The Fallacy of Meritocracy on America’s College Campuses

In The Merit Myth, In The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America, veteran researchers Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl argue that America’s top colleges and universities uphold a biased infrastructure that props up students from the one percent of U.S. families to the detriment of everyone else.

Read my review of this important book for Washington Monthly here.

How 2020 Democrats are missing the message on the economy

The 2020 Democratic primary has seen no shortage of big, ambitious ideas—the nationalization of health care via “Medicare for All,” free college, free child care, and the cancellation of student debt, just to name a few.

But there’s one big idea still missing: how to fix the stark and growing disparities between the parts of the country that are prospering and those that are falling behind. Regional inequality is perhaps the greatest challenge to America’s economic and political future, but 2020 candidates have yet to tackle, let alone acknowledge, the problem. It’s an omission that could have long-term substantive consequences for Democrats.

Since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, numerous analyses have pointed to a widening gulf—political, economic and demographic—between red and blue America. On the one hand are the rising fortunes of educated, urban Democratic districts. On the other is the steep decline of formerly industrial, Republican districts in rural America and the heartland.

The latest to highlight this trend is a new report from Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of the Brookings Institution, which underscores how deep this schism has become over the past 10 years.

Continue reading at Washington Monthly.

Anti-Fluoride Activism Is Bad, and Not Just for Public Health

Originally published in Governing, July 2019.

In 1901, a Colorado Springs dentist named Frederick McKay noticed many of his patients had peculiarly mottled brown teeth — but far fewer cavities than the norm. The cause, Dr. McKay determined after years of investigation, was high levels of natural fluoride in the town’s water. His discovery eventually led to the widespread fluoridation of public water systems across America and a dramatic decline in tooth decay over the past 70 years.

Numerous studies have shown the protective effects of adding fluoride to water, especially for kids, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hails community water fluoridation as one of the 20th century’s top 10 public health achievements. State and local budgets have benefited too, thanks to lower public expenditures for dental care.

Unfortunately, a significant number of localities are now undoing their investments in fluoridation, thanks to a small but vocal minority of anti-fluoride activists using pseudo-science to trump data. The result has been the spread of misinformation about fluoride’s benefits, as well as higher costs for both taxpayers and families.

According to the anti-fluoridation Fluoride Action Network (FAN), more than 200 communities in the United States and Canada have rejected public water fluoridation since 2010, from small towns such as Sheridan, Wyo., to bigger jurisdictions such as Bucks County, Pa. In Portland, Ore., residents have voted down fluoridation four times since 1956, most recently in 2013. In 2018, at least 13 communities put water fluoridation on the ballot, while many other localities debated the issue at the city council level without a public vote.

Like anti-vaccinators, anti-fluoride activists rely on spurious medical research to argue fluoridation’s hazards. FAN, for instance, blames fluoride in water for everything from cancer to diabetes to low IQ to, ironically enough, tooth decay. “I’ve got a list as long as your arm of different claims,” says dentist Johnny Johnson, president of the pro-fluoride American Fluoridation Society. None of these claims, however, is backed up by valid science or facts.

One thing that is backed up by facts? Fluoridation saves money — for consumers as well as governments. A 2016 Health Affairs study estimated the nation’s net savings from fluoridation to be nearly $6.5 billion a year from avoided dental costs. Conversely, ending fluoridation can be costly. One study in New York found that residents in non-fluoridated counties were 33 percent more likely to undergo dental procedures, while a Louisiana study found that Medicaid-eligible kids in non-fluoridated communities were three times more likely to get dental treatment than kids in fluoridated areas and at twice the cost.

Dentist David Logan witnessed these impacts firsthand in Juneau, Alaska, where voters ended fluoridation in 2006. The immediate effect, he says, was an increase in cavities among his adult patients, “specifically in older adults where the root surface gets exposed.” Today, his colleagues are seeing many more cavities in kids and at “levels they haven’t seen before in their practicing career.”

