Welcome to America, kids – eventually

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The question of what to do with these 50,000 Central American children sent to America alone by their parents to escape violence and poverty in their homelands – that’s a tough one. What do we do? Let some of them stay? Send them all home?

Eventually, we’ll be asking young immigrants to come.

We will do that because the decisions we have made, politically and personally, will leave us with no better choice. Let’s look at some statistics to see why.

In 1946, the World War II generation returned home from overseas and made a bunch of babies. From that year until 1964, 80 million baby boomers were born, and now they are beginning to retire in massive numbers and living longer than previous generations. Social Security’s framers did not plan for this influx of long-living beneficiaries when it was created. Life expectancy was 64 for a program that started paying benefits at age 65. There was one beneficiary for every 16 workers paying into the system.

Now there are three workers supporting each beneficiary. By 2025, the ratio will be 2.3 to one. The baby boomers themselves did not make enough babies, and then Congress messed it all up by raiding Social Security to pay for other programs.

This isn’t just a problem for the Social Security system. Entire sectors of the economy will be looking for workers. For example, the trucking industry, which pays pretty well, is expecting a deficit of 300,000 drivers over the next decade.

Could we just wait for people to make more babies who will grow up and fill the void? Not really. According to the Census Bureau, the median age for American females in 2013 was 39. That means a lot of us are too old to make babies. We’d have a real problem if it weren’t for the Hispanics already here (average age: 27).

Let’s review. We’ve promised benefits to an entire generation of retiring senior citizens, but we don’t have enough young people working to pay for those benefits, fill jobs in certain sectors, or make babies themselves.

We need an influx of young people – fast. Where could we find them? Obviously, south of the border and across the ocean.

At some point, regardless of all the political yelling, the United States will loosen its immigration laws. Those already here will be given a path to citizenship, or at least a path to something. The door into America will open wider. It might be attached to a wall, but the door will be open.

Is this the right thing to do? It won’t matter, because no one will have a better idea.

We ultimately will do this because we will have no better alternative as a result of the choices we have already made. Politically, we could have raised the retirement age enough to compensate for our increased lifespans. We have chosen not to do that. Our society could have fostered the expectation that the care of the elderly would be primarily the responsibility of their children. We decided, for many good reasons, to also rely quite a bit on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We could have had a sensible immigration policy. We chose to squabble about it. As individuals, we could have had more kids. We, including my wife and I, decided that two were enough.

The choices we have made over the past 50 years, when we have had lots of alternatives, will dictate the choices we will make in the future, when we will have far fewer alternatives. So welcome to America, kids – if not now, then eventually.

Must the governor be a Farm Bureau member?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Do you know how to join Farm Bureau, and if you didn’t, would that mean you couldn’t be governor?

I’m asking because, during a joint appearance Tuesday at a Farm Bureau meeting, Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross were asked if they were members. It was not Hutchinson’s best campaign moment.

“I didn’t pay any money,” he said. He then added somewhat awkwardly, “I don’t know whether I’m a member of the Farm Bureau. I haven’t – I’ve been in Congress. I worked with the Farm Bureau. I’ve been to your meetings and gatherings. I’m not sure what it takes to be an official member.”

Ross pounced when it was his turn to speak. “I am a member of Arkansas Farm Bureau. I pay my – what is it – $35 annual fee? And I always get that free dinner at the Prescott-Nevada County Fairgrounds.”

The audience applauded. Ross clearly won the exchange. His campaign issued a news release saying this was an example of Hutchinson being disconnected and out of touch with Arkansans, which is the narrative the campaign is trying to push. The Hutchinson campaign, meanwhile, is trying to paint Ross as an Obamacare-enabling Democrat.

Beware of trusting campaigns’ narratives about their opponents.

In real life, of course, the fact that Hutchinson doesn’t have a membership in Farm Bureau means only that he never had a reason to purchase one. Really, do these guys have to pay a fee to every organization in Arkansas?

What matters – to farmers, to those who work in agriculture and food processing, to Farm Bureau – is the candidates’ records, their priorities, and their competence.

I asked both campaigns to name their top priority in agriculture. Hutchinson’s campaign sent a statement saying his priorities are expanding the marketplace for Arkansas farm products, including increasing access to world markets, and supporting research funding for Arkansas agriculture. He said his secretary of agriculture must understand row crop farming. Ross’ campaign said he would strengthen the state Agriculture Department’s Arkansas Grown initiative, which connects Arkansas producers with buyers. He said increasing export opportunities “no matter how large or small the producer” would be a top priority.

Sounds like they both would do all right.

