Sunday, January 29, 2012

YoungStar's impacts on the Milwaukee child care market

In June 2010, in the wake of detailed media accounts of widespread fraud in the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy system and growing evidence that high-quality child care promotes positive academic outcomes, the Wisconsin Legislature approved a new quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) for the state’s nearly 8,500 regulated child care providers. In a new Forum report, we analyze initial data collected for Milwaukee County child care providers during YoungStar’s first year. Through this analysis, we gain important insight into the initial impacts of the new program on the county’s unique child care market, including where key policy objectives are being realized, and where potentially unintended consequences are emerging.

Key findings from the Forum's analysis of YoungStar's first year include the following:

  • In Milwaukee County, 46% of participating providers were rated by YoungStar as of December 2011. Of those 534 providers, a total of 428 (80.1%) received 2-star ratings, while 50 (9.4%) received the highest rating of five stars. An additional 33 providers (6.2%) received 1-star ratings, meaning they no longer will qualify for subsidy payments from the state's Wisconsin Shares program.

  • In light of the state’s plan to reduce payments for 2-star providers while providing a bonus for those who receive four or five stars, more than 80% of the providers rated thus far will receive less money under Wisconsin Shares when the tiered reimbursement system is implemented in July. Wisconsin’s QRIS is the only such system in the country that uses this type of “carrot and stick” approach. Its impacts on the child care market in Milwaukee County will bear watching.

  • The data reveal several significant differences between Milwaukee County’s family providers (those who provide care in their home) versus group center providers. For example, 35% of group center providers received 5-star ratings compared to less than 1% of family providers. Conversely, 90% of family providers are at the 2-star level compared to 52% of group center providers. Thus, a much higher percentage of Milwaukee County’s group center providers will receive additional state support, while far more of the county’s family providers will feel the pinch of reduced state assistance.

  • The rating data show there is considerable variation among providers at the same star level. Two-star providers, for example, which make up over 80% of the Milwaukee County providers rated thus far, vary dramatically in YoungStar’s staff education category. It is evident that some 2-star providers have highly trained staff but fall short in YoungStar’s other categories of assessment, while other providers with the same star rating have little to no relevant training in early childhood education.

  • Some areas of the city and county enjoy significantly better access to high-quality child care than others. Among Milwaukee County’s 35 ZIP codes, 13 have at least one high-quality child care provider (defined as receiving either four or five stars) for every 1,000 young children, and 19 have at least one high-quality provider for every 10,000 workers. For a handful of other ZIP codes concentrated in the City of Milwaukee’s northwest and far south sides, no high-quality options exist despite large populations of both children and workers.

  • Many providers are close to achieving the minimum point totals required for a higher star rating, but may be unable to afford the investments necessary to move up the rating scale. In addition, the challenges of meeting YoungStar’s minimum staff education requirements for 3-star ratings and above appear to be a major hurdle for many low-rated providers.
As additional Milwaukee County providers are evaluated by YoungStar in the coming years, it will be important to track these trends and determine whether the new system’s support structure and financial incentives are supporting quality improvement effectively.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Where's the plan to address central city unemployment?

As reported earlier this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Center for Economic Development's latest report on race and employment paints a devastating picture of the depth of joblessness in Milwaukee's central city. According to the study, only 44.7% of African-American males in the City of Milwaukee between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed in 2010. That's the lowest rate ever recorded by CED, and a substantial drop from the already anemic 52.9% rate recorded just before the recession.

A brief review of the comments posted by readers of the newspaper's coverage shows predictable responses from the left and right. It's either Walker's or Obama's fault, or the problem is caused by the personal failings of the unemployed individuals or the greed of corporate robber barons who have moved jobs overseas.

From the perspective of the Public Policy Forum, the issue is not one of politics, but of commitment. The German heritage of this town should dictate that when a problem grows to such an alarming magnitude and festers for two decades without meaningful improvement, then it's time to roll up our sleeves, develop a plan, and pursue it with discipline and gusto.

And therein may lie the problem. As we put it in "Assembling the Parts," our recent report on Milwaukee's economic development landscape: "Milwaukee’s elected, business, academic and civic leaders have taken several important and impressive steps in recent years to add both strength and focus to the city’s economic development efforts, but those efforts still could benefit from enhanced precision, cohesion and accountability."

In other words, it's not enough to have city government and private economic development organizations working on their own worthwhile projects and in their own important niches. We need a true economic development plan that establishes concrete goals (the foremost of which would have to be job creation for our unemployed), formulates specific strategies designed to achieve those goals, and develops performance objectives and accountabilities to accompany those strategies. Ideally, the plan would be updated annually, with all the parties focused with laser-like precision on the overall goals, and with strategies being adjusted as performance and new developments dictate.

Obviously, a problem as deeply-rooted and complex as central city unemployment will not be solved simply by developing a plan. But isn't it time for city and economic development leaders to spell out precisely how they aim to tackle this problem and how they plan to assess their progress?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Measuring the impact of a great teacher

"Value-added" assessment is an increasingly popular method of evaluating the influence of schools and teachers on student achievement. Often, this analysis measures the impact of individual teachers on their students’ standardized test scores, while controlling for factors such as student demographics and test scores from previous years. While local and national education leaders have vigorously debated the significance of standardized testing for many years, a major new report reveals that teachers who perform well in value-added assessments also provide measurable, long-term academic and economic benefits to their students and to society as a whole.

