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.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Jobs Bill is Coming

If you are reading this consider yourself invited to join the Delaware State Education Association at the annual Labor Day Parade in Wilmington, Delaware. We will line up at 9:30Am at 15th and King Streets. Give an hour to Labor since they gave you the whole weekend!
President Obama will be unveiling a new jobs program in a few days. One interesting distraction has been the setting of the date to address Congress. The Republican House rejected the first offered date and suggested another...well you can hear about it in the news. The only reason I say "interesting" is that I have never seen such crude disrespect for the office of the Presidency than I have since Obama took office. Remember Congressman Joe Wilson's "You lie!" during the State of the State? Or John Boehner's not returning the President's phone calls? There have been other incidents as well. The point is civility appears to be gone. It's like the meaner cousins of the Beverly Hillbillies have come to Congress.
Let us all hope that Obama's jobs plan will be worth the wait when the House does finally let him speak. Playing catch up is always difficult, but that's what he needs to do. When Obama's first stimulus, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, was before the people he should have stated something along these lines:
My predecessor attempted to help this economy with a massive initiative in trickle down economics when he bailed out the banks. This Administration is not going to do that. We are going to put money at the grassroots level to stimulate the economy and in the process of putting people back to work we will improve our education system, repair crumbling infrastructure, and move the nation forward in alternative energy and green economy. With all that said, I must warn you: This is a deep recession. Just like the Administration of FDR, we may have to come back again, and maybe again, with more stimulus until the citizens in this country are back on their economic feet. I will never apologize for investment that puts us back to work and strengthens us for the future.

Unfortunately nothing like the above was said during the first stimulus fight. So, instead of creating jobs with federal spending, we've been on a mission to cut federal spending. We didn't think of taking on this job when we gave $1 Trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy, when we took on two wars costing billions of dollars every month, or even when we gave billions to extremely profitable oil companies. No, we decided to cut spending in the middle of a deep recession. FDR must be rolling in his grave.

How the President now changes the debate from 'kill government and shrink its head', to 'government is the only entity that can get money moving again in the economy so lets rebuild and build anew', I don't know. However, he is a great communicator. Moreover he's going in the right direction and there is a power that comes from doing the right thing.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irene's Out and School's In

School's in, and Irene's out! Most schools in Delaware started a day late as the maintenance crews in school districts made sure that water and debris were cleaned up before allowing the kids back.

Delaware acted responsibly in preparation for Irene and in response during and after Irene. That seems like a "no brainer", but it's not. Governors and media of the East Coast are actually receiving criticism from some pundits for being too cautious and "hyping Irene". This is absurd Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but it is out there in the public discourse now.

Delaware deaths due to Irene are now at two, and insurance claims at around $2 million. These are tragic but contained losses. Evacuations and a state of emergency declared by Governor Markell were a major factor in easing the impact of the hurricane. Additionally, public employees at every level of government really performed well.

Emergencies like Irene remind us of the importance of public infrastructure and public employees.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Odds and Ends

Labor Day is coming! DSEA members are encouraged to participate in the annual Labor Day parade in downtown Wilmington. Labor Day is in honor of American Labor and like all your other weekends would not exist without the Labor Movement. So, if you are a DSEA member please join us at 15th and King Street (this is our starting position in the parade line up) at 9:30 AM on Labor Day. This is a fun activity, bring your spouses and children to walk with us and hundreds of other Labor families from the area.
New Teacher Orientations have been taking place around the state. As teachers are welcomed into school districts to take on their new roles, they are also recruited by DSEA and welcomed into the union. The DSEA locals do a great job, often getting 100% of new hires signed into the union.
The teachers in Capital School District will come under Fair Share rules this year. That means that teachers who choose not to be members will pay a fee for the services they receive under the contract. In Locals without Fair Share, the loyal dues paying members pay to sustain the organization that negotiates contracts for compensation and working conditions enjoyed by all, including the non-members. That will no longer be the case in Capital, congratulations to that Local.
At the federal level the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is moving forward. US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, will announce a plan in September to allow flexibility around some of the NCLB requirements. However, this will be in exchange for undisclosed commitments to reform.
This action prompted National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel to comment:“What we need now is teacher-led and student-focused comprehensive reform instead of making states jump through more hoops. The Administration should be leading efforts that support all students and schools by providing real relief from parts of the law that everyone acknowledges simply don’t work.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

Charter School Law

Today, Governor Markell signed HB 205 into law. The bill increases the oversight and accountability of charter schools. This is the first change in Delaware charter school law in the 14 years since the schools were established in the state.

The Governor said, "Charter schools empower parents to choose the school that best fits their child's needs. But the promise of charter schools is not just added flexibility - it is added flexibility coupled with heightened accountability."

Perhaps another way of phrasing this is the old saw: To whom much is given, much is expected.

Certainly we have given charter schools a lot. They have the exclusivity of private schools, but with all the public funding (except capital construction)of your local community public school. Additionally, charters have been given unmitigated praise by education reformers across the country. The lavish praise has been reinforced by an unquestioning media.

Intentionally deaf ears and blind eyes ignore research showing that when comparable populations are examined, charter schools do no better and even worse in some endeavours than traditional public schools.

The new Delaware law will require charters to disclose finances, to come under the governance of a state Financial Recovery Team if they are in fiscal trouble, have criminal background checks for operators, and evaluate the impact on community public schools before expanding or replicating.

The Governor worked closely with DSEA, legislators, and charter schools to make this legislation happen. Congratulations to the Markell Administration for the courage to do it, and the smarts to do it right.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NCSL Final Thoughts

Ok, this is the last blog post on my NCSL trip. I promise. This will be just a hodgepodge of thoughts about the trip.

First, the dire straights of a nation in economic peril made more perilous by bad government policy was evident in San Antonio. San Antonio is arguably the premier convention city for Texas, and landing NCSL was a premium opportunity. NCSL has state legislators, policy experts, lobbyists, corporate and union officials from all over the nation attend. Yet, even here where Texas and their presidential hopeful governor wanted to showcase the state, at the back of the convention center were three historic buildings (complete with brass plaques advertising their importance to Texas) boarded up. After all, in Rick Perry's world who needs history and culture unless it can pull its own weight with an admission fee?

Flying into and out of San Antonio I was shocked that the countryside looked more Las Cruces, New Mexico a desert city, than the lush river city I remembered from years ago. This is not just an anecdotal observation. All 254 counties of Texas have been declared drought disasters by the US Department of Agriculture; thus making them eligible for various types of federal relief. This topic was not mentioned when Rick Perry addressed the NCSL about government spending, entitlements, et al. Interesting to note that climate change did not come up either.

It was rather ironic that on the same day Rick Perry spoke to NCSL, the final space shuttle crew made an appearance and gave a presentation. For a decade US astronauts have been building and improving the space station. NASA will now no longer have a space station program with astronauts. However, privately funded missions are being developed for corporate interests who want to experiment in space. It took "big government" to develop a space program. Now, the private sector will profit from the foundation laid by the public sector and, yes, public employees.

