Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tax and Spending - What did the voters vote for?

A mere few weeks ago, Washington's voters voted anti-tax on three major initiatives. They overwhelmingly voted down an income tax on upper income taxpayers dedicated to education and health care. They overwhelmingly voted for an initiative that required a 2/3 vote of the legislature on new taxes and they overwhelmingly voted to rescind the pop and candy tax the legislature imposed last session. The sum result of all these measures is a clear signal to policy-makers that they would rather see budget cuts than tax increases.

But were voters aware of what the consequences would be? Good question. The slow growing economy has stifled state revenues by as much as 20% for the next three years and making up that deficit through budget cuts alone is going to result in devastating cuts for state programs that have already been slashed each year for past three years.

For one, I'm not sure a large percentage of the voters knew what programs will end up being cut. The problem is there are not a lot of choices. About 60% of the state budget is already off limits due constitutional protection of most of the education budget as well as federal requirements on big programs like Medicaid.

What's left is basically all of higher education and social service programs like the Basic Health Plan which provides insurance for low income working families, the Security Lifeline Program which provides income supports and medical care for disabled and mentally ill clients and much of the TANF program that provides income support and child care to primarily working mothers. These social service programs are the safety net for those who have been hit the hardest by the deep recession. Programs like the community college Worker Retraining Program that provides funding for unemployed workers who have lost their jobs in declining industries to train for the jobs of future are also likely to be on the chopping block.

Many people believe that in reality we could cut spare these programs and cut the salaries and benefits of state workers more severely. The problem is, that these cuts simply don't add up to much money. Raising state workers co-pays by 20% only save a hundred million dollar or so and adding an extra 10-20 furlough days, less. The problem is that the recession's hit on the state budget is so severe and so much of the budget is off limits, that draconian cuts have to occur to virtually every area of the budget that's left.

The impact of the Eyman initiative requiring a 2/3 vote is exaggerated. While there is little chance 2/3 of the legislators will ever agree on a tax increase, the initiative still allows the legislature to send voters a choice. The legislature could clearly send the voters a referendum that would impose a tax to support key selected programs.

Initiative 1098 did not clearly offer voters a choice between taxes and program cuts. The initiative, which taxed upper income tax and dedicated the money to education and health care was very loosely crafted. Voters believed, and rightly so, that there was no requirement that the state limit revenues to those specific areas (they could cut funding from other sources).

I think it is sheer speculation to try and guess as to whether or not voters would choose between a tax increase and the destruction of the safety net. Over the past three years a lot of polling what done on this very question and the results were a toss-up. But I think it would be irresponsible to take the option off the table. The voters should have choices that they can clearly understand.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Cold, Mean Season

Seattle's only remaining daily newspaper went on a rampage against an income tax initiative that would have imposed a 5% tax on households earning more than $400,000 or single payers over $200,000 for single (At 5%, the wealthiest 5% among us would be paying less than they do in the people's republic of Idaho, less than in Oregon and less than in California) They argued vehemently that we need to cut programs not raise taxes. And they are argued just as vehemently that we need to increase education spending and for God's sake we need more funding for the University of Washington. What's left to cut? Well, according to the Times and many Democrats and Republicans alike, government waste and special interests.

Hardly. What is left is the Basic Health Plan which provides health care to low income working families. The Security Lifeline Program which provides heath care and a very small living stipend for the mentally ill and those at the very bottom. TANF which provides income support and more importantly child care so low income mothers can actually hold a job.

Apparently, the voters agreed with the Times and voted down the income tax which would have been dedicated to health care and education. They passed an initiative that would require a 2/3 vote for any tax increases. They vote to cut taxes on candy, and pop (equal to about the funding level for the security lifeline). No taxes screamed the conventional pundits. We need to reset to a new smaller government.

Hmmm. Smaller for who? Smaller for the least fortunate among us. Smaller for the sick who have lost jobs and their health care benefits. Smaller for the mentally ill who are wandering the streets without medication. Smaller for mothers who, without child care, who can't afford to work.

It's a cold, mean season in Washington State.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How did education reform ever get so anti-teacher?

I'm amazed at how most education reform efforts seem to neglect the importance of harnessing the ideas of teachers in turning many of our troubled schools around. The generic education reform argument seems to go that teachers and the school system they work in, have gotten so bureaucratic that we have to start over. We should provide state funding for the creation of new charter schools where stripped of union contracts and complex rules, we can start to gets things moving.

