Should School Referenda be Limited?

I say no.   The Wisconsin Association of School Boards has a nice summary of proposed legislation that would restrict the ability of school districts to go directly to the voters for permission to exceed state imposed revenue caps. As I detailed last summer, Wisconsin is experiencing an uptick in both the number and success of school district referenda. The likely reason is the fiscal stress facing many Wisconsin school districts. The move to restrict referenda is a backlash to the willingness of school districts to go repeatedly to their voters to as for more revenue.

First some quick background on how revenue limits work:

“Since 1993 Wisconsin schools have been subject to [revenue] limits, which are exactly what they sound like. Every year school districts are allowed to raise additional state and local revenues by a set capped dollar-amount per-pupil. For example, if a district raised $10,000 for a pupil in year 1, and the legislature increased revenue limits by $200, the district could raise up of $10,200 in year 2 (The LFB informational paper is a great resource for less-simplified information on this).”

Districts can make the decision, however, to ask the voters directly for permission to exceed revenue limits. The premise behind Wisconsin’s school funding system is that the state legislature controls annual funding increases, but local residents reserve the right to raise taxes on themselves. Is this a perfect system? Not at all. It creates inequities and uncertainty for school districts. But it is a system that, at the very least, has some consistency. School districts can expect limited revenue increases, and can plan to ask voters for permission to raise more revenue as desired.

Thus the problem with the movement to limit referenda. It is a perversion of local control that limits one of the only tools school districts have to address revenue concerns. Supporters of limiting referenda argue that school districts use scare tactics, target low-turnout elections, or repeatedly go to voters in an effort to subvert the intent of Wisconsin’s revenue limit/referendum system. To that I say yes, school districts do in fact play politics with spending referendum. Why do they do it? Well, it is the system set up by the state legislature. Requiring districts to ask voters for spending permission by definition turns spending decisions into political battles. I cannot blame school districts for participating in this democratic process.

If the state legislature does not want local control and/or local politics determining education spending decisions Wisconsin should revamp the revenue limit system. I argue one cannot distinguish between good and bad local control from afar, either local voters should be empowered via the political process (however messy) or they should not.

Reflections from MPAC 2017: The Importance of Humility

I am getting ready for my trip home from the 4th annual Midwest Public Affairs Conference (MPAC), eating breakfast, and reflecting a bit on the last three days. First off, the conference was planned well and everything about the University of Nebraska-Omaha was impressive. The campus, the venue, and people all indicate a place whose positive (and growing) reputation is well earned.

The research presentations were also highly encouraging. I have, in the past, expressed worry on this blog that academic PA is becoming dominated by a handful of schools and the favored methodologies of those schools’ scholars. I fear that this isomorphism may stifle creative thought and enforce a methodological rigidity that threatens the practicality of our field. If all we do are experiments related to federal government, what is the appeal of academic PA to the thousands of municipalities who also need good governance? Well, MPAC is a great reminder that my fears are overblown. Scholars from PA departments of all stripes presented diverse practically relevant work on state and local governance issues. Not once did I walk out of a presentation with that “who cares?” question rattling in my head. It was refreshing (and from a selfish standpoint what I needed after a particularly tough semester).

But there was something else going on at MPAC that took a bit of reflection to conceptualize in my brain. Humility. I have to give credit to Rick Hess for writing extensively about the need for humility in the education reform world. The same holds true in PA. We do not have all the answers and we should not pretend that we do. One methodology is not intrinsically better than another; it depends on the research question being explored. The failures and shortcoming of our government are not all the fault of politics, lack of funding, and/or citizen misconceptions. No, we as PA scholars do not know what we do not know, and it is fine to embrace that. What I experienced in the presentations and conversations at MPAC was a community of scholars who are actively embracing research agendas driven by their humble desire to improve governance in their communities. Any hint of methodological or ideological pretension was refreshingly lacking. Heck, people even had am open-mind about what qualifies as Midwest.

All in all a great conference that reinforced what attracted me to PA in the first place. If you have not yet experienced MPAC, be sure to join us next summer in Chicago.

Yes, We are Kind of Having a Constitutional Crisis

Rational bureaucratic systems tend to work well until actors refuse to play by the established rules of the bureaucracy. Students of Public Administration likely have read the case “How Kristin Died,” which details exactly how bureaucracy can fail despite the good intentions and competence of those operating within complex systems. In the case-study a known dangerous domestic abuser eventually murders his ex-girlfriend despite the fact that the system was dealing with the situation as it knew how.   The problem was the criminal did not accept nor play by the rational rules of society.

We are seeing something similar happening in the executive branch today. The U.S. government is a complex rational bureaucratic system that moves slow (at times frustratingly slow) by its very design. The president is demonstrating, through his actions and statements, that he does not accept the rational bureaucratic premise of our system. His refusal to state he would accept the results of the elections, his false statements about being bugged, his relentless attacks on the media, and his consistent lying to the American people about things both trivial and serious all demonstrate this. But the treatment of James Comey crosses yet another line. The firing, the request of a loyalty oath, and now the public twitter threat are all remarkable actions. One justification I have heard, that because he is not a career politician he does not see what the big deal is and was not prepared for the backlash, is ridiculous. Being in the private sector does not make you stupid. Unless he is completely incompetent, he knew the optics of firing the FBI director.

