Several years ago a professor of mine expressed his fascination with the postal service. His point was simple, and correct. In decades of sending letters, he had never had a single one that did not arrive at its destination. Until two weeks ago, I too had never had a letter that did not arrive at its destination.
And the situation two weeks situation is understandable. A birth announcement my wife sent to a good friend serving in Afghanistan never made it to him; it came back to our house a year later. Really, the fact that I was able to put a stamp on a letter and even expect it to reach someone serving in the field in a war zone is itself remarkable.
Regular readers (reader?) of this blog know that I have a positive view of government. The history of the United State Postal Service (USPS) is a great example of why. The logistics of getting a piece of paper from my mailbox to just about anywhere in the country are mind-boggling. It’s nothing short of a triumph of that a bureaucracy is able to do this effectively and efficiently. Even more remarkable is that it costs me less than fifty cents.
Ok, I know that like all enterprises public and private the USPS has its problems (see this discussion for a good synopsis of them). But yesterday’s news that the postal service is ending Saturday delivery, though no not surprising, is still kind of sad. The move is designed to save money, and hopefully will make the USPS stronger in the future. But, like the decline of the newspaper, I worry that this is step one to a broader decline in service. Maybe it is inevitable in our digital age, but I am nonetheless nostalgic for the simple joy of receiving a letter, and hope that joy will be a foreign concept to my sons.
So as I hunker down in my house today, I am cognizant of the fact that there is a reason the roads will be cleared, my power will likely stay on, my faucets will run, and yes, my mail will be delivered. Government is a popular whipping boy, but on days like this I realize just how remarkably effective it can be.
I addition to my work at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute I am a Ph.D. Student in Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The other day I was having a conversation with a fellow student about the differences between local government in India and the United States. Inevitably I mentioned the changes to collective bargaining in Wisconsin. My fellow student, who just recently arrived in the United States, asked me if it was a big deal. I laughed and said yes.
The conversation got me thinking. While I have been supportive of Act 10 on this blog and continue to think it has huge potential to improve the performance of local governments in Wisconsin, I agree wholeheartedly with the Governor when he says he wishes he went about passing it differently.
First, I wish the fiscal impact of Act 10 was stressed less than its potential long term impacts on public sector management. Act 10 certainly helped local governments avoid layoffs, but mostly by allowing them to offset revenue cuts with increased employee health and pension contributions. It was an action that caused financial hardship for public employees, and one that most local governments can only afford to do once. More troubling, it fed into a destructive us vs. them narrative.
Second, I wish this public employee vs. private employee narrative did not dominate the Act 10 political debate. The public and private sectors serve critical functions for our state’s economy and quality-of-life. Wisconsin’s fiscal problems were not caused by a bloated or over-privileged public sector, they were caused by several factors, including a tanking economy and longstanding irresponsible state budget practices. Perhaps this narrative was unavoidable given the politics of the situation; but still I think the destructive effects of it will linger for some time.
Third, I wish the initial attempt to pass Act 10 did not occur in such a limited time frame. Politically, passing controversial legislation as quickly as possible made sense, but it no doubt made an explosive issue even more so.
Fourth, I wish an alternative narrative stressing the importance of improving government in challenging fiscal times guided the Act 10 debate. Thankfully, I think the long-term Act 10 narrative can be changed, and the state can continue to heal. Whether it will is debatable. As the state’s revenue situation improves increased investments in school aids and shared revenues, the development of tools to encourage and reward improved public sector management and performance, and fair monitoring of local government performance can go along way to establishing a new Act 10 narrative.
Take my musings from the peanut gallery with a grain of salt, as I am neither a public employee nor a legislator. But like all Wisconsin citizens, I want a state with a strong economy and high quality-of-life. Act 10, no matter the manner in which it was passed, has the potential to make Wisconsin a better place to work and live. Whether it will depends on what legislators, and a continued divided public do next. And of course, how they go about it.
My wife works second shift in Oconomowoc and we have a home in Bay View. Too many times during her nighttime commute home she sees the aftermath of a wrong-way driver. It is terrifying. After all, what can you do to protect yourself from a wrong-way driver on the freeway? Pay attention? Well obviously, but really it comes down to luck.