Harvard and Columbia University researchers tracked 2.5 million children from fourth grade to adulthood, assessing the value-added impact of the children’s teachers in grades four through eight and analyzing long-term academic and economic trends. Those who had a high-performing teacher between fourth and eighth grade were found to be more likely to attend college and to earn higher incomes as adults, among other benefits. According to the study, “on average, having such a teacher for one year raises a child's cumulative lifetime income by $50,000.” The difference between having an average rather than low-performing teacher was also found to be significant.

Advocates for value-added assessment have long reasoned that it offers scientific, measurable proof of a teacher’s effectiveness. Many teachers and parents have been less convinced, arguing that it merely shows how effective a teacher is at teaching to the test, which may not have any long-term value. The Harvard/Columbia study may support both sides: while it does not claim that improving test scores alone will produce long-term benefits, it concludes by stating that “good teachers create substantial economic value and…test score impacts are helpful in identifying such teachers.” In other words, teachers who are effective at improving their students’ test scores also are likely to be effective teachers in general, and effective teachers do make a significant difference.

In Wisconsin, with the controversial passage of legislation that strictly limits collective bargaining, many school districts are beginning to redesign their teacher compensation models to emphasize factors related to teacher effectiveness, rather than seniority. Value-added assessment seems likely to be included as a component of some of these new compensation systems.

The Milwaukee Public Schools’ teachers union – which still has a multi-year collective bargaining agreement in place – nonetheless is working with the district to revamp its teacher evaluation system, which will be based partially on student outcomes. MPS officials have been working with UW-Madison researchers at the Value Added Research Center (VARC) for more than 10 years, but this is the first time VARC research will be used in MPS teacher evaluations.

It will be interesting to follow the reaction to the new Harvard/Columbia study as it receives greater scrutiny from academics, education policy-makers and stakeholders. (One critic has already challenged the study's validity, arguing that the students in the study were tested in the early 1990s, before the “high-stakes” eras of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.) The report’s conclusion, however, strengthens what we intuitively know about the importance of quality teachers, and it seems unlikely that would be altered by any change in policy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When is a plan not a plan?

According to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel PolitiFact article, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele's decision to use $36.6 million in federal funds to buy new buses "kept" a campaign promise to "develop a plan" to finally spend the money, which was allocated to the region 20 years ago.

While that assessment technically is correct, and while the county's fiscal condition provides ample justification for the decision, it is difficult to avoid reflecting on what this outcome says about transportation decision-making in our region.

The funds are part of a $289 million congressional appropriation from 1991, which originally prompted studies of light rail and/or special bus and carpool lanes in the East-West Corridor between Milwaukee and Waukesha. The thinking, at the time, was that express or rapid transit options in the corridor might greatly benefit commuters, and that this was a unique opportunity to pursue such options with substantial federal assistance.

Instead, after years of political disagreement, all but $91 million was allocated to highway and bridge projects (and $48 million was retrieved by the feds). Ultimately, the $91 million was split 60/40 between the city and county, with the city's share earmarked for a downtown streetcar line and the county's share now being used to buy buses.

Thus, it seems the "plan" essentially is to stick with what we have. While other metropolitan areas seek modern express and rapid transit solutions (either rail or bus) to buttress service for existing riders and provide viable alternatives to driving, commuters in and out of Milwaukee will get virtually nothing new from our $289 million gift for modernized mass transit. (If constructed, the 2.1-mile downtown streetcar line could benefit the downtown economy and serve downtown visitors, but it is not designed to serve daily commuters in a meaningful way.)

In light of our moderate traffic congestion, sticking with what we have may prove to be the correct decision. But given the extremely lengthy timeline for implementing major transportation improvements - and the one-time opportunity to use federal dollars to help implement them here - wouldn't it feel better to know that the county's ultimate use of the funds to replace buses was predicated on years of fact-based and measured deliberation, as opposed to our 20-year inability to agree on long-term improvements?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Paradigm shifts in state budgeting

In 2003, California could have laid off every one of its state employees and still had a deficit, according to Alan Greenblatt of Governing Magazine. He explains, "Most of what states do, after all, is simply write checks to schools, hospitals and other entities that actually provide services." Which helps explain why, traditionally, attempts to reign in state costs have focused less on state personnel, overhead and administrative costs and more on programmatic and service cuts. Not anymore—with employee pension and health care costs soaring, across the nation states are now engaging in a cost-cutting paradigm shift and are focusing on getting state internal costs down in order to preserve services as much as possible.

Wisconsin appears to be leading the charge, at least so far as personnel cost-cutting goes. The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the number of state employees declined faster in Wisconsin in the second quarter of 2011 than in any other state. With a 10.1% decrease in the number of state employees compared to the second quarter of 2010, Wisconsin's state job-cutting surpassed every other state's over that year.

In addition, the recent final report from the governor's Commission on Waste, Fraud, and Abuse identifies other, mostly administrative, savings to the state. Suggestions in the report aimed at internal savings include changes to overtime policies, better uses of technology in order to improve efficiency, and greater use of quality assurance systems for infrastructure projects.

Balancing the state budget with significant internal cost-cutting, as opposed merely to passing the cuts along to local governments, is a laudable goal. If it rights the state's financial house, it has the potential to benefit taxpayers today and tomorrow. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which a balanced budget will empower state policymakers to invest in service quality and/or access.

What if Wisconsin were to be at the forefront of a new wave of policymaking: one where policy and budget decisions were made based on citizens' needs and desires, programs' efficacy and outcomes, and statewide strategic goals?