Core Core Foes Losing the Fight – And That’s Good

Common Core opponents are losing the fight – a hopeful sign that sound policy can trump ideology.

Via Chicago Sun-Times

Ask any parent of a school-age child: It’s not unreasonable to expect some objective measures of achievement.

First-graders should know how to count to 100 and add and subtract up to 20. Third graders should know the difference between a noun and a verb. High school seniors should be able to solve basic problems in algebra and write essays using facts to support opinions.

Standards such as these have been voluntarily adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia. But these standards also bear the label of “Common Core” – now fighting words among certain conservatives for whom the Common Core is as anathema as Obamacare.

For the past several years, activists have waged war against states’ adoption of Common Core State Standards, and so far this year, they’ve persuaded lawmakers in 19 states to introduce legislation proposing their repeal.

But for all the sound and fury, Common Core opponents have accomplished next to nothing, succeeding in just one state – Oklahoma. And while some may see the right wing’s losing fight against the Common Core as simply evidence of their waning political muscle, the real reason behind these losses is an optimistic one: the Common Core remains intact because it’s good policy. In a political landscape littered with the victims of ideological warfare, this is one battle where common sense is prevailing over demagoguery.

Continued at the Chicago Sun-Times…

Moving 9-1-1 Out of the Landline Era

If our 1968-vintage emergency-number system were enabled for the newer ways we communicate, it could work a lot better — and cost a lot less.

Via Governing

Among the many services state and local governments provide, few are as popular, as trusted or as essential as 9-1-1. Americans place roughly 240 million 9-1-1 calls each year, says the National Emergency Number Association, and access to 9-1-1 is nearly universal. Nevertheless, the system so many Americans rely on today to report emergencies and other problems stands on the brink of obsolescence.

While Americans are now accustomed to using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social-media platforms for the rapid-fire sharing of news and information, most 9-1-1 systems can’t handle the texts, videos, data and images that we increasingly use to communicate.

That’s because in many parts of the country 9-1-1 is still rooted in the landline-telephone-based infrastructure that gave the system its start in 1968. As of November 2014, just 152 counties in 18 states even had the capability for citizens to text to 9-1-1. And only a handful of states — such as Iowa and Vermont — have taken the leap to Internet-enabled 9-1-1, known as “Next Generation 9-1-1.”

But for states that do invest in the transition, the rewards include not just better public safety but cost savings in the long run.

Iowa, for example, recently unveiled “Alert Iowa,” a two-way emergency “mass notification” system — among the first of its kind — that allows Iowans and Iowa’s 9-1-1 to talk to each other using social media, text and email.

“The traditional way of using 9-1-1 when someone has something to report is very closed and one-way,” says Iowa state Sen. Jeff Danielson, who led the effort to enact Alert Iowa. “A citizen calls in, they give the information, they hang up, and nothing more is done. Under mass notification, the dispatch centers can then push that information out on Facebook, Twitter, text and email, engaging the public to give us more information about what’s going on.”

Danielson, who also serves as a firefighter in Cedar Falls, says the two-way system could have prevented such tragedies as the abduction and murder of 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrisey and 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins from his district in 2012. “There’s a window of opportunity when children go missing that closes as time goes on,” said Danielson. “If there had been a more rapid way to inform the public of where the girls were and what they were doing, we could have engaged the eyes and ears of the community much better.”

One big advantage of the new system, Danielson says, is that it was centrally deployed statewide rather than individually by Iowa’s 115 dispatch centers. Not only does this enable the rapid dissemination of information and enhance interoperability, it’s cost-effective. “That saves a lot of money in licensing fees, operational software, etc., all across the state,” said Danielson.

In 2009, the federal government issued its blueprint calling for a national transition to Internet-enabled 9-1-1, citing the same kinds of benefits that Iowa now sees. In addition, the report said, a national migration to Next Generation 9-1-1 would mean better interoperability within states, among states and with the federal government, which could be crucial in a large-scale emergency or terrorist attack. The report also found that under some scenarios Internet-enabled 9-1-1 could save as much as $19 billion over 20 years in comparison to the current system.

In Iowa, investment in Next Generation 9-1-1 was the result of a two-year-long campaign by Danielson to reform emergency-number funding. Unlike many states, Iowa hadn’t been adding 9-1-1 user fees to wireless and prepaid phones. “Our entire 911 dispatch center revenue stream was based on landlines,” said Danielson. By equalizing the fees on all users, the state raised $3.7 million.

Some states could find money to invest in 9-1-1 simply by ending the diversion of 9-1-1 surcharges to other purposes. According to the Federal Communications Commission, states spent just 4.5 percent of the 9-1-1 fees collected in 2013 on investments to deploy Next Generation 9-1-1. But the report also found that states diverted more than $183 million — roughly 8 percent of the fees collected — to uses other than 9-1-1, including to their general-fund budgets or to pay down debt.

