Note: this Partner Story was originally written in 2013 before the Public Policy Forum merged with the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance to create the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Although the name has changed, the vital work illustrated here remains the same.
On a blustery November morning in 1913, Milwaukee residents awoke to a troubling article in the Milwaukee Sentinel decrying the public school system. Later that same day, growing frustration with local government and its associated bodies led a group of Milwaukee business leaders to convene the first meeting of an organization aimed at reducing government inefficiency. The organization would later be known as the Public Policy Forum and would go on to provide Milwaukee citizens and elected officials with informed analysis, unbiased perspectives, and objective recommendations on the day’s most pressing issues over the next century. Today, the Forum remains one of the nation’s oldest and continuously operating independent government research groups.
More Important than Ever
The Public Policy Forum is a nonpartisan organization that works to research and disseminate true and accurate information aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of local government and creating a socially, economically healthy southeastern Wisconsin. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in April 2013, the Forum currently boasts almost 300 members from the region’s corporate, government, non-profit, philanthropic, and education communities. Over the past decade, the Forum has produced 200 research reports and promoted vigorous, beneficial discussion within the local non-profit and governmental sectors through numerous luncheons and media appearances. According to Robert E. Henken, the Forum’s president, the organization owes its longevity to its commitment to nonpartisan research and advocacy. “The Forum has been able throughout its 100 years to maintain a reputation for rigorous and objective research,” he says. “I think there’s a very strong need for rigor and objectivity at a time when, unfortunately, public policy debates are so often marked by partisan and highly ideological rhetoric.”
Afterschool Care and Education
Through assistance from the Argosy Foundation and other funders, the Forum has been working on a multi-year research project examining the quality, quantity, and outcomes of Milwaukee’s afterschool programs. With 23,902 Milwaukee children enrolled in afterschool programming or school-age child care and just 61% of 3rd through 8th graders testing proficient in reading, the availability and quality of such programming becomes particularly important. “The Forum believes very strongly that there are other elements besides the K-12 system that play a major role in education. There are tens of thousands of children in the city of Milwaukee who are in need of and are enrolled in some kind of afterschool services and the quality of those services will play a very important role determining successful outcomes in the k-12 system,” explains Henken. In June 2012, the Forum surveyed 64 programs across Milwaukee to determine the characteristics of care provided, cost, quality, sustainability of current funding, and potential alternatives for funding in the region. They found that the majority of programming in Southeastern Wisconsin is in need of vast improvements while at the same time funding for such initiatives is declining.
During their research, the Forum also discovered that funding for afterschool programs, determined by YoungStar—Milwaukee’s child care quality rating and improvement system—is being directly affected by the credentials of program staff. As Henken states, “One of the unique challenges that we uncovered is in the realm of professional development. The Youngstar criteria emphasizes the need for certain education and professional development levels for afterschool providers and staff. That can be difficult to achieve from a resource perspective.” In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of current training opportunities, the Forum has received a grant from Argosy to delve into the availability, cost and quality of education for school-age child care providers in the Milwaukee area. Currently collecting data for the project, the Forum hopes to determine options for state and local policy that will both improve the quality of care and increase funding for afterschool programs.
“I think there’s a very strong need for rigor and objectivity at a time when, unfortunately, public policy debates are so often marked by partisan and highly ideological rhetoric.”
A New Generation of Reporting
Last spring, the Forum began an initiative to improve the region’s reporting on public policy issues and offer budding journalists the opportunity to work with local partners to research and report on local stories. Thanks to a grant from the Argosy Foundation, the Forum was able to team up with Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (MNNS) to create a year-long fellowship program for graduate-level students at Marquette aimed at developing their journalism skills and elevating reporting in Milwaukee. MNNS is an online news source that focuses on Milwaukee’s urban neighborhoods that are largely ignored by mainstream media—a mission that the Forum feels is crucial to broadening the scope of local reporting. Henken states, “We saw them as a natural partner for this project because we believe there are local government policy issues important to neighborhoods that are similarly not being appropriately covered.” MNNS provides journalistic guidance and publishes the stories while the Forum works with the fellows to identify story ideas and offer access to sources within such local bodies as the government, special committees, and the school system. Having already had one graduate student complete the program, the Forum plans to bring on two new fellows this fall.
A Centennial Celebration
In May 2013, the Public Policy Forum celebrated 100 years with a gala dinner that boasted 300 attendees from the region’s corporate, government, non-profit, philanthropic, and education communities. With Argosy’s assistance, the Forum was able to feature a panel discussion with guest speakers E.J. Dionne, liberal, and David Brooks, conservative, who appear together weekly on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, during which they offer insight into the week’s key issues. Though they often disagree, their style of presenting arguments in a respectful, fact-based manner fits perfectly with the Forum’s celebratory theme of the night: “a century of civility”. Guests were treated to a lively moderated debate between the two speakers surrounding a range of topics including Wisconsin’s recent political fallout, the 2016 presidential election, and Wisconsin’s place in national politics.
Looking to the Next Century
In the Forum’s earliest days, its motto was, “for efficiency in government through co-operation with government.” Today, the Forum honors that motto by offering independent, scientific research and informed, objective policy recommendations to elected officials. As it moves into another century of leadership, the Forum will continue to focus on education, local government finance, and economic development. Though the names and faces may have changed over the years, the legacy of an unfaltering commitment to providing the public with unbiased, factual information lives on.