All of this is expensive. Logan, now executive director of the Alaska Dental Society, notes that simple fillings cost about $175 in his community, while crowns cost upward of $500. “It’s a very significant amount,” he says, “especially when that cost is disproportionately borne by the public through Medicaid.”

A 2018 study of Juneau’s Medicaid records found that since the end of fluoridation, Juneau’s kids undergo one more cavity-related dental treatment per year than before, at a cost of $300 per child on average. The study also found the highest costs among children under 7, who’ve had no exposure to fluoridated water.

Logan is hopeful this study will help bring fluoride back to Juneau. But he admits he was badly outgunned 12 years ago by the opposition. “You don’t have to have facts. All you need is something sexy to say,” he says. “We had people with lots of letters after their names, but we didn’t put a face on it and got crushed.”

Next time, he says, he’ll be ready, as should all localities where anti-fluoride activists have made a stand. At stake is not just the integrity of science but public budgets and public health.

Continue reading at Governing

The Education Investment States Should Be Making

Originally published in Governing, May 2019

In the midst of record low unemployment, many states are nonetheless struggling with ongoing skills gaps — shortages of workers with the right skills for in-demand jobs.

At the start of 2019, according to the Department of Labor, as many as 7.3 million jobs remained unfilled. These included a substantial number of “middle-skill” jobs requiring some schooling beyond high school but not a four-year degree. They were in fields such as health care, IT, welding and truck driving. The American Trucking Associations, for instance, reported a shortage of 50,000 drivers in 2017.

One reason these gaps exist is underinvestment in career and technical education. Of the more than $139 billion in annual federal student aid spending for higher education, just $19 billion goes to career and tech ed. Students generally can’t use federal Pell Grants to fund short-term, non-college-credit training programs, such as for welding certifications and commercial drivers’ licenses. Federal dollars under programs such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act are typically limited to the lowest-income workers.

Two states, however, have programs that show how valuable occupational credentials can be. Already, these initiatives are generating big returns by raising workers’ wages, closing skills gaps and driving economic development — and at a price much cheaper than “free college,” another higher-ed funding idea that’s gained popularity in recent years.

In Virginia, the state’s New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program covers two-thirds of the cost of a credentialing program, up to $3,000 per student. It’s a pay-for-performance model, so community colleges and other training providers don’t get paid until a student completes a class and obtains an approved credential aligned with the state’s annual “hot jobs” list. So far, about 8,000 Virginians have earned credentials through the program since its launch in 2017.

In Iowa, the Gap Tuition Assistance Program pays tuition, books and fees for lower-income students pursuing credentials from approved programs. In 2018, about 2,400 students applied, and 1,000 were accepted. The program boasts an 89 percent completion rate.

Both programs aim to reach workers who don’t qualify for federal aid. “Back in the days when a welding class was going to cost an individual $4,000, someone who was struggling to make ends meet would not come to us,” says Elizabeth Creamer, vice president of the Community College Workforce Alliance in central Virginia. “Now they can.”

Funding credential attainment has been a smart investment in these states — for workers, for businesses and for the public purse. “These are great programs for moving somebody who could be a public burden or isn’t really on track for a good career into getting the skills they need in a high-demand area,” says Jeremy Varner, administrator of the Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation for the Iowa Board of Education. “It’s giving folks economic opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have and at the same time meeting the very profound industry labor market needs that exist.”

In Iowa, which allocates about $2 million to the program annually, workers who earned a credential and found a job in a new industry increased their wages an average of 37 percent, according to the state’s analysis. Workers who moved from agriculture to manufacturing raised their wages by as much as 138 percent.

In Virginia, Creamer says her graduates see average wage increases of between 20 and 45 percent as they go on to good-paying jobs at regional powerhouses such as Amazon, Altria and DuPont. Results like these are one reason Virginia is growing its investment from $4.5 million in 2017 to a projected $13.5 million by 2020. The program has also encouraged the state’s community colleges to build better partnerships with local businesses so they can produce the talent companies need. “We’re not just training and hoping someone gets a job,” says Creamer. “We know they will.”

