Washington Policy Blog

Time to shoot for the moon for real education reform

July 28, 2009 in Blog

40 years ago this month the brave crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong famously saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” With this feat America won the race to the moon. Now President Obama is hoping states will shoot for the moon again, this time in a “Race to the Top” for education excellence.

At stake for states is access to $4.35 billion in federal education funds. The catch, however, is that access to these funds is dependent on states demonstrating that they have several education reforms in place.

While some states are in a position to take advantage of these funds and take one giant leap for education performance, Washington unfortunately, is closer to the experience of the failed Apollo 1 mission than the success of Apollo 11.

Confirming this fact, Go!
vernor Chris Gregoire has indicated that Washington is unlikely to satisfy the eligibility requirements for the federal funds.

According to the federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

“Under Race to the Top guidelines, states seeking funds will be pressed to implement four core interconnected reforms.
  • To reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states, Race to the Top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.
  • To close the data gap — which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction — states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices.
  • To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals — and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who aren’t up to the job.
  • Finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture.”

Washington’s grade for each of these criteria sadly is failing because powerful leaders of the teachers’ union have consistently opposed bringing constructive change to public schools.

Washington will likely miss out on the first round of “Race to the Top” funds but, like Apollo 11, we can achieve success if state leaders shoot for the moon through real education reform, instead of holding our state back and shooting for just keeping the teachers’ union satisfied.

Michigan Department of Education reimagines education with help from Washington Policy Center

July 28, 2009 in Blog

Under Race to the Top guidelines, states seeking part of the $4.35 billion in funding will be pressed to undertake four interconnected reforms, as outlined by the Tacoma News Tribune this morning. 

The Michigan Department of Education is clearly engaged in this Race to the Top.  Over the next nine months it will be developing a plan to Reimagine Michigan's educational system to meet the needs of this 21st century global knowledge economy. 

How are Michigan's schools to be Reimagined? 

By posting on line a list of  Reimagined Resources, the Michigan Department of Education has compiled a list of reform ideas for reimagining public schools.  Included in this list is the Washington Policy Center's "Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public Schools," (December 2008). 

These eight practical ways are:

Put the principal in charge of this budget and staff
    Give parents choice among public schools
    Let teachers teach
    Double teacher pay
    Replace the WASL with a better state test
    Create no-excuses schools
    Transparency--put school budgets and teacher qualifications online
    Make the Superintendent of Public Instruction an appointed office.

Are Washington's public education officials engaged in the Race to the Top, or not?

The Popular Proposals in Federal Health Care Reform

July 27, 2009 in Blog

Although neither the House nor the Senate health care reform bills are out of committee and haven't reached their respective floors, some consistent proposals are being discussed in both legislative bodies. The House bill under consideration runs to 1018 pages and the Kennedy-Dodd bill from the Senate Health Committee contains almost 800 pages. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to outline all of the similarities, yet some consequential proposals are found in both bills.

The good:

1.  Both bills talk about putting more transparency into the health care system. This gives patients more information about pricing and benefits and makes them better consumers of health care.

The bad:

1. Individual mandates forcing everyone to buy health insurance. 

2. Employer mandates to either purchase health insurance for employees or pay a fine (of up to 8% of payroll) to the federal government.

3. Probable guaranteed issue and community ratings which will force insurance rates higher.

4. "Best practices" or evidence based medicine which will force providers to practice cook-book medicine and treat every patient the same.

5. Government dictated "preventive care" which can potentially result in laws dictating our life styles - what we eat, what we do, whether we can smoke, etc.

6. There is no language dealing with meaningful tort reform. Legal fees and more importantly defensive medicine practices account for up to 10% of our health care costs.

The ugly:

1. A government "option" insurance plan that will destroy the private market in health insurance.

2. An insurance exchange or connector or co-op so that bureaucrats would be able to dictate the price and the benefits included in each insurance policy.