Earlier this week I sent a request to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office asking them for data on wrong-way driver incidents on Milwaukee County freeways. I wanted to know how often it happens, how often it involves alcohol, and whether there are any specific ramps where wrong-way drivers are more likely to get on the freeway in the wrong direction. My thinking was I would do a piece on the need for wrong-way spikes or something similar to help stop these incidents. Thankfully, the County Sheriff’s office is way ahead of me.
It is also a great example of what I meant when I previously touched on the many positive functions of government. Simply, there are limits to the effectiveness of personal responsibility. Though it is a depressing thought that there exists multiple people in our city that will attempt to drive a car after getting inebriated to the point of being unable to tell which is the right side of the freeway, it is reality. Sure, stronger drunk driving laws may deter some from this behavior, but I have to think someone unable to process that they are putting lives (including their own) in danger is unlikely to make a good decision out of the fear of a DUI.
Hence, it is a perfect example of where government is best positioned, and really the only entity at all positioned, to take the necessary actions to address a social problem. Kudos to Milwaukee County for taking this important step to better protect those, who like my wife, are just trying to get home safely. Now we can only hope that no more lives are taken by these senseless incidents.
Government is necessary, and government can be, and usually is, good. I am product of a public high school, thank you government. I attended a private college with the help of federally subsidized loans, thank you government. I attended a public university for graduate school, thank you government. I am a frequent user of the library, the Milwaukee County Transit System, parks, roads, the airport; heck the City of Milwaukee even helped me out with an H1N1 vaccine a couple years back. Thank you government.
Last week I was up in northern Wisconsin fly-fishing. I was out in the wild far from civilization. But you know what, I was in the Nicolet National Forest and the only trout I managed to land was on a part of Tamarack Creek running through a Vilas County park. Thank you government.
I could easily make a similar list of complaints about government, but my point is that broad attacks on government wrongfully dismiss its many positive functions. The existence of a social safety net that can provide the most basic help to those in need, for example, is a triumph of our society, not a sign that we have lost our way.
More practically, reflexive condemnation of government distracts from the very real need to improve the efficiency and performance of government. Fiscal conservatism means finding ways to ensure essential government services are both high quality and sustainable. It also means rooting out abuses so that the maximum positive impact can be obtained from limited resources, and yes, ensuring individual freedoms are not impinged upon.
As you likely guess given my position at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, I believe the use of free-market principals is the best way to create a quality, efficient, and properly limited government. What I do not favor is a return to a Hobbesian state. Government can improve the quality of life in communities. Let’s debate the proper role and best practices of government, not its existence.
Right now Milwaukee county parks compete for funding with transit, public works, social services, and healthcare and pension costs for current and retired employees. Pitting the parks budget versus committed legacy costs or highly visible departments like public works is not a fair fight. Deferring maintenance on a playing field will take some time to get noticed, stopping garbage pick-up or pension payments will cause immediate uproar and legal action.
Removing Milwaukee parks from county government would also set an important precedent for other local governments struggling to adequately fund essential services to residents. Imagine what school districts, for example, could do without the array of non-education expenses that too often eat into classroom expenditures. Imagine if cities and counties could focus only on providing services for residents rather than budgeting for promises made in decades past. Surely services would improve.
Public parks contribute to the quality of life of a community, thereby playing a vital role in keeping neighborhoods stable and prosperous. If the percentage of the county tax levy going to Milwaukee parks continues its downward slide Milwaukee’s quality of life will suffer. Creating an accountable independent park district whose sole function is running and funding a parks system is not radical, it’s logical.
The average age of a teacher in a non-district Milwaukee charter school is 35.8. In comparison, the average age of a Wisconsin public school teacher is 43.4 (in the Milwaukee Public Schools it is 45.1). Milwaukee charter schools also have a much higher percentage of very young teachers; 27.5% are under the age of 30 compared to 11.5% statewide.