Finally, what's with the Alamo? A favorite saying in Texas, to this day, is "Remember the Alamo!". Personally, I think they need closure and should move on. Forget the Alamo. By the way, if you want to see the captured flag of the Alamo, you will have to go to Mexico City for that is where it sits in a museum behind Chapultepec Park. The Mexicans have denied repeated requests from Texas for the flag. I can't blame them. After all we haven't given back Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Check into that little piece of history called the Mexican American War and take note the next time you hear folks from Texas or Arizona talking about Mexicans illegally crossing into "our country".

Please don't get the wrong idea. I was born in San Angelo, Texas. I still have family in Texas. I think Texans are naturally friendly, gregarious, and down to earth. I like Texans. I like them enough to believe they deserve a better government, and a more compassionate public policy that reflects their true nature.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Governor Rick Perry at NCSL

Rick Perry spoke to the National Council of State Legislatures this morning. His platform could be summarized as Bush Re-do: Cut taxes, cut social services spending, cut regulations on corporations. The nation wants to do this again, because it worked out so well the first time?

With the increase of Republican majorities in legislatures, including the influx of Tea Party Republicans, many of the presentations at NCSL have turned decidedly to the Right. For example, I attended a panel on health care this morning that was entirely about states opting out of the Affordable Care Act. There were ten panelists, and by my count only one was saying anything positive about ACA.

That's not to say that there are not problems with ACA. For example, the insurance industry made out like bandits and the pharmaceutical industry didn't go away paupers either. However, these folks were simply wanting to throw out ACA and return to "free market" health care. One panelist said, "People should have the freedom to buy health care with their own money". Yes, and the homeless should have the freedom to dine al fresco. Seriously, the free market has left about 50 million Americans without health care. If you work in one of the millions of low wage jobs that does not provide benefits, your freedom of choice amounts to food or health insurance.

This will be my last day reporting from the Lone Star State, it's back to the First State tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

NCSL Day 2

Among many interesting things at the National Council of State Legislatures is the Exhibit Hall. Exhibitors from AAA to the Youth Support Concussion Coalition fill the giant hall touting organizations, causes, and products to state legislators.

Some exhibits cause a smile such as American Association for Nude Recreation. Some exhibits cause a frown such as the John Birch Society. Some have clever giveaways such as the all too real looking plastic cockroaches by Terminix. Taser International Inc. was in the hall as well, only they were not giving out samples, and neither was the National Rifle Association.

There are wonderful research resources offered by a few exhibitors. For example, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis was showing off their website which offers factual information about the American economy. The Bureau has resisted the winds of ideology in Washington by being staffed by merit employees untouchable by vindictive politicians.

The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy was present with a truthful and mature approach to taxation. On the other hand, there were probably 7 or 8 groups present who had an assortment of snake oil approaches in lieu of taxation.

Thank heavens for the National Education Association and their great booth, staffed with professionals. Their advocacy found companionship with exhibitors such as Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

Tomorrow, NCSL delegates will hear from Texas governor, and presidential hopeful, Rick Perry. A legislator from Waco, Texas complete with white cowboy hat and bollo tie told me how pleased I was going to be when I heard a "good Christian man" like Rick Perry. Oh, the temptation to go into an old SNL skit and say, "Rick Perry is not good, Christian, or a man: Discuss among yourselves".

Monday, August 8, 2011

NCSL in San Antonio

I am at the first day of the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) in San Antonio, Texas. It's over 100 degrees here and as tough as it is on the visitors, we should remember Texans are in their 39th day of tripple digits.

Regardless of heat, the National Education Association is at NCSL and doing their part to influence the public policy of states towards an education agenda that makes sense. Towards that end, the NEA sponsored a presentation by William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center. Mr Mathis and the NEPC spend a lot of time debunking the myths driving US education policy today. In this post I'll focus on just one part of his brilliant presentation, in which he identifies the "Market-Model Approach" under which we are living now, and answers with an alternative.
According to William Mathis the Market-Model Approach is as follows:

  • The purpose of education is high test scores for international economic competitiveness.

  • Properly run schools can overcome poverty and other disadvantages by dint of greater efficiency and effectiveness.

  • A free-market, privatized system will, through competition, achieve the desirable outcomes.

  • Advanced by wealthy patrons, business community, media and politicians based on research from vested interest think-tanks such as Heritage, Cato, Manhattan and Hoover.

Again, according to Mr. Mathis, the Anti-Market Model Narrative:

  • Education is, among other things, a process

  • of shaping the moral imagination, character, skills and intellect of our children,

  • of inviting them into the great conversation of our moral, cultural and intellectual life, and

  • of giving them the resources to prepare them to fully participate in the life of the nation and of the world.

The alternative provided by the National Education Policy Center sounds closer to the type of education that attracted most educators to the profession and it is certainly closer to mission of education when middle aged Americans were themselves students.

It occurs to me that the Market Model is based on two falsehoods:1. US corporations have outsourced millions of jobs because they cannot find enough "smart" Americans to take those jobs. 2. It is the job of the US education system to now make America economically competitive again.

In short order. US corporations did not outsource for smart labor. They outsourced for cheap labor, and for labor unimpeded by safety and environmental laws. 2. The job of education is about those immeasurable attributes listed by Mr. Mathis above...to instill a love of learning that is applicable in the intellectual, moral, and cultural life of an individual.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Looking at Doom Dreaming of Paradise

Sometimes you don't want to be right. I've been a huge pessimist about the economy on this blog since it started. Moreover, regarding the recent budget deal I had to agree with Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver from Kansas City, Missouri who called it, "a sugar coated Satan sandwich".

Now we've got big problems. Standard and Poors just downgraded our credit rating last night. The budget deal contained no revenue increases and the GOP promised to not allow revenue increases in the future when the so called Super Committee revisits the budget. More importantly, there is now established a precedent to continue huge battles about the debt ceiling in the future. So, if a nation will not raise any money and will periodically threaten not to repay creditors, what kind of an investment risk does that make us? Are we sure that we even warrant the AA+?

There is a good fix for this, and there is the fix we will probably adopt. Let's start with the bad and expected fix.

There is a good chance that ideologues in this country will use the economic scary times to completely dismantle the already patchy social service net. Although S&P mentions failure to raise taxes more than failure to cut spending in their reasoning, there is an element that will concentrate on cuts. Not just any cuts, but cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, Student Aid, ESEA funding, and of course regulatory agencies such as the EPA. We could actually be looking at an America that resembled Hoover's America of our parents' or grandparents' day. This is a bad fix.

Further cutting of domestic spending in the current economy will deepen the recession. Estimates of job loss for the cuts currently on the table stand at around 1.8 million. The US will have trouble surviving that loss, let alone going back for more.

