Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Just released - 2007 public schooling report

Region’s small-city schools showing
weaknesses of big-city schools

Schools in southeastern Wisconsin’s smaller cities, like Delavan, Cudahy, and Whitewater, are beginning to show the same kinds of stress of schools in larger cities like Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha, according to the 2007 schooling report by the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum. Also, the achievement gap between students in the region and those in the rest of the state continues to widen in all subjects and at all grades.

For example, Delavan-Darien, Lake Geneva-Genoa City, Williams Bay, Cudahy, and Mequon-Thiensville are among those experiencing declines in enrollment. Student engagement – based on attendance, truancy, and dropout rates – appears to be eroding in Burlington, Delavan-Darien, and Cudahy. And Delavan-Darien, Lake Geneva-Genoa City, and Whitewater are showing greater incidence of poverty based on the percentage of student enrollment receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

In addition, student achievement gaps are expanding between southeastern Wisconsin and the rest of the state.

In the subjects tested – reading, math, and science – and at the grades tested – 3rd, 4th, 8th, and 10th – the gap widened – in some cases, dramatically. For example, in 2005-06, southeastern Wisconsin’s 8th graders scored 6.5 percentage points lower than the rest of the state in math; in 2006-07 the gap widened to 14.3 points. In 8th grade science, the gap is now 15.6 percentage points, up from 8.5 points the year before. In other areas, the gap also increased, ranging from 0.3 to 4.8 percentage points.

Included with the report is a poster ranking all 50 school districts on a variety of measurements, including operations spending, student enrollment, free or reduced-price lunch rate, graduation rate, and the test scores of various grades.

The schooling research has been done by the Forum since 1987. This year’s report and poster were sponsored by Cardinal Stritch University, Multiple Listing Service (MLS), Northwestern Mutual Foundation, Stifel Nicolaus, and Waukesha County Technical College.

Monday, October 29, 2007

PPF Analysis of the 2008 Milwaukee County Budget

Each year, the Public Policy Forum releases an analysis of Milwaukee County's proposed budget. This year's brief can be found here.

What follows is the concluding statement from our 2008 budget brief:

The single greatest opportunity for the county's future fiscal solvency is the strategic planning process presented in the 2008 recommended budget. Strategic planning is about prioritizing. In order to be successful, county officials will need to prioritize spending. In other words, they will have to decide what the county can afford and how to pay for it.

The county is significantly hamstrung by unfunded and underfunded state mandates. This is evident throughout the budget, although the county seems to be at a loss as to what to do about it. County officials have been lobbying the state for years to fund its mandates, without results. In fact, the costs to the county of these mandates continue to rise. In response, cuts have been made to administrative spending and to non-mandated services. This cannot continue; in this budget alone, bus hours are cut more than 9%, and parks maintenance continues to be underfunded.

The reality is that the county is an arm of the state and it has to provide the services required by the state. However, the county should not have to go bankrupt to provide these services. Without a substantial increase in revenues, this may require giving up some non-mandated services. This reality needs to be the starting point of the county's strategic planning process.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fixing the achievement gap may require preventing it

As you've likely heard, Wisconsin has the worst black-white achievement gap in the nation. Black students in our state are further behind their white classmates than in any other state when it comes to reading. The only thing more troubling is that the gap is increasing in our state, not decreasing.

I would argue that the problem persists not for lack of trying: Milwaukee, where the majority of the state's black students live, has been at the forefront of education reform for nearly two decades. School choice, charter schools, decentralization, neighborhood schools, K-8 conversions, alternative teacher credentialing...name a buzzword in school reform and we have it in Milwaukee.

This may lead some to conclude the problem is intractable. It leads me to conclude that the problem should be prevented in the first place. As-yet unpublished research by Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and Harold Fryer finds no racial differences in mental functioning at age one. However, a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life, which they conclude is "broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age."

In other words, children tested at age 1 perform similarly across races, it is only in later years that an achievement gap develops. The reliability of testing one-year-olds seems questionable, but the authors assert that their measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores. Translation for non-economists: differences in babies' intelligence are due to differences in their parents' intelligence, not to differences in their race.

Levitt and Fryer find it's the differences in environmental factors that give rise to the achievement gap. So maybe we should stop asking the schools to make up for those environmental factors and should tackle them head-on ourselves. The first one the Forum will take up is early childhood education. How can our region most cost-effectively improve the quality of early childhood programs? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dog bites man and school choice oversells

Sometimes when I read the Journal Sentinel's headlines, I wonder if I'm actually reading The Onion.

