Thursday, August 30, 2007

Grading preschools based on Kindergartners' performance

Texas is now the first state in the nation to evaluate the quality of classrooms in its preschools, Head Start programs, and child care centers based on how well their children do once they've gone on to Kindergarten.

Under the Texas School Ready! program, children will take two tests as Kindergartners--one will measure their reading and pre-reading skills, the other their social skills. Preschool classrooms for which 80% or more of their children perform well on the tests will receive a new state certification. The program was piloted last year as an evaluation of 1,000 preschool classrooms across the state; 450 passed muster, 300 were disqualified for technical reasons, and the others were found to be of poor quality.

Classrooms that do not earn the certification will not be penalized, but their preschool may qualify for monies to improve teacher training.

Participation in the program is voluntary for the early childhood programs that desire the new certification. The program is state funded, at an estimated $1 million per year, and was designed by the Texas State Center for Early Childhood Development (a division of the University of Texas' Children's Learning Institute) at a cost of $4 million.

This program is a bit of a hybrid between state regulation and parental accountability. Participation is voluntary, but the state expects that enough parents will demand preschool classrooms with the new seal of approval that most preschools will participate. Of course, this assumes that parents will know and understand enough about the certification to seek it out when choosing a child care center or preschool. If the state doesn't adequately promote the new certification or explain the standards, parents won't know they've been empowered to hold preschools accountable.

If parents do, in fact, begin to demand only certified preschool classrooms, there is the risk that Kindergartners will start to feel the pressure that only high-stakes standardized tests can bring. Some of that risk is alleviated by the fact that the tests will be administered in the elementary schools and not the child care centers or preschools themselves (although many public elementary schools in Texas also provide preschool). However, Texas' three-year-olds may very well see many more worksheets and much less free play in the future if market forces act as anticipated.

As a researcher, this program is intriguing...a similar analysis of Wisconsin's early childhood programs may be beneficial. But the practical questions are great: How do you keep track of a state-wide Kindergarten cohort's previous schooling experiences? How are the tests the state or school district? Are Kindergartners in private schools included?

If this program seems to work in Texas, it will likely be adopted elsewhere. It's the kind of thing a school district could do on its own. What if MPS could provide a list of the K4 and preschool programs that produced the most successful Kindergartners in the city? My guess is that policymakers and private foundations would be just as interested in that list as parents.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The road replacement blues

Today's story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Milwaukee's inability to properly budget for city street resurfacing brings up one major issue: In the Mayor's quest to rectify the situation (i.e. reduce the replacement cycle for side-streets from 163 years to 60 years), where is the money going to come from?

You can bet that it won't come from the city's general fund. Crime is the issue of the day and I can guess where any spare property tax dollars will flow.

A more likely scenario is for the city to try to persuade the state to grant more aid for street repair. Currently, over half of the city's budget for street, alley and sidewalk reconstruction and maintenance comes from state and federal aid (see page 129 of the city budget, here). The problem with the city trying to hit up the state for more street repair dollars is that the state may have problems of its own in raising revenue in the near future. There are a few trends that need to be highlighted.

First, we are driving less. The theory is that since gas costs more these days, folks have cut back on driving (see below chart).

While that's good for the environment, that's bad for the state budget since the state gets revenue from a tax on gasoline. Also, we are not buying as many SUVs. Again, this is good for the environment, but bad for gas tax revenue. There is nothing like a gas-guzzling vehicle to produce a revenue windfall for government. That windfall will likely abate as we enter the hybrid car era. See the below chart to note the recent tapering in fuel tax collections.

Lastly, the legislature recently repealed the automatic indexing of the gas tax - a policy that increased the gas tax on an annual basis without any vote or debate. Some would call this taxation without representation, others would call this an effective revenue enhancer. The non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau has said the following about the repeal of the gas tax:

"In the fiscal estimates for the bill, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Transportation estimated a loss to the Transportation Fund of $5.1 million for the portion of Fiscal Year 2007 affected by the bill, with reductions of $26.0 million for FY 2008 and $41.9 million for FY 2009."
In other words, Wisconsinites can count on less and less money from the gas tax in the coming years. Sure, the city may still try to hit up the state for funds to repair it's crumbling infrastructure, but the data suggest that this strategy won't pay unless the state raises taxes or everyone buys an SUV as their next car. Pick your poison.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Milwaukee gains and Wisconsin slows

I've only lived in the city of Milwaukee for six years. But ever since I landed here, the city has bled jobs. In fact, Milwaukee lost over 11,000 jobs since my first day of graduate school at UWM in 2001. Maybe this is why I've been particularly struck with recent employment data which shows the creation of 2,191 net new jobs in the city since July of last year (see table below).