Hutchinson’s Farm Bureau flap was forgettable enough that I’m conflicted about writing about it. But there is a larger picture, and it’s the tendency for too much to be made of inconsequential moments in campaigns – you know, gaffes. Remember Texas Gov. Rick Perry saying “Oops” when he couldn’t remember one of the federal agencies he would abolish during a debate in 2012? He got killed for that, even though most everyone’s mind goes blank occasionally, and when it does, they might say “Oops.” In a 1988 debate, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was asked by CNN’s Bernard Shaw whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. He answered the question calmly and rationally, and afterwards he was raked over the coals because of it. His poll numbers dropped the day after the debate, which the pundits blamed on his lack of emotion in answering a hypothetical question.

Gaffes do the most damage when they play into a developing impression. Questions were already arising about Perry’s unpreparedness and Dukakis’ cool detachment. Hutchinson stubbed his toe, but had the Ross campaign already succeeded in painting him as out of touch, the Farm Bureau exchange might have been a bigger deal. You can bet Ross will not make the mistake of saying anything positive about Obamacare.

For the record, I am a member of Farm Bureau because it’s how I insure my cars and home. I do not own a farm. And yes, the annual membership fee is $35.

Now what’s this Ross was saying about a free dinner?

What the third party candidates said

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications

It’s still a tossup as to who will be the next governor, but we know who it won’t be: neither Frank Gilbert nor Josh Drake, the Libertarian and Green Party nominees.

Gilbert, the Libertarian, and Drake also know neither of them will be the next governor – not in a system dominated by Republicans and Democrats. Nevertheless, they’ve put their names on the ballot.

Here’s the shorthand for what their parties stand for. Greens are pro-environment and pro-government health care. Libertarians are for less government in both economic and social issues.

Drake and Gilbert presented their cases during an Arkansas Press Association debate July 11 – and, by the way, kudos to the APA for giving them that opportunity. Here’s what they said …

About same sex marriage. Drake, the Green Party candidate, said the Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, regardless of what the majority says. Gilbert said government should stay out of the marriage-defining business, adding that he was offended that his wedding preacher said he performed the ceremony by the authority vested in him by the state of Tennessee. The government had nothing to do with his marriage, he said.

About the “private option,” the state program that uses Obamacare dollars to buy private insurance for lower-income Arkansans. Gilbert, the Libertarian, opposes it “unequivocally” and criticized the legislative Republicans who made it possible. Arkansas should not be involved in a coalition with the debt-ridden federal government to make possible this “terrible idea tacked onto a disgusting idea,” he said. Drake said other civilized countries offer universal health care, and so should the United States. Absent that, he said it’s “absolutely lunacy” to consider turning down those federal dollars when many Arkansas hospitals are struggling.

About Arkansas’ bursting-at-the-seams prisons and jails. Gilbert said too many people are being arrested and incarcerated and said his first step as governor would be to “pardon every nonviolent drug offender in the state of Arkansas.” Drake said the war on drugs has been lost and that it’s time to consider if some people in prison really ought to be there.

About C&H Hog Farms, the industrial-sized farm that has prompted concerns about potential contamination of the nearby Buffalo River. Drake, the Green Party candidate, said such an operation should not be located near a watershed and that the state must protect its water supply and its tourist attractions. Gilbert said he didn’t trust bureaucrats to protect the environment and that water use disputes should be handled through the court system.

About the lottery being under closer control of the governor. Drake expressed doubts about giving the governor too much power and said he’s “not a big fan of the lottery” or of gambling in general. Gilbert said the lottery should be managed by private individuals rather than bureaucrats. Given the opportunity, he would end the lottery.

About taxes. Gilbert would eliminate personal and corporate income taxes as quickly as possible. Doing away with the costs of corporate welfare would make it easier, he said. Drake said taxes on the wealthy should be increased so the sales tax on food can be ended and other sales taxes lowered.

In his closing argument, Drake said third party candidates should be included in more debates and given more attention by the media. Having more political parties would be good for the press, he said, because contested races create more intellectually stimulating campaigns, which attract readers and viewers. He didn’t say it, but viable third party and independent candidates, given a chance to compete, might attract enough support that they could buy ads, too.

Gilbert cracked up the audience in his closing remarks by saying, “I encourage you to look around yourself and see if you think there’s a whole lot that the Libertarians can make worse, and that there might not be a thing or two that the Libertarians could make better. Pick up your dice, throw them, and if it comes up snake eyes, vote Libertarian.”

By the way, also participating in the APA debate were the two major party candidates – Asa what’s-his-name and Mike somebody.

How to fund highways? Not this way.

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

How long could your family pay for today’s needs with tomorrow’s dollars before it would start to catch up to you? Congress is doing something like that, again.

The Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 would provide extra highway funding for 10 months by pulling money from future revenues through a tactic known as “pension smoothing.” This allows employers to delay contributing to their employees’ pension plans, thus raising the employers’ taxable incomes now. Under a formula, they’ll make up the difference later, reducing their taxable incomes then, and at that point a future Congress will have to budget for that lost revenue. But that’s a problem for the future Congress.