Today's headline is an example: Choice may not improve schools, study says

After decades of MPS score stagnation despite school choice, charter schools, open enrollment, Chapter 220, and intradistrict busing, this is now newsworthy?

I have yet to read the new study that makes this finding, but from the paper's coverage it seems that parents are the scapegoats. Allowing them choices didn't improve schools because they failed to make good choices.

But maybe that's not a failure of the parents, maybe that's a failure of the "market theory" of school reform. We all make bad choices when we act as consumers. Despite a general legal theory of caveat emptor ("buyer beware"), there are lemon laws and tort law and product recalls. Why weren't similar consumer protections built into the education marketplace?

If a parent chooses a school that turns out to be a bad school, there's no way for that parent to recoup their "losses." You can't sue a school district for educational malpractice and good luck trying to get any satisfaction from an unregulated private school. Leaving the bad school for a better school was supposed to be enough accountability to improve the bad school...but years of research have shown this isn't the case. And it's because it's not easy to tell the bad from the good. There is no Consumer Reports for schools; parents find a good school through trial and error. What if you had to buy a refrigerator that way?

I guess the newsworthiness of this study is that it was authored by a conservative advocacy group, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, that has a long history of supporting school choice. Perhaps they will now support policy changes that provide parents with the information they need to make good choices. I don't think I'll hold my breath for that, though. The study looked only at choice made within the public school system, where academic information is readily available to parents; when asked whether the study shed any light on private school choice, where there is no such information available, the author demurred.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Denver or Milwaukee for MillerCoors?

Milwaukee, and its fledging regional economic development group, M7, have gotten themselves into one heck of a fight. The battle over attracting the newly merged MillerCoors headquarters will pit the upstart M7 against a colossus in the world of regional economic development - the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (MDEDC). Led by the highly regarded Tom Clark, the MDEDC was the first group of its kind in the nation and can trace its roots back a full 20 years.

This is a true David vs. Goliath story.

Based on what we know about both organizations, how will each group play their cards to capture the MillerCoors prize?

Quality of life and workforce
Right out of the gate, both sides will predictably advertise their superior quality of life and educated workforce. To be sure, there is plenty to support both Milwaukee and Denver's claim of "most educated" and "most livable." Denver has mountains and modern transit. Milwaukee has beautiful lakes and little traffic. Denver is located in a state that has 35.5 percent of its residents with a bachelor's degree or higher - third highest in the nation. Milwaukee is located in a state that hosts one of the world's best research universities and a superior K-12 system.

At this stage, both regions will have similar approaches - bombard the subject with favorable data on educated workers and livability. However, from this point forward, the strategies of Milwaukee's M7 and Denver's MDEDC could diverge in rather dramatic fashion.

The M7, along with others in the community, will stoically downplay Milwaukee's "reputation for high taxes" while highlighting Milwaukee's lower cost of living.

Conversely, the MDEDC may actually downplay Colorado's low taxes. Such a contrarian strategy would instead highlight the Denver region's recent history of large public investments. Such a move by the MDEDC would draw from an experience the organization had in November of 2005 when their phone rang off the hook after a $3.7 billion "tax increase" passed in Colorado by referendum vote, 52%-48%. Who was calling? It was prospective businesses and, no, they were not mad at the tax increase. They were interested in moving to Colorado because of the anticipated greater dollars that would flow to higher education and infrastructure.

In short, Milwaukee talks costs, Denver talks investment.

The M7, along with Governor Doyle's office, will follow through with a substantial incentives package aimed at "sealing the deal" with MillerCoors. Wisconsin plays the incentives game with gusto.

Conversely, the MDEDC will offer only a modest incentives package for MillerCoors because Colorado has little in the way of incentives to offer. Instead, recruiters will play up the Denver region's recent history of public infrastructure investments. Investment examples that the MDEDC touts:

  • FasTracks - $4.7 billion commuter and light rail build out
  • T-Rex - $1.7 billion freeway replacement project
  • DIA - $5 billion international airport
  • New baseball, football and hockey stadiums in downtown Denver
Again, Milwaukee talks subsidies, Denver talks investment.

End game

All else being equal, what would you take? Milwaukee, which downplays its high taxes but offers an attractive incentives package. Or, Denver, which plays up its recent investments but offers only a small incentives package?