To me this is terribly ironic. After all, one of the first proponents of charter schools was Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers in 1988. Shanker's idea was that groups of teachers would be able to run their own school within regular schools and pursue innovative ways of educating disaffected students. Released from contradictory legislative dictates and complicated school district rules, teachers would be able to innovate and solve tough problems.

Shanker's idea was that a group of six or more teachers should be able to submit a proposal to start a new school. They would be able to try out different ways of teaching to reach students who weren't responding to what schools are currently doing. Proposals would be reviewed by a joint teacher and school district panel. The approved schools would be given 5 or 10 years to try out their ideas and progress in the programs would be shared with others. If a method was particularly successfull, districts could bring the new ideas to scale.

We need to turn this education reform equation around. Instead of measuring performance to reward and punish teachers, we need to harness the power of teachers to innovate and teach in new ways and bring what we learn to scale.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

One Way to get the economy moving again

The Deficit Reduction Commission co-chairs have come up with a big solution to the long term budget deficit of the federal government. Their proposals simplifies tax rates but raises revenue by eliminating loopholes, it raises the retirement age, cuts Medicare and Medicaid spending, cuts the defense budget and slashes domestic spending. And most importantly it reduces the deficit from 8% to 2.2% of GDP.

This is a heavy lift but Democrats have done it before. The Clinton administration cut the Reagan/Bush deficit and left Bush II with a surplus.

And the details of a final package will not likely look like this one. But the co-chairs draft report puts a lot of major pieces on table where everyone shares the pain and lays out the parameters of the solution.

This is a big deal and could very quickly get our economy moving again for two reasons:

1) The long term solution should allow Congress to move forward on an immediate stimulus. We need a stimulus to get the economy moving. Insuring that the stimulus will be made up quickly with future cuts makes this feasible. It's all about timing. You can't cut spending now. That would be idiotic. That would lead to a double dip recession. But you have to close the deficit in the future in order to keep interest rates down and avoid inflation. So, you jump start the economy now and when it starts moving you start cutting.

2) Passage of the deficit reduction plan will assure markets that long term investments are a good bet. As our deficit grow bigger and government borrowing sops up a bigger supply of credit in the economy, we run the risk of ramping up interest rates and creating another recession.

A short term stimulus and a long term deficit reduction package are the key to avoiding a double dip recession and getting our economy moving again.

We need to pressure Congress to get this done and done quickly. Do we have the political courage to move forward?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Not a Republican tide, not 1994, not In Washington

Despite the deepest recession in 70 years, legislative Democrats evaded the sweep that impacted much of the rest of the country.

The simple fact of the matter is that while Democrats lost seats, 3 to 4 in the Senate and 4 to 5 in the House (one race in each is subject to recount), the change is far below average for off year elections for the part in power

With very few exceptions, since the founding of the state, the party of the President loses seats in the state house in the next off year election. The House is a better state weather vane since only half of Senate seats are up every two years.

At this point in time, under Democratic President Obama, House Democrats have lost 4 to 5 seats and still hold a commanding lead in the state house 57 to 41 - a sixteen vote margin.

In previous off year elections the party of the President has seen bigger losses. in 2006, the Republicans in the Bush era lost 7 seats and in 2002, 3 seats.

In the Clinton days, Democrats lost 27 seats in 1994 (1998 and 1990 appear to be anomalies probably because the previous tide was so big against the party of the President) . In 1986, under Reagan, Republicans lost 20 seats and in 1982 they lost 11 seats.

During the Carter year, 1978, Democrats lost 13 seats and in 1974 under Nixon, Republicans lost 5 seats. In 8 of the last 10 elections, the party of President has lost seats and the average is 10.4 significantly higher than 2010.

Despite the horrible recession and the off year election of the party of the President, Democrats did pretty well.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who will take a risk for these kids?

Government risk taking sure sounds like an oxymoron and it's a damn shame that most of the time it is.

Several years ago, Dr. Norwood Brooks, President of Seattle Vocational Institute started the "Career Link" program that offered high school drop-outs an opportunity to go back to school and get their GED. More importantly, the program was integrated with getting these students a certificate in a trade that would lead to a good job. Students would go to school studying for their GED exam at the same time that they enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship, office or health care programs. Over half of the 400 students enrolled graduated - a major accomplishment since without the program none of them would have.