The House of Representatives passed the $10.8 billion bill this past week, with all four Arkansas House members voting yes – which I guess they had to do, because the alternative was a train wreck. The Senate is expected to vote on the matter as early as this coming week.

This is happening because we’ve reached yet another unnecessary fiscal crisis. The Highway Trust Fund, which reimburses states for highway costs, will be dry within a couple of weeks – the result of too few dollars funding too many projects. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) has already delayed some contracts in case that happens.

Money flows into the fund as a result of federal highway laws passed periodically by Congress. In the past, these have been five- or six-year deals so states could make long-term planning decisions. It takes, after all, a long time to build a highway. The most recent, MAP-21, lasted only two years, and now it’s expiring. The Highway and Transportation Funding Act would extend MAP-21 only to May.

Highways are funded mostly through fuel taxes. These are easy to collect, they don’t require that much bureaucracy, and they are considered to be fair because they are user fees. The person using the government service, the highway, is the one who pays for it.

But the federal fuel tax has not been increased since 1993, which means inflation has eaten away at it. Meanwhile, cars have become more fuel efficient, so we’re buying fewer gallons to drive the same distance, thereby paying even less in fuel taxes. At the same time, construction costs have risen.

There’s waste in the highway system, of course, but even if all of that were eliminated, the country still would be investing far too little in its aging and decaying infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average bridge in America is 42 years old.

For now, the easiest, quickest, most efficient way of increasing highway funding is raising the gas tax, but politically that’s a tough sell. Even the Connecting Arkansas Program passed by voters in 2012 exempted fuel as part of its half-cent sales tax. Meanwhile, the fuel tax faces an uncertain future. As Scott Bennett, AHTD director, points out, reducing fuel consumption is a national priority, so how can consumption continue to be the primary way we fund highways? The Obama administration is suggesting letting states put toll booths on interstates – an inefficient way of collecting money that is inconvenient for drivers. Oregon is testing a vehicle miles traveled tax, where drivers’ mileage would be tracked, and they would be taxed accordingly.

It may be that the only solution now is for states to bear greater responsibility for maintaining and constructing the nation’s roadways. According to Bennett, 70 percent of Arkansas highway construction funding comes from the federal government, but other states pay more of their own way.

Arkansas voters have shown a willingness to pay for highways. In addition to the Connecting Arkansas Program, they also voted in 2011 for the Interstate Rehabilitation Program, which funds interstate improvements through a bond issue. Those two programs are funding $3 billion worth of work. On the other hand, they only apply to 4 percent of the state’s highway miles.

What do you think? Raise fuel taxes? Build toll booths? Track how far (and maybe where) we drive? Let the states take care of it?

Something has to happen. There are only so many times future dollars can pay for current work.

One-sided approaches won’t stabilize the debt

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Is it possible to bring the government’s debt under control by focusing only on one area – raising taxes, for example, or cutting defense spending? Let’s return to the Debt Stabilizer to find out.

I wrote last week about the Debt Stabilizer, an online tool created by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that lets average citizens make tax and spending choices – hopefully better ones than Congress has made – in order to reduce the public debt.

Currently $12.6 trillion, the public debt is the portion of the $17.6 trillion national debt that doesn’t include what the government has borrowed from itself, such as from Social Security. It’s currently 78 percent of the size of the economy and headed to nearly 150 percent by 2050. Historically, it’s been 40 percent.

The goal of the Debt Stabilizer exercise is to reduce the public debt to 60 percent of the economy by 2024. Doing so requires improving the government’s balance sheet by $4.84 trillion over 10 years – equal to $1.54 million for every American.

I managed to reduce the public debt to 59 percent of the economy, mostly by cutting spending while raising the gas tax and closing tax deductions, and then wrote about it in my last column. After I emailed the link to the CRFB, communications director Jack Deutsch replied with an observation: Try playing various roles – the defense cutter, the tax raiser, etc. You’ll see how one-sided approaches don’t work well.

Let’s see if he’s right.

I started by trying sort of a House Republican approach: Oppose most defense cuts, support most spending cuts, and support most tax cuts. That approach left me at 69 percent of gross domestic product by 2024 and at 60 percent by 2028. However, some of those spending cuts, including the steeper ones for Social Security and Medicare, are unlikely to materialize.

I next was more of a congressional Democrat – cut defense, increase social spending, tax the rich, etc. That option reduced the debt to 73 percent of the economy but did not put the country on a path to 60 percent. “Uh oh! You failed to reduce the debt to a sustainable level,” the Debt Stabilizer said.

