while race relations overall continue to be dismal. Because, if you're on the receiving end of the discrimination, does it really matter what label an economist has given it?

        Milwaukee, the bedroom community

        Governor Doyle's proposed biennial budget calls for additional spending to grow Milwaukee's economy. Undoubtedly, this spending package will face intense pressure from out-state legislators looking to secure goodies of their own. Can't blame them for that, really.

        But according to a recent blog post by Neal Peirce, one of our nation’s foremost writers on metro issues, our second-tier cities (for those of you still living in 1950's
        Milwaukee, I hate to break the bad news, but our fair city is now decidedly "second-tier" in the pantheon of large US cities) are entirely justified in seeking "more generous state aid for hard-pressed city governments" based on new research by The Brookings Institution.

        According to Mr. Peirce, more state investment in a city like
        Milwaukee is warranted by Milwaukee's proximity to Chicago. Basically, Chicago has stifling traffic congestion, high housing costs, and a seemingly unsustainable and sprawling land-use pattern. Milwaukee, by extension, would be the next logical place to accommodate Chicago's growth. Milwaukee has the existing infrastructure, a large and growing immigrant labor force, a solid existing housing stock, and attractive quality of life amenities.

        In other words, invest in
        Milwaukee to help it become Chicago's newest, largest, and most economically diverse bedroom community.

        The Brookings report and Mr. Peirce's commentary should please supporters of both the proposed KRM train line and Gov. Doyle's spending plan for

        Then again, do we really want
        Milwaukee to become Chicago's newest bedroom community? Let's save that topic for another post.

        Thursday, March 8, 2007

        School breakfast and school budgets

        An article in today's Journal Sentinel about the universal breakfast program in some city of Milwaukee public schools (MPS) schools focuses on the notion that breakfast is expected to improve a child's achievement level. There are doubters to this notion, who point out that the breakfasts served to every student in the classroom take time out of the instructional day. Maybe the value of school breakfast for an individual student's achievement level is not the right frame for evaluating this program. From my own experience as an education researcher and an MPS parent, universal school breakfast seems like it could have a more immediate beneficial impact on a school's budget.

        Let me explain. For three years during the implementation of the Neighborhood Schools Initiative, my fellow
        PPF researchers and I made case study observations at four MPS schools. What struck us all the most were the complicated logistics of running a school. Principals spend an extraordinary amount of time on things that impact how the school operates during the school day...which obviously has an indirect effect on what goes on in the classroom...but all the principals we worked with expressed a desire to have more time to spend on pedagogy. Figuring out how many lunch hours to have, how to get the 8th graders in and out of the lunch room without running over the kindergartners, and when certain grades could be on the playground at the same time, on which days, were all issues that needed attention. And all those movements of classes and recesses and lunch hours have to be supervised by someone. The teachers' contract controls how much time teachers can spend on those types of out-of-classroom supervisory functions, so paraprofessionals and administrators are often the ones doing the supervising.

        This year, at my son's school, Elm Creative Arts, budget cuts threatened some of the arts specials that are at the heart of the school's mission and curriculum. So a very creative school administration and governance council decided to keep the curriculum intact by getting rid of one lunch period. Once they've finished their lunch, younger children go to recess and older students can participate in sports or arts "clubs" until the lunch period is over. This simple change was expected to save the school about $10,000. But it also meant that for the younger children, lunch came later in the day than they had been used to.

        So here's where school breakfast comes in. By ensuring that every student starts the school day with a good breakfast, schools with the facilities to do so may be able to offer one lunch period. Elm has seen the positive impact a single lunch period can have on the school budget. Of course, the costs of offering the heavily-subsidized breakfast program would have to be outweighed by the savings in order for the change to make sense from a budgetary standpoint. But if breakfast can potentially improve student achievement, while also improving a school's bottom line, then it seems like a good business to be in.

        Wednesday, March 7, 2007

        Is the value of higher education diminishing?