Enter the Seattle School District. An attorney with the district told the college that the program was a problem since since the students weren't enrolled in a "high school graduation" program (it was a GED/Trade program) that the students would count against them when calculating their results for No Child Left Behind. Scores were bad enough and the last thing they need is more penalties associated with failing schools (the accounting applies to the district the students would have been enrolled in rather than the college) They indicated they could no longer support the program. No risk takers there.

Elsewhere in the state the State Auditor enters the picture. His bean counters looked at the law and interpreted it to say that the program didn't lead to the statutorily defined high school degree consequently it was inconsistent with state law and could not utilize state funds. No risk takers here either.

Student advocates went to the legislature and worked on a bill that would have required school districts to enter into contracts for these program or the colleges could go elsewhere for approval. However, last year, the Senate Ways and Means Committee staff successfully argued that if the legislature passed the bill, that more students would be enrolled in school and that would cost the state more money. The bill died in committee. No risk takers here.

This year, to get around the Ways and Means staff, a watered down bill was sent to the committee. The bill doesn't require school district to allow drop-out retrieval programs but creates a process where it is more likely to be approved. The bill passed but college leaders were told that the process of just writing the rules and and going through the public process would take over a year. How long it would take to negotiate with the school districts beyond that is still and open question.

The bottom line here is that when it comes to taking care of our most at - risk kids, the adults aren't wiling to take any risks.

I think there is something more here I will explore in future blogs - how do you encourage risk taking by public servants? How do you allow people who care and work on the front lines to take the risks needed to solve real public problems?

This year

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Washington State Ranks at the Bottom on College Continuation

We Washingtonians have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. We host some of the most knowledge intensive industries in the world from Amgen and Fred Hutch to Microsoft and Amazon. And we hang out in some of the swankiest coffee places in the world like the original Starbucks or Tullys.

Before I throw a bunch of statistics at you let me get to the point. We are doing very poorly when you look at the percentage of high school graduates who continue on to college. When you factor in high school graduation rates - it looks even worse. Only a third of the 9th graders in Washington end up as college Freshmen.

According to the National Center for Higher Ed Management Systems, we rank 44th in the country in college continuation. Less than 45% of public and private higher school graduates were enrolled as freshmen in any post secondary education program. If you want to take a longer look, like the percentage of 18-24 year olds enrolled in post-secondary education, we rank 45th.

Ok. Here is where it gets really depressing if you factor in high school graduation. Looking at number of fall first-time freshmen enrolled anywhere in the U.S. divided by the number of 9th graders four years earlier, we rank 47th. Only about a third of the freshmen are in college in year 13. The national average is 42% and the top 5 state average nearly 60%.

What do we do about this? A few years ago the legislature directed the workforce board to do a survey of financial aid specialists, employment office job staff and students themselves as to what the barriers are to post secondary enrollment and completion, the biggest barrier was financial aid followed by lack of information on how to navigate college and work.

There's been a lot of talk about providing a free 13th year of education at a community college or university and the House Economic Development Chair, Phyllis Kenney and Speaker Frank Chopp have created a program called Opportunity Grants that is designed to reach this goal of a universal 13th and 14th year with income support and navigations services. But budget cuts have stymied both of these efforts.

The City of Seattle working with our school district, community colleges, foundations, business, labor and community groups need to own this problem. Our whole community needs to own it. Perhaps we should set goals for our city schools and colleges, identify best practices to get there and combine our funds and see if we can make progress.

Educational Attainment - Years of Post-Secondary Education

Portland economist Joe Cortright has done some interesting work with a new measure of metropolitan educational attainment known as years of post-secondary education (YPSE). This measure provides a broad measure of education that includes people who have received associate degrees and professional certifications not just bachelor's degrees or higher.

The YPSE is defined as the average number of years post-secondary education completed by persons aged 25 and older and is based on the annual American Community Survey.

Seattle/King County fares pretty well using this measure. The average YPSE is 2 years as compared to 1.9 in Portland or 1.58 in Phoenix and we rank 8th among metropolitan areas in the country.

The weakness of this measure as a benchmark for success is that for an in-migration city like Seattle, we may end up taking credit for the attractiveness of our environment rather than the achievement of our own schools.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Today's workforce is tomorrow's workforce

The biggest bottleneck to our economic recovery might be the lack of skilled workers in key sectors of our economy. If we don't have the skilled workers in the clean energy, global health, business services and other growing industries, we could lose competitive advantage to nations who are investing in these industries now.

