So is my kid’s school good or not?

The new round of Wisconsin school report cards are out and, if you are like me, you may be a bit confused. There are some mixed messages out there. So are our schools more or less meeting expectations? Are private schools accepting vouchers outperforming public schools? Are gains this year a statistical outlier? Is this whole thing silly? As I wrote last year, people tend to weaponize these report cards to support their views on education policy, but they are nonetheless important. A couple points worth making.

First, never forget these are human-designed accountability systems. Groups of humans are making decisions about what is measured, how it is measured, and how important each area is to the entire accountability system. Perhaps you have heard the cliché that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Well the report cards are a camel. Any attempt to take everything that occurs in a school and boil it down to a single number will be a flawed exercise. I urge parents and policymakers alike to review schools by looking at the detailed report card, not the simple overall score.

Second, DPI should be commended for their work on this. It is awesome to see how much data is available on Wisconsin schools compared to when I began working in this area a dozen years ago. This is a difficult bureaucratic exercise (especially when we constantly change the report card), yet DPI pulled it off.

Third, this is the second year of the new accountability formula. Two years does not make a trend, so if your child’s school made improvements or scored lower, do not rush to judgment.

Fourth, it is great to see more demographic data available for private schools in choice programs. We are getting closer to the day where data systems are aligned between public and voucher schools, which is a huge development that will help us better understand the choice sector. That said, keep in mind that private schools have two sets of report cards; one optional for all students, and one required only of voucher students. Also keep in mind that the Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide voucher programs are different animals with different regulations and characteristics. Finally, keep in mind that Milwaukee’s education challenges will not be solved by simply concluding one sector is better than another. That is a flawed premise in my opinion (hey, buy my book to learn more!).

Now the nitty gritty, what is going on with Emmeline Cook, my sons’ school? Last year the school met few expectations with a total score of 54.3. This year the school meets expectations with a 66.9. What gives? Perhaps my parenting skills simply vaulted the school now that my oldest is in a tested grade. I joke of course. A closer look reveals what changed:

  • In 2015-2016 the school had very low growth scores in math, and extremely low gap-closing scores in English and math. These low scores were driven by low scores in the sub-categories of low-income, and ELL students.
  • This year the school’s math growth scores, and English and math gap closing scores increased considerably. If you look a bit closer you see the value-added growth for low-income pupils improved considerably, as did the math achievement scores for low-income pupils.
  • I also note the percentage of ELL students in the school decreased by about 4 percentage points. This cohort was struggling according to last year’s report card, so this demographic change had the likely impact of increasing growth scores, particularly in math.

To put it all together, the increased accountability score is a function of 1) Improved math growth scores for low-income pupils, 2) Improved gap-closing in math and English for low-income pupils, and 3) A reduction in the total number of ELL pupils.

So back to my original question, is my kid’s school good or not? Well, I do not think the accountability score in this report card can tell me that. But it does contain good information that helps parents, policymakers, and school leaders better understand what is working and what needs improvement, and for whom. Data like theses should be a tool, and a valuable opportunity to better understand what is going on in your child’s school.

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Thoughts on UWO’s New Budget Model

I always tell by budgeting students that the first steps they should take when beginning a public sector job is reading the budget, and learning all they can about the budget model being used. Why? Knowing where your organization’s revenues come from, knowing where those revenues go, and knowing how the decisions to allocate funds are made puts you in position to understand the bureaucracy of which you are a part of, enables you to answer questions regarding your organization, and generally sets you up to understand your organization’s priorities and direction. Simply, knowing the budget and budget processes will make you the smartest person in many rooms.

But what happens when a budget model becomes so indecipherable that it is impossible to understand? What happens when nobody can determine where the money is coming from and going, and much less why? Well, that means it is time to start over. A budget model that is indecipherable makes accountability, transparency, and outcomes-based resource allocation and decision making impossible. Unfortunately that is the situation my university found itself in.

If you work at UW-Oshkosh, or just care about budgeting, I recommend you read this recommendation report from the University Budget Development Committee (On a personal note, this is one point where being a lowly unwashed and untenured assistant professor is devastating to me, this committee would have been so much fun). The committee’s review of the university’s current budgeting model is justly harsh. The model lacks transparency, and nobody seems to understand how or why it looks the way it does. Another thing I frequently tell my students is that ambiguity creates opportunity. Though this can be good in a leadership context, in a budgeting context such ambiguity enables mayhem and corruption. After reading this report it is easy to see the link between some of the recent issues at UW-Oshkosh and the presence of a broken budgeting model.