What's more, Milwaukee is outperforming the rest of the region and rest of the state in employment gains. In a previous post I detailed this historical trend which now continues in July and even shows signs of strengthening. Indeed, the city now posts a half-percentage point advantage over the statewide employment growth rate, .9% for Milwaukee versus .4% for Wisconsin.

One reason for Milwaukee's "outperformance" is Wisconsin's underperformance. Some places in Wisconsin just aren't adding jobs like they used to. The city of Madison, surprisingly, is one of those places. In fact, while Milwaukee was the state's top net gainer of jobs, the city of Madison was the state's top loser. You don't have to look too far back in the data to find a time when just the opposite was true.

What follows is a rank of Wisconsin municipalities with a population larger then 25,000.

Change in Employment, July 2006 - July 2007

Milwaukee City 2,191
Kenosha City 442
Waukesha City 330
Appleton City 320
West Allis City 270
La Crosse City 255
Wauwatosa City 206
New Berlin City 187
Eau Claire City 172
Brookfield City 171
Greenfield City 169
Oak Creek City 164
Menomonee Falls Village 161
Franklin City 157
West Bend City 136
Manitowoc City 101
Green Bay City 70
Racine City 62
Superior City 30
Fond Du Lac City -7
Wausau City -41
Sun Prairie City -53
Neenah City -71
Stevens Point City -76
Sheboygan City -94
Oshkosh City -111
Beloit City -243
Janesville City -489
Madison City -493

Are there policy implications to Milwaukee's resurgence?

Sammis White of UW-Milwaukee's Workforce Development Center may have summed it up best in an article in today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
"You're seeing greater job growth here than elsewhere." Too often, White said, the Milwaukee area's contribution to the state's economy is overlooked.
Maybe a new recognition of Milwaukee's economic might will cause the rest of Wisconsin to see our city and region as an increasingly important weapon to use in our state's battle to gain traction in a new global economy. Arguably, this could change the nature of Milwaukee's relationship with the state - less "aid," more investment.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The end of the sound bite?

Have you ever read a story in the newspaper with quote after quote on one side of the issue and just a few on the other side? Have you wondered whether other things were said in support of that other side, but were left out of the story? I guess the smart people at Google have had that experience, too, because they are launching a new feature on Google news that allows the subjects of newspaper articles to comment on them. The comments will be posted next to the original article, but clearly labelled as comments, to prevent confusion.

I'm predicting that if this feature takes off, the practice of media relations will be changed dramatically. Who wouldn't take advantage of an opportunity to "set the story straight" to a global audience? Perhaps knowing that a rebuttal is inevitable, people will speak more persuasively--could it lead to the end of the sound bite? Could nuance and analysis make their way back into journalism? I would imagine very few reporters would want their stories to be susceptible to being overshadowed or made irrelevant by the pursuant comments.

This new feature is certainly an advance in media accountability, with the potential to be much more.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Warning: Wi-Fi woes wane not

According to today's Wall Street Journal, Milwaukee isn't the only city that's Wi-Fi experiences aren't living up to their expectations.

Minor issues range from cost overruns due to coverage problems to concerns about Wi-Fi equipment emitting too much radiation.

The main problem, says the WSJ story, is that the original business model no longer works:

"The Wi-Fi companies envisioned being able to offer subscription service to consumers at rates that were significantly cheaper than phone and cable broadband. But the unexpectedly high costs of building Wi-Fi networks -- the price tag can easily run into the tens of millions for a big city -- coupled with lower prices for broadband from some phone companies, has made it tougher for consumer Wi-Fi to be competitive."

An article in Business Week yesterday cites a different, but related factor: weak demand, which was noted as a problem here in Milwaukee.
"...[I]nitial forecasts for Wi-Fi subscriptions used to justify the investment in these networks have proven to be overly optimistic by a wide margin. In many cases, 15% to 30% of an area's population was expected to sign up for muni Wi-Fi. But only 1% to 2% have signed up so far figures Glenn Fleishman, editor of an industry blog called"
In many cases, Wi-Fi companies are now seeking to renegotiate their contracts, wanting the municipal government to sign on as a customer in order to guarantee a revenue stream. The Business Week story quotes a Wi-Fi executive as saying, "There's no one that I am aware of right now who'd build a network without the city as a paying customer. The days of a service provider coming in without a city commitment are over."