The more likely explanation is that he just does not care. And this, in my opinion, is why nobody quite knows how to handle Trump. When the media catches him in a lie, Trump just doubles down. The media for their part do what they know how to do, cover a story and bring in commentators on both sides. Congressional Republicans do what they know how to do, push the Republican agenda and defend the new president. The Democrats do what they do as the opposition party – throw bombs. The American people do what we do best, complain and watch, but assume we will figure it out because we are the United States and that is what we do.

But I for one am worried. This is something I have not seen before. Our institutions are fragile. They are dependent on the willingness of stakeholders and decision-makers to abide by institutional authority and accept institutional norms. What happens when the head of the executive branch knowingly and willingly flaunts our system’s norms? Consider what Trump did this week. He fired the head of the FBI, and then directed his spokespeople to lie to the American people about the reason why. Now he is publicly threatening Comey. Trump is playing a very different game by very different rules than those charged with holding the executive branch accountable, i.e. the media, the courts, congress, and citizens.

So yes, we are kind of having a constitutional crisis. The traditional checks on presidential power are being rejected by the president and nobody quite knows what to do about it. What I do know is that the more Trump keeps getting away with the discarding of institutional norms and limits, the more he will test them. It is happening gradually, but we are at risk of the U.S. system becoming something very different and in my opinion very scary. I am being a bit hyperbolical, but it is much easier to stop the slide away from constitutional norms early in the process. But how? I think the key is Paul Ryan and Congressional Republicans.   They have the power to break from their traditional role of loyalty to the president and become the greatest check on his power. It starts with a public denouncement of his actions and statements. Right now I am afraid they are just trying to manage something that is unmanageable.

The Local Government Accountability Statement

Donald Kettl describes accountability through two questions: “Who is accountable to whom?” and “what are they accountably for?” On the surface, the answers to these questions (when applied to local government) are simple. Government is accountable to citizens, and for performance. The reality, however, is more complicated given the vague and amorphous nature of accountability. What exactly does being accountable to citizens entail? What is meant by performance? Can accountability be an actionable concept in local government?

I have explored these questions in a couple peer-reviewed articles and blog posts. My goal is to understand how accountability can be made a tool for improving local government, as opposed to a contested idea that is demanded yet rarely defined. My admittedly simplistic idea is for local governments to articulate and publish an accountability statement. I tweeted about this and received a reply from Eric Zeemering that “Elections tend to be important accountability statements by the electorate.”  He is of course correct, and those familiar with Romzek and Dubnick (1987) know that politics and elections are prominent and important external accountability mechanisms.

But when I say accountability statement I mean exactly that, a paragraph or two that clearly answers Kettl’s questions. An accountability statement can serve as a parallel to a mission statement. A good mission statement both articulates an organization’s goals, audience, culture, and values, and lays out measurable objectives for meeting said goals. A good accountability statement serves a similar function of taking a broad concept and turning it into a management and communication tool.

So what does a good local government accountably statement include? First, a clear definition of the clientele to whom the governing body is accountable. In most cases this would be municipal residents, of course in the case of special purpose governments the clientele would be more specific. Second, a clear definition of how the governing body conceptualizes accountability. This could be citizen satisfaction, transparency, sound fiscal management, legal compliance, service quality/performance, economic growth, etc. The specifics of accountability is conceptualized in each individual case are less important than the fact that the governing body clearly articulates their accountability definition. Third, an articulation of what successful accountability look likes when implemented, i.e. increased citizen satisfaction, increased tax base, etc. The key is that the local government’s accountability conceptualization is measurable.

Below is an example for the fictional Wisconsin Heights:

The City of Wisconsin Heights is accountable to all city residents. Our government defines accountability as meeting the needs of citizens at an affordable price, and in a transparent fashion. Our government will comply with all open-meetings and transparency laws, will survey residents to ensure majority satisfaction with municipal services, and keep the property tax levy below the average for medium-sized Wisconsin cities.    

Producing and regularly updating an accountability statement serves multiple functions. First, it forces the local governing body to coalesce around a common definition of accountability. If a governing board cannot agree on what accountability means in practice, it is impossible for the organization to be accountable. Second, it sends a clear and consistent message to government employees and managers that will hopefully empower them to build an accountability culture throughout the organization. Third, it creates an accountability contract with the public that articulates overarching values, and specific measures by which the governing board can be judged.

I am still working on this idea, and hope to learn more as I work with and do research on different types of local governments in the United States. It is a simple and obvious idea, but one I think holds promise. If you have thoughts, please chime in.

Schools that Fail Before they Begin

Last year Fredrik Andersson and I published Determinants of Organizational Failure in the Milwaukee School Voucher Program. In that article we established the failure rate for Milwaukee voucher schools, demonstrating the particularly high liability of newness facing private (mostly nonprofit) entrepreneurial schools in Milwaukee. However, we only told part of the story. As anyone familiar with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) knows, many nascent schools never actually open. This is the subject of new paper just published in the Nonprofit Policy Forum.

