Friday, May 30, 2008

Community giving's great impact

One of the great assets of Milwaukee is our community foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, which supports many non-profit organizations, large and small, in the metro area. A recent report by the Foundation Center, a national organization that serves as a kind of clearinghouse for information on grantmaking, allows us to put our local community foundation in a national context.

The report looks at grantmaking by all 717 community foundations in the country and finds that as a whole, they had over $49.9 billion in assets and gave nearly $3.6 billion in grants in 2006. The community foundation which gave the most that year was the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which gave over $172 million and had assets of over $1 billion. When ranked by giving, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (GMF) does not crack the top 25, but its total assets place it on par with many in that group. According to the Foundation Center, the 25th largest community foundation with regard to total giving is the Denver Foundation, which gave over $37 million in 2006 and had assets of nearly $492 million. In comparison, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation's 2006 audit indicates total grantmaking of $26.9 million and assets of $528.4 million. (There are only four foundations in the top 25 of giving that have fewer total assets than the GMF.)

The impact of community foundations is dramatic in many areas. For example, nearly a third of all community foundation giving goes to general operating grants, which represent only a fifth of foundation giving overall. This is a lifeline for non-profits to achieve sustainability. In addition, many of the organizations funded by community foundations are atypical recipients of foundation giving: The largest share of giving from independent foundations goes to health-related causes, while the largest share of community foundation giving goes to education-related organizations. Human services also capture a larger share of community foundation giving than that of independent foundations. Here in Milwaukee the pattern is similar; in 2007 the largest share of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation's giving was to health and human services organizations.

As giving from community foundations has grown faster than all other foundation giving since 1990, now making up 9% of total foundation giving nationally, it is important to recognize the role community foundations play in the life of local organizations. Especially in times of strained local government budgets, a healthy and generous community foundation can help ensure the survival of organizations dedicated to improving quality of life for our region.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Crime Prevention Could Get Brainy

A new study from the University of Cincinnati strengthens the evidence that lead exposure is linked to criminal behavior, and could refocus the spotlight on lead and juvenile crime in Milwaukee. The first study to follow lead-exposed children from before birth into adulthood, it shows that even relatively low levels of lead permanently damage the brain. The least-contaminated children in the study, with levels near average for U.S. children, still showed a link between criminal behavior and lead exposure.

Lead increases the very behaviors that can predict aggressive and violent behavior in children: distractibility, impulsiveness, restlessness, and a shortened attention span. Researchers found that every 5-microgram-per-deciliter increase in blood lead levels at age 6 was accompanied by a 50% increase in the incidence of violent crimes later in life. A related study found that those with the highest blood levels of lead during childhood had brains that were 1.2% smaller than normal.

Locally, Milwaukee has a nasty history with lead. A 2005 Journal Sentinel story reported the incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Milwaukee at 9.8%, six times the national average of 1.6%. In the past decade, an estimated 19,000 Milwaukee children younger than six have tested positive for elevated lead levels. Milwaukee’s high rates are attributed to the city’s older housing stock, which contains lead-based paint. A map of lead in local housing darkens the city’s poorest neighborhoods with black dots indicating over 8,000 lead-poisoned children per dot. Progress has been made in Milwaukee, which has a variety of lead abatement efforts. The number of poisoned children under age 6 dropped from a height of 31.9% to 9.8% between 1997 and 2004.

The Cincinnati study indicates that lead abatement services and screenings are an investment with large long-term payoffs. Funding lead abatement has the potential to save money in the long-run on expensive juvenile detention and special education services, and could potentially keep more people off welfare and increase their incomes over a lifetime.

Such long-term investment arguments parallel evidence recently presented by local police and sheriffs as well as the national group Fight Crime Invest in Kids that high-quality early childhood education leads to crime reduction (and cost savings) in the long-run due to positive influences on still-developing brain neurology. The future of crime prevention might include neurologists, preschool teachers and lead abatement specialists working together, while economists chart the return on investment.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The hidden costs of education reform

Here at the Forum we have long bemoaned the lack of data with which to measure the success of Milwaukee's various education reform efforts. From the 32-year-old Chapter 220 integration program to the 10-year-old open enrollment program (not to mention the 18-year-old private school choice program), our policymakers have become expert at funding reform programs long-term without measuring their effectiveness at improving student achievement.

