Friday, February 27, 2009

Stimulating Awareness: When, where, and how will the $787 billion in economic stimulus funding be spent?

There's no shortage of opportunities for regular citizens seeking to track implementation of the massive federal stimulus legislation and for auditor-types looking for work associated with the package. In fact, according to a New York Times article, $350 million of stimulus funds are dedicated to the effort of stimulus oversight.

For ordinary citizens who are curious about the progress of the stimulus spending, a federal website ( established by the Obama administration aims to answer questions about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (click here for the full text of the final act). The site gives background of the legislation, a simple breakdown of projected spending, a timeline for implementation, and a forum for suggestions. may prove most useful in the upcoming months as various federal agencies and state governments follow through with mandatory data reporting on actual spending of stimulus dollars and begin to gauge the impacts of those funds. Weekly agency reports will begin March 3rd but won’t include spending information until April 6th. State governments will start sending in quarterly spending reports on July 10th. As reports come in, will post the information for public view.

In addition to tracking dollars and cents, the public has several tools available to determine how actual spending meets the expectations of the President and Congress. The Congressional Budget Office has released a summary of the anticipated budgetary effects of the legislation, broken down by year (2009 through 2019) and service area. Using these estimates, the New York Times has developed a detailed, interactive listing of expenditures. As spending reports come in, the public can observe whether or not actual expenditures are on pace with these projections.

It will also be possible for Wisconsinites to track how the Badger State may fare. The State of Wisconsin has created its own website ( to display estimates of what funding the state might realize, listing anticipated expenditures by program area. Additional information on state-by-state stimulus appropriations can be seen through an interactive map established by the Center for American Progress and state-by-state fact sheets developed by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Where's the conversation about consolidation?

Release of Governor Doyle's 2009-2011 state budget has engendered a range of predictable responses. Republicans decry tax increases and argue that not enough has been done to cut spending. Democrats applaud tax fairness and argue that critical investments in education and safety net services are being preserved.

In the meantime, both parties give short shrift to the structural problems that likely will require a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to fix, not to mention a very healthy dose of statesmanship, compromise and innovation.

An editorial in yesterday's Wisconsin State Journal calls the budget proposal "underwhelming," arguing that bold moves to restructure state government were forsaken because the governor "is about to get a pile of federal road money to get him through another two years". Whether or not that characterization is completely fair, it is difficult to avoid concluding after the first week of budget action and reaction that we are destined once again to put off the difficult decisions about the structure of government in Wisconsin that must be made to right the state's fiscal ship.

Indeed, most glaringly absent from both the governor's budget and reactions to it is any discussion of government consolidation. We're already having the typical fights about the school funding formula, shared revenue and municipal and county property tax levy caps, but whatever happened to the conversation initiated by the long-forgotten Kettl Commission to completely revise the way we structure and fund government in Wisconsin?

Some other states are using the opportunity of an economic crisis to ignite that very conversation, albeit with less than stellar results. An article last fall on the Governing website detailed the actions taken by state governments to try to push consolidation on local governments and school districts, including a far-reaching proposal by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to eliminate townships and force school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to consolidate with others.

Daniels' plans were largely shot down by the Indiana Legislature last week for a variety of good and not-so-good reasons. But in Indiana, at least, conversations are occurring at the state level regarding whether existing government structures are too anachronistic, inefficient and expensive to appropriately serve citizens in the 21st century.

Perhaps, as we blogged about almost a year ago, it is time for a new Kettl Commission?

Friday, February 20, 2009

A transportation finance concept with widespread appeal?

Governor Jim Doyle's apparent pronouncement that he is open to considering tolls to help finance transportation improvements in Wisconsin (which has since been qualified) was treated as front page news in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. While this may have been justified from a political perspective given the Governor's previous strong opposition to tolling, such open-mindedness actually would have put Wisconsin in the mainstream.

As the Journal Sentinel article noted, utilizing tolling mechanisms to more appropriately price the true cost of transportation infrastructure is a concept that has been advocated by conservative think tanks such as the Reason Foundation for years. More recently, the concept also has been touted by transportation industry interests (such as the American Road & Transportation Builders Association) who are concerned that increased use of fuel efficient vehicles has rendered the gas tax obsolete as a means of financing infrastructure needs.

