Tuesday, December 6, 2011

State Fiscal Policy Conference

For nineteen years, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has hosted a State Fiscal Policy Conference. Unless you are a policy wonk, you may not have heard of the Center. A quote from their website is a quite accurate description: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is one of the nation’s premier policy organizations working at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

I just recently returned from this year's conference and want to share a few highlights with readers. In the first place, we started the conference in a very different place. Last year, Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moody's Analytics, gave an establishment type of presentation. Essentially, saying that the current economic system needs some tweaks and things will be back in decent shape in five years. This year we opened with a panel talking about very practical state policy reforms. No one, no one was predicting an end to this recession.

Indeed, without a drastic change in national economic policy, this recession will not end, at least for 99% of us. However, that's a subject for other posts.

Notable ideas and presentations included reform of corrections (prisons) ,sentencing, and parole laws. There are 2.3 million Americans behind bars now. This population is growing thirteen times faster than our population. We have 5% of the world's population, but 25% of world's prison population. Around 50% of this prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses. Because of ever more "get tough on crime" legislation, prison populations are not only growing rapidly, but also aging. The corrections industry now must also have facilities that look a lot like nursing homes with bars. Legislation based on principles like "three strikes you're out" and "no chance for parole" and "mandatory sentencing" have all contributed to the mess. States are spending on average $25,000 per individual each year for incarceration.

Another presentation urged states to be prudent about their economic development spending, especially regarding tax cuts. A general business tax cut is not cost effective. Much of the money from a cut in business tax goes to businesses whose hiring in tied to local demand, regardless of what the tax incentive will be. Also, businesses who are in no position to expand receive the same break. Economic development ideas that do work include customized job training and manufacturing extension services. However, these both pale when compared to investment in early childhood. A one dollar investment in early childhood returns three dollars. Both hard and soft education skills appreciate over time as opposed to other investments that depreciate over time.

Two "talking head" celebrities were at the conference, journalist E.J. Dionne, and Jared Bernstein, who is now working with the Center. Among the many wonderful insights in both of their presentations was an acknowledgment of the Occupy movement. Dionne and Bernstein each praised Occupy for bringing more public attention on income inequality in a matter of two months than other progressive efforts have managed in two decades.

Next year the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities will celebrate the 20th annual State Fiscal Policy Conference. While we policy wonks enjoy catching up with one another each year, I'm not expecting a joyous reuniting around the work we do.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Educators and Public Employees Playing Hardball

“I think it’s important to be as involved in politics as the politicians have been involved in education.”
Cathy Monteiro - Classroom Teacher - Westerville, OH

The above quote is from an Ohio Education Association member in the context of the huge struggle the working people of that state have weathered. Of course, you've heard that the anti-union ballot question was crushed by a 22 % margin. This is the first mandate on the new anti-unionism in which an open vote was held.

(The Delaware State Education Association was able to share in some of Ohio's glory. We have the luxury of a Governor who respects union rights, and that allowed us to loan staff and governance people to the Ohio effort in the last few days before the election. President Frederika Jenner, Vice-President Mike Hoffman, UniServ Jocelynne Jones, Wendy Cannon, and Toby Paone all aided the OEA political activity.)

You don't need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing. Educators and other public employees are fighting back against political demagoguery that blames them for everything from struggling schools to the struggling economy.

In Wisconsin, several Republican senators who supported the abrogation of union rights faced recall elections. There are now two less of those senators in the legislature. Governor Walker is facing the same scenario as the campaign for signatures to place his recall on the ballot is moving forward.

While unions across the country flex their political muscle, we should not forget the example of the Alabama Education Association which demonstrated union power in another way. The Alabama Education Association has been politically powerful for many years, always beating the odds in the conservative environment of the deep South. However, like most of the nation, this educators' organization lost their political grip in the 2010 election.

The enemies of AEA went after them hard by denying members the right of paycheck dues deduction. The response of the Alabama Education Association should be a lesson to us all. AEA recognized that governments give unions a framework in which to function, but they do not make unions, therefore they should not be able to break unions.

What makes unions is the desire of people to organize and collectively act in the welfare of the whole group. A government can make that inconvenient when they take away dues deduction, but that should not break a union. AEA went out and signed their members up for electronic fund transfers (automatic bank draws) to pay their union dues. Today, an overwhelming majority of educators continue to be in AEA as dues paying members despite the best efforts of the Alabama legislature to bust the union.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Troubles and Challenges

The national Occupy movement has me pondering a few points. First, it's not going away. Last night Occupy Oakland had 15,000 marchers who shut down both the Port of Oakland and the Bay Bridge. We have high unemployment and even higher under-employment (those who are part-time employed only because they cannot find full-time employment). We have young people who were told that if they played by the rules and got a good education then they would have a successful future. Those same young people are now carrying $25,000 or more student debt and have nothing on their horizon. Large groups of unemployed and youth are the right ingredients for any social movement. Yet, I tarry too long; let me get to the point of this post.