That makes Milwaukee's failed contract with Midwest Fiber Networks look less like an opportunity for a better deal down the road and more like a sure bet that the city will be hit up for big bucks by whichever "white knight" provider rides into town. Knowing that it's coming, Milwaukee would be smart to conduct its own market study of the potential for paid subscribers outside city government, in order to be on a level playing field during contract negotiations.

UPDATE: The Journal Sentinel covers the issue in a Sept. 2, 2007 article.

Press release: Public Policy Forum Wins GRA Research Award

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – August 15, 2007 – At the 94th annual conference of the Governmental Research Association (GRA) in Denver last week, the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum won a first place award in the Outstanding Policy Achievement category for its research on economic development in the Milwaukee region.

The research included studies that were part of the Forum’s “One Region, One Future” campaign that ran for three years and emphasized the need for cooperation among the seven counties of southeastern Wisconsin. Two years after launching the campaign, the Milwaukee 7 (M7) was created by area businesses partnering with southeastern Wisconsin governments to present a unified economic development approach to businesses looking to expand in the region.

Included in the winning entry were the following studies: the use of tax increment financing (TIF) by the city of Milwaukee that subsequently resulted in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett issuing a directive to double TIF authorizations, and a controversial evaluation of economic development expenditures, particularly for workforce development, by the city of Milwaukee that helped facilitate the creation of a citywide economic development plan – a major recommendation in the Forum’s report.

“Receiving this award was extremely gratifying because it comes from peer organizations around the country which are engaged in the same kinds of work as the Forum,” says Forum President Jeff Browne. “It was also exciting because the research that led to the award resulted in substantive change. Action was taken in the region because of the Forum’s work.”

The GRA was established in 1914 and is the national organization of individuals professionally engaged in governmental research.

The Public Policy Forum ( – which was established in 1913 as a local government watchdog – is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the effectiveness of government and the development of southeastern Wisconsin through objective research of regional public policy issues.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Milwaukee's CSR advantage

Milwaukee's corporate culture is a bit less stuffy these days. Recent announcements by some of Milwaukee's largest corporations emphasize the principles behind corporate social responsibility (CSR). Examples which could be classified as "socially responsible" under the CSR definition include high-profile initiatives by Kohl's ("Kohl's to go Solar in California") and Johnson Controls ("Johnson Control's expansion blueprints are green"). In both cases, these home-grown corporations are advancing policies which will reduce carbon emission through support for renewable energy.

Milwaukee's brand of CSR, however, is not limited to the environment - it's also about improving neighborhoods and investing in a diverse workforce. Manpower's impending move to it's new downtown location is cheered in a recent Business Journal article for the company's commitment to improving the surrounding neighborhood ("We didn't want to just be a shiny new building"). And, lastly, S.C. Johnson was recently recognized "as one of the 100 companies that offer the greatest opportunities for Hispanic Americans in the United States."

Validating this anecdotal evidence is a recent public opinion survey from GolinHarris (a Chicago PR agency) which has produced "corporate citizenship" rankings for 152 of the largest US consumer brands. The 2006 rankings include four Milwaukee area corporations: SC Johnson (4th), Harley-Davidson (15th), Kohl's (62nd), and Miller Brewing (124th). Having two corporations in the top 20 for a relatively small region like Milwaukee is unique. The fact that Milwaukee hosts a relatively high concentration of "socially responsible" corporations could be exploited by our region's marketing machine (M7) to differentiate us from other areas of the country.

Other opinions from the GolinHarris survey? Those surveyed thought that the single most important behavior for a corporation to demonstrate was that it "values, treats employees well, fairly." Milwaukee is also a relative stand-out in this category. According to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, "On a per capita basis, the Milwaukee Region is home to the more 'best companies to work for' than any other region in the nation." In fact, a strategy to recruit talent to our region based on Milwaukee's "worker-friendly advantage" is now underway by local talent attraction and retention group, Fuel Milwaukee.

Of course, this is not to say that Milwaukee corporations can't improve their CSR credentials. A 2004 report by the Public Policy Forum found that the 50 largest Wisconsin companies lagged behind corporations nationwide and in the Midwest with regard to the gender diversity of their corporate leaders. In other words, we have work to do on the gender equity front in Wisconsin and Milwaukee.

Inclusion, environmentalism and social equity are terms that are typically not associated with Milwaukee's corporate climate. Maybe it's time to change how we think and talk about our region's corporate entities.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dispatch from Denver: One City’s Efforts to Combat Climate Change

As a research organization focused on local issues, the Public Policy Forum hasn’t taken up the issue of climate policy, but perhaps we should. The City of Boulder, Colorado, has determined that climate change is a local issue, and has instituted a comprehensive Climate Action Plan.

