Monday, April 18, 2016

Choices and real changes: Quality of life and place now top executive wish list

By J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO.

On February 9, 2016 the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Eliot Brown titled “Office Glut Strains Suburbs.”  Brown reflected on many corporate headquarters “moving out of the leafy campuses and moving to downtown high-rises.”

He noted that the old Western Union campus in Saddle River, New Jersey, 30 miles from Manhattan last occupied by Pearson Education moved to Manhattan, New York and Hoboken, New Jersey.  The reasons: to be near “public transportation and a younger urban-dwelling workforce.”

General Electric left Fairfield, Connecticut for Boston and Con Agra went from its Omaha, Nebraska campus to downtown Chicago.  Weyerhaeuser left its huge campus in Federal Way for downtown Seattle, Washington, which is about a 30 minute drive north.

Closer to home, we see the same pattern being followed in Atlanta.  Kaiser Permanente moved its 900 person IT operation to midtown Atlanta.  Their Chief Information Officer, Dick Daniels, said this: “it was important to have a great location with the ability to walk to restaurants and shops and a location that was close to public transportation.”

NCR Corporation is moving its headquarters and 1000 people to be close to Georgia Tech and MARTA.  Mercedes is building its new headquarters next to the Sandy Springs MARTA station and State Farm moved operations to be near the Dunwoody MARTA station.  Veraforce, a leading insurance software provider, is moving to midtown from the suburbs.  Its location in One Midtown Plaza takes advantage of their internship program at Georgia Tech and the Technology Association of Georgia.  Veraforce’s Vice President of Development, Neil Snowdon, said “Midtown Atlanta is an ideal location for meeting with East Coast clients and strengthening our position within Atlanta’s dynamic tech community.”

After reading the various articles reporting these moves mentioned above, an interesting thing happened when I reviewed the 30th Annual Corporate Survey from Area Development magazine a few weeks ago. Even though the mix of corporate executives in the survey still represents many “traditional” sectors, the results of the survey tell a very different story than past years.  

Hopefully, to no one’s surprise the “availability of skilled labor” came out as a strong number one. Almost 93% of these executives rated it as important or very important, with over 58% ranking it as very important.

Highway accessibility came in second, but the real surprise is in the third slot is Quality of Life. Just barely below the highway number (88% to 87.6%), Quality of Life vaulted up to the third spot. That is FAR AHEAD of corporate tax rate (#7), state and local incentives (#9), and tax exemptions (#11). None of those were within 10 points of Quality of Life on importance to corporate executives. What was in days of old a key factor, right to work, came in a distant 16th a full 20 points behind Quality of Life.

These numbers reflect the reality that quality of PLACE AND LIFE is now at the top of most executive’s wish list along with the quality of the workforce. I am hopeful that Area Development and others will acknowledge that there needs to a much broader analysis of all the factors that make up quality of life. They certainly include health care access and affordability, public safety, open space and recreation options, downtown attractiveness, and quality public schools. As the recent headlines have proven, it is also vital to have an open and welcoming community and state. Discrimination will not be tolerated by the nation’s CEOs.

The message is clear.  Quality of place matters.  So does talent, openness, and access to public transportation.  These are becoming the top considerations for the best jobs in the economy.  Just another real change along the way.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Are State School Takeovers the Best Option?

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager

Last month, a few Market Street staff participated in the Southern Education Foundation webinar, The Facts about State Takeovers of Public Schools. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and Center for Popular Democracy were co-hosts and provided presenters. We were interested in this webinar because an increased number of states across the country have passed or are considering legislation to allow the state to take control of local low-performing schools and/or school districts. This webinar presented statistics regarding the three states that have already done so in an effort to improve results: Louisiana, Michigan, and Tennessee. According to the research, the takeovers have not been successful in improving low-performing schools but have further disenfranchised minority students. Here are some high-level takeaways from each speaker’s presentation, including a few alternative solutions with positive track records.

State Takeover Districts – A Growing Threat: Katherine Dunn, Southern Education Foundation

States that have passed legislation to take control of individual schools by removing them from the local jurisdiction and placing them in a “state school district” are:
  • Louisiana (2003) – The Recovery School District
  • Tennessee (2010) – The Achievement School District
  • Michigan (2013) – The Education Achievement Authority
  • Nevada (2015) – The Achievement School District (No data available yet)
  • Georgia will face this issue via ballot in November 2016.
  • Similar legislation is under review or pending in: Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and South Carolina. 

The Targeting of State Takeovers in African American and Latino Communities: Keron Blair, Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools

In August 2015, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools released a report entitled Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities through School Takeovers as a commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.