It turns out we're not alone. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district's pre-K Bright Beginnings program, which later became a model for a similar statewide program, was passed with the promise of better middle and high school outcomes. However, the inaugural class of Bright Beginnings preschoolers is now part of the high school freshman class and the district cannot say whether they are doing better than their peers who did not attend preschool.

It is not enough just to measure outcomes in the initial years of a program, as they did in Charlotte with Bright Beginnings and we did here in Wisconsin with the school choice program. For as long as taxpayers are providing the funds, data should be collected and evaluated. The costs of collecting, storing, and analyzing the data should be factored into the costs of operating the program.

It is possible to get it right. Charter schools in Wisconsin have always provided taxpayers and policymakers with the same achievement and accountability data as public schools. Researchers from within or outside government can evaluate the data and judge the schools' effectiveness, monitoring their progress over time and comparing them to other schools.

When the need for long-term data is ignored, proponents of reform efforts undermine their own arguments about the need for the reform. The lack of data could result in lackluster programs draining limited funds from other needed efforts or successful programs dying from lack of proof. Either way, taxpayer money is wasted and education reform gets a bad rap.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Free WiFi fini in Philly

The company that created Philadelphia's citywide WiFi network announced last week that it will begin to dismantle it starting June 12. This comes after the company, Earthlink, declared last fall that they would no longer be in the municipal wireless network business, as it wasn't fiscally feasible. (Last month Earthlink pulled out from a partnership with the City of New Orleans after failing to find a buyer for the network.)

The City of Philadelphia and Earthlink attempted to turn over the network to a non-profit, but those efforts haven't panned out. On the assumption they won't, Earthlink has asked a federal court to rule that next month it can retake possession of its network equipment, which currently provides WiFi coverage over 75% of Philadelphia.

All in all, providing free municipal WiFi coverage seems to be a bad business model, as Milwaukee Talkie noted previously. There haven't been many rumblings about citywide WiFi in Milwaukee lately, since our own partnership with Midwest Fiber Networks fell apart last summer, . . . is this idea finished here, as well?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Metro Milwaukee among safest cities for teen drivers

A report released by Allstate insurance company this month finds the metro Milwaukee area is among the "least deadly" places for teen drivers.

The study analyzed federal crash statistics, Allstate claims data, and U.S. Census data to score the 50 largest metro areas nationwide on their rates of fatal accidents involving teen drivers. Milwaukee ranked 45th, just behind Boston and ahead of Cleveland.

High speeds most often were the cause of these crashes, but drugs and alcohol can play a part, too. The study finds Milwaukee had the fewest drug-related crashes, at 0%, but relatively high alcohol-related crashes, at 11%. Speed was the contributing factor in over 40% of all fatal crashes involving teen drivers in metro Milwaukee.

In addition to ranking the metro areas, the study highlights the disparities in fatalities between rural and urban areas. Nationally, fatal accidents occur two times more frequently in rural areas than in urban areas, with 51.5 fatal crashes per 100,000 teens outside metro areas versus 25.4 such crashes per 100,000 teens in the metro areas. The pattern held true in Wisconsin, where the metro rate is 23.4 fatal crashes per 100,000 teens but the rural rate is 47 fatal crashes per 100,000 teens.

Despite being mostly rural, states like California, Utah, Oregon, and Washington had fewer than 24 fatal crashes per 100,000 teens, while Wisconsin's mostly rural nature resulted in a rate of 30.1 fatal crashes per 100,000 teens. Thus, certain state policies are thought to play a role in reducing fatalities. For example, while the lack of a seat belt was a contributing factor in a third of all crashes, in California the seat belt non-usage factored into as few as 7% of crashes in San Jose. All six California metro areas ranked at the bottom for unbelted fatalities.

The contributing factor found most often in Milwaukee? Lack of a seat belt, a contributing factor in 45% of fatal crashes.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Engaging the Public on Tough Budget Issues

To most Wisconsinites, May signifies the beginning of warm weather and the first taste of summer. But to local government officials in Wisconsin, it signifies something far more foreboding: the start of a long and difficult budget process.