3. No significant Medicare reform. This government-run health insurance plan for seniors is on track to bankrupt the country.

As the debate in and between the House and Senate unfold, these conjoint proposals may change, but for now the two houses seem to have very similar plans.

And, oh, there is no agreed upon funding mechanism that even comes close to paying for all of this.

More Talk on a Second Stimulus Package

July 24, 2009 in Blog

Stateline.org today carries a Q&A session with state legislators from both parties around the nation asking "What would make you push for a second stimulus?"

The answers vary from "anything" to "hell no". Interesting stuff.

Congress' Health-Care Reform is a Trojan Horse

July 23, 2009 in Blog

Trojan HorseGovernor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana had an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal on July 22nd about the manner in which health care refo

Canada Waits for Health Care

July 23, 2009 in Blog

As part of the on going health care debate in this country, we are seeing more testimonials in letters-to-the-editor and blog posts about the lack of waiting lists for health care in Canada. People are describing timely consultations with primary care givers and prompt treatments from specialists. What is the reality?

A recently published chart  from the Frazier Institute shows "clinically reasonable" and "actual" median waits for various specialties in Canada for 2008. The median clinically reasonable for all specialties is 6.0 weeks with the actual median being 17.3 weeks - almost three times the reasonable. From a low wait for heart surgery of 7.3 weeks compared to a reasonable of 5.0 weeks, the high waits are in multiple areas of specialty care - 5.6 weeks vs actual of 16.1 weeks for gynecologic care; 5.8 weeks vs an actual of 31.7 weeks for neurosurgery; and 11.0 weeks vs an actual of 36.7 weeks for orthopedic treatment. Even internal medicine which is one of the primary care specialties has actual waits of 12.5 weeks vs a reasonable wait of 3.3 weeks.

So although a minority of Canadians find prompt and timely care, the majority are faced with long and what would be considered unacceptable waits in this country. Access to a waiting list is not the same as access to health care.

Everything Old is New Again for Greens

July 22, 2009 in Blog

Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop has an opinion piece in the Seattle Times today called "The Logic of a Locavore" in which she explains why we should eat local food. Many environmentalists embrace the buy local mantra in the mistaken belief it is better for the environment.

Harrop is, accidentally I think, very honest about the pedigree of this concept. Responding to the critique that eating local is passe, she writes:

Local is so 2008? Yes, and it is also so 1908, 1608 and 508 B.C. Until the last 100 years or so, the "alternative food crowd" encompassed nearly all of humanity.

I'm not sure why this is an argument in favor of eating local. Lots of things are 1608, including lifespans of 30 years, cholera, poverty, spoiled food and the like. Environmental icon Jared Diamond wishes we could go back even further.

A second stimulus? Consider the ramifications first.

July 22, 2009 in Blog

Some policymakers in D.C. and syndicated columnists/economists have already begun talking about the need for a second stimulus package to bolster the $787 billion passed by Congress in February.

But before they move to quickly to spend even more taxpayer dollars on various government projects, a little reading should be in order; namely, this report from Wells Fargo.

In a "Decision-Makers' Guide to Stimulus Part Deux," the authors of the paper first take Vice President Biden to task for saying, "the truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy." The authors point out that, "Everyone did not misread the ec!
onomy. Contrary to political rhetoric, economic analysis outside the beltway clearly anticipated a nine percent plus unemployment rate even with the stimulus package."

One of the major concerns over the last several months as government spending ramps up, is inflation. Again, the authors of the paper address this:

"Unfortunately, a second stimulus could add too much to the growth momentum to be consistent with stability in the long-run inflation interest rates and currency expectations. Inflation/debt concerns, which are already rising, would accelerate quickly and thereby prompt negative interest rate/dollar reactions that would create a boom/bust cycle..."

The stimulus/bailout mentality goes back to the reality that politicians don't always make the most sound economic decisions because they are influenced by the immediate short-term political gains and do not take into account, or minimize, the long-term costs!
. But this type of thinking has immediate economic ramificatio!