Within the current operational takeover districts examined, tens of thousands of students are in schools that are under state control. After a school has been placed under state control, elected school boards and voters have no governance. These takeovers tend to occur in urban centers that have high concentrations of minority population—in Louisiana, 63 of the schools in the Recovery School District are in New Orleans, compared to 12 in Baton Rouge. In Tennessee, 27 of the state’s 29 Achievement School District schools are in Memphis, with the remaining two in Nashville. In Michigan, all 15 schools in the Education Achievement Authority are in Detroit. Combined, there have been 101 schools placed in state control, and of the 47,596 students enrolled in those schools, 97% are African American. Eighty-nine of the schools have been converted to charter schools.

The Academic Record of State Takeovers: Kyle Serrette, Center for Popular Democracy

In February 2016, the Center of Popular Democracy released its State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Management, & Student Harm report that debunks the theory that making the structural change of taking over a school at the state-level will lead to strategic changes that will result in higher performing schools. The overarching issue is that many of the states have not created mechanisms to help struggling schools move from an F to a D to a C, and so forth, leaving many states to just close the school eventually. Additionally, high expectations are set, but inadequate support is given to help meet those expectations.

In Louisiana, over 21,000 children are in D and F rated charter schools. The state has spent over $700 million on these schools. However, in the 2013-14 academic year, 42% of charters are still D & F rated.

In Michigan, 10,000 students are in the 15 Detroit schools placed in the Education Achievement Authority. The Michigan Educational Assessment Program results indicated that a high majority of these students are stagnating in reaching math and reading proficiency or are falling even further behind. The chancellor of the Authority recently stated that, “three years into this, achievement hasn’t improved.”

In Nashville, the goal was to “turn the state’s bottom five percent of schools to the top 25% in five years.” Results from 2014 indicate that reading scores were lower in the Achievement School District schools than they were before the state took them over in 2012. Good news, though, is that math scores have increased by more than five points.

A Real Strategy for School Improvement: Sustainable Community Schools: Ken Zarifis, Education Austin

In 2007-2008, Austin had two schools in danger of closing: Webb Middle School and Reagan High School, but the community came together to prevent the closure and started with three questions:
  • What do you love about your schools?
  • What creates barriers to your success?
  • What resources do you need to overcome those barriers?

The plan for the schools addressed attendance, mobility, and social needs. A Family Resource Center was established. Eight years later, these schools are top performers with the same neighborhood students. Enrollment at both schools has doubled, and student mobility decreased from 35% to 25%. Graduation rates have increased from 48% to 85%, and Webb has earned five state academic distinctions in 2013-2014 and three in 2014-2015. The Early College High School program offers up to 60 college credits.

Wraparound services are a key component to support the students, but this alone isn’t enough—a strong academic model is also necessary. Now, Education Austin’s goal is to make Austin School District a community school district. Both the City of Austin and Travis County support and have made investments. Five of 8 elementary schools have developed plans, and the second middle school is currently developing its plan. Education Austin continues to work with courts, health and human services, and other public departments to address student needs. They are also pursuing legislation at the state-level to support community schools.

Talent continues to be the #1 issue in economic development, and winning communities know that their talent pipeline includes their pre-K through 12 programs. No matter what is best programmatically in specific communities, it is important to make well-informed, research-based decisions. According to the Southern Education Foundation, to date, there is no evidence that state takeovers are effective. However, their research indicates that the following factors are associated with stronger outcomes:
  • Access to high quality early childhood and pre-K programs
  • Collaboration and stability in school leadership
  • Good teaching by experienced educators
  • A learning environment focused on students, and positive and restorative discipline practices rather than zero tolerance
  • A rigorous curriculum that is broad, engaging, and culturally relevant
  • Wraparound support services, like health services and after-school activities, for both students and the broader community
  • Deep parent, community, and school ties
  • Consistent investment in schools, not constant budget cuts

For more information about community schools and the aforementioned best practice factors for better outcomes, please download Investing in What Works: Community-Driven Strategies for Strong Public Schools, published in 2015 by the Southern Education Foundation and the Annenburg Institute for School Reform, and Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools, published in 2016 by the Center for Popular Democracy, Coalition for Community Schools, and Southern Education Foundation.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Millennials: Cities and Suburbs

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

It’s 5:39 pm on a Saturday in late March. The sky is overcast and broody which pairs well with the mocha I just ordered from Dancing Goats Coffee, a shop located at the corner of Glen Iris and North Avenue or as everyone now calls the area: Ponce City Market. Given the area, a stone’s throw away from the Atlanta Beltline and directly in one of the Beltline’s biggest coups (sure there is an argument to be made that Ponce City Market would have been redeveloped without the Beltline; it is one to which I don’t particularly subscribe), that I sit down to read Ryan Gravel’s new book “Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure For a New Generation of Cities.” After all, it was Gravel’s thesis and strong support from local Atlanta councilwoman, Cathy Woolard, that would spur the massive 22 mile redevelopment project along Atlanta’s old railway corridors that, as of the time of this writing, has already transformed a two mile stretch of Atlanta from Monroe Drive to Irwin Street. And by transformed, I mean truly transformed almost to the point of being unrecognizable to this long time Atlanta resident who has vivid memories of driving past old City Hall East and going to concerts at the Masquerade, wondering if the car I just parked in a then open lot would be there upon my return.