On D-Day (Decision-Day), the MDEDC will presumably lay it on thick to MillerCoors by saying exactly what an MDEDC representative told the crowd at a recent conference in Denver, "incentives don't make a bad deal good." Denver will claim that despite Milwaukee's large incentives package, Milwaukee is actually the quintessential "bad deal" because of its inability (whether true or not) to make strategic investments that are important to the business community. MDEDC will predictably hit on the same theme over and over and over: Investment, not incentives.

If we lose MillerCoors, many will blame Wisconsin's high taxes. However, defeat could just as easily be blamed on an approach that views economic development as simply cutting checks (incentives) and cutting costs (taxes). Economic development is also about investment. Just ask Denver.

Friday, October 19, 2007

PPF Pearl: The Oil of the 21st Century

Southeastern Wisconsin’s water is in the news this fall – as a commodity coveted in the west, as a weapon in the regional conflicts over development, as a potential asset to improve our economic competitiveness, and today again as a diminishing resource in Lake Michigan. All of this makes it worthwhile to revisit the findings of the Forum’s water study that concluded last year.

Our research drew some important conclusions about water resource management. We reported the following:

“Unlike counties and villages, water knows no boundaries, making management of this asset extremely complex…We face urgent problems, such as dropping water tables and deteriorating quality. Jurisdictional overlaps, policy gaps, and lack of information hamper solutions. Leaders must think strategically and regionally about managing water resources.”

Our advisory panel called for an integrated water strategy that recognizes the relationship between surface waters and groundwater, one that addresses quality and quantity, links to other types of planning and is grounded in scientific data that might ultimately lead to a “no-net loss” concept of replenishing the water we use.

The attention our water draws will increase dramatically as we get deeper into the 21st century, and the news will continue to underscore the importance of our behaving regionally and strategically. The urgency of cooperation in Southeastern Wisconsin – and within the larger Great Lakes region -- seems to be accelerating.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

PPF Analysis of the City of Milwaukee's 2008 Budget

Each year, the Public Policy Forum releases an analysis of the City of Milwaukee's proposed budget. This year's budget brief can be found here.

What follows is the concluding statement from our 2008 budget brief:

"In our analysis of the 2006 proposed budget, we praised the city for its three-year fiscal sustainability plan. The existence of such a plan showed the city's commitment to thinking strategically, planning for the future, and moving away from a focus on yearly budget balancing and toward long-term fiscal solvency. The city has made good progress toward all of its goals; some it has achieved. Throughout the budget, there are signs of the city's attempt to be more strategic in its thinking. A strategic plan toward capital budgeting is being crafted. The city is spending some money in the short term that will save money in the long run in the area of energy efficiency. Changes in the library system are being made as a result of a strategic plan. The fire department is planning on making cuts that may be unpopular but have been extensively studied and shown not to result in less safety. The police department is in the process of doing a number of studies to use its force more efficiently, and has shown progress toward evidence-based policing.

Nevertheless, the budget lacks a comprehensive plan for fiscal stability in the future. The budget is not only a ledger of expenditures and revenues; it is a policy document. As such, it would be stronger if the administration included a more detailed analysis of the successes and failures of its three-year fiscal sustainability plan, as well as a new plan for moving forward. Although the city did identify some issues that need to be addressed in the future to improve fiscal sustainability, a continuation of the original three-year plan would be preferable. This is particularly important because, even though the city has made substantial progress toward the goals set out in 2006, this year's budget makes it abundantly clear that even complete achievement of those goals is not enough to rid the city of its structural deficit."

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Department of Public Schools?

This summer Mayor Tom Barrett seized control of Milwaukee’s workforce development efforts from the Milwaukee County Private Industry Council. Could – or should – Milwaukee Public Schools be his next acquisition? The authors of a new study would argue that might not be a bad idea. Their research suggests mayoral control can make a difference.

The idea has been around for a long time. The Boston mayor took over the public schools in 1992. Since then, it happened in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and scores of smaller cites where mayors wanted to integrate the management of public education with the overall governing of the city.

Now Brown University education professor Kenneth Wong and his co-authors have taken a comprehensive and balanced look at mayoral control of urban school districts. Their study outlines what school governance looks like under mayoral leadership, how mayoral control affects outcomes, and how mayoral control effects practical changes in classrooms. The research findings indicate that mayoral control of schools can successfully emphasize accountability across the education system, providing more leverage for each school district to strengthen its educational infrastructure and improve student performance.

The authors emphasize a takeover by city hall may not be appropriate for every district. Is it a good idea for Milwaukee? I don’t know, but this study merits consideration by policymakers, civic leaders and politicians in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New research on school choice: Winning isn't everything

How many times have you heard of a lucky duck who wins the lottery, just to squander it all and return to his old work-a-day self? I'm sure those guys thought winning the lottery would turn their luck around forever.