But they're far from alone. A blue ribbon transportation policy commission and a commission on transportation finance - both authorized by Congress - have cited the need to relax or remove restrictions on tolls on federal interstates. Also joining the call for tolling have been groups advocating for more investment in mass transit, such as the Brookings Institution and American Public Transit Association.

What's that, you say - transit proponents pushing for highway funding sources? Therein lies one of the most interesting aspects of the movement to toll: it has shown signs of appealing to people on all sides of the political and transportation spectrums. The key is in the pricing aspect of tolling, i.e. the ability to use tolls not simply as a means of collecting additional revenue to pay for transportation projects but as a means to price use of the transportation infrastructure to reflect the true cost of such usage.

A 2006 report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Sciences argues that "an important opportunity exists today to create an extensive system of tolled expressways and expressway lanes …although such a toll program probably would not greatly increase the funds available for highways, it could expedite construction of critical highway improvements, provide a tool for managing congestion, and help gain public acceptance of road pricing.”

The "road pricing" scenario envisioned by the TRB would reflect the true cost of maintaining the road and highway infrastructure, a significant percentage of which today is borne by general taxpayers, not solely users. It also would incorporate the market-based principle of charging higher prices for use of the infrastructure during periods of peak demand. This approach not only would involve use of tolls but, more controversially, also use of GPS or other technologies to track and charge individuals for actual miles travelled, as opposed to taxing them for gasoline usage. Oregon has piloted the concept and is now considering broader usage.

With regard to its potential benefit for transit, the TRB argues that if subsidies for highway use were eliminated, transit would have the "market power" to increase fares and improve service without additional public support. In other words, if we started charging motorists the true cost of using the transportation infrastructure, then more people would opt for transit, which would improve the fiscal plight of transit systems and also allow them to increase their charges without losing riders.

Clearly, broader use of tolling and road pricing faces some legitimate policy hurdles, not the least of which are issues of privacy and fairness to low-income populations. Nevertheless, in light of the momentum these strategies are gathering at the federal level, an open mind might be a necessity.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A shift in child care policy philosophy

At the Forum's Viewpoint luncheon last week (available as a podcast or video), Wisconsin Secretary of Children and Families, Reggie Bicha, noted that the creation of his department in the last biennial budget was the result of a shift in philosophy regarding child care policy. Where the state once viewed child care as a mechanism to allow parents to work, it now seeks to ensure children in care are in good environments for growth and development. This shift is reflected in the fact that child care licensing and the child care subsidy program are now housed in the same state agency. Previously the child care subsidy program was housed in the Department of Workforce Development.

But Sec. Bicha wasn't the only speaker at the luncheon to talk of a shift in philosophy. Milwaukee's Chief of Police, Ed Flynn, spoke of the need to view social expenses not as costs, but as investments. While he acknowledged that governmental accounting procedures don't facilitate the recognition of the long-term returns of these annual costs, he emphasized that such returns have resulted in "counter-intuitive" messengers like himself coming forth to advocate for more investment in early learning.

Chief Flynn also asked for a shift in perspective when debating child care policy. He objected to treating child care as an industry, noting that market dynamics do not apply as expected--high quality care is too expensive for the costs to be born by the parents. The model, he argued, should be more like that of public education.

However, Tom Gazzana, Corporate Vice President, Children's Hospital, and Jose Vasquez, CEO of the Child Development Center of St. Joseph, each offered a differing opinion on that point. Mr. Gazzana noted that market forces could be interjected by tying the amount of the child care subsidy to the quality of care, with parents choosing high quality providers eligible for higher rates of subsidy. Mr. Valdez argued that if the community could come together and agree on what we expect from a high quality provider, a value could be assigned to it. He also stated his opinion that quality can be achieved in more cost-effective ways.

In response to Mr. Valdez, the final speaker, Deborah Blanks, CEO of the Social Development Commission, argued that waiting for the community to come to agreement on its own would take too long...policy needs to be proactive.

