Metro Ideas Project—an independent, nonprofit research startup focusing on public policy matters—recently launched its first undertaking, which delves into education spending.
The startup's team, which is made up of three core members, looked at per-pupil expenditures for each public school in Hamilton County.
"It turns out that was not simple at all," Executive Director Joda Thongnopnua said of the first topic the team tackled.
What: Wonk Wednesday
When: Wednesday, March 30, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Edney Innovation Center
More information: This is the first of the monthly happy hour engagement opportunities for members of the community to "nerd out" about public policy. This month is sponsored by The Bitter Alibi, and there will be drinks and snacks.
They found that the basic answer is that $9,723 is spent per pupil, but there's a lot more to the question and answer than that simple number. Click here and here to read more about the complexities of the research.
Additional parts of the education series will be rolled out soon.
Thongnopnua said that knowing how much is spent on each student has an impact on how we measure return on investment at schools and brings up questions of equity between schools.
And before education can be improved locally, leaders need to understand how the resources are already allocated, he said.
About Metro Ideas Project
The startup is funded through a grant from three local entrepreneurs, the partners of Lamp Post Group.
The project has seed funding for two years, but Thongnopnua declined to disclose the total amount of funding.
The startup focuses on urban policy in midsize cities such as Chattanooga that have 75,000 to half a million residents.
"We are focused on our city first," Thongnopnua said. "That helps focus and narrow our work, but some of the challenges our city is facing are not unique."
Topics such as education, land-use regulation, affordable housing, crime and justice all affect Chattanoogans and other cities of similar size.
"If we want to see better policy decisions, we have to have a research foundation," he said.
The Metro Ideas Project team aims to create engaging experiences that matter to people, he also said. They aren't going to write in "heady" language. They want the content to be accessible, he said.
And Thongnopnua said he saw a gap for research on cities the size of Chattanooga, because bigger cities have access to larger think tanks.
The team, the mission
Thongnopnua's background is in advertising and communications, and he brought on talent—David Morton and Jacqueline Homann, as well as a board of well-respected, well-balanced community members—to create the organization.
Homann has experience from a number of international and federal institutions, and is leading the Metro Ideas Product research efforts and policy analysis. She's a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and has a Master of Arts in policy studies.
Morton, who is a former politics reporter at Nooga.com, is heading the organization's public engagement and digital strategy. He's also covered policy and has contributed to projects such as Chattizen, which is aimed at improving citizens' access to local governments.
The organization is "firmly nonpartisan" and will not participate in lobbying. But the team is conscious of perceptions about nonprofit organizations and whether they are leaning left or right on the ideological spectrum, Thongnopnua said.
So he's made sure to stack the board with a balance of progressive and conservative professionals, he said.
There's a former university president and the head of government relations at EPB on the board.
"We've demonstrated to some pretty experienced and credible people that we have the capacity to do good work," he said.
The team supports availability of data and transparency.
"We think government should make more data available to the public," he said. "And we are pushing local government and elected officials to be more transparent."
The organization might draw comparisons to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, but the Metro Ideas Project isn't trying to replace that organization. It's not Ochs 2.0, although the Ochs Center's work did inspire Thongnopnua's public policy work, he said.
Former Ochs Center President David Eichenthal is a senior fellow with the organization, and Thongnopnua said Eichenthal is a great resource. He's essentially a "researcher in residence" who will occasionally author research and will work as an adviser for the organization.
Moving forward, the team is looking toward what their next research question could be.
"We've been doing community roundtables," Thongnopnua said. "We are trying to get a sense of issues that matter to our community."
Disclaimer: Nooga.com's parent company is Lamp Post Group, but editorial decisions for this publication are made independently of Lamp Post Group.