In light of the economic downturn, which has created new revenue holes and added significant new expenditure needs for counties, municipalities and school districts, the sense of foreboding this year is worse than ever. Indeed, local budget officials already know this will be one of the worst budget years ever.

But what if this year -- instead of grappling with their immense problems in private all summer and then springing agonizing budget decisions on the public in the fall -- these officials engaged the public early in the process and leveled with citizens about their challenges?

A recent article by the city manager in Phoenix describes how that city did just that. Faced with certain public uproar over unavoidable decisions to cut services, city leaders launched a comprehensive public information campaign to inform citizens about the causes and nature of their challenges and the menu of difficult options from which they would have to choose. The city even went so far as to create an 8-page primer on budget options in tabloid form that was inserted in the Sunday newspaper. The result was a rational debate that apparently was high on public empathy and low on hyperbole and friction.

Another approach employed in California by the non-profit Next 10 (and highlighted in a Milwaukee Talkie blog post last fall) invites citizens to log on to a web site and take the California Budget Challenge, an interactive tool that requires them to try to balance the state budget themselves. More than 40,000 Californians have taken the challenge so far -- you can do so by clicking here.

Could such approaches work here? Unfortunately, the way we have typically approached public discussion of tough budget issues makes that debatable. Previous efforts to initiate public dialogue at public budget meetings have often turned out to be community organizing exercises. For example, as previously reported in the Journal Sentinel, public meetings on the Milwaukee County budget typically have generated significant participation from union members and advocacy groups, but little from regular citizens. While there's nothing wrong with professional organizers showing off their prowess and having their say, this phenomenon does tend to detract from the value of these sessions to policymakers.

Also, efforts to engage the public in reasonable dialogue must first pass through the lens of the local news media, which sometimes can be problematic. Last week, for example, the Forum released a comprehensive 40-plus-page report detailing the history behind Milwaukee County's transit crisis and presenting policymakers with a menu of options. The Journal Sentinel headline writer's take on our report was that we were "calling" for the most controversial of those options -- a $10 vehicle registration fee.

With so little to gain and so much to lose, it is little wonder that local government officials tend to conduct their internal budget processes behind closed doors. But given the excruciating decisions facing local government leaders this fall, maybe full-scale public participation is worth a try. Creative efforts -- similar to those employed in Phoenix and California -- to educate the public and to engage it in rational public discourse over budget issues might be just what is needed to have our entire community take collective ownership over the fiscal problems we are facing.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Milwaukee County's Transit Crisis

Coverage of the Public Policy Forum's latest report, "Milwaukee County's Transit Crisis: How did we get here and what do we do now?" appeared in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Unfortunately, the headline was somewhat misleading. It stated that the Forum is calling for a wheel tax, which we are NOT. This was simply one of a number of options that we identified in the report as possibly helping to solve the financial crisis faced by MCTS if policymakers wish to solve it with a new revenue source. That said, the article did a good job summarizing the Forum's research, which found that policymakers face a stark choice:
They can accept a transit system that is a shell of its former self – one that contains no freeway flyer service, few night and weekend options, and sparse service west of 76th Street, south of Oklahoma Avenue or north of Silver Spring Drive – or they can consider one or more selections from a difficult menu of policy options that could either delay the day of reckoning once again, or perhaps prevent it altogether.

Key findings from the Public Policy Forum's analysis of the Milwaukee County Transit System funding crisis:

  • Barring an infusion of new funds from the federal government, the need for federal funds in the system’s operating budget soon will outstrip the amount of funds available by well over $15 million annually. Funding projections developed by the Forum – and reviewed for reasonableness by current and former Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) officials – show potential overall shortfalls of $1.6 million in 2009, $18.3 million in 2010, $23.7 million in 2011 and $21.1 million in 2012.

  • Since 2001, nearly $40 million of a $44 million reserve of federal capital funds has been allocated by the county to fill holes in MCTS’ operating budget and avoid significant service cuts. At the same time, bus purchases have been deferred to allow for the expenditure of those reserves on operations. The elimination of the reserve and the looming need to replace at least 150 buses sets up an ominous fiscal crisis.