The good fix in my mind is as follows. First, the President should declare that there will be no more debt ceiling fights in the future, because he will simply invoke the 14 Amendment and raise the ceiling unilaterally. Second, we should go after revenue from the two sources that still have money, the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans and corporations who are sitting on more than $2Trillion and not hiring US workers. Third, we should cut corporate subsidies such as the outlandish practice of giving oil companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Fourth, we should impose a rapid trades tax on Wall Street. Current trading has nothing to do with investment and everything to do with speculation. Shares may be held for weeks, days, hours, or even minutes by speculators using computer trading. On shares held for so short a time which are obviously not investments, there should be an escalating tax. Fifth, we should complete the exit of troops from Iraq including the many private soldiers hired there, and leave Afghanistan, and when troops are safely home, make the Pentagon live within a reasonable budget for the first time in 70 years.

Finally, we should actually spend money. Our transportation system is a joke. We should join the rest of the world and have this country crisscrossed with commuter trains; from cross country bullet trains to in- town trolleys. Our infra-structure is crumbling. Ironically, a lot of it was built in the last Depression to create jobs under the Work Project of America. And we are still hiding our head in the sand about climate change and the resulting extreme weather. We should be moving to green energy and we should be honest and figure out if we will need to change agriculture growing locations and even if we will need to move people from some areas that will not be inhabitable either because of flooding or drought and temperature.

Underlying it all will be the need for a good public education system that includes tuition free college (once again something the rest of the developed world has had since WWII).

All of these things are of such enormity that only the federal government can take them on. However, all of these things create jobs and grow the economy. They are big, pie in the sky dreams...like the ones that built this country to begin with.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

That's One Smart Actor

Today's post is largely someone else's words, but what words! This last weekend at a rally for education in Washington DC, the actor Matt Damon gave the following speech:

I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.
And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am ... can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.
This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. ... Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Deal or No Deal

One way or another it looks like the debt ceiling/budget reduction drama is about to end. Like most large pieces of federal legislation, it will take a few days to sort out the details, and then analyze the impact. However, one thing remains true regardless of the fallout. This was a manufactured crisis to push an agenda, and it could not have come at a worse time for the country.

The debt ceiling of the US government has been raised hundreds of times by both parties. George Bush raised it 7 times and conservative icon Ronald Reagan raised it 18 times. Our debt sounds scary to Joe and Sally citizen when the talk of Trillions of dollars is in the air. However, a government budget does not function like a family budget. (Although even family budgets are scary when one considers long-term debt such as home and auto mortgages.)Governments are judged on their economic capacity and their ability to pay as they go. Our debt is approaching GDP (depending what calculation you want to use it ranges all the way from 59% of GDP to 96% of GDP), some reputable nations such as Japan have debt at twice that amount. No one doubts that the hard working and innovative Japanese are worth the investment and will continue to pay bonds. Can they say that about the US now thanks to this lunacy?

There is also a mythology about China buying the US debt and controlling us etc. While we should certainly be concerned about our trade deficit with China and the outsourcing of US jobs to China, the debt is of less concern. China owns about 7.5% of the debt. Japan is then next closest creditor nation holding 6.4% of US debt. United States individuals and institutions own 42.2% of the debt. It should also be noted that the US government owns some of their own debt: 17.9% Social Security Trust Fund and US Civil Service Retirement Fund 6% are examples of this.

As a nation we should control spending and eliminate a great deal of fraud from government contractors. We should realize that military adventurism is very expensive. We should realize that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans do not "trickle down" and are extremely costly ($1 Trillion for the Bush tax cuts). Corporate welfare is costly. For example, why are oil companies receiving billions of dollars from taxpayers?

With all of the above acknowledged there was no crisis today that warranted the actions taken by Congress. The US economy is plugging along at a dismal pace (.4% first quarter and 1.3% second quarter). Unemployment is over 9%. Why is that relevant? Because slowing federal government spending is a sure way to cause more retraction and unemployment. The inexcusable thing is that economists know this, we have data on this, it's not just an ideological opinion.

If these cuts take effect in 2013, we will see another significant dip in the economy. Of particular concern is how much of this deal involves aid to states for such things as Medicaid and education? State budgets have not recovered from the original crash, and now they could take another hit. A part of our current slump comes from the fact that state and local governments shed another 250,000 jobs this year.

The recession is not due to government spending at either the federal or state level. The crash was caused by private sector greed and incompetence, compounded by historic levels of wealth disparity. The whole debt ceiling/budget reduction drama will not add a single job to the economy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NEA Asks Members to Weigh In

The National Education Association has asked members across the nation to weigh in on the fight over deficit reduction. The NEA is alarmed at the extremist positions coming from Tea Party members of Congress. Essentially, the Tea Party position is for no revenue increases at all, even from the super rich. Additionally, they are willing to cut key programs that are the underpinnings of our society such as education and health care.

The NEA has asked members to email Congress through the NEA Legislative Action Center at www.capwiz.com/nea/issues/alert/?alertid=51305571&TYPE=CO.

Congress should be told to support a balanced approach that protects the middle class and preserves the investments that make America strong. Congressmen should be told that any deal must include the wealthiest Americans paying their fair share. Finally, we expect a "no" vote on the Boehner plan which does none of those things.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Back With Current Events

I apologize for the long absence. I need some time to decompress after an exhausting legislative session. For DSEA members, our next issue of "Action" will give a summary of the legislative year. You should see this in your mailboxes in a few days.

For the rest of the summer I'll use the blog to comment on timely political and labor issues. Nothing could be more timely than the current battle in DC over the debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling should be a non-issue since it simply means that we will continue to pay our debts on already borrowed and spent money. Democratic and Republican presidents have favored the raising of our debt ceiling. President Bush raised the ceiling 7 times, and conservative icon President Reagan raised it 18 times in his two terms.

We live in strange times. Fiscal conservatives, primarily Republicans but with a few Democrats as well are using the debt ceiling as leverage to push a fiscal agenda. Their agenda is strange. In short they are fiscally conservative when it comes to social program spending such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. However, when it comes to tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, and military spending, they are like drunken libertines. There are legislators among this lot who are willing to risk throwing the nation into an economic depression to push their agenda. Defaulting on our debt would be injurious in good economic times, but will be a disaster in this recession.

You are being blasted with information about the debt ceiling debate in the mainstream media, so I will not belabor it. In conclusion, realize four very important things. First, in spite of the large numbers thrown at you, our debt is not critical because of the large economic capacity of the US. Our debt is just now approaching GDP. Some nations such as Japan carry debt twice their GDP. Second, the current recession has nothing to do with government over-spending and everything to do with greed and imprudence in the private sector. Third, significant debt reduction could be achieved by ending the Bush tax cuts ($1 trillion), ending corporate tax loopholes, and ending our three wars. Finally, the only experience we have with economic conditions as bad as they are today, is the Great Depression. In that circumstance, it was the direction of economist John Maynard Keynes that got the nation back on our feet. Keynesian economics basically believes in using government spending to stimulate a depressed or recessed economy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Budget, Bond, and Grant In Aid

The Joint Finance Committee finished all their work yesterday by completing the Grant In Aid process. Last week they completed budget markup and the published budget bill (HB 190) was distributed on the floor of the House on Tuesday of this week.