While overall public faith in government has eroded to all-time lows, states and local governments have been largely fortunate in their ability to maintain their citizens’ trust. But maintaining that trust also requires investment. Where better to invest than in a service as fundamental as 9-1-1?

 

How to Expand Middle Class College Savings

The Obama Administration should embrace efforts to expand 529 college savings accounts. Here are three ideas how.

In the face of popular backlash, President Obama recently shelved a controversial plan to end the tax-free college savings accounts known as 529s.

Despite its initial defense of the proposal, the White House dropped the idea after immediate and intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans now plan to capitalize on this misstep with a plan to expand 529s. According to The Wall Street Journal, a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.) may get a vote as early as next month.

While the White House could revert to its original stance and oppose the Republican plan, here’s a better idea: embrace the idea of expanding access to college savings and take it one step further.

Continued at The Hill…

The Myth of the Asian Vote

Asian-Americans aren’t a monolithic, formulaically winnable political constituency.

With every approaching election, the political consulting class becomes enamored of a new “it” class of swing voters.

In the past, it was “Wal-Mart moms” and Christian evangelicals. In 2016, emphasis on demographic trends will likely put racial and ethnic groups in the spotlight — and Hispanic voters in particular.

But attention is also turning to Asians as a potentially potent political bloc.

But while the ranks of Asians are swelling, is there really an “Asian vote” that campaigns can reliably court and an “Asian agenda” that candidates should pursue?

The answer might well be “no.”

Continued at The Hill…

Maryland’s International Incubator Woos Foreign Startups

Maryland’s state-sponsored “International Incubator” woos foreign investment by helping entrepreneurs get their start.

If you’re a foreign entrepreneur looking to break into the U.S. market, the State of Maryland wants to help.

On the third floor of a nondescript office building perched on a busy commercial strip in College Park, Maryland, foreign-owned start-ups can get a boost at the Maryland International Incubator, a first-of-its-kind incubator focused exclusively on foreign companies settling in the United States.

Since its start in 2009, the incubator – a partnership between the University of Maryland and Maryland state officials – has helped launch more than 30 foreign-owned ventures in the state.

Continued at Republic 3.0…

A Unique Teacher Residency Transforms Both Teaching and Learning

The Center for Inspired Teaching’s innovative model boosts both teacher retention and student performance.

On a sunny July morning at Washington, D.C.’s Capital City Public Charter School, 30 aspiring teachers sit cross-legged in small clusters on the floor of a brightly decorated classroom. Music plays softly from classroom speakers.

This is not your traditional teacher preparation program. Instead of textbooks and quizzes, teaching fellows will step into a classroom as “residents” working with experienced teachers.

Today is day three in an intensive, three-week long teacher training seminar. Moderator Monisha Karnani has asked the groups to share their best experiences as students and to write on Post-It notes what made their teachers memorable.

The Post-Its pile up quickly: “Engaging.” “Cares about students.” “Helps overcome obstacles.” “He made history fun,” one woman tells her group. “I was having a hard time in class, and he helped me through it.”

The 30 members of this group are fellows with Center for Inspired Teaching, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit founded in 1995 that’s long been on the leading edge of transforming how both teachers and students are taught.

This is not your traditional teacher preparation program.

Continued at Republic 3.0…

The Invention of Index Funds and the Growth of the Middle Class

The S&P® 500 is a household name. But few Americans may realize its profound impact on how Americans build wealth.

If you own a 401(k) retirement savings account or are entitled to a pension from your company, the odds are high that your portfolio or company’s pension fund includes shares in an “index fund.”

Index funds “track” a particular index – such as the S&P 500® – by holding stocks that mirror the makeup of the index. Since their invention in the mid-1970s, index funds have become popular investments for Americans looking for a relatively low-risk, inexpensive way to invest in the market.

Among the best known index funds, for example, are the Vanguard 500, which was the world’s first index mutual fund and still among the world’s largest, and the SPDR® S&P500® – an “exchange-traded fund” (ETF) that trades like a stock.

But what made these investment products possible is the invention of the index itself. In 1923, Standard Statistics (now Standard & Poor’s) published its first stock market index, which covered 233 U.S. companies and was computed weekly. Today, S&P publishes one million different indices, including the S&P 500®. Other countries have also developed their own benchmark indices, such as the Nikkei Index in Japan and the British FTSE 100.

Alex Matturri, Chief Executive Officer of S&P Dow Jones Indices, argues that the concept of indexing is a transformational innovation in the history of finance. Indexed investment products, he says, opened up the stock market to ordinary Americans and “democratized” opportunities to build wealth. According to Matturri, index funds now account for about 12 percent – or more than $2 trillion – of the value of the publicly traded companies in the S&P 500®.

