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Public policy schools more relevant than ever

Voters who went to the polls on Nov. 4 considerably changed the landscape of American government and politics. The shift from a somewhat divided government in Washington to one in which the legislative branch is in the hands of conservatives and the executive branch is in the hands of a liberal foretells a period of partisan wrangling. Keeping with that trend, voters in deep blue Maryland confounded the pundits and installed a conservative Republican governor while retaining a mostly liberal Democratic legislature.

Voters' choices matter not just because they indicate approval for or dissatisfaction with particular parties or candidates but because they often result in changes in the very public policies that impact us on a daily basis — the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, health care, public safety and more.

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Despite the significance of public policy in our lives, university-based schools of public policy have recently come under criticism for allegedly being irrelevant to what really matters in government. The critiques are, in my view, flawed in many ways, but they rightly point out a need to provide future public servants with the tools that they require to research, craft, execute and evaluate policies that affect our everyday lives. After all, schools that provide this training help make our governments at all levels more responsive and effective and make our communities stronger, safer and healthier.

Over the past 40 years, the public policy graduate program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has grown from 12 master's students to 135 doctoral and master's students. One key to our success is the program's focus on issues impacting the state.

The UMBC public policy program welcomes students from many nations and many states, but the majority of our students are from Maryland, and the majority of our graduates remain in Maryland. Moreover, at a time when fewer and fewer college students say that they want to work in the public sector, more than half of UMBC's public policy students who graduated in the last 10 years are employed by Maryland state and local government, federal agencies and nonprofits. Here is just a sample of where recent alumni are working: Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Harford County, the Maryland General Assembly, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Social Security Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Healthcare for the Homeless, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Both in the classroom and through research projects, we teach our students to ask what works and what doesn't work in government and why. We teach them to understand the impacts of public policies and programs and their benefits and costs. We ask them to explore how public programs and policies cut across different groups in society, benefiting some and disadvantaging others. And, finally, we educate our students to suggest realistic and practical improvements in existing policies and programs, and to recommend new ones when needed.

Our faculty conduct research in areas important to Marylanders, notably: health policy, educational policy, urban policy and public management. While some of their research is national and even international in nature, quite a bit specifically examines what is happening in the state. For example, recent UMBC studies have focused on the Maryland Dream Act, gambling in Maryland and strategies to reduce childhood asthma in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore.

University public policy schools play a critical role in educating the next generation of leaders on what makes sound public policy. I'm proud to teach in a program at UMBC where a substantial number of our graduates work in government or for nonprofit organizations serving the public. We need public policy leaders as much as we need the scientists, engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs who are also the products of our higher education system. After all, schools like ours that provide public policy education and training produce public servants who can improve government at all levels and can make our communities better places to live.

Donald F. Norris is professor and director of the UMBC School of Public Policy. His email is norris@umbc.edu.

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