None of it becomes reality until both chambers pass the budget and the grant in aid bills. Additionally, some economic decisions regarding construction projects, job creation initiatives, and tax breaks will be taken up by the Bond Committee on Monday, June 20th.

The Bond Committee will be more tight fisted with projects than they might have been after this week's economic forecast. The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) which estimates state revenues reported an additional $18 million for the fiscal year, but this is after a month of rumors that it might be as big as $40 million. Moreover, their projections show revenue will drop around $38 million in fiscal year 2012.

On a bright note, one of the additions that the Joint Finance Committee was able to do before finishing markup, was make a small investment toward improving paraprofessional pay. In addition to step increase, paraprofessionals will receive an additional $875 on scale. This is a much better deal for paraprofessionals that the original 2% increase.

Finally, in the closing days of the session a charter school regulation bill will be put forward by the Markell Administration to deal with recent problems that have arisen with a few of those schools. DSEA will be involved in trying to influence the legislation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Joint Finance Committee Labors On

The Joint Finance Committee met again today continuing to work on budget markup. The two big items of discussion today were expenditures under the Tobacco Fund and Medicaid expenditures. The Tobacco Fund refers to money that the tobacco industry has to give states as part of a federal settlement from about a decade ago. In Delaware we have been true to using this money for health care programs. In recent years with declining General Fund revenues, we have been relying more heavily on the Tobacco Fund and drawing down the reserve. Some members of JFC expressed concern about this trend and the dependency of various health programs on the fund.

However, the discussion of Medicaid was much more involved. The Governor's budget proposed $5 million in reductions for Medicaid. A lot of attention focused on use of the emergency room for non-emergency care by the Medicaid population.

From the perspective of an observer, it seemed like there needed to be more information provided to the JFC. (Perhaps it was provided and simply not available to the public) There is no, one, homogeneous Medicaid population. A person who uses Medicaid could be a child, a paraplegic adult, a single mom, an able bodied adult who goes to work everyday in a low-wage job without health benefits, or a senior citizen who is too poor to pay for the gap in coverage from Medicare. So to say that the Medicaid population is over-using the emergency room tells one, next to nothing about what is really going on and why.

To use an example from our sample group above; the working poor often have inflexible employers who do not have "sick days" for their employees. Thus, going to a doctor's office from 9:00AM to 5:00PM is not an option; leaving the emergency room for care. (Although Acute Care clinics are beginning to fill that niche in many areas).

In any case, except for a very few disturbed individuals, people who use Medicaid are just like you and me. They are not going to sit around in an emergency room all night long just to make the state spend more money. There must be something driving the behavior for a specific demographic.

It is this kind of need for more information and thoughtful decision making that prompted the JFC to take the following two actions. First, they restored all $5 million in proposed cuts to Medicaid. Second, they have ordered a task force to study cost savings and innovation in health care and Medicaid.

A major item of interest for educators remains unresolved in the 2012 Budget, the paraprofessional pay plan. This blog has written previously about the promise made by the General Assembly four years ago to raise paraprofessional pay in three phases. The modest goal is to get the starting salary to the federal poverty level for a family of four (currently $22,350 per year). The General Assembly funded Phase I in 2008, but has not funded another phase since the bad budget years.

Given Delaware's unexpected revenues over the last few months, the Delaware State Education Association would like the State to take the opportunity to move paraprofessionals closer to a living wage.

The JFC continues to toil over the budget. They will meet again Wednesday morning.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

JFC Still Working Hard

Ohhhh, I hope blogging is like riding a bicycle, you never forget how, no longer how long it's been.

Life has been busy in education politics. The Joint Finance Committee did two weeks of Budget Mark Up work, did not get finished, did some more this week, and hopefully will finish in a marathon session on Monday.

Educators have held their own, getting a few improvements such as a 2% raise beginning in January, 2012 (as opposed to July, 2012 the actual start of the 2012 fiscal year), and the infamous extra pay period.

Unfortunately, the moratorium on National Board Certification stipends, or Skills and Knowledge cluster stipends will continue yet another year. Without compensating educators for the hard work and time involved, these self-improvement endeavours will become a thing of the past.

There is still one funding issue to be decided that is important to educators, paraprofessional Phase II funding. Four years ago, the General Assembly studied educator pay and found paraprofessional pay particularly egregious. The General Assembly set a modest goal of moving the starting salary of a paraprofessional up to the federal poverty level for a family of four. This was to be done in three phases. In 2008 Phase I was implemented. We have done nothing since then because of the fiscal crisis.

Now, we have some unexpected revenue, so DSEA is pushing hard for Phase II of the paraprofessional pay plan. Remember, this is a modest goal to begin with because federal poverty level for a family of four is only $22,350 a year. Phase II will not yet get them there, but it will help.

The next item of interest falls under the DSEA commitment to "Protect and Nurture Children". This DSEA legislative plank reads as follows:

Every educator knows the heartbreak and frustration of children who are too hungry, sick, or traumatized to learn well. The opportunity to learn cannot be divorced from socio-economic realities, and those realities are becoming more challenging. In 2010, more than 26% of all US children live in poverty. DSEA will be supportive of legislation, policy, and initiatives which promote the welfare of children and the economic stability of their families.

With this in mind we should be proud of our Attorney General Beau Biden. Mr. Biden is standing up to the insurance industry, by making Blue Cross Blue Shield put money into a health foundation if they merge with a for-profit insurance company. This will mean millions of dollars for indigent care in the state, and that means healthier kids and families in Delaware.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fast Start for JFC

The Joint Finance Committee came out of the gate fast today. The first issue in budget mark-up was salary policy. The Chair, Representative Dennis P Williams, and the Vice-Chair, Senator Harris McDowell, brought forward a proposal: A 2% raise for all state employees and educators beginning January 1, 2012. A 1% pension increase for retired state employees and educators. Step increase for all educators (including support staff such as school secretaries).

After much discussion, this proposal passed unanimously with all 11 JFC members voting for it.

The fact that educator Step Increase was by no means a "given" this year, suggests that we have education and advocacy to do around this issue. Step "increases" are simply movement on a very delayed pay plan. By the time you have been around 15 years, you might be making what someone in the private sector started their career with. Educators should thank Representative Dennis P Williams and Senator Harris McDowell for making Step a part of their pay policy proposal.

The famous or infamous (depending on your perspective) 27th pay also passed by a vote of 10 "yes" and 1 "not voting".

DSEA will continue to advocate for restoration of the National Board Certification stipend, the Skills and Knowledge stipend, and for funding of Paraprofessional Phase II pay plan as the process moves along.