Continued at Republic 3.0…

The Opportunity Index

How well is your state helping you succeed?

istorians in Texas mark January 10, 1901, as the day modern Texas began—the day when the Lucas No. 1 well struck oil at the Spindletop field near Beaumont. As the authors of the Texas Almanac write, “The gusher spewed oil more than 100 feet into the air until it was capped nine days later. With that dramatic fanfare, Texas’ economy was wrenched from its rural, agricultural roots and flung headlong into the petroleum and industrial age.”

Since that fateful day at Spindletop, the mystique of Texas—as the land of big dreams, big wealth, and unlimited opportunity—has become as outsized as the state itself. As a mecca for corporate America, Texas is now home to more than fifty Fortune 500 companies, including such corporate behemoths as ExxonMobil, AT&T, Dell, Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard, and, of course, Texas Instruments. The state also boasts an outsized share of the nation’s millionaires, trailing only California, New York, and Florida in the share of residents whose net worth tops $2 million or more. In the exclusive Houston neighborhood of River Oaks, where the median home price is $3.5 million, sprawling colonnaded estates fit for J. R. Ewing average more than 7,500 square feet of living space.

Without doubt, Texas is doing great by its corporate citizens and their executive elite. Texas Brags, a Web site run by the office of Governor Rick Perry, puts it with typical Texas swagger: “Texas is a land of ongoing success and endless opportunity.”

But when it comes to the people of Texas versus its companies, the promise of opportunity rings hollow for many.

Right off I-45 in Houston—across the freeway from the Lamborghini dealership—is Remington Ranch, a subdivision of cookie-cutter tract homes built mostly in 2005 and 2006 and now a casualty of the housing crash. Of the thirty properties for sale one day this fall, fifteen were in foreclosure. The schools that service this neighborhood—Ralph Eickenroht Elementary, Bammel Middle School, and Andy Dekaney High—receive among the worst possible ratings from GreatSchools.org. At Eickenroht, for example, third-grade math scores in 2011 were 24 percentage points below the state average.

In the rest of Harris County, where Houston is situated, neighborhoods like Remington Ranch are much more typical than ones like River Oaks. With a population of more than four million, Harris is the largest county in Texas and the third-largest county in the United States. The Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk says that as many as 27 percent of children in Harris County were living in poverty in 2010, while more than 19 percent lacked health insurance. Statewide, the Kaiser Family Foundation says 24 percent of Texans were uninsured in 2011, which is worse than in Mississippi. Education is a problem too. In 2011, 24 percent of Harris County schools failed to meet federal standards for Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Only 19 percent of Texas students go on to finish college.

Nevertheless, it’s the state’s business-friendly image that has garnered the lion’s share of public accolades and fueled the state’s reputation for opportunity and economic growth.

Chief Executive magazine, for example, has ranked Texas the nation’s “best state for business” nine years running. Texas has also dominated CNBC’s “America’s Top States for Business” ranking since its launch in 2007, placing first in three of the last seven years and second in 2013. According to the running tally of these accolades maintained by the state, Texas also won the 2012 “Governors Cup” from Site Selection, “the magazine of corporate real estate strategy and area economic development.”

It’s certainly possible to overstate the impact these rankings and public recognition have had on the public policy choices Texas has made. But it’s also likely no coincidence that the “winning mix of low taxes, reasonable regulatory structure, fair court system and world-class workforce” that Texas Brags credits for the state’s success tracks almost precisely with the factors most praised by CNBC and other business-oriented press. Indeed, the most heavily weighted factor in CNBC’s rankings is the “cost of doing business”—that is, the rate of state and local taxes, as well as the cost of utilities and worker wages. As one CEO told Chief Executive, “The regulatory and tax environment in Texas makes it my first pick.”

But imagine if Texas—and every other state—got the spotlight not just for their success in growing business but for their ability to grow opportunities for their citizens, and at all levels of the income ladder. If states were graded not just on the basis of their corporate tax rates but also on the strength of their investments in education, how would Texas—and neighborhoods like Remington Ranch—be different?

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

 

A Matter of Degrees

In the future world of “credentialing,” do you still need college?

Imagine you’re a twenty-five-year-old high school graduate. You’re married, you have two kids, you work full-time as an office manager for a local company. You’ve taken a few classes at your community college nearby but haven’t finished your degree. With a family to raise, you want to earn more money, perhaps working with computers, your passion. You think of yourself as the creative type, and your friends tell you there’s a good living to be made in Web design. What do you do?

One option is to enroll at DeVry University, where an associate’s degree in Web design will cost you roughly $39,000 in tuition and five full semesters—at least two years—of class time. You could also go back to your local community college and pay much less, about $2,000, for an eight-course certificate in Web design basics.