Other imbalanced approaches were unsuccessful. I tried one that would be popular with many Americans – cut taxes and spending without touching Social Security and Medicare. That got me to 73 percent, same as the congressional Democrats. The same percentage was reached when I cut defense spending and pulled us out of Afghanistan but left everything else alone. Doing almost nothing but cutting foreign aid left the debt at 78 percent of the economy. Foreign aid is 1 percent of the budget.

There were several imbalanced approaches that reached 60 percent. Raising every tax on the list and ending every deduction reduced the debt to 57 percent of gross domestic product. Cutting spending wherever I could and leaving taxes alone reduced the debt to 56 percent. Cutting all the taxes and all the spending reduced the debt to 60 percent.

However, those spending cuts included politically unpopular reductions for Medicare, Social Security – even $30 billion less for school breakfasts. Realistically, they wouldn’t happen. My tax increases included similarly unlikely scenarios such as ending deductions for the powerful oil industry and reducing the amount that average Americans can deduct for charitable gifts.

When I started this exercise, I hoped to play the parts of Rep. Tom Cotton and Sen. Mark Pryor, but I soon decided I couldn’t do their positions justice – particularly Pryor, who can be hard to pin down. Safe to say that Cotton takes pretty much the congressional Republican approach, which requires a number of unlikely spending cuts. Pryor – at least based on how he’s campaigning – is somewhere in the neighborhood of congressional Democrats, who, as the Debt Stabilizer makes clear, “fail to reduce the debt to a sustainable level.”

If a family’s debt needed stabilizing or a small business were in trouble, everyone would gather around the table to consider what to cut and where extra income could be found. Probably no one would get everything they wanted, and if one tried to dictate, the rest would not buy in.

At some point, Americans and their elected officials hopefully will realize that the government is no different – that choices and compromises must be made. If that happens, the debt will be reduced to a sustainable level.

And if that never happens? Uh oh.

Ross, Hutchinson explain their number one priority in education

If you could accomplish only one thing in public education during your time as governor, what would that be?

Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson were asked that question at the Arkansas School Boards Association’s Summer leadership Conference in Hot Springs Friday.

Ross touted his plan to expand pre-K classes for four-year-olds. Currently, free pre-K classes are available through the Arkansas Better Chance program for families making 200 percent above the poverty level. Ross would expand that to families at 300 percent. As the program is phased in, families making 400 percent of the poverty level would be eligible for the ABC program by paying a reduced rate of 50 percent.

Total cost of the plan would be $35 million a year. He said it would be funded through “revenue growth”

“If you’re a parent and you’ve got a four-year-old and you want them in a public pre-K classroom, there should be a desk for them regardless of your income and regardless where you live in Arkansas,” he said.

Hutchinson wants computer science to be offered in every public Arkansas high school in four years. He said fewer than one in 10 high schools currently offer it. Under Hutchinson’s plan, a high-level computer science class could serve as a math or science credit and potentially a concurrent college credit as well.

Total initial cost would be half a million dollars to train teachers, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said that if 20 percent of Arkansas students took computer science, 6,000 would leave school with that skill every year, which “could change the dynamics of this state for decades and decades to come.”

Could you spend money better than Congress?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

It’s been 13 years since Congress and the White House balanced the federal budget. Could you do better in 20 minutes?

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a Washington-based group dedicated to finding solutions to the country’s long-term debt problems, offers a budget-balancing tool for citizens, the Debt Stabilizer, at its website, crfb.org. According to the site, the Debt Stabilizer has been visited more than 600,000 times since it was created.

Users are given a series of choices to reduce the public debt from its current 78 percent of gross domestic product to a more manageable 60 percent by 2024. Historically, the debt has been 40 percent of GDP. At its current pace, it will reach 100 percent by 2035 and nearly 150 percent by 2050, according to the CRFB.

The public debt, currently $12.6 trillion, is the portion of the $17.6 trillion national debt that doesn’t include what the government has borrowed from itself, such as from the Social Security Trust Fund.

To reach 60 percent, you must come up with $4.84 trillion over 10 years using a combination of savings and increased tax revenues. That’s $1.54 million for every American man, woman and child, or about $6 million for a family of four. That’s how deep in debt we are.

The exercise shows the range of actual, difficult choices that would address the problem, as opposed to the much easier solutions many Americans mistakenly believe exist. Polls show Americans are aware the national debt is a serious issue. However, in a survey last year by the Pew Research Center listing 19 options for reducing spending, not a single one was favored by a majority.

Want to give it a shot?

The Debt Stabilizer starts with a page featuring unavoidable policy decisions, such as what to do about Afghanistan. Brief explanations are provided about the options. Eliminating war funding entirely after 2021 would save $820 billion. Choosing that gets you one-sixth of the way to $4.84 trillion.