As the economic crisis settles into the "new normal", there will be an attempt to shift the blame down, way down to educators. Have we not already seen signs of this?

In the 1980s corporations began to pursue low wage manufacturing in developing countries. For the first time in history, any kind of effort to tariff to protect domestic industries was anathema. No politician Republican or Democrat wanted to be called, "protectionist". That's silly in light of the fact that trade has been regulated since the days of Ancient Rome. However, that's the story we bought; so, goods were manufactured with slave wages and brought back to be sold in the US with low or no tax penalties.

As manufacturing jobs left the US in droves, public policy makers said, "Don't worry, we can be a service and information based economy." For a while that looked viable as we rode the wave of Internet technology. However, the erosion of US jobs continued as we discovered that services such as telemarketing, data entry, and customer service could also be outsourced.

Decision makers stepped in again to reassure the public by saying, "Don't worry. It's true we will not manufacture or provide many services, but we will be the engineers, scientists, and designers."

Now, we are experiencing the dissolution of that dream as well. Guess what, just as there are nations where people are desperate to manufacture for slave wages, there are also nations with plenty of very smart people willing to engineer for grossly unfair wages.

This is the crucial point: Just as manufacturing left the US in pursuit of low wages, so has Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). US corporations did not leave the US in pursuit of smarter employees for those jobs. Corporations left to get people to do STEM for the same bargain basement wages that they can now get for manufacturing.

Some people are blaming educators for not giving the nation enough well educated STEM graduates to compete with other nations. But that was never the cause of job flight to begin with.

A combined effort of researchers Hal Salzman from Rutgers and Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown looked at the STEM issue in a study using thirty years of longitudinal data. The report titled, “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” is a fascinating and comprehensive look at STEM. In short, we are graduating STEM students with as much quality and quantity as we were in the 1970s. The difference is that now, for every three STEM graduates we give the nation, there is one STEM job waiting for them.

Educators are not to blame for any of this economic mess. However, they may be able to help if given the resources and freedom to educate with a well-rounded curriculum that is not fixated on either test scores or STEM alone. Educators will accept the challenge to help move us into a new economy, but they should never accept the blame for the current economic situation.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Stay Balanced

Last week the Delaware State Education Association was host to a briefing by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) on the national economic picture and the impact on state budgets. Jon Shure, the director of State Fiscal Strategies for CBPP, was the presenter.

Three immediate thoughts came to me during the presentation. First, things are bad out there, really bad. Second, as bad as they are here, they are worse in most other states. Third, in Delaware we used a balanced approach, a combination of revenue and budget cuts, to deal with the worst of the crisis. This is exactly the approach recommended by the nation's top policy wonks at CBPP.

One startling fact in the presentation dealt with the loss of public employee jobs nationwide:

In case the chart is a little difficult to read, that's 646,000 jobs since August of 2008. Those job losses represent a major stepping away from public services by many states. While the loss of 646,000 jobs alone means a mighty blow to the economy, consider that these are jobs that support the foundation of the greater economy: Education, public safety, transportation, and health care to name just a few.

The loss of public services ripples throughout the economy. Allow me a simple example. If I need to renew my license and I wait for 3 hours instead of the usual 30 minutes, that's a residual economic loss (my time) from the economy, in addition to the laid off DMV employees and their spending power.

We live in an increasingly complex society with a complex and interdependent economy. Correspondingly, it takes a complex and comprehensive network of public services to provide the foundation. States who go too far down this path of smaller government, fewer public employees, and less public investment are borrowing against their economic future.

As we enter our fourth consecutive tough economic year, we should maintain our balanced approach, and keep Delaware a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guilty Reappearance

It is with some guilt that I come back onto the blogsphere after a long absence. There's been so much happening and little time to write about it. So, in no order of date or importance, here are some of the issues and happenings that deserve comment.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been "marked up" (amended in committee to reflect spending needs) in the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee. The Senate version as it has been passed out of committee, has no teacher evaluation component. This has caused the United States Education Department to pull their support for the bill. The NEA continues to support Harkin's bill and is working to make it better. There is no word on when the bill will go to the floor of the Senate. We do know it will not happen before November 8th. Chairman Harkin agreed to another hearing on November 8th for the benefit of Senator Rand Paul who authored about half of the 150 amendments proposed for the bill.