Or you could simply log on to openbadges.org, and, from the comfort of your home, learn what you need to know, at your own pace—for free.

Web browser maker Mozilla launched openbadges.org in 2011 to promote what they call “digital badges” to anyone who can demonstrate that they’ve mastered a specific skill. Much like Boy Scout merit badges, participants can earn their way up the badge ladder. Aspiring Web designers, for example, can earn a badge as a “Code Whisperer,” an “Editor,” a “Div Master,” or a “Super Styler,” depending on their ability to demonstrate their coding skills and to build their own Web projects. At the top are the “HTML Basic” and “I am a Webmaker” badges, stepping stones for becoming the Eagle Scout of the Mozilla digital badge world: a “Mozilla Webmaker Master.”

Each badge earned gets you an icon to display on your digital resume or as part of your online profile, which you can show to prospective employers. More than 1,000 groups and employers, including NASA, Disney-Pixar, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York City Department of Education, and Microsoft, are now offering or honoring badges recognizing a wide variety of skills. At the annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative this summer, former President Bill Clinton endorsed the idea of badging and urged more employers to participate.

While badges are gaining steam, they are actually just one example of many new so-called skills-based credentials that are cropping up in different industries—from Web design to retail to manufacturing—thanks to employers’ and students’ growing disenchantment with traditional college degrees.

From an employer’s perspective, traditional degrees aren’t always all that useful, even though most jobs today require the high level of skills that post-secondary education is supposed to confer. While degrees serve as a kind of baseline measure of a job candidate’s reliability—this person showed up for class (most of the time) for X number of years—they don’t reveal much about an applicant’s actual skills. Because they really only measure the amount of time a student has spent in a classroom, rather than the skills a student has acquired, degrees confer little beyond the selectivity of the college that granted them.

From the students’ perspective, earning a college degree is increasingly prohibitively expensive. It’s also often impossibly time-consuming, especially for the growing number of prospective students who are also trying to juggle family and a full-time job. But as long as traditional degrees are the only admission ticket to better-paying jobs, people with aspirations, who often have valuable on-the-job skill sets but no degree to prove it, can find themselves unable to move up in life.

With all this in mind, a new movement has arisen that is championing alternative avenues to credentials and traditional college degrees. In some cases, companies are bypassing traditional higher education entirely by creating new credentialing systems from scratch, like those Mozilla badges. In other cases, companies have begun partnering with traditional institutions of higher education, such as community colleges or local four-year universities, that are willing to offer their workers college credit for the skills they learn on the job.

Ultimately, these innovations could be a significant boon to students. Particularly for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the benefit could be better access to cheaper and faster post-secondary education—a must in the changing job market. But these innovations could also threaten the business model of traditional colleges and universities that are unwilling to adapt.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

Storefront Coyotes

Meet the con artists who “help” immigrants with their visa problems—and who will get rich if Congress passes a “tough” immigration reform bill.

For more than a decade, Loma International Business Group, Inc., operated out of the seventh floor of the elegant stone building in downtown Baltimore known as “Baltimore’s First Skyscraper.” Loma’s owners, Manuel and Lola Alban, seemed to fit in well with the lawyers, accountants, and government officials who also had offices in the building. Manuel Alban advertised himself as an attorney, and the couple purported to offer legal services to immigrants, particularly from Honduras and El Salvador, who were looking for help in dealing with their immigration status. Over the course of a decade, the Albans filed immigration paperwork for more than 600 clients, charging each hundreds of dollars for their work.

In June 2011, a federal judge shut down Loma for deceptive practices. According to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Manuel Alban was not an attorney, nor were the Albans authorized to provide immigration services, as they claimed. Moreover, more than half of the immigration applications they filed were rejected or denied, often because they filed the wrong form or failed to pay a fee. Collectively, the Albans bilked their clients of tens of thousands of dollars.

The Albans succeeded by using word-of-mouth advertising and preying on their clients’ vulnerability. “Since most consumers have limited English skills,” said the FTC’s complaint, “they place their trust in the Albans to select, prepare, and file the necessary English language immigration forms.”

They also succeeded by exploiting the Byzantine complexity of the immigration system, which is too intimidating for most laypeople to navigate on their own. Jackie Vimo of the New York Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls immigration law “second only to the tax code for complexity.” She says her group “strongly advises against” clients applying for an immigration benefit on their own, because the stakes for immigrants are so high. Says immigration lawyer Rachel Van Wormer, “You put the wrong things on your form, and you could be deportable.”

Talk of immigration reform is moving closer to reality, and the legislation that emerges from Congress will determine whether the treacherous path that immigrants already face becomes more dangerous still. While politicians jockey to craft a “tough” bill that piles on hurdles and paperwork for immigrants, unscrupulous entrepreneurs like the Albans are likely salivating over the opportunities.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…