To be fair, the sorry state of the budgeting model is itself not evidence of anything nefarious. Inertia, muddling through, and objective-drift are all pathologies of large bureaucratic organizations, like universities. The specifics of the current budget model all were likely created to serve some logical function at some point, but spiraled into obsolescence. It would be very easy to simply throw up our collective arms and say the budget model is too complex, but it is reality so we must accept it. So kudos to those who identified the existing model for what it is.

The new model (you can read the draft operating manual here) holds a lot of promise and it premised on the following six goals (quoted from page 3 of the report):

  • Establish incentives for innovative activity leading to revenue generation
  • Establish incentives to manage scarce resources
  • Include mechanisms to encourage inter-unit collaborations
  • Improve the operating budget allocation process by presenting financial data in clear, consistent, and transparent formats so the campus community can understand the financial condition of the university
  • Improve budgetary understanding to improve budget forecasting and financial planning
  • Ensure that colleges/units and central administration each maintain savings and strategic funds to support the college/unit and university mission.

All of these goals are important, but I am drawn to a few themes I see throughout the report. First, is equity. Resource allocation procedures are closely tied to enrollments. Finally normal people (I include myself in that category) should be able to understand why each college and unit gets the resources it does. Second is objectivity. Under the old model decision-making appeared to be mostly relationship- or deal-driven. The transparent allocation of resources should prevent this. Third is transparency and accountability. It will be easy to see where the money is coming from, where it is going, and why. Fourth is incentive alignment. When allocation decisions are arbitrary or indecipherable, it is impossible to ensure incentives at the college and unit level align with the organization’s goals. In fact they often run counter, which helps exactly nobody.

So I am excited to see how this new budget model in action. I am excited for the transparency that will allow my little department to make data-driven decisions. And I am excited to teach my students how the whole thing works. I’ll end by saying that no budget model alone will make an organization successful, create a culture that improves outcomes, or address very real financial challenges. It does however create the conditions that allow for improved fiscal management, a healthier culture, and ultimately improved outcomes. This new model is a necessary and appreciate step.

What to do about Lakeshore?

Last night I had the privilege of participating in a meeting and hearing on the potential sale and redevelopment of the Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course site. Public land is a finite resource that belongs to the citizens, and transferring any part of that to a private organization is a serious decision worthy of the passions that were on display last night. If you did not attend last night I encourage you to attend the open house tonight at the Oshkosh Convention Center from 6-8pm. Or, go here and leave your input online. You can also check out the renderings of the potential changes to the Lakeshore site, concept 1 is here, concept 2 is here. As I said at the meeting, I was impressed with concept 1.

A couple things came up at the meeting that I think are worthy of mention.

Why can’t a different site be chosen for Oshkosh Corp.? According to the city, this is the only available site that Oshkosh Corp. found suitable to their needs, and the only one for which Oshkosh Corp. invited a proposal.

Why is the timeline so compact? According to the city, Oshkosh Corp. is making a decision in November, so if Oshkosh chooses to submit a proposal it needs to do so by the end of the month.

Is the golf course losing money? According to the city’s certified annual financial report for the golf course, yes, the course had an average annual loss of about $35,000 over the last 8 years.

Did anyone consider keeping a golf course on the site with the potential new Oshkosh Corp headquarters? No, this was not something discussed.

Has a decision already been made? No, you can see the timeline online here. Importantly, the process now is just to determine if the city submits a proposal, it does not mean it will agreeable to Oshkosh Corp., or guarantee that Oshkosh keeps the headquarters.

For what it is worth, this is where I stand. As uncomfortable as it is to have a private corporation force our hand, the consequences of losing Oshkosh Corp. are too dire to not submit a proposal. It would be irresponsible, in my opinion, to not try to keep Oshkosh Corp. in Oshkosh. In addition, the concepts displayed last night, especially concept 1, represent an improvement to the Lakeshore site. I like golfing at Lakeshore, but the proposal, in my opinion, creates a truly mixed-use park that is open to larger diversity of uses and citizens.

As was pointed out, Lakeshore is technically a park, but it is a specific use park with limited clientele who must pay for access. The plans I saw last night really opened up a beautiful part of Oshkosh to more people and uses. It was well connected to neighborhoods, and flowed well into commercial areas. I will also say that the fiscal argument, i.e. that the course is losing money, did not move me. The losses are small and could be remedied fairly easily

So those are my opinions, take ‘em or leave ‘em. But please, participate in the process!

Musings on PA Conferences and Divisions in our Field

What Public Administration conference is best positioned for improvement? Andy Whitford posed this question recently on his blog and on Twitter, and the responses were eye-opening. My opinion being the outlier, there was a degree of pessimism regarding the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) conference. Concerns were raised about the small size and low-acceptance rate of the Public Management Research Conference (PMRC). Other conferences, like NASPAA, were correctly pegged as serving very specific audiences. What to make of all this?