  • MCTS not only faces serious funding issues pertaining to fixed route service, but it also must address a growing funding gap in paratransit services for persons with disabilities due to increased demand for those services.

  • MCTS’ fiscal challenge has been greatly exacerbated by a new governmental accounting rule that requires the system to budget annually for its long-term liability for retiree health care benefits. This has added approximately $8.5 million per year to MCTS’ operating budget.

  • MCTS buses carried 10.3 million fewer riders in 2007 than they carried just seven years earlier, ranking it first among 13 peer transit systems in lost riders from 2000 to 2006. Only once in the last seven years did MCTS see an increase in ridership (a 1.9% increase between 2004 and 2005). The uptick corresponded to the only year that fixed-route bus service was increased.

  • The cost effectiveness of MCTS buses was best among peer systems in 2006 based on data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration, indicating that further cost savings due to efficiency improvements may be limited.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Learning to count = accountability?

As more state and local governments decide to invest in quality improvements for early childhood education, two questions must be answered: What is the definition of high quality? And how will we know whether the investments have paid off?

Quality really comes in two forms, structural and process. Structural quality is that which can be measured: teacher turnover, child-teacher ratios, facilities, etc. It can set the stage for process quality--what the child experiences. Some elements of process quality are more difficult to measure; for child-teacher interactions, there is no standard for "lovingness." Other elements, however, are more similar to things we do measure in older children, such as educational attainment, behavioral adjustments, and hitting developmental milestones.

Which begs the second question: How do we hold early childhood educators accountable?

This month's State Legislatures magazine asks this same question, noting:

...[D]eciding the fate of preschool programs based on children’s test scores does raise concerns. Today’s teachers commonly use child assessments to help their instruction. But judging schools on these results could change what today is creative, play-based, multi-dimensional learning into practices that are geared only to the assessments. Instead of going outside to explore the changing seasons to learn science and math and engage their curiosity, children may be kept inside to sit and practice their letters and numbers.

The article highlights findings from the final report of the Pew Charitable Trusts' National Early Childhood Accountability Task Force. The report suggests four alternative approaches to accountability for early childhood programs, ranging from a universal analysis of the status of all children in the state, to a specific program-evaluation style analysis of individual providers.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, some 20 states are already utilizing the universal approach, by assessing children's school readiness status as they enter Kindergarten. Other states model the federal Head Start program and design program-specific accountability tests. At least one state evaluates individual preschool classrooms.

Any sort of testing of very young children is controversial. But as Samuel Meisels of the Erikson Institute puts it in a paper entitled Accountability in early childhood: No easy answers, high-stakes testing is "a failure because it ignore[s] the complexity of early childhood development, which teaches us that no single indicator can assess a child's skills, achievements, or personality." Dr. Meisels argues four reasons for not using high-stakes tests as accountability:

  1. Practical problems of measurement. Most young children are developmentally not ready for test taking.
  2. Unintended consequences. The probable result of high-stakes tests, teaching to the test, is risky in early childhood, when diversity of experience is most needed.
  3. Opportunity to learn. Tests that ignore children's backgrounds and prior opportunities to learn can hinder programs from tailoring teaching to meet children's individual needs.
  4. Variability and predictability. Early development is a time of extensive change, which occurs in spurts and not in a linear, predictable fashion. Long-term conclusions cannot be drawn from brief snapshots of a child's abilities.

Dr. Meisels recommends, instead, that program evaluations be conducted of individual early care and education providers with only a sample of children tested, to answer policymakers' questions about what is being taught, how, and how well.

The nuances between accountability, high stakes testing, and program evaluation may not matter to policymakers, however. In an era where no child is to be left behind, the more data on individual children the better, it seems. In fact, parents may be just as reliant on this data as policymakers. If your older child's progress is monitored and reported yearly, and put in context alongside his classmates' scores, you may wonder why your preschooler's progress seems to be getting less attention.

Indeed, there are no easy answers for policymakers wanting to spend public money wisely, as they are likely to be confronted with parents who want more information, educators who are divided on the benefits of testing, and taxpayers who see high price tags on nearly every option.