        A new study released by the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank attempts to find out why the economic value of an additional year of education flat lined over the past ten years. The explanation given is a robust increase in wages paid to low-income workers during the roaring 90s. The author speculates that this trend will continue if the recently proposed minimum wage increase becomes law.

        Despite the
        flat line, having a college degree still nets you double the annual average income of a high school graduate.

        Could this signal a softening of the divide between the rich and poor? Perhaps, but the author notes that low-wage earners could have been particularly burdened by a loss of health benefits compared to their high-wage counterparts over the past ten years. Accounting for benefits, this "
        flat line" effect might disappear entirely.

        PPF Thoughts: workforce development

        Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently announced the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development. This new agency would shift state and federal job training dollars from Milwaukee County's Private Industry Council (check out the PIC's snazzy new website) to the city.

        Is this a good idea? Should the city play host to a function that has long been the domain of the county?

        Arguments for the shift of responsibility from county to city have been well documented in recent articles and editorials:

        • More visibility for workforce development issues by placing the program in the mayor’s office
        • More accountability by having one contact that reports directly to the mayor
        • More responsiveness because the city is southeastern Wisconsin’s largest source of labor and its center of employment
        • There is a great need for adult job training opportunities in the city to alleviate high unemployment and underemployment among minority populations.

        Conversely, it’s argued that a regional workforce development authority would better reflect the reality that labor markets are regional (many of us live in one county but work in another) and that, accordingly, workforce development efforts should also be regional.

        Who is right? Should our workforce development nerve center stay at the county level, shift to the city, or move to become part of a new regional alliance?

        Efficiency may be as good a reason as any to house job training efforts at the city. As detailed in the Public Policy Forum’s “Growing Up” report released in November, the city currently spends upwards of $100 million per year to grow the region’s economy. This dwarfs the economic development capacity at the county. It also dwarfs the capacity of any existing regional economic development effort. Even the ambitious seven-county M7 initiative only has the capacity to spend around $2.4 million per year.

        Therefore, the proposed transfer of workforce development to the city would, in essence, be governmental consolidation – a good thing when budgets are tight and property taxes are sky-high. With the city at the helm, the mayor would have a more comprehensive set of economic development tools with which to grow one of the most stagnant economies in the country.

        Historically, only 1% of the city’s economic development expenditures in any given year have been devoted to increasing the skill level of our workforce. With highly skilled workers serving as the lynchpin to any 21st century economic development strategy, it’s high time that the city gets serious about tackling one of region’s most serious challenges.

        The city and its partners also would be expected to continue and expand cooperative job training opportunities throughout Milwaukee County and the seven-county region. Included in this regional effort would be action to break down barriers that impede labor mobility in our region – transportation, race relation, affordable housing, and access to quality child-care.

        In the end, who plays host to the region’s workforce development function may be a less important question than how effective the agency is at delivering talented workers to area businesses.

        Wisconsin's move to the "new economy"

        The Kaufman Foundation's latest ranking of states puts Wisconsin 30th. The 2007 State New Economy Index finds that states in the Midwest, including Wisconsin, are not adapting their economies to compete effectively in regional and global markets. The report uses 26 indicators to rank the states.

        Wisconsin's highest rank, 12th, is for package exports; its lowest rank, 47th, for job churning. Our state's rank on most of the other indicators hovers around 30th, although we rank 15
        th in both online population and technology in schools.

        The most interesting and relevant analysis for our region, however, is the report's conclusion that economic success in the future will not be due to old-fashioned, industrial-based versions of economic development, such as big-company
        relocations. The new model of economic development will include the creation and retention of value-added, high-wage jobs. The states ranking highest show above-average levels of entrepreneurship, and most have a solid infrastructure that fosters and supports technological innovation. Many also boast high levels of domestic and foreign immigration of skilled knowledge workers seeking good employment opportunities coupled with a good quality of life.

        Which model of economic development is in use in southeastern Wisconsin?