The lively discussion engaged the audience, which asked the panelists many provocative questions, including whether the city's business leaders have recognized the state's shift in philosophy by taking a position on the need for high quality early childhood education. Listen in to hear more.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Are the problems facing Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) sufficiently intractable that a new governance structure is required? And, even if a new structure could produce better accountability and fiscal stewardship, would it result in improved educational outcomes?

The Forum's latest research, commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, attempts to provide insights into those and other questions by discussing significant school district governance changes adopted in large, urban school districts throughout the country.

Our report, entitled School District Governance Reform: The Devil is in the Details (click here for the full report), also provides a summary of lessons learned from other districts, with a particular focus on the experiences of districts that have implemented mayoral takeovers. Some of our key findings:

  • Governance reform happens over years, possibly requiring implementation in phases and constant revisions.

  • Dissolution of large, urban school districts is rare. Such an endeavor could exacerbate real or perceived racial inequities.

  • A mayor’s ability to achieve improvements is dependent on outside factors, including state policy, labor contracts, and constituent priorities, as well as personal factors such as the mayor’s experience, leadership ability, and political aspirations.

  • Governance reform does not happen in a vacuum. Political conditions, other educational reform efforts, and larger policy initiatives all interact with governance reform.

  • There are nearly as many models for integrated governance (and mayoral takeovers in particular) as there are districts that have attempted governance reform.

  • The impacts of integrated governance on a district’s fiscal stability are positive to mixed. While it is unlikely to provide increased funding overall, there is potential for such a reform to reduce administrative costs and increase spending in the classroom.

  • Integrated governance can result in some improvements in student performance, but local officials should not count on such a reform as a means of narrowing the achievement gap between high and low-performing schools.
The debate on whether and how to modify MPS' governance structure is likely to be contentious and prolonged. Thoughtful and objective review of the experiences of other districts hopefully will be an integral part of that debate.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Voucher schools similar to MPS schools

Big headlines last winter proclaimed voucher students "achieve about as well as those at MPS," provoking debate about whether private voucher schools should be expected to perform similarly to MPS or better than MPS.

Today, findings from the Forum's 11th annual census of voucher schools reveal a likely contributing factor for the test score similarities--in many ways voucher schools and MPS schools are alike:

  • The student population in the average voucher school is 78% voucher students, who must be low-income to be eligible for a voucher. The student population at the average MPS school is 77% low-income, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch.

  • The student population at the average voucher school is also 85% minority, while the average in MPS is 88% minority.

  • Voucher schools average 15.6 students per full-time teacher, compared to 14.9 students per full-time MPS teacher.

The biggest differences between voucher schools and MPS?

  • Most voucher schools are religious (81% of voucher students attend religious school) while MPS schools are, obviously, secular.

  • In addition, while MPS students must take the state standardized exam (the WKCE) of the 122 voucher schools, 114 administer standardized exams, and less than half of those (53) administer the WKCE.

  • Among the middle, elementary, and K-12 voucher schools, less than half have teaching staffs large enough for each grade level to have at least one full-time teacher.

  • On the aggregate, high school students who use vouchers appear to drop out over the course of four years at a much lower rate than MPS high school students.

Because the Forum has been surveying voucher schools for 11 years now, we can make some observations about how the voucher program has changed over the past decade. Enrollment has grown 227% since 1998-99, to over 20,200 voucher students in 2008-09 (the annual price tag for the program has grown 358% to $129.1 million this year).

Since the growth in enrollment has been accompanied by an increase in the number of schools, from 86 to 122, the average school size has grown just 5%, from 201 students to 211. At the same time, the average rate of voucher use within a school has grown from 34% to 78%.

The concentration of voucher students across the program has not changed dramatically, however. Today, just as in 1998-99, a fifth (20%) of the schools enroll half (50%) of all voucher students. The greatest difference is in the share of students enrolled in non-denominational Christian schools, which was 1% in 1998-99 and is 17% today. In addition, the percent of voucher students attending secular schools has declined from 33% to 19% over the past decade.

We also find that the distribution of schools and students across the city has changed. There are 10 fewer voucher schools on the city's south side today, at 15 schools, while the number of schools on the northwest side has doubled, to 57 schools.

On our website you can read more findings in the full report and download the accompanying poster-sized directory of voucher schools.