The next page features a series of options regarding defense and foreign policy spending. Those include ending the military’s new Joint Strike Fighter plane, which is very late and far overbudget. You can either cut veterans’ benefits $50 billion, or you can increase them by $50 billion.

There’s an option to cut foreign aid by 25 percent – certainly a popular choice among Americans. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found the average American believes foreign aid is 28 percent of the budget. It’s actually 1 percent. Cutting it 25 percent would save $150 billion.

The next page gives you a chance to cut various kinds of domestic discretionary spending – basically what the government doesn’t spend on defense, Social Security and health care programs. Want to create a moon colony? That would add $250 billion to the public debt. You can cut highway spending or increase it. Reducing food stamps to 2008 levels saves $140 billion.

The next pages cover Social Security, Medicare and the government’s health programs. Social Security and Medicare politically are very difficult to touch, as Rep. Tom Cotton is discovering in this year’s Arkansas Senate race, but together they are 38 percent of the federal budget. Leaving them completely off the table requires very deep cuts elsewhere and/or higher taxes.

By enacting all my spending cuts, I saved $3.5 trillion, which is apparently far more than the average American would choose. And yet as tough as I was, I still needed to find $1.1 trillion to stabilize the debt.

That means I had to increase revenues, which I did by increasing a few taxes, such as the gas tax to fix our roads and bridges, and by eliminating some big tax deductions. I saved $510 billion by gradually phasing out the mortgage interest deduction we all use, including me. That would be political suicide if I were running for office.

I more than met the goal. I lowered the 2024 public debt by $5.03 trillion, which would be 59 percent of the projected gross domestic product that year.

See if you can do better at crfb.org. Email me at brawnersteve@mac.com and let me know how it goes.

Hobby Lobby: Is a corporation owned by people still people?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You probably think this column is being written by a columnist. It’s not. Legally, it’s being written by a corporation, Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Steve Brawner Communications, Inc. – in the eyes of the IRS, an “S Corporation” – copyrighted the material, bills your news provider, and writes a paycheck to its only full-time employee, Steve Brawner.

Last week, the Supreme Court declared 5-4 that the federal government under Obamacare could not require another S Corporation, Hobby Lobby, to pay for insurance that covers four types of birth control for its employees – two interuterine devices and two types of the so-called “morning after pill” – because the family that owns the corporation considers those to cause abortions. The Court drew a distinction between public corporations with many stockholders and a closely held corporation owned by only a few people – in this case, founder and CEO David Green and his family.

Among the arguments opposing the decision, voiced by politicians and pundits, is that the Supreme Court has decreed that employers can force their religious beliefs on their employees.

That’s not even remotely what has happened. All the Supreme Court has said is that a closely held corporation should not be required to pay to insure forms of birth control that its owners consider to cause abortions. Hobby Lobby employees are free to purchase those services on their own or to go to work for a company whose insurance does cover them. Or they can take advantage of one of the 16 types of birth control that Hobby Lobby is willing to cover.

The federal government under Obamacare gave the Greens three choices: cover those services; don’t provide health insurance and pay an annual penalty of $26 million; or face annual fines up to $475 million, which would have put Hobby Lobby out of business. Hobby Lobby has 23,000 employees.

The Court specifically said the decision applies to “only the contraceptive mandate,” but in her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the Court has waded into a legal minefield. Who could decide if one religious objection is legitimate while another can be ignored?

Ginsburg has a point. But that’s the thing about these hard cases – they’re hard. That’s why we have courts and legislatures, so we can tackle these issues one at a time, attempting to formulate general legal principles while also being flexible based on the facts of an individual case. Very few of us would argue that an employer could have a religious reason to practice racial discrimination, for example, but on abortion Americans are deeply divided. True, it was difficult for the government to accommodate the Greens’ religious beliefs, but does that mean it shouldn’t have even tried?

The mixed public reaction to this case is about more than Hobby Lobby, birth control, or even abortion. At its heart, it’s also about what people think about corporations, the people who own them, and the people who work for them. During the past few decades, Americans have watched corporations off-shore jobs and manipulate the political system to their advantage. It’s no wonder that many Americans identify more with the employee than the employer.

The Court does not see it that way. In its decision, it used some of the same “corporations are people” logic that it used in the Citizens United decision that removed limits on corporate political spending.

“A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. … When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the Hobby Lobby decision.

So if you start a company and then incorporate it, is it still an extension of you? Five Supreme Court justices say yes, and four say no.

I’m watching how this unfolds. Whatever the federal government can enforce regarding an S Corporation with 23,000 employees, it probably can do to an S Corporation with one.