As Students Debts Mount, A New Form of Repayment Emerges

Originally published in Governing, March 2019

An ambitious group of seniors from Oregon’s Portland State University devised a creative plan in 2012, dubbed “Pay Forward, Pay Back,” to deal with spiraling college costs and student debt. In exchange for deferred tuition, students would contribute a chunk of their post-graduation earnings to a fund for future students, ultimately creating a self-perpetuating pool of aid passed from one generation to the next.

Unfortunately, Pay Forward, Pay Back quickly hit the wall of fiscal reality. Despite the embrace of legislators, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission concluded that the deferred tuition plan was unaffordable, costing as much as $20 million a year for 20 years to benefit just 1,000 students annually.

Yet interest in new ways to finance college remains very strong, especially as average in-state tuitions at four-year public universities have roughly tripled since 1998, total student debt topped $1.5 trillion in mid-2018 and state grant aid has stayed flat.

Rather than look to public money, however, some states are exploring novel alternatives to traditional student debt, ideas that would rely on private and philanthropic financing. Of particular interest are so-called income share agreements (ISAs), which proponents argue has the sex appeal of Pay Forward, Pay Back, but poses less risk to the public purse. Six states considered ISA-related legislation in 2018, according to the Education Commission of the States. In 2019, California could launch the nation’s first statewide ISA pilot.

Perhaps the nation’s best-known ISA program so far is a private one. Purdue University’s Back a Boiler program, begun in 2016, allows students to get a grant toward tuition. The grant is to be repaid as a fixed share of post-graduation income for a certain number of years, depending on major and projected earnings. For example, a computer science major with a $26,000 ISA grant would pay 7.3 percent of his or her income for seven years. If this student makes the expected median salary, total payments should be slightly cheaper than a traditional student loan.

The biggest benefit, though, is if the student’s career plans don’t pan out or the economy craters. Under a traditional loan, interest and principal would accrue regardless of borrower hardship. But ISA holders are unburdened by that risk. “This idea of shifting risk from student to school is one of the beautiful ideas behind ISA,” says Mary Claire Cartwright, vice president of information technology at the Purdue Research Foundation, which administers Back a Boiler. “We’re telling students, ‘You’re going to get a great job when you graduate, and if you don’t, we’re here to catch you.’”

So far, Purdue has issued $6.5 million in ISA contracts to more than 750 students, many of whom, Cartwright says, are first-generation students. And according to tech startup Vemo, which administers ISAs, more than 30 universities now have them, as do coding boot camps and trade schools.

While ISAs and other innovations are no silver bullet, states could benefit from experimenting with loan alternatives. First, they could expand their arsenal for making college more affordable, especially if lean budgets disallow expanding grant aid. Second, states could benefit from graduates’ economic success if schools have an incentive to ensure students get jobs to pay back their commitments.

In California, a bill by Republican Assemblyman Randy Voepel to establish an ISA pilot at the University of California system failed to make it past the state Senate last session, but unanimously passed the Assembly. Supporters are optimistic, and its success could pave the way for other state experiments. Federal legislation to recognize and regulate ISAs also enjoyed bipartisan support last Congress and is set for reintroduction this year as well. All this could mean good news for future students.

The Rise of Do-Gooder Corporations

Originally published in Governing, January 2019

Azavea is a 65-person software development company based in Philadelphia. Its business is helping governments and nonprofits use geospatial data to achieve various public goals, such as improving traffic flow or reducing pollution. Many would call Azavea a dream employer. It shares its profits with its workers, buys locally, pays generously for training and allows employees to spend 10 percent of their time on personal projects. “We’re very much a people-first, employees-first company,” says CEO Robert Cheetham.