Where is the Patient in Health Care Reform?

July 22, 2009 in Blog

During mark up of the House health care reform bill last Friday, a patient-oriented amendment was soundly rejected:

    “(k) Construction - Nothing in this section shall be construed to allow any
federal employee or political appointee to dictate how a medical provider
practices medicine.”   

By rejecting this amendment it is now clear that the unstated intent of the bill is to have government bureaucrats dictate what doctors can or can't do for their patients. This places patients at the mercy of unknow and unseen officials,rather than allowing their own physicians to help them make their health care decisions.

Regardless of what proponents say, pending legislation is unquestionably a government attempt to take over our health care system.

Stimulus funds GMAP

July 22, 2009 in Blog

Today's GMAP (Government Management Accountability and Performance) public meeting was on the state's stimulus efforts. Lots of interesting tidbits were reported including:

  • $4 billion has been allocated to the state - $827 million spent so far.
  • The Governor believes the states are being used as pawns in a political fight in D.C. on whether the stimulus package is working; she complained that some Senators were questioning the value of the stimulus package prior to her testimony yesterday in Congress on green jobs.
  • The Governor reported that her colleagues expressed concern at the national governors meeting about what type of information is to be reported to the feds and the time line for those reports.
  • The bulk of the state’s stimulus jobs are at Hanford. The Governor is concerned that some of those jobs aren’t being filled by Washingtonians; instead the contractors are hiring out of state workers.
  • The Department of Transportation expects to create or retain 5,000 jobs as a result of stimulus funds.
  • The State has obligated the 4th highest amount of transit funding in the country.
  • The transportation construction market may have hit its saturation point as recent bids are coming in at or above engineer estimates in contrast to previous bids coming in below.
  • There is a high correlation with “legislative earmarks” and projects not coming in on time or on budget due to the circumvention of the normal vetting process and review. 

Here are additional details (click on the links):

What’s a “green” job?

July 22, 2009 in Blog

I was reading the Washington Employment Security Department’s report on how many “green” jobs there are in our state (the Department says 47,000), but the definition they use is so vague and open ended that you can’t tell what makes a job “green.”  On page five, however, I did find this nugget:

“Although employers identified many different occupational titles, there were no new or unique job titles identified by employers that were not already reflected in the existing national Standard Occupation Code classification system.  This suggests...that the fundamental work performed by employees in these green jobs has not changed substantially such that employers believe that new occupational titles are necessary.”

In other words, most if not all of the 47,000 jobs listed in the report are existing occupations that the government has decided to label “green,” even though the employees are doing exactly the same work they did before.  Here some examples of what the report calls “green” jobs:

- Millworkers
- Earth drillers (but not for oil and gas)
- Electricians
- Roofers
- Food Batchmakers

So, yesterday I was doing policy research on the state budget, and today I’m reading a government report on environmental policy.  Does that mean that yesterday I did not have a “green” job and today I do?

Today's "green" job is yesterday's job!

July 21, 2009 in Blog

Today, Washington’s Governor, Christine Gregoire, testified before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee regarding “green” jobs in a new economy. 

Gov. Gregoire told Senators:

“In 2007, when we adopted a set of climate change goals related to reduced greenhouse gas emissions and reduced fuel use, we also set a goal to triple the number of green jobs we had in the state – to reach 25,000 green jobs by 2020.  Less than two years later, we can point to 47,000 green jobs right now.  Our green jobs are growing much faster than predicted.”

Did Washington State actually create 47,000 “green” jobs in little more than two years?  Washington State Employment Security Department’s (ESD) report, “2008 Washington State Green Economy Jobs,” helps to answer this question.  The report states:

“…there were no new or unique job titles identified by employers that were not already reflected in the existing national Standard Occupation Code (SOC) classification system… the fundamental work performed by employees in these green jobs has not changed substantially such that employers believe that new occupational titles are necessary.”