What explains the age difference? Talk to a charter school advocate and you might be told younger teachers are more energetic, more up-to-date on the latest teaching methods, and more willing to teach in an innovative and challenging environment. Talk to a charter skeptic and you might be told younger teachers are targeted by charter schools simply because they are cheaper. There is some truth to both schools of thought.
Milwaukee charter school teachers on average make $40,502.50 in salary and receive benefits worth $10,836.22. The average Wisconsin public school teacher makes $52,202.03 in salary and receives benefits worth $26,793.27. The differences are attributable to disparate public support (charters receives $7,775 per-pupil in state and local funding while public school students generate an average of $9,809 in state and local revenue per-pupil), differences in the quality of benefits offered, and of course age.
Milwaukee charter schools, by virtue of being non-union and exempt from certain state statutes, are also free to easily do more innovative and experimental things. This likely does attract certain young teachers eager to try new approaches.
However, the main reason independent charter school teachers are younger than traditional public school teachers is less exciting. Annual rounds of layoffs (thankfully stemmed this year) and the entrenched seniority system has made entry-level teaching jobs in MPS hard to come by, leaving younger teachers wanting to work in an urban environment left with charter and choice schools.
Why does the age difference matter? A brief review of Wisconsin’s 20 largest school districts shows no signs of a correlation between average teacher age and district reading and math proficiency. There is also no prominent academic research suggesting a link between teacher age and student performance. Yet the difference in the average age of traditional and charter school teachers is important; it is prominent evidence of an outdated and ineffective approach to school district personnel policies.
Across the state teachers historically retain their position because of seniority, not because they fit in with and are adding to a school’s mission. However Act 10 changes things considerably and there is good reason to think the charter/ traditional public teacher age gap will close.
First, school districts are no longer bound by seniority when making personal decisions. This should give qualified young teachers a better shot of getting into public school districts. Second, increased employee pension contributions statewide as well as district-by-district changes to employee benefit packages will make many public school benefit packages look more like what is offered to charter school teachers. Aggressive cost-control changes made by MPS in particular, including salary freezes, increased health care contributions, and furlough days, may make charters a more attractive option to some current MPS teachers.
Closing the age gap will be a good thing for Wisconsin pupils. Not because charter schools need older teachers or because traditional public schools need younger teachers, but because it means structural barriers to putting teachers in situations where they can most positively impact student outcomes have been removed.
There is an obvious logic to Farrow’s proposal. All three agencies are in the business of educating Wisconsin citizens and it makes sense to have them all working towards a common goal of an educated workforce that is an asset to Wisconsin’s economy. A streamlined education agency, if well run, certainly would be well positioned to run Wisconsin’s education system with a focus on the state’s economic future.
However, there are a few important questions to consider when evaluating this proposal. First, to what extent are the missions of the three agencies different? While all three agencies are responsible for educating Wisconsin citizens, ensuring students graduate from high school proficient in math and reading is far different than teaching a trade skill or providing a liberal arts education. No doubt all three agencies play a major role in the state’s economic health, but their core missions are different.
Second, who would lead the agency? DPI is headed by an elected state Superintendent. The University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Technical College system are governed by separate appointed boards. Presumably, the governance structures of all three agencies would need to be combined, which would also presumably require a constitutional change given the State Superintendent is a constitutional office. Not an easy task.
Third, is it wise to put 36% of the state budget in the hands of one agency? Providing a free and appropriate education to its populace is the most important thing state government does, making the expenditure of substantial resources in this area understandable and necessary. However, budgeting such a large share of funds for one agency makes it even more important that the governance structure of the new agency is effective and representative. Also no easy task.
Historian John Gurda does not think much of Scott Walker. Gurda, the authority on Milwaukee history, concludes that Walker is an “ideological outlier” that “richly deserves to be recalled.”
The piece seemed out-of-character for Gurda, whose columns usually focus on the connection between Milwaukee’s history and current events. However, I suppose the recall election and the divisions that preceded it are historical events that merit the perspective of Milwaukee’s premier historian.