A growing number of firms are, like Azavea, on the leading edge of corporate reforms to make American businesses better stewards of the environment and worker well-being. They are so-called benefit corporations, whose charter explicitly allows them to pursue purposes other than sheer profit. Many are also certified, meaning they’ve met strict standards set by the nonprofit B Lab. More than 2,600 certified “B Corps” operate globally, according to the group, including such well-known brands as ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s, women’s clothier Eileen Fisher and crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

Now, an increasing  number of governments are facilitating the growth of benefit companies. At least 34 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws — most of them within the past six years — that allow companies to organize as legally recognized benefit corporations. Legal status confers a potentially significant advantage for a company: protection from shareholder liability if executives fail to maximize profit in pursuit of other goals.

Legalizing B Corps

Thirty-four states, including the District of Columbia, have passed laws recognizing benefit corporations. Another six are currently considering such legislation.

(Source: B LAB)

One state that affords such protection is Pennsylvania, but the city of Philadelphia goes even further. It offers a tax credit of up to $8,000 for sustainable businesses — either those certified or those that can show they meet similar standards of social and environmental responsibility. Christine Knapp, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability, said the city launched the sustainable business tax credit in 2012 on a pilot basis, limiting it to 25 companies and capping the credit at $4,000. Growing demand led to the credit’s expansion in 2015, and while the current credit is capped at 75 businesses on a first-come, first-served basis, further expansions could come when the credit is reauthorized in 2022. “We want to recognize the businesses leading by example,” she says, “but also encourage other businesses to take some action.”

Andrew and Jenn Nicholas, husband-and-wife co-founders of the graphic design firm Pixel Parlor, say the credit has been a big help to their 10-person company. “It’s a challenge to be profitable and provide benefits to our employees,” says Jenn Nicholas. “Every tiny bit helps, and it feels like somebody is looking out for us when the general climate [for small businesses] is the opposite.”

At the much bigger Azavea, the credit has had a smaller bottom-line impact. Still, says Cheetham, “symbols matter. It’s a powerful symbol when you’re going to other businesses and trying to attract them into the city.”

For state and local governments, this business-led reform is well worth encouraging. Research has shown that benefit companies are a boon for workers and their communities and could encourage a much-needed shift in national corporate culture — away from the single-minded focus on shareholder profit. In short, benefit corporations are a refreshing countertrend that could ultimately prove more effective than prescriptive efforts to regulate corporate behavior. They prove, says Anna Shipp, executive director of Philadelphia’s Sustainable Business Network, that “an equitable society and a thriving economy are not mutually exclusive but interdependent.”

But some businesses, according to Shipp, may need a little encouragement to refocus their mission on doing good. Laws to recognize benefit corporations’ legal status is the first step, she says; following Philadelphia’s lead with a tax credit could be the next catalyst.

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The path to 2020 for Democrats: Get something done

Via the Los Angeles Times

Emboldened by their new majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats are understandably eager to exercise their power.

Some House members believe the way to do that is with an aggressive, sharply partisan agenda aimed at both calling out President Trump for his egregious behavior and demanding immediate action on longshot legislation such as single-payer healthcare.

A new survey commissioned by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and conducted by Expedition Strategies suggests that’s a terrible idea. To win in 2020, Democrats should resist the urge to turn the House into the new headquarters of the anti-Trump resistance or to initiate battles over legislative priorities favored by party liberals that have no hope of passage.

 

Continue reading at the Los Angeles Times

America’s Resilient Center and the Road to 2020

Via Progressive Policy Institute

For the past two years, many people have fretted that American democracy was in its twilight. In 2016, voters elected as president Donald Trump, a volatile demagogue with a predilection for peddling conspiracy theories and a soft spot for dictators and white nationalism. Our politics seemed hopelessly polarized, with gridlock the new normal, seemingly into perpetuity.

The 2018 election, however, provided tangible proof that 2016 could be an aberration – a glitch but not a feature of the politics to come. Turnout broke modern records for midterm elections, including among first-time and youthful voters. But the real revolt came not from the activist base but from the suburbs, from a once quiescent but a newly resurgent center. Led by suburban women disgusted by Trump’s misogyny and blatant race baiting, suburban voters gave Democrats the lion’s share of their gains in the House – including among many districts that had voted for Trump in 2016. These districts handed Democrats their new majority, and their defection from a Trump-dominated Republican party creates an opportunity for Democrats to broaden their coalition and build a truly national party.