What do we do? First of all, we have to recognize that today's workforce is tomorrow workforce. Our workforce turns over at between 1% and 2% per year. That means that for at least the next 26 years, workers already working will still fill a majority of jobs.

This means that we have to up the skills of low skilled workers so they can fill the higher skilled jobs. This is going to be a challenge. Workers under 34 have lower education levels than those over 34 (we may the only country in the world with this problem). Demographically, immigrants are the fastest growing portion of the workforce and in many cases language skills are lacking.

The state legislature is struggling with funding retraining for dislocated workers and state budget cuts are reducing capacity at community colleges. We have a lot at stake here. Something has to change.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Career Pathways

One of the best investments we can do as we recover from the recession is make investments in the jobs of the future. Green jobs are likely to be the driver of the next wave of economic growth. As we prepare for this wave, we need to think about how this next wave can benefit all of the citizens of our economy. The Green Jobs job ladder at South Seattle Community College provides the kind of career pathway that all or our citizens can benefit from.

Students out of high school or adults seeking new careers can start out with a one year certificate in energy management that can give them employment in good jobs with decent wages. If they stick with it and go back to school in science, math and business organization, they expand their potential by getting an associate degree in building science. Finally, they can continue on and get a Bachelor of Applied Science in Building Management. Building Trades workers in apprenticeship programs or with journeyman status can move up into management positions via the associate and bachelor's programs.

The beauty of this is students can start at the beginning and work their way up over time. The missing piece is the Bachelor's Program in Building Management. Hopefully, the legislature will address this problem this session and help open up career pathways for all of our citizens.

Education and Lifelong Learning

I've been involved for a number of years in the field you could call professional and technical education policy. That arena focuses on the middle skill jobs in our economy that make up about half the jobs openings in the labor market and require specific skills from education programs in technical and community colleges. Research indicates that these are the job in most demand and probably make the most difference in regional competitiveness since the job market is local not global. If you don't have trained R.N.s, machinists, chefs, landscape architects, electricians and accountants you are unlikely to import them from elsewhere. We have to provide the education and training in order to find these workers.

The major problem we have is that the education for these jobs general takes one to three years. Post secondary education but not the general qualifications of a bachelors' degree. When a person finishes the program and gets a job, they lack the requisite degree to move into management positions.

Going off the a university to start a four year degree makes little sense. This approach doesn't recognize current experience and education and isn't entirely relevant. Universities generally don't have management or technical programs that connect directly to jobs in the construction trades or culinary arts degrees.

This is what Bachelor of Applied Technology degrees come into the picture. Community colleges can offer higher level programs that connect directly to their career and professional programs and allow them to move up the job ladder.

Unfortunately, the state has limited the number of these degrees largely due to opposition from some universities. While they don't provide the relevant programs they are concerned that community colleges will turn into competitors in other program areas. I think most community college applied technology administrators understand this and would accept rules that limit expansion to only the programs that link to specific career ladder professional and technical programs.

There is a bill in the legislature this year that allows the expansion of Bachelor of Applied Science degrees. HB 2655 and SB 6355 will be up for a vote in committee next Wednesday. This is a step in the right direction that will help lead to a system of career pathways through lifelong learning.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

National Strike?

When labor represented a larger share of the private sector, they were able to effectively use strikes to slow down the economy to force the resolution of issues they felt needed attention.

Today, only capital has that power and finance capital is using it. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal headline "New Bank Rules Sink Stock" tells the story. Two years ago, America's bankers brought the national economy to its knees throwing millions of people out of work and forcing government to slash the safety net designed to help the poor and unemployed. In response, the President advanced rules and legislation designed to reign in reckless behavior.

This is the dilemma that Obama faces and the impact on Congressional Democrats is dire. If Obama comes down too hard on banks and finance capital they will strike. The animal spirits of capitalists will become depressed. They will hold back investments and hamper the recovery. Whether that is a conscious choice or an effect is irrelevant.

However, if he doesn't come down on them, the American people will be angry and will take it out on Congressional Democrats. You can see it in the headlines and hear it on the streets. They don't hear us and they don't listen.

Behavioral and neuroscience tells us that people respond to symbols and emotions not ideas and policies. The recession was either caused by reckless finance capitalists or the political incumbents. Is Obama's only responsible choice to back off, lose seats and lose the ability to achieve much of his agenda?