My takeaway, from both the thread and my four years of experience as a junior faculty member, is that there are some obvious cleavages in academic Public Administration (PA). The first cleavage is over the role of the practitioner. I know I have had academic papers rejected for being too practitioner-focused (from journals that say they want practitioner-focused research no-less!). Though attempts are made at ASPA and elsewhere to strengthen practitioner-academic relationships and relevance, they are at times clumsy. I struggle with this issue. If we are not relevant to the practitioner, what is the point of academic PA? What are we researching for if not improved governance? At the same time, if I am practitioner focused, what am I doing in academia in the first place? The incentive structures are way out of whack, and I think most of us do the best we can to muddle through. My hope is that journals, conferences, and individual academics can work to better understand what they are and who their audience is.

The second cleavage is between the top handful of research universities and the rest of us. A great deal of the universe of MPA programs are housed in non-flagship institutions, are not attached to Ph.D. programs, and are staffed by faculty with higher teaching loads, less travel money, and fewer resources for research. Though I feel my smaller MPA program provides me with great research opportunities and masters students that are second to none, I’d be lying if I said I did not feel like at an outsider at PMRC. I cannot put my finger on what exactly it was (could have been me), but it was one of those moments where I felt like the affiliation on my name tag really mattered. My experience is just an anecdote (And I hope to go back and have a better experience), but I am seeing more separation between the haves and have nots in academia generally, and this is not healthy for diversity (research and otherwise) or scope of impact. This problem goes beyond PA, but surely there is some way PA can increase the diversity of our research and researchers without sacrificing rigor.

The third cleavage is a tribal mentality. Here I am guilty, in Andy’s twitter feed my reflexive response was to defend and promote ASPA. Why? I like ASPA, I am involved with ASPA, I feel welcome at ASPA, I know great people at ASPA. Other might defend NASPAA, PMRC, ICMA, the Academic of Management, etc. for the same reasons. There are places for all of these conferences and value in having each carve out their unique place in the PA landscape. A first step is recognizing the strengths and flaws of each as they exist today. I think that it was Andy’s post got us all to do, so kudos for that.

 

 

Lessons from Milwaukee’s Voucher Experience

Milwaukee’s education system is a pretty amazing thing. When I try to explain it to people outside Wisconsin I am often met with disbelief. “That can’t be right,” is a common response to my explanation of Milwaukee’s fragmented public education system. In my recently published book, The Consequences of Governance Fragmentation, I attempt to better articulate what has happened in Milwaukee, and what policymakers can do to improve the performance of publicly-funded education in Wisconsin’s largest city. The book should offer something of interest to education policy scholars, public administration scholars, as well as those interested in Milwaukee’s education system. So what’s in the book?

My main argument is that we need to find a new way to think about public education in Milwaukee. Aggregate improvement in Milwaukee is impossible as long as the governance structure is hopelessly fragmented. The question of whether voucher policy, the Milwaukee Public School system (MPS), or charter policy “works” is, I argue, the wrong question. For Milwaukee’s education system to be successful, it must work as a whole, and all sectors are needed to make that happen. I for one think success is possible, but not until a meta-governance solution creates regulatory and funding equity for Milwaukee schools, and not until venues are created to end the never-ending debates that prevent progress. Basically, some order and direction is needed (as well as a shift in mindset).

In the book I first I track the evolution of Milwaukee’s voucher policy, arguing the program went from a bold experiment to the new status quo. Next I explain how Milwaukee’s education system became so fragmented, sharing numbers on the growth of the voucher system, the demise of the traditional private school system, and the growth of other choice reforms including charter schools and open enrollment. Then I explore the issue of school failure in Milwaukee. Next I discuss the ever-heated topic of accountability, using data from voucher school leaders to highlight the broad disconnect on the meaning of accountability in Milwaukee education. Then I track the fiscal decline of MPS, offering some hard truths regarding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s impact on legacy public schools. I waited until Chapter 7 to discuss politics! Finally I evaluate the overall impact of the MPCP on Milwaukee education, propose a new governing board to normalize all publicly funded schools in Milwaukee (including reasons why this is and is not a crazy idea), and offer the following broader governance lessons from the Milwaukee voucher experience:

  • Private and nonprofit organizations become quasi-public organizations when they accept public funds.
  • The performance of a governance network is a function of the quality of the organizations operating within it.
  • Consumer choice alone will not improve performance.
  • Accountability is an amorphous concept, but will nonetheless be demanded.
  • Governance reforms without electoral accountability will be deemed illegitimate.
  • Regulatory creep is inevitable in a fragmented governance system.
  • Governance fragmentation causes financial harm to legacy institutions.
  • Funding and regulatory inequity prevents the legitimization of governance actors.