The acknowledgement that “green” jobs are not necessarily new is a departure from the Governor’s previous comments where she has clearly claimed that the State has “created” 47,000 new “green” jobs.

The Governor’s remarks today also support the findings of the ESD report.  The Governor testified that:

“We learned green jobs are not necessarily some brand new type of job – they are often jobs we all know, only now they include new skills to meet the needs of the new century – for example, the electrician who can wire a smart home.”

Meanwhile, as Washington continues to focus on the creation of “green” jobs, our unemployment rate grows.  Washington’s unemployment rate today exceeds more than nine percent and is similar to other states, like Oregon and California, which have focused on creating a “green” economy. 

While the state is actively pursuing “green” jobs it appears to have taken more of a hand off approach towards traditional jobs.  In fact, when asked by media about Boeing’s potential movement of operations to South Carolina and out of Washington, the Governor stated that issue is between Boeing and the Unions.  But according to the ESD report and Gregoire’s testimony, aren’t many of Boeing’s jobs “green” and worth saving?

Light Rail Amnesia

July 21, 2009 in Blog

With the opening of the region's first light rail line, I'm reminded of what Sound Transit first promised in 1996 when voters initially approved funding.

Voters were promised 21-25 miles of light rail by 2006, which would carry about 107,000 daily riders for a cost of about $1.8 billion.

Today (2009), voters got 14-15 miles of light rail, which will carry about 26,600 daily riders for $2.3 billion.

In reviewing Sound Transit's 1996 plan, I also ran across this claim, which just seems kind of silly today:  

Sound Move is based on extremely conservative cost and ridership assumptions and methodologies reviewed by an independent expert review panel appointed by the governor, the state Legislature and the state Transportation Department.

***A quick thank you to John Niles for maintaining these documents online, which funny enough either don't exist on Sound Transit's website or are not in an easy place to find.

Obama uses free-market language to promote socialized health care

July 16, 2009 in Blog

In pushing yesterday for the sweeping health care plan working its way through Congress, President Obama argued for a government option, saying it “would make health care more affordable by increasing competition, providing more choices and keeping insurance companies honest.”  He sounds like Adam Smith making the well-proven case for freedom in the marketplace – market competition drives down prices and improves quality and choice for consumers. 

No, the President hasn’t suddenly experienced libertarian enlightenment.  The competition he has in mind is the federal government competing against its own citizens.

Government works well when it sets rules that apply equally to all companies, protect consumer rights and provide for public safety.  When government itself enters a market though, in this case as an insurance company, government officials end their role as impartial referees and become market players, with one important difference.  The “competition” President Obama envisions is a national insurance company that can print its own money.

The point is well illustrated by Germany, which allows citizens to buy private insurance or pick a subsidized public option.  Guess what?  Eighty-five percent of Germans take the public option.  Having eliminated most private choices, program managers began rationing care.  According to today’s Seattle Times, “[Germany] tries to control costs by limiting what’s available.”  The practice is standard in socialized systems.  Laboring under intense budget pressures, government managers seek to control costs by limiting people’s access to medical treatments.

If the President wants us to gain from real competition, he should let Americans buy health insurance in any state, just like auto insurance.  Making private insurance companies compete for our business in a national market, not starting a federal super-insurer, is the best way to get health care spending under control.

Obama Administration's Plan to Coerce People out of Their Cars

July 16, 2009 in Blog

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of a new report by Dr. Ronald Utt, a transportation policy expert from Heritage Foundation:

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood remarked in May that his livability initiative "is a way to coerce people out of their cars."
When asked if this was government intrusion into people's lives, LaHood
responded that "about everything we do around here is government
intrusion in people's lives," a sentiment that would have certainly
surprised the authors of the United States Constitution, a document
whose major purpose was to restrain government.

Read the full report:Obama Administration's Plan to Coerce People out of Their Cars