Digital dilemma

Schools can’t take full advantage of the internet if they don’t have the broadband, but it’s not yet clear how best to get it to them – or how much it will cost

Inside those two orange wires beside Kendal Wells' shoulder and the yellow wire in front of him are fiber optic strands thinner than a human hair. Because of those wires, the Cabot School District has more than two gigabits of broadband access – enough to more than meet its needs. Many districts do not have that capability. Making sure they do is becoming one of the biggest issues in Arkansas public education.

Inside those two orange wires beside Kendal Wells’ shoulder and the yellow wire in front of him are fiber optic strands thinner than a human hair. Because of those wires, the Cabot School District has more than two gigabits of broadband access – enough to more than meet its needs. Many districts do not have that capability. Making sure they do is becoming one of the biggest issues in Arkansas public education.

By Steve Brawner
Note to readers, particularly subscribers – This is not a typical blog post but is instead a magazine cover story that appeared in Report Card, which I publish with the Arkansas School Boards Association. Just wanted to warn you.

Kendal Wells, technology director of the Cabot School District, and B.J. Brooks, director of instructional technology, show off a rack of flashing computer hardware in a walk-in closet near the district’s boardroom. It’s not that impressive a place, really, and the hardware isn’t all that new.

But this, Wells said, is “grand central station.” He points to two orange insulated wires, each containing a glass fiber optic cable thinner than a human hair. Each can carry 1 gigabit of information per second. Two more yellow wires increase the district’s total bandwidth to 2.2 gigabits per second, more than double what the district needs on its busiest days – for now. Because of that bandwidth, the entire district, 17 schools across Cabot, is a sprawling hotspot. Each classroom has its own wireless access point, ensuring no teacher ever has to worry about a slow connection or being bumped offline in the middle of a lesson.

“We can buy all these Chromebooks or iPads or desktops or anything else that we want, but if we don’t have the bandwidth, that really big pipe to deliver the information to the classroom where the teacher can use it, then it does us no good to have the devices,” Wells said.

The Cabot School District serves a growing, prosperous community. It’s centrally located on flat terrain half an hour northeast of Little Rock. Wells heads an IT department staff of 14.

In other words, Cabot is perhaps the perfect district to marry broadband and instruction. But what about less wealthy, isolated rural districts in the Ozarks? What about districts in the Delta far from population centers? How can Arkansas ensure those students receive an education that’s equitable to the one offered students in Cabot?

Those are questions with which education policymakers are grappling, and they don’t have much time to find the answers. Online testing for the Common Core is supposed to begin at the end of the upcoming school year, and a pilot test has already occurred. Last year, policymakers realized many schools do not have the bandwidth to perform the testing effectively. More important is what’s happening – or is failing to happen – in the classroom. Students and teachers without adequate bandwidth are missing out on a rich variety of instructional resources. It’s now possible for students in even the most far-flung districts to take classes not available to anyone just a few years ago. In fact, under the Digital Learning Act of 2013, every Arkansas student entering the ninth grade must complete an online class in order to graduate. But for many districts and many parts of Arkansas, the pipe just isn’t big enough.

To address this problem, a group of education policymakers, legislators and telecommunications providers known as the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) Committee has been meeting since June 2013 as a result of the Digital Learning Act. On May 6, the committee released a report describing the state’s lack of broadband access and possible solutions.

 

“D” for “Digital”

The report makes clear the situation’s urgency. Arkansas received a “D” for digital learning opportunities in the 2013 “Digital Learning Now” report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education – an improvement over the “F” it received the year before, but still not nearly good enough. A 2011 survey by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators found that 84.5 percent of respondents were forced to restrict access to useful sites because of a lack of bandwidth. The state has invested almost $160 million in vendor costs since 1992 on the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN). That network provides a bandwidth of five kilobits per second per student. In comparison, the State Educational Technology Directors Association recommends a minimum of 100 kilobits per second for each student and staff member in 2014-15.

Schools can and do supplement the connectivity they’re getting through APSCN. According to the report, 71 percent of bandwidth statewide is purchased by districts from local providers. But local costs vary widely. A 2013 survey by the Arkansas Department of Education found that the broadband cost of a megabit ranged from a low of $1.20 to a high of $280 depending on the location of the school and the service provided.

So what’s next? The report recommends that Arkansas public schools be allowed to connect to the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network, a statewide fiber optics system currently used by universities and medical providers. ARE-ON is currently off-limits to schools because Act 1050 of 2011 prohibits state and municipal entities from providing broadband, voice, data, video and wireless services – the exceptions being emergency services, law enforcement, higher education, and health care providers. That act was passed thanks to the efforts of Arkansas’ private broadband companies, who were spending billions of dollars laying an infrastructure across the state. “We made business decisions based on the fact that we did not have government competing with us, so that was the rationale in 2011 when that law was passed,” said Len Pitcock, chairman of the Arkansas Cable Association, during the May 6 release of the report.