Just like education reform proponents who are fond of calling school choice a "panacea" think that winning a voucher or attending a private school automatically results in a better student.

Well, there is new evidence that offering a choice isn't, by itself, going to effect education reform. A newly released study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (authored by Julie Berry Cullen of UC-San Diego and Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan) attempts to focus on the "lottery" effect of school choice by tracking, over time, students who won the ability to choose their Chicago public schools in Kindergarten or first grade. By also following students who did not win, they are able to avoid what is the biggest hurdle to good research on the effect of school choice...non-random selection.

Here in Milwaukee vouchers are not awarded randomly to families. In our city, parents first must find a school, then apply for a voucher seat at that school. Only if there are more applicants than seats will random selection kick in, and even then, the student is only competing against the other students who have chosen that school...they are not in a pool with students choosing other schools. Not a random situation at all. (Which is not to say it isn't in the students' and schools' best interests to operate the program that way, just that it is difficult to research rigorously due to this.)

In Chicago, however, the lottery operates first, randomly selecting from the entire pool of interested students those that will be able to "open enroll" in a public school of their choice. The winners then choose their schools. Cullen and Jacob find that the winning students "attend higher quality schools as measured by both the average achievement level of peers in the school as well as by value-added indicators of the school's contribution to student learning." Meaning the winners ended up in schools that had highly performing students and that improved students' scores over time. Sounds pretty good.

Unfortunately, many of these students turned out like those unlucky lotto winners of lore. The authors found no systematic educational benefits accruing to the winners:

We do not find that winning a lottery systematically confers any evident academic benefits. We explore several possible explanations for our findings, including the possibility that the typical student may be choosing schools for non-academic reasons (e.g., safety, proximity) and/or may experience benefits along dimensions we are unable to measure, but find little evidence in favor of such explanations. Moreover, we separately examine effects for a variety of demographic subgroups, and for students whose application behavior suggests a strong preference for academics, but again find no significant effects.
Because of the random selection, Cullen and Jacob can focus on the difference between schools to try to explain their results and not the difference between winners and losers. Why aren't the "good" schools improving outcomes for the lottery winners? Why isn't attending a good school enough to change your luck forever?

Obviously, because it's more complicated than that. Education reform must go beyond waving a magic wand and granting a parent's wish for a better school. Ask any principal in Milwaukee how easy it is to bring a poorly performing student up to grade level...it's hard work that isn't any easier just because the school has a good reputation or the word "private" in its name.

Now, private schools do have some ability to work with students' families in ways public schools do not. Usually this ability is what leads people to predict that private schools outperform public schools: if the parents or student aren't cooperating, the student doesn't get to stay and the school climate stays focused on high achievement.

However, another new report, this one from the Center on Education Policy, found that, controlling for family background and prior achievement, students attending private high schools performed no better than students in traditional public high schools on math, reading, science, and history achievement tests and were no more likely to attend college than public school students.

If accurate, this finding is truly disheartening. If the schools that are able to "choose" their students aren't achieving at a higher rate, and if winning the ability to choose a better school doesn't improve achievement, then how can school choice possibly be expected to be the tide that lifts all boats?

Again, it is complicated. There is too much variation in the school universe to paint all private schools, or all public schools, with the same brush. Some will be very good, some will disappoint, and some might even be damaging. The same is true for voucher winners. Some will maximize the opportunity, some will squander it, and some will try their best to no avail. It's time to acknowledge that there is no "gold standard" for education reform because schools and students cannot be standardized. Improvement will come classroom by classroom from the sweat of the brows of teachers and students working together. Reformers, and policymakers, must return focus to the work of the classroom.

Monday, October 8, 2007

PPF Viewpoint luncheon: Workforce Development

Workforce for the 21st Century
The force behind economic development

Southeastern Wisconsin’s economy will come to a standstill without trained and capable workers. How will the new Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board grow a workforce in the hope of attracting jobs to our region? And what role will our technical colleges play?

Donald Sykes, president,
Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board
Dr. Darnell Cole, president,
Milwaukee Area Technical College

Wednesday, October 31, 2007
11:45 – 1:30
Hilton Milwaukee City Center
Monarch Ballroom
509 West Wisconsin Avenue

Forum members: $40
Non-members: $50

Reserve your place now by clicking here

Changes or cancellations will be accepted until Monday, October 29.
No refunds will be given after that date.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Try balancing the budget yourself

If I were a Wisconsin legislator, tired from the lack of progress in passing the 2007-2009 state budget, it might be fun to direct my angry constituents to a website that would allow them to try balancing the budget themselves.