Today, the Masquerade no longer sits next that lot where I parked my car years and years ago or across from a foreboding City Hall East. In the parking lot’s place is Atlanta’s most ecologically innovative park, the Historic Fourth Ward Park, whose Clear Creek Basin serves as a storm water runoff reservoir alleviating flooding that plagued the district for some time. If you look carefully around the basin, the 50 and 100 year flood plains are marked with white stone on the walls that enclose the walking path and reservoir. City Hall East is now, the far less menacing, Ponce City Market. 

But I digress. As an Atlanta resident, the first chapters of Gravel’s novel are refreshing. For once an urban planner is not hammering on all the “fatal” flaws of Atlanta and showcasing why the city is doomed to failure, usually with emphasis placed on the untenable situation of Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure and, most notably, its lack of public transit. Instead, Where We Want to Live is almost a celebration of Atlanta, both its central city as well as its suburbs. In all my years of studying urban planning, including a master’s degree in city and regional planning, I’ve never (and I stress the never) read the following words “there’s nothing wrong with sprawl,” at least not sequentially.

But there they were, “there’s nothing wrong with sprawl” – a whole chapter is dedicated to the historic value and virtue of suburban development in a book about one of the nation’s most ambitious, city-centric planning projects. There is, however, an important caveat that soon splashed cold water on the refreshing chapter on sprawl and suburbs, to quote Gravel:

“Ensuring that conclusion [the end of the suburban era], of course, is the destructive nature and obsolescence of sprawl. Its advantages, like cheap land and cheap houses, were also built on a less robust and less efficient network of infrastructure, leaving them now at a clear disadvantage. As the true costs of sprawl are being realized, characteristics like geographic isolation, demographic homogeneity, and visual uniformity that previously were considered advantages are now threatening the economic value of real estate stuck in sprawl. This territory is going to have a hard time adapting to new market conditions. The negative economic, health, and environmental consequences of sprawl are well documented elsewhere, as are the ways in which we subsidize it. Similarly demographic and generational shifts that suggest sprawl is not likely to be a competitive structure for our future economy are duly noted.”

Ah, well, it is an urban planning novel after all. Perhaps “there was nothing wrong with sprawl” is a more fitting title to the chapter. Gravel goes on to point at the inflexibility of suburban development, the sheer economics of redevelopment in suburban locations, and the more generous economics of locating new development farther and farther along the suburban fringe as impediments to their capacity to adapt. As I read the last line of the quote, however, I couldn’t help but think how deeply that insight impacts my professional life and its implications for the communities in which we work. That the demographic and generational shifts suggest that sprawl, and by association suburbs, are no longer competitive for our future economy.

Market Street unquestionably prides itself on the diversity of communities in which we work. Over the course of our introduction of who we are, we almost invariably say we’ve worked in 160 communities across 34 states. They are not all central cities: they are suburbs and rural areas – from towns of 21,000 people to diverse suburban communities nearing 900,000 in population to metropolitan regions with 2 million or more residents. To declare that demographic and generational shifts suggest that suburban development is no longer competitive for our future economy, directly writes off a large swath of the nation as well as many of our client communities, communities we have a vested interest in seeing succeed. It does, however, point to the central question in community and economic development at present: where will millennials want to live? Where will the generation after that want to live? Or more appropriately: where will both groups decide to settle?

As with any projection into the future, I can only go with my gut. And it is this: For decades, suburbs were the soup de jour, America’s population had an almost unquenchable taste for suburban living. Pulled by its safety, quality school systems, and spacious housing, America flocked farther and farther out on the fringes of the central city – suburban growth, at least in the American context, seemed as though it was a natural law. Betting against it, would be akin to betting against gravity. Consequently, central cities tended not to be able to compete with their suburban counterparts in attracting and retaining residents, thus, the vast majority became job centers with stagnant or dwindling residential populations. Today, growth between the two has evened out. The “suburban development can’t compete rhetoric” is, in my humble view, an overreaction to the re-emergence of central cities as a destination for people to live. Not necessarily the wholesale decline of suburban areas.