Higher Education Proposals in the President’s State of the Union Address

In addition to the early education plans unveiled in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a series of new education initiatives with a goal to better prepare students to enter the workforce.  His proposals aim to ensure that American high schools are providing students with necessary skills, make college tuition affordable, and make the value of various postsecondary options more transparent for students.

President Obama’s plan to revamp high schools focuses on building the skills that students will need to compete for jobs in a high-tech economy. Further details have not yet emerged about the proposal to create a challenge similar to Race to the Top. In his address, President Obama stated, “…we’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.” He cited the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn—a collaboration among New York City schools, IBM, and the City University of New York that provides students with high-tech skills, a high school diploma, and an associate’s degree in six years—as a model for innovation in high school.

President Obama also emphasized the importance of value and affordability to help students search for postsecondary educational opportunities that meet their needs.  He specifically called on Congress “to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” Andrew Gillen, research director at Education Sector, has examined the varying rates at which tuition costs have increased across different types of postsecondary institutions.

Last week, the Administration released an interactive “College Scorecard” that students and families can use to evaluate higher education options.  President Obama hopes that this tool will allow families to determine “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” A prospective student can search the scorecard website to find typical costs, graduation rates, loan default rates, and median borrowing amounts for an institution. Though the tool puts important affordability data together in one place, many experts think the scorecard does not go far enough to give students the information they need. The website indicates that the U.S. Department of Education is working on a feature that will provide information about employment rates and salaries for an institution’s graduates, but it is unclear when this feature will be available.

These new proposals and tools could enhance the efforts of the increasing number of cities that are facilitating cross-sector partnerships with schools, colleges, workforce agencies, employers, and community organizations to help more students attend and complete college.  The National League of Cities released several resources in 2012 that city leaders can use to promote postsecondary success.

What the President’s State of the Union Proposals Would Mean for Early Childhood Education

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama outlined several ambitious initiatives to strengthen the nation’s education system.  One of his proposed reforms would expand access to high-quality preschool and early learning opportunities.  The president emphasized the importance of early childhood education and noted that, “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.”

Last week, the White House released more details about the president’s plan for promoting early learning. The main tenets of the proposal are to create a federal-state partnership to expand access to preschool for children from low- and middle-income families, to expand early learning opportunities for younger children (birth through age three) through an Early Head Start-Child Care partnership, and to increase the reach of voluntary home visiting programs that provide critical services for vulnerable families.  These proposals would significantly bolster the efforts of a growing number of municipal leaders who seek to improve early care and education.  Many of these efforts have focused on the transition from preschool to elementary school.  For instance, last year, the National League of Cities released a set of case studies describing how five cities are working to align successful early childhood programs with K-12 educational systems.

Reactions from the education field to President Obama’s proposal have been generally enthusiastic, and many are excited that a bold proposal for early childhood education earned a spot in the State of the Union speech.  However, questions about yet-to-be-specified details remain, and many are skeptical about the prospect for authorizing a major new early childhood initiative this year. Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, has acknowledged that the proposal is likely to face a tough battle in Congress.  The president has yet to explain how this proposal would be funded, and some experts, including Bellwether Education Partners Senior Associate Sara Mead, are concerned that a federal-state partnership might pose problems for states that are already facing financial difficulties.  The New America Foundation has listed their initial questions, which address topics such as how to define and measure nationwide quality and standards, how Head Start will be affected, and the qualifications of an early education workforce.

It remains to be seen if this idea will make it through a Congress that is focused on spending cuts and the looming sequester. But if the president has his way, young children across the country will have access to expanded learning opportunities at a critical point in their lives.

Nineteen Million

Sometimes a single number shakes me in my boots – a budget line, a murder rate, a grant amount.

Currently, the number “rocking my world:” Nineteen million.

Nineteen million is the number of young adults who will qualify for relatively low cost health insurance under provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  That’s about half of the total number of potential new insureds under the Act. Some three million young people who could plausibly join their parents’ plans past age 21, thanks to the Act, have already done so; 19 million more remain to get connected with insurance.

Notably, 19 million represents three times the latest estimate of “opportunity youth”  who are out of school and out of work.  That no public or private response comes close to the scale needed to reengage opportunity youth fully, serves as a reminder of the immensity of the task in front of the nation to realize the promise in the Act.

