Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Was the DPI survey a half baked hatchet job?

I can't be sure but it may well have been.

One of the things that you learn as  a lawyer is that a patina of reasonableness and respectability does not always withstand scrutiny. The DPI's Budget Survey Analysis reads like a document that might - at the least - list badly after closer examination. The survey reads like a piece of advocacy and presents as an established fact (lower clase sizes increase student performance) something that is, in fact, controverted and more complicated than the survey allows (reducing class size precludes other uses of resources).

Of course, I come to the question with a perspective. The risk of that is confirmation bias. The advantage is to insist that questions be asked and this survey seems to need a lot of work.
One issue is the need for a baseline. I would not argue - and I don't think the Governor has argued - that the greater flexibility achieved by collective bargaining reform obviates the need for all service reductions. The state's fiscal problems were too severe for that. The real question to ask is how much worse they might have been and whether, under the circumstances, they are tolerable. To that end, the Governor's comparison of these reductions with those that took place in earlier years is instructive.

DPI recognizes this and attempts to compare job reductions in 2009 and 2010-11 with those reflected in the survey. Larger losses in 2012 are shown. But, curiously, this part of the report comes right after a section that claims that some of the districts used remaining stimulus dollars to avoid cuts in 2012. Fair enough, but why not address the extend to which stimulus dollars avoided staff reductions in the prior years, pushing them into 2012?

But, more importantly, how severe were these staff reductions?Most of the survey is unconcerned with that, focusing on the breadth of reductions, i.e.. what percentage of districts reduced teaching staff. The answer seems to be less than half - about 42% and only 22% of those who experience increased enrollment. But is that the most important question? Don't we want to know the magnitude of staff reductions?

The bottom line: The student/teacher ratio went from 13.27 in 2010-11 to 13.51 in 2011-2012.

No. That is not a typo. It comes p. 15 of the DPI's analysis. The Governor of the state of Wisconsin largely closed a longstanding structural deficit without raising taxes and the student/teacher ration went up by a quarter of a body, i.e., by less than 2%.

Recall him now! 

Another issue is the need to distinguish between those districts that utilized the reforms and those that did not. The DPI says that is has done that but there is reason to be skeptical. As the Journal Sentinel points out, a huge percentage of reduction in force came in Milwaukee. The DPI uses this to maximize the extent of the cuts when it chooses to present statistics on the number of students who attend a district in which something has happened.

But, when it attempts to show that it "didn't matter" whether or not a district extended its contract to avoid the reforms with respect to the loss of teacher positions, it excludes Milwaukee noting that Milwaukee was an "outlier" - in other word it did matter in Milwaukee. That looks bad. While DPI says that texcluding Milwaukee does not change the median job loss (of course it wouldn't) or dramatically change the mean (but it would be nice to see the number), this reflects the approach of an advocate and not an evaluator.

In addition, the argument that it doesn't matter whether one can reduce certain costs and more efficiently manage resources is counterintuitive.This is an area which would seem to be in need of more robust analysis. How exactly did DPI choose between "in contract" and "out of contract" districts? Is a simple measure of force reduction an adequate way of evaluating whether collective bargaining reform helped districts to cope with reductions in state aid?

Releasing what seems to be a half baked survey to coincide with the commencement of the petition to recall the Governor seems overtly politicial. There is nothing wrong with that, I suppose. The DPI has always been a highly politicized agency and Tony Evers seems to be doubling down on that after some easing in recent years.

But a great deal more work needs to be done.


George Mitchell said...

The Nov. 16 MJS story on the school levy decline is a reminder that Tony Evers long ago took an advocacy position against the Walker agenda. That's his choice. But it can't be a surprise that he and his agency would act on that position. It's a fiction that DPI is a nonpartisan agency.

The story gives the lie to the steady drumbeat of claims that unions were ready to make necessary fiscal concessions and are only/mainly opposed to the non-fiscal bargaining changes.

John Foust said...

Standard Contradictory Disclaimer™: I can't be sure but it may well have been.

Tom said...

I always found it amusing that WEAC promised it would concede the pension and insurance contributions.

Remind me, exactly how many teachers does WEAC actually bargain on behalf of? Oh yeah, ZERO. It's just an umbrella organization.

Anonymous said...

Recall Tony Evers