According to the report, ARE-ON is the only one of 42 public fiber optic networks nationwide connecting to Internet2 that does not serve K-12 schools. Internet2 is a consortium serving academia, researchers, industry and government. The report says ARE-ON has 380 gigabits of unused bandwidth.

Gov. Mike Beebe expressed support for the ARE-ON solution through a press release issued by his office June 13, saying, “Whatever the reasons were behind the exemption passed in 2011, it has become clear that Act 1050 has impeded our progress in developing a reliable and efficient broadband infrastructure for Arkansas students. Giving K-12 schools the opportunity to access ARE-ON will provide better online availability for our students and save our taxpayers money.”

The report also recommends centralized management of statewide network support services, including network construction. Buying services in bulk instead of through individual school districts would reduce costs and increase scalability, allowing districts to have higher speeds during peak periods such as statewide testing, the report states.

 

How much?

No one knows how much any of this will cost. On July 7, the Arkansas Legislative Council, which is the group of legislators who meet when the full Legislature is not in session, approved a $71,500 contract with the consultants Picus Odden & Associates to try to develop cost figures.

The report encourages the state to better utilize E-rate, a program that collects fees through telecommunications providers to reimburse schools and libraries for up to 90 percent of the cost of obtaining Internet and other telecommunications services. One hundred percent of Arkansas public schools, not counting public charter schools, have participated in the program during the last five years. Schools and libraries have been provided almost $205 million in discounts during the past 15 years, and the average discount was 79 percent in 2012-13. The Cabot School District, for example, receives a 59 percent discount off the $13,500 per month it would pay for the broadband it is purchasing on its own outside of APSCN. But Arkansas has lagged some states, such as Oklahoma and Louisiana, in obtaining funding.

Most of the lines currently used by ARE-ON involve long-term leases with private telecommunications providers. Those providers do not support the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee’s findings and abstained from voting on the report. They say the report doesn’t provide cost estimates or identify a funding mechanism, that the issue hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, and that its recommendations conflict with state law.

To communicate their message, telecommunications providers last year formed the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids. Jordan Johnson, the group’s spokesperson, said ARE-ON would be “a redundant network” because the industry has already laid a fiber optics infrastructure that, if utilized, could serve most Arkansas students now. For whatever reasons, schools simply aren’t utilizing the service. Johnson said many educators have mistakenly assumed that ARE-ON will somehow be free.

“Regardless of what system is in play, there’s going to be a cost associated with getting broadband, period,” he said. “What you want is something that’s the most fair and efficient and productive way of getting the service, and my coalition believes that that’s through the private sector.”

The industry wants to be a part of the solution, he said.

“Collectively, the providers have spent billions of dollars in this infrastructure to provide accessibility to virtually all Arkansans, whether it be in the public sector, private sector, in the educational sector, the nonprofit sector,” he said. “Collectively, we have the state covered, and there is a tremendous amount of access there. And we think we can do this much more efficiently.”

When the QDLS Committee’s report was unveiled May 6, Rep. Charlotte Vining Douglas, R-Alma, told Chairman Ed Franklin that her school districts were telling her that access was available, but they had not been willing to pay for it. Franklin said some schools don’t have access to broadband and others aren’t using the access they have. “The reality is probably the school districts that are using it the least see the least need for it,” he said.

The report points to the need for broadband connectivity using an example from the Batesville School District. Clint Lucy, director of information technology, said students were taking an online placement assessment in a credit recovery class when the network shut down, forcing them to redo the test from the beginning. “In years past, a school would often be told their bandwidth wasn’t being managed properly if things were creepy-crawly slow,” he was quoted saying. “There’s a lot of truth in that – bandwidth management is critical, but our need for bandwidth has outgrown our ability to provide it. We have reached critical mass.”

That’s not been a problem in Cabot since December, when capacity was increased to 2.2 gigs from a relatively paltry 200. At the time, the district was bumping its head on its bandwidth ceiling. Sometimes the internet would slow to a crawl, which was unacceptable for students who have grown up in a digital world. Danielle Dinges, an educational technologist who teaches computer skills at Cabot Middle School, said speeds varied according to the weather. The internet shut down on her one day near the beginning of the year. According to Wells, the district doubled its internet usage within about a week of expanding its capacity.

The district has purchased 1,700 Chromebooks, but according to Tammy Tucker, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, it’s not in a hurry to become a one-to-one district where every student is assured of having a digital device. Buying everyone a laptop or tablet would be a huge expense in a district Cabot’s size, and besides, Tucker explained, “I think if you just give kids a computer without developing a plan and really knowing what your goals are for that computer, then you’ve put the cart before the horse. … I think before you put those in the hands of kids and teachers, you have a plan and a vision for what you want to accomplish.”