A special note on SJR4:
The Senate Resolution to study the consolidation of school districts was given a committee hearing last week, but not before Senator Mike Katz reached out to DSEA. The Senator wanted to make it clear that his intention was to bring educators to the table for discussion through the representation of their union. To that end, Senator Katz amended his bill to specifically include representatives from DSEA.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Good Economics

It's amazing, but true, Delaware has a little money due to better than expected revenue. The State is better off by more than $320 million. I say, "amazing" because too many Delawareans are still unemployed and under-employed. The purpose of this post is not to go into why revenue numbers have improved while the lives of many of our citizens have not. The purpose of this post is propose reinvesting a small piece of that money back into Delaware.

Public employees, including educators are still not made whole from cuts made the previous three budgets. I'll speak to educator issues and let other union activists speak for their people.

First, educators need their step increase. This is the less than 1% incremental increase for each year of the first fifteen years of service. All educators need this step increase. The proposed budget only recommends the step for teachers and para-professionals, leaving out all other school employees. We are one community, with one mission to educate children, and we should not do anything to sow division.

Second, educators who wish to increase their skill level by attaining a National Board Certification, or by educating themselves in skills and knowledge clusters should be rewarded for their efforts. The State has in place a moratorium on the stipend connected to those two worthwhile endeavors.

Finally, the Legislature made a commitment a few years ago to bring para-professionals up to the federal poverty level for a family of four. Para-professionals do the real hands-on work with some of our most physically and developmentally challenged kids. Yet these important people in our schools make shamefully low wages. A step one para-professional earns $17,500 per year.

The plan was for para-professionals to be paid increasing amounts up to the poverty level in three phases. So far, the State has only managed Phase I before the tough budget times caused us to go no farther. Implementing Phase II would be another step to keeping our original promise. By delaying this pay plan, we have actually lost ground as the federal poverty level has risen, but the pay of our para-professionals has remained the same.

Phase II of the para-professional pay plan would cost the state about $3.3 million. It would put an additional $2,500 a year into the hands of desperately struggling workers. This is real economic stimulus to the Delaware economy.

If I give a tax break to a corporation or to a wealthy individual, do I create jobs? No, probably not. For example, a corporation is not going to take their tax break money and hire someone unless there is a demand for a product that they can sell and return investment. If such a situation (the potential to make money by hiring additional labor)exists, they will hire with or without the tax break. There is no empirical data that shows tax breaks to the wealthy or corporations create jobs.

On the other hand studies have shown that money in the hands of the working poor ends up being quickly used at the local level for necessities, thus stimulating the economy. If you give our para-professionals a few extra dollars that money is spent at the grocery store, paid to the landlord, or used to purchase clothing at the local K-Mart.

We have a little bit of money to work with for the first time in three years. Let's use it to do some good for common working people. This in turn will do good for local businesses. Before you know it we will have a recovery quickly springing up from the grassroots, not slowly trickling down as waste water from the top.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Issues Blooming Like Spring Flowers

Yes, readers I dropped off the face of the earth again, but now I'm back. Here are a few of the things that kept me off the blogsphere:

First, discussions on educator and public employee benefits ended successfully with legislation, House Bill 81, incorporating the agreed upon changes. House Bill 81 passed the House with only 3 "no" votes out of 41 and passed the Senate with 20 "yes" votes and one absent. It will soon be signed into law by Governor Markell.

Senate Bill 34, the bill to give public employee unions representation on the State Employment Benefits Committee came out of committee in the Senate and will probably be on the floor of the Senate in early May.

SB 5 was filed which proposes the consolidation of the vocational technical school districts in Delaware. Currently all three counties have their own vo-tech district. The New Castle County vo-tech system has four schools, Kent and Sussex Counties both have one each, for a total of six schools. Proponents of the bill say that we should be able to administer six schools with less than three superintendents and three school boards. Opponents of the bill point out issues such as the individual missions and identities of the districts and the fact that the fiscal note shows a savings of only $65,000 after consolidation.
DSEA has expressed concerns regarding salary discrepancies between the three districts which would need to be "leveled up" to the highest salaries. Also, the bargaining rights of educators will have to be protected because the original certified bargaining units will no longer exist in a consolidation scenario. Finally, we raised the issue of evaluating the educational impact of consolidation particularly in the context of education reform.

Senate Joint Resolution 4 was filed by Senator Katz. This resolution forms a task force to look at consolidation of all 19 school districts, and then specifically excludes educators from being a part of the task force! This was filed the last day of session before the Spring Break. We will obviously be voicing opposition to this legislation when the lawmakers return.

It's school board election time! School board elections are Tuesday, May 10th. So, that means mailings, and phone banking, and all sorts of activity to get the best people elected to govern our schools.

These are a few of the things keeping me from blogging much.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Only in Delaware

Governor Jack Markell spoke today at the Delaware Chamber of Commerce luncheon. The event reminded me (as a transplant to Delaware)that the "Delaware way", truly is unique.

First, in other states it would not be likely that I as a Labor activist would attend a Chamber event. However, in Delaware, I and other Labor people were present at the event. Why? Because in Delaware, the Chamber is not obsessed with the destruction of Labor.

Second, the keynote speaker, Governor Markell, a pro-business, smaller government Democrat, gave a speech that was pro-union and pro-public employee. Governor Markell said that some other Governors speak of their public employees in a way that "makes me sick". He went on to explain that as businessmen they would not speak ill of their employees because they know that therein lay the value of their businesses. In the same way, Governors should not speak ill of their employees who teach kids, or do any number of other difficult jobs. The Governor went on to give praise to the state employee unions who just finished a challenging process of finding cost savings in their benefit plans. He singled out Jeff Taschner of DSEA for good work on the project. Additionally, Markell returned to one of his common themes, the need for good, forward-looking schools to make Delaware economically competitive.

In conclusion, and with my "only in Delaware" mindset firmly in place...Only in Delaware could an old Labor radical like me, go to a Chamber event, listen to a fiscally Conservative Democratic Governor, and go away truly believing that we have turned a corner with this same Governor and that we will be able to walk down the road with him to better times.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Voice for Health Benefits

There is much attention on educator and state worker benefits this year. The State and the public employee unions have been engaged in a long and grueling process of exploring and agreeing upon cost saving measures for health care and pension. The final package from this process is close to completion.

Meanwhile, an important bill that gives educators and state workers a voice in decisions regarding their health plan, silently moved forward yesterday. Senate Bill 34 was voted out of the Senate Health and Social Services committee.

Senate Bill 34, sponsored by Senator Blevins, expands the current State Employees Benefits Committee (SEBC). The SEBC is the governing body for the health plan which insures educators and state workers. The SEBC makes decisions about premium rates and the plan benefits. Currently the SEBC has seven members: Director of Office Management and Budget, Insurance Commissioner, State Treasurer, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Controller General,Secretary of Finance, and Secretary of Health and Social Services.

SB 34 would take the SEBC to nine members. The Governor will appoint two positions from a choice of four: President of DSEA, President of Delaware State Troopers Association, Executive Director of AFSCME, or President of Correctional Officers Association of Delaware. The terms will be for three years and no one can be appointed for more than two consecutive terms.