How many? Between 1991 and 2015 443 new schools filed an intent to participate form with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which is the fairly simple first step in entering the MPCP. Of those 443 schools, only 132 actually opened their doors, meaning just under 30% of all intended schools actually opened.

As can be seen in the chart below, the number of attempts and opening varies substantially over time. The primary reason, we argue, is regulation. When the program was capped and limited to non-religious schools between 1991 and 1998, very few new schools attempted to open. The religious expansion in 1998 led to more school attempts, as did the 2005 raising of the enrollment cap. In addition, the increase in the number of new school attempts between 2005 and 2010 coincided with lower success rates. Why? Naturally, when more schools are attempting to access finite resources (and students) fewer will be successful.


Most striking was the impact of the New Schools Approval Board in 2010 (and the subsequent slightly more inclusive pre-accreditation requirements for new schools that is in place today).   That policy, along with the charging of a non-refundable auditor fee to schools at the time they submit their intent to participate form, dramatically slowed new school attempts and successful openings.

There are a few lessons to be taken from our research. First, the barriers to entry implemented in 2010 had a dramatic impact on the level of entrepreneurship in the MPCP. Given the quality concerns that spurred the pre-accreditation process, this is not a bad thing. Second, historically it has been difficult to successfully open a new MPCP school. Sure, the first step of filing the intent to participate form with the state was easy, but most of those potential schools would never enroll a student nor receive a public dollar. Third, and less specific to the Milwaukee case, is the lesson that organizational lifecycle studies only capture part of what is happening in a population of organizations. Many potential entrepreneurs fail before their organization ever exists in any material way.

We conclude our article by stating “it is impossible to totally eliminate the possibility of a poor-performing entrepreneurial school. Policy makers (as well as other stakeholder groups) can thus never ensure high performance, yet we believe there are policy steps to be taken to help reduce the chance for failure.” Those steps include demonstrating diverse revenue streams as a condition of receiving public money, obtaining an existing school sponsor as a condition of opening, and the creation of failure plan that helps facilitate a smooth transition of students and resources in the case of failure.

Thoughts on Methodological Isomorphism from ASPA

I am sitting here enjoying my last day at the American Society of Public Administration’s (ASPA) annual research conference and reflecting a bit on the various research presentations I attended.   What sticks out to me most is the diversity of our field. We are diverse in subject area; local government, state government, budgeting, theory, non-profit management, networking, and human resources were all well represented. We are diverse in scope, studying broad national questions as well as small organizational ones. We are continuing to become more diverse in gender, race, and nationality.

So why is it that the field of public administration (PA) is experiencing methodological isomorphism? I am referring to the elevation of experimental methodology above all others. We are not there yet, and certainly there are many interesting research approaches represented at ASPA, but I also know some scholars avoid ASPA because of a perceived lack of rigor. I also witnessed a disturbing trend of scholars apologizing that their studies are not experiments. As I stress to my methods students, the right methodology is one that enables you to answer your research question or solve your problem. Sometimes it is an experiment, sometimes it is a case study, sometimes it is qualitative, and sometimes it is the poor old whipping boy that is OLS regression. And sometimes a non-experimental design that cannot show causal inference nonetheless moves the study of a field forward.

I try to be methodologically agnostic as both a researcher and a reviewer. My own articles are methodologically diverse (ranging from simplistic to complex) as a result of the specific questions I ask, the data available, and the state of the literature to which I am contributing. I know some journals/job committees/conferences favor methodological consistency, but yeah, that is not me. Now, there is nothing wrong with experimental design. It is moving PA in interesting directions in areas like behavioral PA. That is great. It becomes a problem when it becomes the only acceptable or most-favored approach. Why? Some of the most important PA questions cannot be answered via an experiment. Some of the realities of governance cannot be simulated in a lab. Some of the narrow questions answered in an experimental setting do not translate into actionable knowledge for practitioners.

An example from the school choice research world, where I also keep a firm foot planted, is illustrative. A body of school choice researchers argue that randomized control trials are the gold-standard method of measuring the performance of school choice programs. The phrase gold-standard study has even worked its way into mainstream policy debates. The problem is dozens of gold-standard research studies have failed to answer the larger and more complex problem of whether school choice programs are a good idea. They have shown, with some exceptions, that voucher programs lead to small test score gains for voucher users. The studies answered a narrow question conducive to a randomized control trial, but missed the larger more complex question that is as, or even more important, to policymakers and the public. The gold-standard studies have value, but I wonder how much quality research that could have answered the larger and more complex questions did not occur because of the elevation of randomized control trials?

So I hope those working on important PA questions via experimental designs continue to do so. But I hope those applying other appropriate methodologies to pressing PA questions do not get shut out of opportunities, or feel pressure to unnecessarily change their approaches. Ok. So I am now off to moderate a panel and perhaps listen to Louie Louie, Hang on Sloopy, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and maybe a couple of the other classic songs out there built on just three or four of the easiest guitar chords that exist.