Indeed, terms such as “quantum leap” and “step change” shrink in adequacy in the face of the bold, generationally significant public policy stroke embodied in the Act.

It’s going to take all youth workers, all city programs touching youth and families, all postsecondary education institutions, the entire service industry and other employers with high percentages of young adult workers – just to get anywhere close to 19 million new enrollees.  These groups and others need immediate, full access to those planning and implementing state health insurance exchanges and federal equivalents to prepare for the unprecedented scale of activity set to commence during the October-February enrollment period.

At stake: Nothing less than delivering for 19 million young adults what so many of we older workers already enjoy in the form of employer-provided health insurance benefits.

Detroit and DETROPIA

The words come at you harshly and powerfully. Decay. Ruin. Emptiness. America’s Pompeii.

These words accompany images of Detroit from photographers Andrew Moore and Camilo Jose Vergara. The photos have been part of two exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, Detroit Disassembled and Detroit Is No Dry Bones.

Using a large-format presentation, Moore presents images of some of the most iconic structures in Detroit. Viewers come face to face with the downtown United Artists Theatre, Michigan Central Station, The Guardian Building, Ford’s River Rouge Complex and the East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church. All are in various stages of disintegration. At the Cooper Elementary School on the city’s East Side, prairie grass is overtaking the isolated structure.

Vergara has been documenting the urban environment in Detroit for over twenty-five years. He chronicles storefronts on Mack Avenue from 1993 to 2012. Other photos highlight the former Packard auto plant and the graffiti that covers so many of the city’s structures. Critics have called his images Ruin Porn but Vergara expects that those viewing his images “will come to appreciate how the city continues to survive and reinvent itself.”

It’s hard to find hope or redeeming grace in Moore’s work but Vergara seems more interested in perseverance, reclamation and the audacity of the human spirit. His work seeks to offer some focus on those who never left the city and those new residents who see a certain authentic beauty in what is vanishing.

The documentary film DETROPIA by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady also tackles the paradox of demise and rejuvenation. This award-wining film (Sundance, Naples, SilverDocs), seeks to make the complex challenges of globalization, race relations, urban decay and the disconnections between citizens and government more approachable. Moreover, the film, through the stories of residents, adds the elements of humanity and commitment to place that the Moore and Vergara photographs do not provide.

The National League of Cities will give its members a sneak peak at DETROPIA before the film’s release on public television later this year. City and town leaders attending the Congressional City Conference in Washington will be given a special viewing and an opportunity to discuss the film on Monday, March 11.

The stories in this film have broad applicability beyond Detroit. For public officials, the film can be a catalyst for assessing and addressing the many challenges that face neighborhoods and communities in the post-recession period.

Galvanizing the Civic Sector to Reduce Gun Violence

The debate over gun violence swirls in state houses and in Congress.   Heated discussions surround:

  • Ensuring universal background checks and closing gun show loopholes;
  • Banning assault weapons;
  • Banning multi-magazine clips;
  • Giving federal authorities the ability to trace guns; and
  • Increasing the availability of mental health services.

Citing the many American families “whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence,” President Obama, in his State of the Union Address on February 12, passionately urged Congress to vote on the Administration’s proposals to reduce gun violence: “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.  The families of Newtown deserve a vote.  The families of Aurora deserve a vote.  The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

As the national debate about gun rights has intensified, Bill Dedman, investigative reporter for NBC News, picked the weekend of January 19-21 to examine gun deaths across America.  An excerpt of his report:

By the end of the long weekend [emphasis added]…at least 91 people across America had been killed by guns…more than three times the number of caskets needed in Connecticut after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Based on interviews with police, prosecutors and family members in all but a few of the cases, we tallied 53 homicides where one person killed another.  There were another three homicides where multiple people were killed.  There were six murder-suicides and six suicides.  Five accidental shootings.  Three shootings by police, and at least two by civilians in self-defense.  That’s 78 horrors with 91 dead…you can get killed throwing your daughter a 17th birthday party…buying a taco from a vendor…catching a train.