As it stands, Milwaukee’s K-12 education system is a bit of a confused mess. About 75,000 students attend MPS schools of some kind, over 27,000 attend a private school using a voucher, almost 9,000 attend an independently authorized charter school, and over 6,000 attend a suburban public school via public school choice programs.   The current system was designed, or at least evolved, because parental choice became the dominant value in Milwaukee’s education system. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. If parents are satisfied and schools are competing and improving, the fact that schools are funded and regulated in an inequitable way could perhaps be justified. The problem in Milwaukee, however, is that we fragmented the public education system, but overall aggregate performance did not improve at an acceptable rate. To put it a bit sillier, we cracked the eggs but the omelet never materialized.

My hope is this book sheds light on how we might put the pieces back together so that Milwaukee children can benefit from the talent and commitment present across all school sectors. More broadly, I hope those interested in governance can learn from the Milwaukee education experience, and better yet avoid some of the mistakes that were made. If interested you can buy the book here, or read a bit more about what it entails here. Feel free to contact me about it as well, my e-mail is fordm@uwosh.edu.

Lakeshore, Diversity, and Oshkosh’s Future

Back with a local post. In case you missed it, the first official action regarding the potential sale of Lakeshore Municipal golf course occurred when City Manager Mark Rohloff sent Oshkosh Corp. a letter touting the Lakeshore site as the best location for Oshkosh Corp.’s new corporate headquarters. Fair to say this action got some people fired up. My thoughts?

First, Oshkosh Corp. is actively looking for a new headquarters. They will find it in Oshkosh or elsewhere, so it is only prudent that the city is investigating how to keep them in town. I have no reason to doubt that, as the Northwestern reported, “the city had identified more than a dozen locations in Oshkosh that would suit a new headquarters” and the Lakeshore site was deemed most suitable. Frankly, I’d be concerned if City Manager Mark Rohloff was not actively involved with ensuring Oshkosh Corp. stays in town. Which leads my to be second point.

Oshkosh Corp. employs 3,642 people. That is over 10 percent of the City’s employment, and more than 1,000 more than the number two employer in town. Oshkosh Corp. is also one of the city’s largest taxpayers with an assessed property valuation of $31.8 million. Losing Oshkosh Corp. would have a significant negative impact on the city’s tax base. Could it be overcome? Yes, but as I tell my budgeting students, a significant part of a healthy city’s economic development plan is keeping the assets you have.   Oshkosh Corp. is an asset.

Third, I think there is absolutely a need for more and better public spaces in Oshkosh. I am happy people are debating the potential negative impacts of both the loss of the golf course (which really isn’t a public space as much as an open space), and the question of whether or not the golf course site would be better off as a park or mixed development as opposed to a corporate headquarters. I urge people to check out the Imagine Oshkosh center city master plan and weigh in as how best to make more and better public spaces a reality. The plan will be presented tonight from 6-7:30 at the Oshkosh convention center. Go, listen, and speak!

Finally, I think a lot of this debate reflects a lack of trust between leaders and citizens in our community. I have been here four years and there certainly is a perception that there is an old Oshkosh elite making impactful decisions behind closed doors without consulting the public. The question is, how can we as a community encourage diversity and new leadership voices so as to combat this perception (or reality)? Some ways include:

  • Scheduling official meetings at more convenient times;
  • Encouraging you and your friends to serve on city boards and commissions. You can apply right here: http://www.ci.oshkosh.wi.us/government/Board_Commission/.
  • Working actionable diversity benchmarks into formal planning documents at the city and department level so as to create accountability for creating a government that looks and feels like the people it serves; and
  • Refusing to throw up our hands and say at least we tried. Progress is results, not attempts.

Fair to say I think the real issue is less about the golf course and more about the extent to which official institutions in the city of Oshkosh truly represent the diverse community they serve.  I have found Oshkosh to be welcoming, vibrant, and always interesting, but like most places, imperfect (I am also not naive to the fact that I am a white male whose ability to get involved with official institutions is not especially difficult). There is great potential and need for more to get involved and I urge the passionate voices out there to do so.

Back to the golf course. The debate is just getting started and I have no idea where I stand at this point. That said, I serve on the Plan Commission and any land-use change will come through us, so please let me know your thoughts so I can make an informed decision should the time come.