The crucial question now for Democrats is how to wield the power they now hold.

To help meet this challenge, PPI and Expedition Strategies surveyed 1,090 likely voters on the eve of this crucial election. Our goals were to gather data to put the current results into context and to gather clues about the kind of agenda progressives should craft as we barrel headlong into the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.

The good news for Democrats is that they have the potential to build a durable majority. In our poll,48 percent of respondents identified as Democrats or as independents who lean Democratic, while39 percent said they were Republicans or Republican leaners, and 13 percent were true independents, with no allegiance to either party.

But for Democrats to maintain and expand this near-majority advantage, they must craft a broadly appealing agenda that brings or keeps independents and less committed partisans – the majority of whom call themselves “moderate” – under the tent. Also vital will be winning over for the long term the suburban women who led the revolt against Trump. According to one poll by CNN immediately pre-election, 62 percent of women wanted Democrats to take control of Congress, and 63 percent disapproved of Donald Trump – sentiments these voters acted on with a vengeance, not only through their energetic turnout but by sending a record number of women to Congress. While our survey shows that women – and white college-educated women in particular – are more liberal and more Democratic than men or the electorate at large, the plurality of women are still “moderate,” and their views do not conform in many ways to those of the liberal activist Democratic base.

Continue reading at Progressive Policy Institute

The Manufacturing Jobs Program Trump Wants to Kill

The little-known Manufacturing Extension Partnership program has helped grow small businesses like Michele’s Granola.

Via Washington Monthly

Walk into Michele’s Granola factory in Timonium, Maryland, and you smell the homey aromas of toasting oats, brown sugar and vanilla. The facility produces 2,500 pounds of granola a day in eight different flavors—from classic vanilla almond to more exotic varieties like pumpkin spice, lemon pistachio and ginger hemp. This granola is not the heavy, sticky mass-produced stuff you bought at the supermarket and find months later, congealed in a tub in the back of your pantry. It’s airy, light and practically crackles in your teeth.

“The granola has a very unique texture,” said company founder Michele Tsucalas. “We use just five to seven simple ingredients—nothing you wouldn’t find in your home kitchen.”

Tsucalas began baking her own granola more than a decade ago, experimenting at home as a weekend distraction from her day job as a nonprofit fundraiser. Once her recipe was perfected, she started selling her granola at farmers’ markets in northern Virginia and then at a food co-op in Maryland. Sales started catching fire, and today you can find Michele’s Granola in a dozen states, including at Whole Foods stores throughout the mid-Atlantic United States, and in Wegmans stores in the northeast. Since her first farmers’ market in 2006, Tsucalas’s business has grown from a one-woman concern operating out of leased space in a commercial kitchen to a sleek boutique business with 35 full-time workers.

But the secret to her success is more than a great product. Also instrumental was a little-known but decades-old government program—the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program—aimed at helping small and medium-sized manufacturers like Michele’s Granola grow. It’s also on the chopping block in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, one of dozens of programs the administration wants to kill.

While Trump has lately touted his efforts at job creation, including with a recent visit to Wisconsin to promote U.S. manufacturing, his plan to zero out the MEP program would eliminate one of the federal government’s best programs for achieving exactly that goal. It’s yet another example of how Trump’s actual economic policies fail to match—and even contradict—the president’s promises and rhetoric.

 

Continue reading at Washington Monthly

The Challenge of Latino Retirement Security

Only 6 percent of Latino workers in California have employer-sponsored retirement savings.

America’s fastest-growing demographic group might also be the least ready for retirement.

New research by the National Council of La Raza finds that in California – home to more than a third of the nation’s Latino population – just 29 percent of Latinos have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan and only 21 percent of those who have access participate. Taken together, this means only 6 percent of the state’s Latino workers have employer-sponsored retirement savings at all.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…