I found Gurda’s discussion of Walker’s time as County Executive to best illustrate the contrasting perspectives on the Governor’s (all but) elimination of public-sector collective bargaining. Gurda writes:
“As Milwaukee County’s chief executive, Walker showed little interest in the details of service delivery and even less in the nuances of public policy.”
If you accept that, you likely view Walker’s rollback of collective bargaining as a punitive attack on those delivering government services. Similarly, you likely see cuts to shared revenue and reductions in school aids as an attempt to defund the public sector, not balance the state budget.
However, I think there is a case to made that Walker’s reforms were shaped by his experience in county government, not his disinterest. As Walker has stated, he saw first-hand the way collective bargaining can limit the actions of a public sector executive.
Now, local government needs checks and balances; but that is why school boards, city councils, and county boards are democratically elected.
As I have written before, effective local government plays a crucial role in establishing the quality of life of a place. Public investment in local government is a necessary precursor to effectiveness. However, so is a structure that makes local government efficient, and sustainable.
So is Walker an outlier or a visionary when it comes to local government? I imagine that one will be debated for a long while.
Did the Governor overreach in his rollbacks of collective bargaining? That we should know by tomorrow night.
Governance reform is a seductive idea because it is usually presented as a silver bullet for addressing a policy problem. For example, if the elected school board does not provide students with an adequate education, let’s replace it with one that will.
If only it was that simple. The inconvenient fact is that a school board does not educate pupils, teachers do. A school board governance change alone will not turn Milwaukee schools around.
The same is true for other local governments. The actual delivery of services is performed by street level bureaucrats that go about their duties regardless of who happens to be in charge of the City or County.
But this does not mean governance is irrelevant. Governance, whether it is the setting of specific policies or merely the setting of an organizational culture, can be the difference between creating an environment where an organization can thrive, or one where mediocrity is the ceiling.
Discussions of governance reforms should begin with two questions:
1) Is there a structural flaw or barrier preventing street-level bureaucrats from performing their duties adequately?
2) Is there an alternative governance structure that removes the barrier without disenfranchising voters?
“It’s time we free our parks from Milwaukee County control so they don’t have to compete for funding with state mandated services, residents can be more closely involved in their success and we can finally start addressing the problems our parks face instead of kicking the can down the road until the next election.”
It certainly satisfies my first question. As to my second, Cody notes that a dedicated funding source (sales tax) was supported by Milwaukee County voters in a 2008 advisory referendum.
I think Cody may be on to something, as structured the Milwaukee County Parks System faces some serious barriers to success. Parks are a great example of an asset that can make-or-break the quality of life of a place. If a Parks Commission is an economical way to improve the City, it bears continued discussion.
In 2009 I attended a public hearing on the proposed mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). One of the members of the Senate Education Committee asked proponents of the plan, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, what exactly a mayoral appointed school board would do differently than the elected board. No specific answer was given.
And what would have been done differently? Likely nothing.
Wisconsin school boards have for decades been constrained by state law, federal law, and union contracts that limit their ability to manage district resources.
Take for example the issue of taxes. Since the implementation of revenue limits in 1993, the majority of school districts have simply levied the maximum allowed under state law. This amount is determined by state aid to the district, student enrollment, and spending in the previous year. If the board wants to levy more than allowed under revenue limits, they must go to referendum. Short of trying to attract more students to the district, there is not a lot that local boards do to impact the tax levy.
The ability of Wisconsin school boards to manage their most important and most expensive resource, teachers, has also been heavily constrained by collectively bargained union contracts. However the passage of Act 10 is changing that. Boards across the state (including MPS) are already using their new power to get their fiscal houses in order.
What remains to be seen is whether boards will begin to address issues like tenure, teacher compensation, and teacher assignments in ways conducive to raising academic achievement. As important to watch is if school boards hire superintendents willing to use the flexibility enabled by collective bargaining reform to better manage teachers.
Constraints on Wisconsin school boards will remain, but they are better positioned today to be a positive force for impacting student achievement than any time in recent history. Now is their moment to prove those critical of the institution in Milwaukee and elsewhere wrong.