Stakeholders deserve a voice and a vote in the governance of their own health plan. Moreover, the public unions in Delaware have demonstrated that they are a responsible partner in the preservation of affordable benefits. Congratulations to Senator Blevins on a fine piece of legislation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Health and Pension Savings

The State Workers United coalition, which includes the Delaware State Education Association has been meeting with representatives from Governor Markell's Administration to see if there could be a meeting of minds around cost savings in health care and pension. The discussions have gone well.

Unfortunately, the details of the discussions were prematurely leaked to the News Journal today. Therefore, we have scrambled to put together a summary of the agreement before people see it in the paper tomorrow. What follows is our attempt to do so.

These proposals have been agreed upon by representatives of the Markell Administration and State Workers United for a Better Delaware, aka, the Coalition. They must still be incorporated into the state’s FY12 Budget, i.e. approved by the Joint Finance Committee and the General Assembly.

The Governor’s budget called for $100 million in savings over five years to the state’s cost of employee benefits. The Coalition’s interest was to protect pension and benefit plans so that the benefits are not diminished and are sustainable for the career state employees and their families.

The savings these changes represent amount to $128.06 million over the next five years. And these savings will continue to increase incrementally into the future.

New state employees only:
Move from 3% to 5% for employee contribution towards pension
Vesting to qualify for pension after 10 years, up from five
Increase the penalty for retiring early from .2% to .4% (the penalty that existed in the early 2000’s)
Change the normal retirement age to age 65 with 10 years of service; age 60 with 20 years of service; 30 years of service at any age (Current is age 62 once vested; 60 years with 15 years of service; and 30 years of service at any age)
Eliminate “double-state share” where the state provides full health care benefits for spouses when both are state employees. For new employees, one spouse will be primary.
Lengthen the time to qualify for state share of health care in retirement from:
50% state paid at 10 years of service; 75% at 15 years; and 100% at 20 years to –
50% at 15 years of service ; 75% at 17.5 years; and 100% at 20 years (same as now).

Pension health care changes for current state employees and future state employees:
Future retirees will pay 5% of the Medicare Medigap coverage provided by the state, or approximately $21/month. At present, the state pays 100% of this coverage, resulting in a more robust benefit for Medicare retirees: pre-Medicare retirees pay the employee share of health care costs as well as co-pays and deductibles. Once retired, Medicare recipients pay nothing for the state health care supplement, nor do they pay for co-pays and deductibles.

Health care cost increases for current and future state employees:
While the group is still fine tuning the specifics, the consensus proposal regarding establishing a cost share for employee health would likely increase the employee cost share on the basic plan from 0% to 5% of the premium. With respect to the PPO plan – the state’s most generous plan – this proposal would increase the employee cost share from approximately 12.7% of the premium to around 13.5%.

First State Basic Plan – Currently only 560 state employees (less than 1%) are enrolled in this plan.
This plan will no longer be free but will cost $25.73/month, or 5% of its cost.
Aetna HMO – Plan cost will increase between $1.43/month for single employee to $5.19/month for Family.
BlueCARE HMO – Plan will increase between $1.46/month for single employee to $5.47/month for Family plan.
Comprehensive PPO Plan – Fifty-three percent of state employees are enrolled in this plan.
This plan’s cost will increase $4.59/month for single employee; $9.73/month for employee and spouse; $7.76/month for employee and children; and $12.17/month for Family.

27th pay for FY2012
As you have most likely heard, the Governor has put in his proposed budget funds for a 27th pay period for next year, thanks to the anomalies of our pay calendar. It should be noted that school districts may object to paying the local portion of the additional pay.

The group is also recommending to the JFC and the General Assembly to include in the state budget language providing for a 2% pay increase effective 2012-2013 – keeping part of the money from the 27th pay in the state budget for salary. This would offset the increase in pension contribution from new employees and provide current employees with a 2% raise.

Other considerations – More savings are being discussed
Finding savings – The Coalition recommended that the State review its contractual arrangements with insurance providers to maximize discounts it can obtain. The State has acknowledged savings $9.26 million in savings over the next five years in prescription drug discounts alone.
The Coalition also suggested that it could realistically and without causing any harm adjust some of its actuarial assumptions regarding pension costs. These recommendations will be considered by the Pension Board at its March meeting.
The Coalition suggested that these savings be used to continue to fund the OPEB Trust Fund, the fund that pays for pension health care costs. Unlike one’s pension, retiree health care is not guaranteed by the state. The OPEB Trust Fund exists to help the state prepare for future pension liabilities. The state has committed to using a portion of any savings from adjusting actuarial assumptions for OPEB.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Items of Note

Representatives of State Workers United have been meeting with Governor Jack Markell's office about saving money in employee benefits. State Workers United is a coalition of 13 unions representing educators and state workers. The group selected from State Workers United to engage in these discussions are from the coalition's "Big 4": Delaware State Education Association; American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees; Corrections Officers Association of Delaware; and Delaware State Troopers Association.

Both sides of the discussion have been pleased with the results and will be communicating to members and legislators in the near future with details.
The Legislature returned to session on March 15th after a long break during which the Joint Finance Committee worked on the budget. At the current time three big challenges face the legislature. First, the budget remains daunting in spite of some revenue improvement. Second, this is a redistricting year. Every ten years, following a census, state representative and state senate districts are redrawn to reflect population changes. Politically, this can be a highly charged exercise. Districts can be redrawn not only to reflect population, but also Party affiliation. Finally, once again, gambling venues will be on the agenda. For the third straight year, lawmakers will try to decide if they wish to increase the number of sites for gambling in Delaware.
Mark your calendar for Monday, April 4th. Unions have designated this day as a national solidarity day. April 4th, 1968 is the day Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in the city that day to support a strike by sanitation workers. Given the full-scale attack on public employee unions across the country, and given King's own commitment to Labor, this day was chosen to bring attention to places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio where basic rights are being taken from public employees. Local union leaders will be receiving ideas for observing April 4th.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Tonight in Wisconsin Governor Walker just went all the way over the line into the territory of petty dictator. After weeks of insisting that denying workers collective bargaining rights was all about the budget, he took the disgusting legislation out of the budget and had the Senate Republicans pass it without the super majority which would have required the absent Democrats.

This is not only a day of infamy, but a day of awakening as well. There is only one way to win now in Wisconsin; out in the streets. Workers in Wisconsin have had their legal vehicle taken away from them. There is nothing left but civil disobedience, direct action and strikes.

The Labor movement was born in the streets. If we have to die, it should be in the streets.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Coffee Catastrophe??

I'm not a coffee drinker, unlike my wife and many friends. However, I'm aware of what is happening with coffee prices. They are up. Coffee is more costly than it has been for fourteen years. Since the summer, commodity coffee prices have nearly doubled.

The reasons for coffee prices are a combination of events intersecting in the proverbial "perfect storm": Bad weather caused poor harvests; China and India both have new middle classes for which coffee has become a fad; and Brazil has attempted to corner the market and hoard coffee.

So why all the coffee talk?