Boulder’s efforts began in 2002 when the city council endorsed the Kyoto Protocol and adopted the goal of reducing carbon emissions to 7% less than 1990 levels by 2012. (This equates to a 19% reduction from 2005 levels.) The next year the city manager used $100,000 of his contingency fund to conduct an emissions inventory, which found that 54% of the carbon emissions from Boulder were due to electricity use, 15% from natural gas use, 27% from vehicle fuel, and 4% from escaping landfill gases. The decision was made to create a Climate Action Plan to outline greenhouse gas reduction programs the city would promote, support, or implement. In 2004 and 2005, $258,000 was appropriated in each year for planning. These appropriations came from an increase in the tax charged to private trash collectors. As the planning process came to an end and some small programs were put in place, the city council had to determine how to fund the comprehensive plan and the implementation of large scale programs.

The result of the debate was a proposed tax on energy use, dubbed the carbon tax. Because of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) provision in Colorado’s constitution, the new tax had to be approved by the voters, which it was in November 2006 by a 60-40 margin. The carbon tax is used to fund staff to develop and implement emission reduction programs and to conduct public education. The tax applies to all energy users, both residential and commercial, but does not apply to vehicle fuels (which are taxed by the state) or to use of renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power. The tax is expected to bring in about $1 million per year until it sunsets in 2012, at which time the city hopes to have met its emission reduction goal. The tax is estimated to add about 1% to a homeowner’s energy bill, or about $16 per year per household. The local utility collects the tax and partners with the city in programming and public education efforts.

It should be noted that “carbon tax” may be a misnomer, as it is not a tax designed to act as an incentive to reduce energy use. It is, in reality, an excise tax on energy consumption and is not designed to tax at a high enough rate to change consumer behavior. It is designed as a new revenue stream to fund new city programs under the Climate Action Plan. However, the city council endorsed the carbon tax nomenclature in order to make a more explicit connection in consumers’ mind between energy use and carbon emissions.

The current programs funded by the carbon tax include:

Reduction of residential emissions

  • Home weatherization for low-income residents
  • Residential energy audits at low or no cost to homeowners
  • Door-to-door public education campaigns
  • Multi-family unit energy and water conservation audits (As home to the University of Colorado, Boulder has a large student population and half of its residential units are rentals.)
  • Compact fluorescent light bulb give-aways
  • Energy STAR certification and labeling


  • Trade ally network for credit trading under the Chicago Climate Exchange
  • Energy conservation training for contractors and property managers
  • Rebates
  • Energy and lighting design assistance

Among other things, the plan also calls for municipal use of solar energy, solar rebates for homeowners, dedicated capacity on transmission lines for renewable energy, and decreasing vehicle miles and/or emissions. Currently under discussion is whether to renew the utility’s franchise when it expires or to have the municipality act as the utility, buying power on the open market.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Dispatch from Denver: Mayoral Leadership

One perk of attending the annual conference of the Governmental Research Association in Denver this week has been to hear a talk by Denver’s Mayor John Hickenlooper. Mayor Hickenlooper was re-elected to his second term with an incredible 87% of the vote, making him one of the most popular mayors in the history of this city…which is probably not entirely attributable to his ownership of a local brewpub.

Mayor Hickenlooper’s popularity is due, in part, to his reputation as a regional leader. His unique consensus-building style has led him to promise to Denver’s suburbs that the region’s largest city would only act on issues in the interest of the region as a whole, and would not work to benefit itself at the expense of its neighbors. So far Mayor Hickenlooper’s record has been impressive in terms of regional cooperation, and he enjoys broad support from his fellow Front Range mayors.

An anecdote he told to explain his leadership philosophy is enlightening. He once read about a professor of communications in Wyoming who taught her students that to have an impact on their audience they should always speak about both the emotion they were striving to convey, and its opposite. For example, to inspire joy one should speak about joy in the context of despair. She then asked her class, “What about woe? What’s the opposite of woe?” To which someone in the back of the Wyoming classroom shouted, “Giddy-up!”

And that has been the Denver mayor’s guiding principle for the past 5 years…when faced with woe, you have to shout, “Giddy-up!” Perhaps the frontier has something to teach us Midwesterners.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Benign neglect

Is the city of Milwaukee a victim of "benign neglect" by the state of Wisconsin as suggested in a recent Bookings Institution report? Those are strong words, but when looking at how much or how little Milwaukee receives in economic development grants and loans from the state, perhaps this idea deserves a closer look.

