Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The People Speak: Citizens' views on transportation, education reform, taxation

The second installment of the results of the autumn People Speak poll, conducted in partnership with the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee's Center for Urban Initiatives and Research and The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, focuses on public policy issues such as mass transit and mayoral takover of MPS.

The People Speak is a tracking poll that will be conducted at regular intervals throughout the year. Its purpose it to gather information from local citizens about their interests in, preferences for, and concerns about public policy. By gathering and reporting out these citizen perspectives, the partners hope to expand the public voice in policy matters affecting Greater Milwaukee.

Highlights from the most current Research Brief include:

  • A majority of residents of southeastern Wisconsin favor high speed rail connecting Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, as well as commuter rail connecting Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee. A downtown streetcar line in the City of Milwaukee is less favorable, but still garners support from half of Milwaukee County residents.

  • When it comes to funding transportation improvements, toll roads have the most support, with about half of all residents in favor. Increasing the gasoline tax is not favored by most residents, nor is the creation of a regional transit authority funded by an increased sales tax.

  • A mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools is favored by 43% of poll participants in the region. The level of support among City of Milwaukee residents is the same--43%. The greatest support comes from Democrats, 50% of whom are in favor of the idea.

  • Establishing a regional authority to oversee parks and cultural facilities for all of southeast Wisconsin garners the support of a majority of poll participants across the region. The only county in which a majority of respondents is not in favor is Ozaukee.

  • Residents of the region are split on whether they would favor increased user fees in order to lower property taxes. Increased sales taxes for this purpose are slightly less favored.

For full results of the poll, go to the poll website.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mayoral control isn't magic, but it might be muscle

In 2007, when the New York General Assembly was considering whether to renew the legislation authorizing mayoral control of the New York City public schools, a Commission on School Governance was appointed to study the policy's benefits, drawbacks, and outcomes and to recommend whether renewal was appropriate.

The Commission heard testimony from many stakeholders and collected research from policy analysts and education experts. They met for nearly 11 months and issued a 20-page report of their findings. In the end, they recommended the renewal of mayoral control.

During the first six years of mayoral control, from 2002 to 2007, test scores in New York City schools improved. But the Commission looked over all the evidence, and noting that scores in many other New York districts also improved over that time, decided that test score improvements on state tests could not be attributed solely to mayoral control. In fact, when scores on national tests were considered, they found no clear evidence of a relationship between governance structure and student outcomes.

But they did recommend a continuation of the mayoral control policy, and cited four primary reasons:

1. A single, elected mayor is more accountable than an elected governing body.
2. Mayoral control had resulted in dramatic increases in state and local funding for the schools.
3. Mayoral control had changed the collective bargaining dynamic, "better balancing incentives for fostering school improvement" with controlling costs.
4. Mayoral control creates a governance structure "that allows a mayor or chancellor to exercise leadership when the public demands it."

It is the last point that seems to have tipped the scales for the Commission:

Does governance matter? Of course it does. The amount of change that occurs over a given period of time is a relevant factor to consider when evaluating a governance structure, especially when one purpose of the governance plan under consideration was to foster change. In the past six years, the New York City school system has undergone more change than it has in any similar period in its history. This change must at least in part be attributed to mayoral control.
In other words, mayors can show leadership, which can lead to changes, which in turn can lead to improvement in student outcomes. Wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what those changes were and how they brought about higher achievement?

Recent research sheds some light on these questions. UCLA professor William Ouchi has found that mayoral control in New York resulted in decentralization of decision-making, allowing principals to control their budgeting, staffing, and curricular decisions. The principals used this new power to reduce the numbers of non-teaching staff in their schools, lowering what is called the teacher-student load, or the total number of students for whom a teacher is responsible. They found that high school principals reduced the load to an average of 87.7 students per teacher, much less than the contractual maximum of 170 students per teacher. Teachers with fewer students reported being able to recognize students' weaknesses sooner and intervene more quickly and more intensively. Graduation rates during this time increased from 65.8 percent to 74.5 percent.

If and when the Wisconsin state legislature takes up the issue of mayoral control for MPS, parents, voters, and taxpayers should urge them to take heed of the findings in New York. We must ask whether mayoral control is being sought simply for the sake of change, or is it being designed in a way that will increase accountability, bring more resources into classrooms, put more issues on the bargaining table, and provide leadership to implement school-level reforms that have been proven to result in higher student performance?

As we've said before when it comes to governance reform, "the devil is in the details."