This is exactly the option for Californians. By going here, you, too, can try to balance California's state budget by making a series of key decisions on both the revenue and expenditure side of the budget equation. In their own word's...

Next Ten is inviting all Californians to take the Budget Challenge, a nonpartisan Internet tool that lets you roll up your sleeves and create your own state budget. You call the shots on how much to spend on schools, the environment, healthcare, prisons and other state programs – and how to pay for them.
I tried to balance California's state budget and...I failed.

I ended up raising taxes across the board while cutting into health care for retired workers, capping the rate of growth at state universities, and reducing parole supervision. All that got me was a projected $1.2 billion dollar deficit and, presumably, a one-way ticket out of office.

Folks, it ain't easy.

Thus far, over 40,000 people have tried to balance the State of California's budget through this unique web-based tool. I would imagine that while many have failed, all have garnered a new appreciation for how hard it is to do just the minimum - maintain services and keep taxes under control. In an era when the public and the media are blamed for lack of engagement in the budget process, it makes me think that this type of educational tool could be a beneficial exercise for everyone in Wisconsin.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Infrastructure-Police Tug of War

Sunday’s expose in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on city police overtime raised questions about management choices over the past couple of years. But a bigger picture of shifting priorities emerges when the analysis spans the longer term. Over the past several decades, the police department has gobbled an ever-increasing piece of the city’s financial pie.

Mayor Barrett’s proposed 2008 budget calls for $575 million in spending on general city purposes. Most of the money will go to the police ($217 million) and fire ($97 million) departments. Compare that to 60 years ago, when police accounted for less than 20% of city spending and nearly half went to public works, largely to develop and maintain the city’s infrastructure. Put another way, public works spending was well over double police spending in 1947; today we spend twice as much on police as on public works.

Obviously many factors help explain this dramatic change. What’s constant over the years is that about three-quarters of city tax money supports just three functions of municipal government: police, fire and public works. In the long run, the police department has dominated, infrastructure gets a smaller piece of the pie, and the relentless trend raises a red flag about the city’s long-term capacity to provide for the infrastructure that underlies economic growth.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Market forces and preschool

One of the paradoxes of early childhood education (ECE) policy is that ECE doesn't seem to obey the normal economic rules of supply and demand. If high quality ECE is so valuable, why is there a proliferation of poor quality providers? Isn't high quality ECE in demand?

The answer is that high quality ECE is expensive. This is a labor-intensive industry and to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, wages and benefits must be higher than in competing industries. In addition, developmentally appropriate, safe, and sturdy equipment and supplies are expensive as well. Developmentally appropriate facilities are also costly. (My example is usually the child-sized toilets and sinks you'll find in well-designed child care centers.) And, of course, one cannot overlook the importance of fresh and nutritious food, adequate outdoor play space, or enrichment activities such as field trips.

It's no wonder that many local child care providers and preschools cannot afford to offer all these elements. And while there are some that do, most parents cannot afford to pay the resulting tuition.

So maybe the rules of supply and demand do hold true...but there just aren't enough parents here who can afford to be demanding.

An eye-popping ABC News/Forbes.com story illustrates this: In larger cities like New York and San Francisco, there are enough parents able and willing to pay preschool tuitions rivaling those of Ivy League colleges. These preschools are able to charge over $25,000 per year and have waiting lists for enrollment.

So it seems, when a critical mass of parents able to afford highest quality is present, the market will respond and offer that quality, at the highest price the market will bear.

The challenge for cities like Milwaukee, where that critical mass isn't present, is to find ways to provide high quality more cost effectively and/or to improve parents' ability to pay for higher quality. Neither of these options is easy. The most effective cut is to labor costs, but that will impact quality directly. Improving parents' ability to pay means increasing their wages, a long-term tactic, or subsidizing tuition, a short-term tactic. What we've found here in Wisconsin is that tuition subsidies have not resulted in increased quality because they can be used even at lower quality providers.

While no one wants Milwaukee parents to be put in the position of signing up for preschool while their child is still in utero, and then spending 3/4ths of the median household income on tuition, it would be nice if more parents were able to demand higher quality ECE and/or more providers were able to offer it. Early next year the Forum will release a report analyzing the ways in which other jurisdictions have tried to help their ECE markets develop.