Grim.  Almost crushing.  But it must not paralyze.  No, we must challenge ourselves, finding ways to enlist the energies of everyone in reducing gun-related deaths and injuries.  While not everyone will agree on legislative remedies, surely we can all rally together to take steps in our own communities to protect children and prevent gun violence.  The point: everyone can do something in the contexts in which they feel most comfortable.  For example:

  • Parents have a right to ask whether firearms are present where their children visit and play and how safely those weapons and ammunition are stored.  Questions about smoking and seatbelts have become routine.  Questions about the accessibility of guns in the home must also become routine.  Parents who are gun owners themselves must ensure their weapons are stored securely.
  • Schools can strengthen emergency procedures and increase the availability of counseling and mental health services.
  • Teens can serve as Big Buddies for junior high school students or serve on teen violence prevention councils.
  • Hospitals can show, as some have, grisly ER videos of surgical attempts to save gunshot victims to vulnerable teens.
  • Universities can buttress mental health services and install anonymous tip lines.
  • Philanthropies can fund proven programs such as mentoring.
  • Businesses can hire teens as part of summer of safety initiatives.
  • Local neighborhood and civic associations can check up on who’s selling guns and how gun show permits are granted.
  • City governments can launch comprehensive violence prevention programs that blend prevention, intervention, suppression, and support for returning offenders.

This represents a beginning.  Over the next several months, I will be working closely with the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families and the philanthropic sector to develop a list of 10-12 doable actions for each sector.

I welcome any ideas you may have about what actions each of these civic sectors might take (please send your ideas to hopematters@verizon.net).

Legislation, while essential, cannot be our sole focus.  Each of us in our own sphere can do something about the scourge of gun violence that on average, kills 86 Americans every day.

Jack Calhoun is director of the California Cities Gang Prevention Network for NLC and is a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice for its National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.  Additional articles on violence prevention are available on his website at www.hopematters.org.

In Dublin, Witnessing a Global Competition for Human Talent

Mayor John DeStefano

Mayor John DeStefano

The following post was written by John DeStefano, Jr., Mayor of the City of New Haven, Conn., and Past NLC President.  It originally appeared as a column in the New Haven Register on February 9, and has been reprinted with permission from Mayor DeStefano.

A western Ukrainian boxer speaking English with an Irish accent?  By the way, he was trained by a Russian coach.  That’s Igor and that is how the world is getting smaller and smaller.

Igor immigrated to Ireland for the same reason that so many come to my city of New Haven, Connecticut.  The opportunity to work, to find something better for himself and his family.  When coming he was challenged by the locals and confused for a Romanian until he learned the universal comeback to all bullies – “what’s it to you?”

What is it to you?  Last week, I visited Dublin, invited to attend a Council of Europe meeting.  Think America’s National League of Cities and you sort of get the idea.  Somewhat more loosely knit.  It’s Europe, you see.

But it’s not the old Europe.  Being French doesn’t mean what it used to be.  Half the people of Toulouse have at least one foreign-born parent.  It’s the same in Germany, Poland, you get the idea.  We look less like what we used to, and more like each other.

So people and cities across Europe are wrestling with change.  Different languages, different colors, different habits.  The best is when folks come up to me and say, “Oh, you’re American.  Well you have been dealing with immigration forever.  We’re just learning.”  As though we have discovered the secret recipe.

The fact is that we in America are still learning, too.  And the truth is that we are at a moment of great opportunity in America.  A moment to embrace a stronger future by passage of comprehensive immigration reform by Washington.

The overwhelming sense I had in Dublin is one of an international competition for the most precious commodity for economic growth:  human talent.  Human talent to innovate, to create, to work hard and to persist.  The aspirational talent of the world is looking for a place to contribute.  To do more and to succeed.  Much as I like Dublin, I would hope that this talent finds its way to America to strengthen, invigorate and grow our economy, instead of someone else’s.

The perfect case example for this can be found in my city’s own front yard at Yale University.  At Yale, over 4,000 people from more than 110 countries are studying, teaching and conducting research.  This migration of talent to New Haven does not diminish us, it makes us bigger.  As research and talent grows, so do university payrolls as well as the payrolls of the companies that commercialize that research.  And, in turn, the service companies that sell, that support and that piggyback off that core growth.

Too often diversity and immigration are seen as simple math, addition and subtraction.  In other words, for me to have my bread, I have to take yours.  Really it’s about multiplication.  Multiplying talent in a stable and progressive society yields exponential results.  Other cities around the world are just beginning to see what America has learned generation after generation.  Let’s get immigration reform done.  Dublin is nice.  But America is where we live.