Because of what's not being said. No one is predicting a coffee bankruptcy. No one is assuming that the critical coffee conditions remain unchanged. No one is suggesting an austerity plan for coffee drinkers.

For those who really care about coffee, they can look back over the years and know that the coffee price rise is not a never-ending inflationary trend. The situation is acute, not chronic.

Now, compare that with what is going on around the country with public employee pensions. In too many states lawmakers are looking at pension contributions coming off the bountiful 1990s when investments carried the cost of the plans, and comparing it to the contributions following the 2008 financial collapse when states had to increase their share. By looking at a snapshot of pensions that establishes a baseline year around 2000 or 2001 and an ending year of 2010 or 2011 one gets a very high inflation rate for the costs of pensions.

However, pensions are designed to withstand bad years and even bad decades. That's why it is more telling to look at pensions in twenty or thirty year increments. When viewed for the long run, America's public employee pensions are healthy. We should not drastically change pension policy to adjust for the current downturn.

Coffee prices go up for a few months or even years, then they go back down. Don't stop drinking coffee. Don't stop public employees from earning a fair pension.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Labor's Biggest Enemy is Jealousy

Labor has had many enemies in my lifetime and has been prematurely declared dead a couple of times. As an organizer in the 1980s I saw a lot of simple injustice. For example, unionized janitors making one dollar above minimum wage would be terminated for a non-union crew willing to work for 25 cents above minimum wage. Or health care workers who wanted to unionized would have a professional union prevention firm run a campaign of psychological intimidation against them.

In my young years with the Service Employees International Union we fought these battles in the streets. We became experts in direct action, civil disobedience, big rallies and big marches. In Los Angeles we won the Century 21 organizing campaign after LA riot police attacked and beat a group of peaceful marchers. It seems the parade permit didn't account for much.

However, the less obvious enemy of Labor was more harmful. One of Ronald Reagan's first moves against unions was to break the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The less obvious enemy here is not President Reagan, but the jealousy of the American public including many union members. Reagan saturated the public with information about the high wages and good benefits of PATCO members. Remarkably, this message appealed to the most base element in people. Many, too many people, including many people from other unions, were jealous of these white collar professionals. The result was that the federal government was able to utilize replacement workers for the air traffic controllers, breaking their strike, with no public outcry, and little solidarity from the rest of Labor.

The next major union to be broken by jealousy was the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the 1980s and 1990s every yahoo from California to Maine had an anecdote about a guy their cousin knew who worked in an auto plant, making big money, and sleeping on the job every day. So, when the automakers begin to break down the UAW through foreign outsourcing, too many people didn't care.

And so it has gone with union after union, and the refrain of the jealous, "I don't get paid that well! I don't have health care or a pension!"

For several decades public employee union workers were ignored by the green eyed monster, jealousy. After all, who wanted to make the sorry wages of a public employee, or heaven help us, do their jobs: teaching, social work, law enforcement, etc.

Public service jobs no longer look so bad.

To explain what changed, let me digress with yet another anecdote. During the George W. Bush Administration the historic wage gap between men and women narrowed. What a surprise! Was Bush a feminist? No. What actually happened was not that the wages of women had risen, rather the wages of men had dropped. Thus the gap between the two narrowed.

Now, getting back to public employees today. Public employees are no more well paid than they ever were. Public employees have benefits, not rich benefits, just benefits. HOWEVER, other American workers had been pushed down so low with bad pay and simply no benefits, that now public employees seem to be living in high cotton.

If public employees and their unions go the way of other union workers. The country will sink even deeper into this recession. We must have spending power back at the main street level and that means decent wages and benefits for public employees who make up a sizable portion of workers in all states. If my dear readers do not believe this, watch what happens to the so called economic recovery after the public sector sheds another 250,000 jobs this year. We are due for yet another economic setback.

Americans must put aside petty jealousy that comes with rampant individualism and instead adopt a sense of community with other workers, their neighbors, the teachers of their children, the cops who keep them safe at night, the people who repair their bridges, who care for their aged parents, who counsel the mentally ill, and who make their water safe to drink.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Markell on Public Employee Unions

Governor Jack Markell wrote an article for Politico.com showing a political maturity that is refreshing in today's environment. The article is copied below:

By GOV. JACK MARKELL | 2/23/11 4:47 AM EST
I’m not the likeliest candidate to speak out on behalf of the labor demonstrators in Wisconsin. After all, my own relationship with the unions in Delaware has been a bit iffy since I took office as governor two years ago.
Within two months of becoming governor, as I faced a budget shortfall of 25 percent of my state’s entire budget, I proposed an 8 percent pay cut for state workers, which was reduced by our Legislature to 2.5 percent and restored a year later.

Several times during that first legislative session, more than 1,000 union members came to the state Legislature to protest against me and my proposals. The impeachment signs were hard to miss.

My own background before politics is hardly labor-oriented. I have an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, a bastion of the free market. I spent time in banking, management consulting and working with the investment community as a senior executive in the telecommunications industry.

I’m also sympathetic to the need in Wisconsin and other states to secure pension and health benefits concessions from public workers.
We’re in the same position in Delaware. What taxpayers fund for these benefits is certainly not sustainable.

But with that background, I also believe the call to get rid of unions goes too far.
Perhaps that’s because, as governor, I’ve spent so much time visiting our state agencies and watching our people work. I often spend time there explaining my own unpopular proposals — including those to cut their pay and benefits.

Their work is often grueling, dirty and unappreciated by many. They bathe vulnerable patients in state hospitals. They plow streets in the middle of the night, when the rest of us are asleep. They keep our streets safe by dealing with the worst of our society. They help kids learn — even when those kids haven’t eaten since they last left school, haven’t bathed in a week or have come to school from a shelter.
That’s the reality for many of our state employees.

It’s true that my job as governor would be easier without having to deal with public-sector unions. Some of them file frivolous grievances. Some union members have unrealistic expectations about wage increases when so many of their neighbors throughout the state don’t have jobs, wages or benefits. I’m sometimes frustrated by that attitude.

But my job as governor is not to make my own job easier. It’s to make sure that the quality of life for my constituents will be better tomorrow than it is today. That’s why we focus every day on putting more people to work and improving our schools.
On balance, it’s better for our state when unions have the right to speak out and to have a place at the table — when they represent those whose voices may not be heard.
Those discussions might be painful. But it would be worse if they didn’t take place at all.

Jack Markell is governor of Delaware.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

WI and OH Revitalizing Labor

Wisconsin and Ohio are revitalizing the Labor movement. We are learning a tough lesson in those states, a lesson that leads back to our roots. We have learned we can not depend exclusively on the political system. Given that corporate media is no longer even coy about slanting their coverage to the bosses, and that the Supreme Court has allowed the bosses to spend an unlimited amount on elections, the political system will fail us more often in the future.

The solution is playing out in the streets of Madison: Relational organizing and direct action.

