Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Eisner wants to take broad approach to education policy

Ryan Eisner


After graduating, Ryan Eisner became a research associate with American Institutes for Research in Chicago. Also, he was inducted into the La Follette School chapter of the Pi Alpha Alpha Honor Society, which recognizes students' academic and professional accomplishments.

After a couple of years in Milwaukee helping public school students figure out how to apply and pay for college, Ryan Eisner decided to switch his energies to making structural change.

"In Milwaukee, with the college access program, I saw the macro and the micro of education policy," Eisner says, "and while helping someone get to college is great, it only does so much for helping everyone. I believe larger effort is needed."

He enrolled at the La Follette School in fall 2011, opting for a Master of Public Affairs degree after looking at credentials of people who were working on college access issues. "Many people had MPAs or MPPs," Eisner says.

As a member of AmeriCorps, Eisner ran workshops in low-income areas of Milwaukee to help high school students figure out how they could get to college. "Many of the potential students would be the first in their families to attend postsecondary institutions," Eisner says, "so they needed help learning about entrance exams, applications, financial aid and other processes that many people take for granted."

Eisner also did some policy work by going to meetings on college access and how to move education forward in southeastern Wisconsin. "I went to meetings and conducted research on college preparation programs using U.S. Department of Education data," he says. "That was the more macro aspect of my work."

Eisner is now in Chicago interning with the U.S. Government Accountability Office for the summer as part of its physical infrastructure team. "I'd been looking forward to the challenge to work on something I know absolutely nothing about," he says. "I love that kind of challenge — when I went to Milwaukee, I knew nothing about education policy and had to learn quickly. What I learn at GAO will be relevant wherever I go."

His GAO project concerns standards for receivers for various devices, including cell phones, televisions, radar, global positioning systems. "The Federal Communications Commission only has standards for the transmitter side of the exchange (the antenna on top of the TV station), not the receiver side (the digital tuner inside your TV set)," Eisner says. "Hence, many receivers become inefficient and they cannot reject unwanted signals, leading to situations when a new service cannot be added to the spectrum because neighboring receivers would be adversely affected."

With smart phones and tablets increasing the demand for wireless transmission, the GAO is weighing the costs and benefits of potential action and analyzing what industry, the FCC and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration are already doing, Eisner says. The GAO team must report to Congress in February 2013.

"I have been helping the team's senior analysts and stakeholders scope and design the job, as well as come up with ideas to shape the methodology," Eisner says. "I have been searching out experts and major players in the industry for interviews, and I have led several of these initial conversations. I have written a good number of preliminary documents (working papers, summaries of documents/presentations, interview writeups). I will not have a hand in the GAO's final report, but some of the material I prepared over the summer may make it in there."

La Follette School courses have proven useful on the job — and helped him get the eight-week internship, he says. "The policy analysis course and the project I did exposed me to the language analysts use and to how they organize their work and recommendations."

In addition, the projects he did for Policy Analysis and for Advanced Quantitative Methods for Public Policy gave him examples to talk about to explain how he would approach a policy problem.

"At GAO, the policymaking process course has helped me navigate some of the terminology and structure of the federal government," he says. "Professor Yackee's lectures and readings on administrative rulemaking have also been very important, as our report could eventually precipitate in a notice-and-comment rulemaking process. I have spent countless hours looking through the FCC's docket, a task I may have not thought about without that class. Policy Analysis has been helpful, especially when considering the potential implementation challenges to a policy. I have had to 'wear' an economist's hat to think about the costs and benefits in an abstract sense so as to maximize consumer welfare."

In addition, Eisner finds that his experience with the plethora of group projects he worked on during his first year at La Follette has been incredibly useful. "I work with a half-dozen GAO staff members, so knowing how to communicate and collaborate is incredibly important," he says.

In Madison, the classes also gave Eisner connections to alumni and friends of the school whom he tapped for help with his class projects, some of which he focused on education. Eisner's public management class worked on a project for 1999 alum Tim Casper, the public affairs and government relations manager for Madison Area Technical College. "For our public budgeting class, since we already had Tim as a connection, a few other classmates and I reached out to him so we could study the college's budget for our paper," Eisner says.

Eisner also asked 2008 alum Breann Boggs of the Wisconsin Department of Administration's budget office for guidance. "She spoke in our public budgeting class, and she provided me with some resources I used in my 873 Policy Analysis project, which examined rising tuition costs at public colleges and universities," Eisner says.

Eisner appreciates the small size of the La Follette School. "Having just 50 students in my whole graduating class is a really valuable part of the La Follette School," Eisner says. "At another campus, there were 150 people there just for visit day. Here a class will have 20 students, elsewhere the classes had a minimum of 40 students."

"I really like getting to know all my classmates, and the network we are building will be valuable long after we graduate," he adds. "With 100 or 150 people in an MPA class, connections would be less strong."

The collaborative nature of the teaching also has been a benefit, Eisner says. "We organized a study group through the Facebook page and 30 people showed up. We were like, 'oh, that's too many.' People really want to help each other out."

Once Eisner graduates, he hopes to work in education policy. He notes that the flexibility of the La Follette School's program will help him achieve that goal – in the fall he will be able to take courses in the University of Wisconsin–Madison's School of Education. "The larger public affairs programs seemed to dictate all two years of master's degree coursework," Eisner says, "so I might not have had that opportunity at another campus."

Public affairs work has widened Eisner's perspective on the world. "We have a lot of problems that we can complain about or we can fix," Eisner says. "I am learning skills to solve problems or bring attention to problems so other people can solve them.

"Public service helps you feel like you are part of a larger community," he says. "As a country, we are becoming more isolated. We need to meet different people and be open to different perspectives. The Milwaukee Public School high schools were a world apart from where I went to high school. That experience will help me make more informed decisions in the future."

— updated September 9, 2013