The district and the school board have made commitments not only in infrastructure but in training. Brooks, the director of instructional technology, has written a curriculum that starts students keyboarding in kindergarten and using Google Docs by the third grade. By the time they leave middle school, they’re proficient in the technology. Teachers have been trained on the devices since 2009. All attend a required three-hour summer course, Cabot Technology Academy for Teachers.

“Five years ago, we started out, ‘This is what the right mouse button does. This is what a shortcut is,’” Brooks said. “And in this last year, we were teaching them Google Docs, how to integrate their curriculum, and how to share documents with their students.”

The results could be seen in Deana Davis’ pre-AP eighth grade English class. On the day of a visit by a reporter, students were developing a fictional character who would have lived alongside Anne Frank, the author of the famous World War II diary. What would life be like? What would she eat for breakfast? What kind of games would she play? Students worked independently and had the power to display their work on screen in front of the class – a sharing of power that can be an adjustment for a teacher. But it has proved a powerful incentive. Students think more carefully about their work if their peers will see it, instructors have found.

Before she started teaching the class, Davis, the teacher, told Brooks that she was “technologically Amish.” Brooks helped her develop her curriculum and served as a sounding board for ideas. On the day of the visit, she enthusiastically described how the broadband was being used.

“You saw her a while ago,” Brooks said. “She was flitting back and forth between apps, between windows, giving kids directions on how to use different apps, sharing documents, using YouTube, just bam, bam, bam, bam with no hesitation. That’s incredible growth.”

Credit legislators: They made the hard choices

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications

Let’s give credit to Sen. Jim Hendren, Rep. Harold Copenhaver, and other legislators – not because they necessarily made the right decisions, but because they definitely made the tough ones.

Hendren, R-Gravette, and Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, are leading a task force charged with reforming the school employee health insurance system, which is a mess. Costs are rising so fast that the Legislature twice has had to meet in special session – last year to pour money into the system as a quick fix, this past week to reduce spending. Many school employees have been paying too much for premiums and others not nearly enough. The big fear is that the system will tumble into a death spiral where, as costs rise, more and more young, healthy employees opt out, eventually leaving only older, less healthy employees in the pool. No insurance fund can survive that.

Bills passed by the Legislature this past week, as well as other actions based on recommendations by the task force, are expected to reduce a potential 35 percent premium increase into an average 3 percent increase, assuming the plans don’t change much. Significantly more work remains to stabilize the system long term.

The most noteworthy legislation removed 4,000 part-time school employees from being eligible for school health insurance.

That’s a tough one. As Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers, pointed out in a hearing, these employees include bus drivers and cafeteria workers – the people who offer some students their first smile of the day, or who serve an extra helping of lunch to those they know don’t get fed enough at home. Some of these employees work for schools precisely because it offers them the best health insurance they can get.

Hendren and Copenhaver explained their reasoning during the lead-in to the session. Cuts had to be made in order to prevent premium increases for everyone. Part-timers rarely receive health insurance benefits in the private sector, and schools should be no different. Because school districts are saving money on insurance, they will have more flexibility in giving some employees full-time responsibilities, thereby making them eligible. Those who lose their insurance will have other options, including the “private” one passed by the Legislature that uses Medicaid dollars to buy insurance for low-income Arkansans.

Opponents countered that the private option’s future remains in doubt. It passed with zero Senate votes to spare in the fiscal session earlier this year. Two additional opponents of the program have already won Republican Party primaries and are headed to the Senate. Hendren himself has consistently voted against it.

Removing part-time employees from eligibility was not an ideal solution, and there may or may not have been a better way, but at least lawmakers acted, and for that they deserve praise. In crafting this and other parts of the legislation, they made hard choices about how to responsibly allocate finite resources for a critical need, rather than putting off those choices and letting others deal with the consequences. Hendren, a Republican, and Copenhaver, a Democrat, could have played partisan games with the issue. It doesn’t appear that thought ever occurred to them.

Congress, please take note.

Choices are hardest when they involve one of two scenarios. In one, the options are all so wonderful – like a menu in a good Mexican restaurant – that the mind locks up. In the other, the options are all so distasteful that it’s hard picking one over the other.

In politics, it’s usually the latter. Nobody wants to take insurance from part-time school employees, but, given the fact that school starts soon and time was limited for making more foundational changes, legislators decided it was a better bad choice than raising rates for everyone. As Copenhaver told representatives, “Some people say this is a Band-Aid. Well, I say what we did last session is a Band-Aid. We covered it up by providing funding. We have now taken that Band-Aid off, and it is somewhat painful.”

If it was the right decision, it will help stabilize the fund. If it was the wrong one, legislators can reverse course when they meet again in January. But you can’t reverse course when you’re not going anywhere. Again, Congress, please take note.