If enough union members stick together (solidarity) then legal and political obstacles become less daunting. For example, in Madison teachers all decided to take personal days to protest last week. Superintendents decided to deny those personal days. In turn, teachers all got sick at once and called in. The end result: Schools in Madison closed for the week and no teachers were disciplined. The number of protesters last week ranged between 60,000 and 80,000 every day.

Final lesson: We shall all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

DSEA Testifies before Joint Finance Committee

DSEA President, Diane Donohue gave testimony today before the Joint Finance Committee. Her testimony, as it was presented is copied below:

Good Afternoon, Chairman Williams and Vice-Chairman McDowell, and members of the committee:

I am Diane Donohue, president of the Delaware State Education Association.

I start today the same way I did last year by thanking you for your service on the Joint Finance Committee. In these challenging times, JFC is about hard decisions, headaches, and few accolades…all things with which educators can identify.

I’m not going to make it easier on you. I am asking for step increases for all educators as well as Skills and Knowledge Clusters and National Board Certification stipends.

The education community has made great effort the last few decades in realizing a united mission around the education of children that involves all school employees: Teachers and para-professionals, yes, are on the frontline. However, school support professionals such as secretaries, custodians, and food service workers not only provide the support for a functioning school environment, but also educate and nurture children in their interactions and service.

I believe separating teachers and para-professionals from other educators for step increases takes us in a divisive direction that the education community cannot afford. It is a move that is more costly than the $900,000 difference in adding in the other employees. All of our educators need a step increase for FY 2012.

Regarding Skills and Knowledge Clusters and the stipend for National Board Certification, I feel like this is a missing piece to the wonderful initiatives underway in Race To The Top. Race To The Top provides a hopeful path forward in innovative education and has put a lot of positive national attention on Delaware as well as $117 million into our schools. However, I fear that a deep look at our compensation system shows that we are not rewarding educators for improving their skills the way RTTT suggests. We have the vehicles to do so in both of these programs, but we have not funded them for several years now. I ask again that you once more fund both Clusters and National Board Certification and thus provide alternative compensation, one of the goals of RTTT. Both compensation programs together would be around $1 million.

I will not address benefits for members in any detail today because I wish to honor the work currently underway. DSEA along with other public employee unions are in discussions with the Administration examining the pension plan, post-retirement health care, and health care for active members. I only ask that you refresh your memories and look at the salary schedules for teachers, para-professionals, secretaries, custodians, and food service. Then, ask yourself if it is too much for those folks to at least have good health care and a decent pension.
Yet, I hear lawmakers when they say, “Diane, what do I tell my next door neighbor who has been unemployed for four months?”

I would say this:

If I reduce compensation or benefits for your child’s teacher, it will not put you back to work tomorrow; it will not ease your fear tonight when you lay awake wondering how you will pay the mortgage; it will not answer your question of how you learn new skills over age 50 to find employment. However, if I compensate your child’s teacher fairly and fund education adequately, it may keep your son and daughter from facing those same haunting challenges 10 years from now.

Education is an investment in the future; and because education is a service, not an industry, when you increase or maintain investment, it is not in machinery or raw materials, it is in people. Invest in our educators and they will produce returns for generations.

Thank you very much!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Stepping Up?

For many years educators have taken step increases for granted. Step increases are the small bumps in salary that happen for every year of service. For most educators in the state they are "stepping" for about 15 years on the state salary schedule and even longer on their local schedules.

Last year, step 15 with a Masters Degree was $44,428 per year. Add another 30% from their local school district then you are talking big money, approaching $58,000 per year. In case you missed it folks, that was sarcasm.

In any regard, in tough economic times, even these modest incremental increases are not guaranteed. The legislature must vote to fund the steps.

This year two factors are playing havoc with educator steps. First, the Governor's recommended budget is only for teachers and para-professionals to receive step increases. That means no secretaries, no custodians, and no food service. Second, educator step increases have now become more of a public issue than in the last two tough budgets; with the result being that there is some discontent being heard from other state workers who are not receiving any kind of increases.

Limiting education step increases to teachers and para-professionals is a break with not only budgeting tradition but with the education community culture as well. Educators take seriously the idea of a school community where every adult in the system contributes to the education of a child. Many students have special bonds with the school custodian or food service worker (the kids would say "cafeteria lady").

Separating teachers and para-professionals with steps in the middle of education reform is not good for the education community. There has already been some misunderstanding about education reform centering almost exclusively around teachers and ignoring other education professionals. This move seems to compound that undesirable direction.

The Delaware State Education Association is taking a strong position that they want all educators to receive step increases. The education community is united in their mission of educating children, and they should be united in fair compensation.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

JFC Begins Work

The Joint Finance Committee started work this week on putting together Delaware's budget. Yesterday, they received an overview of the state's economic situation as well as a presentation on the Governor's proposed budget.

JFC chairman, Dennis P. Williams at one point yesterday remarked, "Remember, the Governor proposes, and we dispose." His point being that the Governor's Recommended Budget is just that "recommended"; it is up to the legislature to decide which of the proposed spending and cut areas they will support or change.

Adding to the mix of politics around budget decisions was an article in today's News Journal about a proposed raise for judges in the budget. In response to the article and the issue, the Delaware State Education Association released the following statement to media:

February 1,2011

DSEA: Proposed pay increases for judges ill-timed given sacrifices being sought from all state workers
In these times of continuing economic distress and 'shared sacrifice', all state and public employees are doing their very best to deliver high quality public services. While we support the efforts of Superior Court judges to obtain pay equity with their Chancery Court counterparts, we feel the proposal is poorly-timed given the Governor's effort to seek $100 million over the next five years from the cost of current health insurance and pension benefits provided to state and public education employees.
DSEA calls upon the Joint Finance Committee and General Assembly to resolve these matters in a fair and equitable manner over the coming weeks as they work to construct the FY12 budget.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Budget Release

Governor Jack Markell released his recommended budget for fiscal year 2012 today. Usually, a budget address by the Governor, attended by press and other interested parties, introduces the document. However, bad weather kept the event digital with release of the budget on the Office of Management and Budget website.

The state and the nation go into the third straight year of tough economic times. The recommended budget contains more than $100 million in cuts from state agencies and programs. Layoffs will happen among the "seasonal and casual" workforce. Included in the cuts is $7 million less for school transportation.

On the positive side of things, the state will fund 100 more teaching units as our schools continue to grow. Educator and other state worker salaries will remain frozen, however, no reductions or furloughs are being sought. Full day kindergarten in Christina and Milford will be supported by the state. And the new DCAS testing system will be funded.

Fortunately, rumored large cuts to Medicaid did not materialize although there will be plan changes and some hardship as the program struggles to keep up with swelling ranks.

The Governor's recommended budget now goes for a long look and a lot of work by the Joint Finance Committee. The JFC will work from now until March 15th on the budget while the rest of the legislature is on recess.

The JFC will be under the able leadership of chairs, Representative Dennis P. Williams and Senator Harris McDowell. Although it is fair to say that former senate chair, Nancy Cook will be sorely missed.