The Latest in Economic Development

This week’s blog discusses the merits of German and Swiss apprenticeship programs and college credentials, heartland startup culture, a new incubator program in Arizona, and a community benefits agreement between Columbia University and West Harlem. Comment below or send to common@nlc.org.

Get the last edition of “The Latest in Economic Development.”

A recent publication by the Richmond Fed describes the merits of German/Swiss-style apprenticeships for students, helping them transition into the working world more easily. The results speak for themselves; unemployment for ages 15-24 last year in Switzerland was 7.7%, 8.5% in Germany, and 17.3% in the US. Other factors are surely at play, but on-the-job training makes a big difference. The US still focuses largely on the attainment of traditional university degrees, leaving high-tech manufacturers looking for qualified applicants and creating a stigma that technical education is a step down. That’s not to say that college isn’t worthwhile, as university graduates tend to have better job prospects and higher earning potential in the long-term. There doesn’t have to be a trade-off though; the best approach is likely “not an either-or, but a dual system.”

Over at Bloomberg, Peter Orszag takes the view that more college graduates would contribute to faster economic growth.  He reckons that a slowdown in the rate of college degree attainment has made income inequality worse and stifled growth.

A new network is forming in Arizona called the Alexandria Network, which will place incubator-style co-working spaces in public libraries.  It’s a collaboration between Arizona State and ASU Venture Catalyst, along with the Scottsdale Public Library. The plan is to eventually scale the model across the state. The pilot program will have the support of the City of Scottsdale’s economic development team, and ASU will use “proven startup content, experienced entrepreneurial mentors, and ‘pracademic’ teaching modules” to support the new spaces. According to Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane, “we are creating an ecosystem for success to occur in Scottsdale, and many companies here are benefitting from that.” He also adds, “…the free resources and opportunities to connect and learn from fellow business people provided through the Alexandria Network will be a powerful asset for them.”

If you’re interested in startups, entrepreneurship, and accelerators, particularly in destinations that aren’t Silicon Valley or New York, the Wall Street Journal has a whole host of articles for you to peruse.  One of the locales WSJ features is Omaha, Nebraska, a middle-American city not exactly known for its dynamic entrepreneurial climate. But there are advantages to Omaha that aren’t always that obvious. For one, “while more and more startups are drawn to Omaha, it’s not quite as saturated with competition like New York City or Silicon Valley. That makes new businesses strong magnets for talent who are looking for fresh opportunities. Not only is it easier to recruit local talent, Midwestern transplants on the coasts are often looking for opportunities to come back home, where the cost of living is lower.” Also, in Midwestern tradition, “there’s an incredibly strong work ethic,” and “the community support for local businesses is…pretty powerful.”

Columbia University’s expansion in New York City has been a point of contention in West Harlem, but a community benefits agreement is allowing community groups access to much needed funds. The agreement between Columbia and the West Harlem Local Development Corporation entails $76 million to be disbursed to the WHLDC over 16 years. The money is handed out to community applicants in grant cycles, and the applications “paint a nuanced portrait of West Harlem.” Some of the proposals are for elbow-grease projects in community development, while others are for creative projects such as a proposal to “teach about 25 youths how to raise organic fish and produce using an aquaponic system.”

The Opportunities and Challenges of Our Withdrawal from Afghanistan

During the State of the Union address last night, NLC President Marie Lopez Rogers joined First Lady Michelle Obama in the gallery, a clear recognition of the vital role that cities play in strengthening our nation. Among the many topics covered, the President announced his intention to withdraw approximately 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan in the coming year, with a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014.

NLC President Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers (red jacket) joined the First Lady at the State of the UnionPhoto Credit: Associated Press

NLC President Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers (red jacket) joined the First Lady at the State of the Union
Photo Credit: Associated Press

Notably, the President also took time to specifically thank the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden for their work around the reintegration needs of our veterans. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan in motion, the issues facing our returning veterans and the opportunities their return presents to cities are timely.

The connection between the return of our veterans and the need to focus on strengthening our communities is both simple and complex. The concept is simple, but taking meaningful action can be a complex process. We know how valuable our veterans are and how thankful we are for their service. We recognize they possess unique character traits and desirable skill sets that can benefit local businesses and the community at large. However, they also may face distinctive challenges requiring comprehensive and coordinated responses from multiple stakeholders.