The Brookings study blames state governments throughout the Midwest for not adequately investing in their older industrial cities. The report suggests that state regulatory, tax and incentives structures are skewed against cities with burdensome infrastructure costs: "At best, these communities have been treated with benign neglect, with state programs and investments focused more on managing their decline than on restoring and sustaining their economic and fiscal health. At worst, state policies and investments have actually worked against them, encouraging growth in newer communities at the expense of cities and their residents."

Michigan is highlighted as a state where "fast-growing, middle class places with above-average tax bases were granted sometimes two or three times more of every kind of subsidy" over that of poorer central city communities.

Wisconsin's Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) recently released an audit of state economic development programs showing a similar pattern. For example, despite the city of Milwaukee making up 15% of Wisconsin's population, it received only 9.5% of the state incentives from 2001 - 2005.

Other geographical disparities also noted in the LAB audit:

"Projects in eight counties that were not economically distressed received 21.3 percent of the grants and loans awarded during our review period"
"On a per-capita basis, Milwaukee county's grant and loan awards were $2.71 below the statewide average of $30.38."

None of the audit's many recommendations, however, addressed the skewed distribution of financial assistance away from distressed areas and toward areas of wealth in Wisconsin. Instead, they focused on ensuring accountability and effectiveness of such incentives.

A recent Watchdog Report in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (MJS) included a chart showing incentives flowing to communities like Madison, Sheboygan, Oak Creek and Brookfield - communities that are not in economic distress. Nevertheless, attention once again centered on accountability and effectiveness.

Yes, accountability and effectiveness do matter, but shouldn't we also make sure that financial incentives reach areas of the state with the greatest need?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Taxing work: How does your municipality rank?

This year, for the first time, the Public Policy Forum has created a poster ranking all 147 municipalities in southeastern Wisconsin on the basis of the following information: property values, per capita property value, 5 year change in property values, gross tax levy*, 5 year change in the tax levy, and net tax rate**.

Of the ten municipalities with the highest tax rates in southeastern Wisconsin, all but two - the villages of Darien and Sharon in Walworth County - were located in Milwaukee County. The village of West Milwaukee (Milwaukee County) topped the list with a net tax rate of $25.55 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Not surprisingly the city of Milwaukee had the largest overall tax base (or property value) in the region. But, surprisingly, the city of Brookfield (Waukesha County) came in second, larger than even the cities of Kenosha (Kenosha County), which was third, and Racine (Racine County), which was 10th! The largest property value increase in the region occurred in the village of Merton (Waukesha County), where it more than doubled over the last five years.

Southeastern Wisconsin had $178 billion in property value in 2006, a 44% increase from five years ago. Its per-capita property value was $89,844. The region’s gross tax levy in 2007 was $3 billion, an increase of 18% from five years ago, and the net tax rate was $17.52.

The poster, Southeastern Wisconsin Property Taxes 2007, was funded by Cook & Franke S.C., Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., and the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, and was done as a part of the Forum’s property values and property tax reports.

*Gross tax levy is the amount of money that each taxing jurisdiction budgets to receive from property taxes.
**Net tax rate is determined by dividing the amount of the gross tax levy minus the state tax credits by the total equalized value.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Accountability and quality for all

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported earlier in July that the school district of Menomonee Falls would partner with four local child care centers to provide taxpayer-funded Kindergarten for four year olds next year, due to parental demand. Working parents in that suburb wanted an option for 4K that would also provide child care during non-school hours. The report noted that the Hartland-Lakeside and Elmbrook school districts are also looking to partner with private early education providers to offer 4K in the fall.

Here at the Forum, we find this news interesting, mostly because we have embarked on a project to evaluate the potential economic benefits of high quality early childhood education for our region. When hearing this, many people assume that we will focus on urban areas in our region because that is where the need for child care is the greatest or where improvement in quality is needed most. Which is to say, assumptions are made regarding who demands child care and who provides it: suburban moms are assumed to stay-at-home and suburban child care providers are assumed to be high quality.

As the news story illustrates, child care is in demand throughout the region. Wisconsin as a whole has a very high portion of women in the workforce, including women with children under age six; demand is great everywhere.

But more remarkable is that of the four child care centers/preschools in Menomonee Falls that will offer taxpayer-funded Kindergarten next year, none is currently accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the main accrediting body for child care providers. Accountability is not just about the store-front day care centers in the central city; quality is an issue everywhere.

Thus, the Forum is tackling early childhood education as a regional issue--anywhere we have public funds invested in early learning.