Delaware is competing for another Race To The Top grant. This one is for early childhood education. The Delaware Department of Education solicited input from Kindergarten teachers before completing the grant application. Lt. Governor Matt Denn met with Kent and Sussex County Kindergarten teachers on October 3rd and with New Castle County K-teachers on October 6th. While the program is centered on pre-K education, the Kindergarten teachers would be tasked with assessing children to determine their preparedness for school.

DSEA has had two very successful trainings recently. October 14th -16th was Leaders' Weekend training. This training had an emphasis on the meaning of union and establishing a successful union culture in Locals. October 22nd was the Education Support Professionals conference. Feedback from both events has been positive.

November 1st, 2nd, and 3rd will be Political Action Leader (PAL) trainings. Any DSEA political activist is welcome to join us for one of the following: Nov. 1 at the DSEA building in Dover from 5:00PM to 7:00PM, Nov. 2 at Heritage Shores from 5:00PM to 7:00PM or Nov. 3 at DSEA Newark office from 5:00PM to 7:00PM.

Ok, I'm back...once again I'll try to keep up with postings.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Major NCLB Changes Ahead

President Obama announced this afternoon that states will be able to apply for waivers to No Child Left Behind. Educators and policy makers have complained for years about the unreasonableness of certain NCLB mandates such as the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Instead of the sanction orientated focus of the Bush years, the new emphasis will be recognizing and rewarding successful schools while providing struggling schools with targeted support and more flexibility.

One major change is the elimination of the 2014 drop dead date to have proficiency for 100% of students. Instead, states will be able to have realistic improvement goals for students in reading/language arts and mathematics.

States and school districts will have greater flexibility on the use of federal funds, while at the same time funds to meet the needs of particular populations of students will be protected.

Under the waiver, priority schools will no longer have to choose one of the four intervention models. They can design their own improvement plan based on turnaround principles.

Teacher evaluation systems will not have to be fully implemented until 2014-15 school year. This will allow states time to develop stronger and sensible evaluation systems.

In order to qualify for a waiver, states must develop a plan to address three areas of education reform: 1. Statewide college and career ready standards and assessments for students. Delaware is ahead of most states in this area 2. Systems for differentiated recognition, accountability and support. In other words, a way to identify and provide resources for the lowest performing schools. Again, Delaware has this system operating. 3. Evaluation and support for teacher and principal effectiveness. Delaware's DPAS II fits this model.

The hard work of Delaware educators in winning the Race To The Top grant may now pay off in another way. The requirements for NCLB waiver appear to be very similar to the requirements for RTTT.

Ok readers, I hope the above article makes sense. I had to write it in a hurry, but I wanted you to know the scoop before the weekend.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jobs Bill Offers New Hope

The Obama Administration sent the Jobs Bill to Congress today. Tonight, Vice-President Biden was on a national phone call with educators explaining aspects of the Jobs Bill. Education is a major part of the bill because the Administration continues to recognize education as key to our future, because we have lost 129,000 education jobs since January, and because educators are prime examples of middle class workers.

The bill has $30 billion to employee 280,000 educators for the school years 2011-2012, and 2012-2013. This type of stimulus is at work, right now in Delaware. Delaware is today utilizing money they saved from the 2010 Education Jobs Act to keep educators working this year.

$30 billion will be used to renovate our crumbling schools. $10 billion of this money will be distributed directly to school districts utilizing Title 1 funding formula. The other $15 billion will be sent to the states to allocate for school building and repairing. The average age of a US school is forty and the buildings are notoriously energy inefficient. It is estimated that we might save $2 to $4 billion on energy costs with new and renovated buildings.

$5 billion is in the legislation for community colleges although their need is much greater as demand for their services have increased with the bad economy.

Other middle class help in the bill includes deeper cuts to payroll tax and foreclosure relief.

Small business tax cuts are included as well as tax credits for those businesses hiring veterans and the long-term unemployed.

For those that have caught the fiscal conservative bug, this bill is paid for by closing tax loopholes. For example, in spite of year after year of grossly high profits, we continue to give oil companies tax breaks worth $37 billion. We also allow hedge fund managers (who actually detract, not add to the economy) to be taxed at 15% instead of the 28% rate that common folks pay on earnings. Both of these loopholes are closed by the law.

This stimulus package creates about 1.9 million jobs. The entire debt ceiling/ deficit reduction fiasco created zero jobs.