Local leaders are in a unique position to bring people together to figure out what is already happening, what is working and what is not. At the Congressional City Conference, local leaders will have the opportunity to learn specific and pragmatic steps to take to initiate or expand on current community efforts to support our veterans and help them thrive.

NLC will have two sessions featuring national leaders and government representatives discussing the available resources and how to access them locally. Examples of key stakeholders to have during community forums as well as examples of what cities are already doing to support the reintegration of our veterans will also be highlighted at these sessions. An additional highlight will be hearing directly from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

Supporting our veterans by ensuring effective resource coordination will provide them with the best opportunities to fully reintegrate and contribute to their communities. With so many veterans returning home to communities that are in need of strengthening, now is a unique time for local leadership to create lasting change.

Fine-Tuning Broadband Adoption Strategies

At a Broadband Summit at the FCC last week, national experts, academics and community program leaders discussed our country’s progress on where people are when it comes to taking advantage of broadband access.  The major challenges to broadband adoption have been having access to broadband services, how and why to use that access once you have it, and cost.  Presenters at the Summit discussed their research and how they have discovered subtle nuances to these challenges based on a variety of social and economic factors and how to strategically address them.

Dr. John Horrigan, Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies talked about the state of play in 2009, when the FCC’s Broadband Task Force provided an interim report to the FCC on the National Broadband Plan.  Some of the key lessons learned in the past 4 years echo Dr. Gant’s findings that challenges are very specific to communities.  While access, digital literacy and relevance still remain barriers to adoption, there are other reasons as well.  Not all adopters are the same.  In 2008-2009, the understanding was that non-adopters tended to be older populations who didn’t see the need for it.  Since then, research has shown that most non-adopters, regardless of age, can become adopters as long as strategies to increase adoption cater to their needs.  This shows that the non-adoption problem is much more complex and requires specific, case-by-case attention.

Dr. Jon Gant from the University of Illinois, School of Library and Information Sciences talked about the importance of public and private stakeholders to jointly create strategies that are specific to community needs.  Broadband adoption solutions can’t be developed in a vacuum; success of adoption programs rely very much on what community needs are and then even drilling further down, the needs of individuals.  He discussed how day-to-day priorities for potential users—such as ensuring daily childcare or rigid job schedules—can impact how a person utilizes broadband.  As with any kind of learning and education processes, sustained practice and use is vital for increasing knowledge and development.

Community leaders understand this and are taking it into consideration as they work to bridge the digital divide in their communities.  The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has developed an online portal for veterans which is essentially a one-stop shop for information on veteran’s benefits.  The need to access this information quickly and efficiently is what is driving broadband adoption in the veteran community in Massachusetts.  The Hmong American Partnership is an organization that provides support and resources to the Hmong and other refugee communities in America.  Employment and training is their biggest department and they are working to ensure that digital literacy is built into the programs they administer to their users.  The College of Menominee Nation has deployed broadband throughout the reservation to provide access not only to students for higher education, but also to the community to create an interest in what they could do with broadband, which will then drive adoption and usage.

The broadband challenges of yesterday are still the challenges we face today.  Cost is a huge deterrent to disconnected populations realizing the value of broadband to their everyday lives.  We still face digital literacy obstacles.  What we know now, though, is that these problems can be successfully met by knowing who you are working with and understanding what their needs are.  Broadband adoption still has a way to go in this country but we are on a stronger path to ensuring we are connecting citizens to what they need to be connected to.

The Parallel Pathways of Resilience and Sustainability

In the aftermath of last year’s extreme weather events the topic of ‘resiliency’ has become the subject of much discussion, excitement and some confusion within cities and the field of urban planning. But is this just yet another ‘buzz word’ to be casually thrown about or is there something more going on? This blog post explores what exactly this notion of ‘resilience’ is; what about the topic is making it so popular within the context of city planning; and what connections ‘resilience’ might have to cities’ sustainability priorities.

So, what is ‘resilience’ and who cares?

In a world where we are quick to label anything and everything- concepts, ideas and actions- the term ‘resilience’ is being used to describe a range of things, from the way that city leaders respond to short- and long-term city issues to how cities recover from unforeseen natural disasters.  At quick glance these applications seem unrelated and arbitrary, however, certain patterns implicitly emerge with closer examination.

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