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House Education and the Workforce Committee Hearing on Challenges and Opportunities in Schools and the Workplace

 

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HEARING BRIEF
 

House Education and the Workforce Committee on Challenges and Opportunities in Schools and the Workplace

 
Prepared by:
 
Washington Partners (wpllc@cur.org)
 
February 5, 2013
 
On Tuesday, February 5, 2013, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held its first hearing of the 113th Congress. The hearing, titled, "Challenges and Opportunities Facing America's Schools and Workplaces" featured witnesses who gave Committee Members and staff varying perspectives on policies that could help more Americans access the training and education necessary to compete in the 21st century workforce. 
 

Witnesses

  • Honorable Gary Herbert (R), Governor, State of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Honorable Laura Fornash, Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond, VA
  • Dr. Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington, DC
  • Mr. Jay Timmons, President and CEO, National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, DC

Opening Statement and Discussion

Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) opened the hearing by saying, "It’s important to start a new Congress with a fresh look at the challenges and opportunities confronting America’s schools and workplaces." He noted some of the issues troubling the country’s education system—one in four high school students drops out; students and families are managing over $1 trillion in student loan debt; and high school and college graduates are facing a tough job market. He said that the Administration’s "convoluted waiver scheme", combined with uncertainty and confusion about federal and state programs and funding, is only exacerbating these problems. He referenced the fiscal issues that highlight partisan differences among members and the long list of laws the Committee has ahead of it, and said, "I know there are sharp differences on the committee, in the Congress, and across the capital city. Despite these differences, I am hopeful our vigorous debates will lead to meaningful action."
 
Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) remarked on the recent positive indicators of improvements in the country’s economy, but warned his audience that, "[M]any working families continue to struggle with unemployment or stagnant wages," and asserted, "I hope we can all agree that a fair and sustainable recovery is one that is broadly shared by those who help to create it." He noted the importance of "critical investments in people" in this effort, as well as that of a strong public education system. While he clearly feels that it is Congress’s responsibility to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), he said that the Department of Education’s "waiver program has provided important breathing room for states." He, like Chairman Kline, hopes the panel can help address many of the problems in today’s schools and the workplace, and said, "This committee should be in the business of advancing policy that becomes law and makes a real difference in working families’ lives."
 

Witness Statements

Governor Herbert
In recent years, Utah has gained a reputation for being one of the country’s best states for business, as noted by Governor Herbert, who said, "Utah’s focus on building a strong economy has yielded accolade after accolade, including Forbes Magazine naming us the best state for business and careers for the third year in a row." He noted that this success comes from focusing on the economy and investing in education. He pointed to the decision by software giant Adobe to build a new facility in the state, saying, "They were drawn to our state in part because of our highly educated workforce and proximity to more than 100,000 students at nearby institutions of higher learning." Going forward, Utah will focus on three initiatives to sustain and improve their circumstances. First, steps are being taken to ensure that the state is producing the educated workforce that industry needs, and a goal of having 66% of the population with higher education degrees by 2020 has been established. Second, the state is focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and third, there is a commitment to the expansion of dual immersion education programs.
 
Secretary Fornash
Secretary Fornash opened her remarks by noting that since Governor Bob McDonnell (R) took office in January of 2010, he has made education and education reform "a top priority" of his administration, with a "laser focus on college and career readiness". She asserted that, in Virginia, "We are raising standards, focusing on literacy, strengthening our high school diploma requirements, and ensuring access to dual enrollment classes through the local community colleges which leads to credentials that transfer to our public and private four year institutions." She outlined some of the elements of the governor’s plans, including increasing the production of STEM graduates, adding slots for undergraduates at the state’s postsecondary institutions, keeping tuition increases low, and working with employers to meet their workforce needs. She also spoke to the state’s K-12 system, noting that Virginia has taken advantage of the No Child Left Behind waivers offered by the Secretary of Education, but that a comprehensive rewrite from Congress would be preferred in aligning federal education policy with the state’s needs. The state is also quite proud of its Virginia Longitudinal Data System, which has been developed and implemented collaboratively with the state’s K-12, higher education and workforce partners. According to Fornash, "The system allows for integrated student-teacher reporting that matches individual teachers to students and provides certain teachers with estimates of student growth and will soon also be able to link teachers to their preparation programs and student outcomes." Further, Virginia recently became one of only a handful of states to release wage outcomes data on college graduates, down to the level of individual major and institution. Fornash said that by August 2013, Virginia will include within these reports associated statistics on education debt, also down to the level of major and institution.
 
Dr. Bernstein
Dr. Bernstein opened his testimony by looking at the current jobs situation with an emphasis on educational investments. He said that, from the perspective of working families, the current economy is "highly imbalanced’. He noted that while the stock market is hitting new highs, "boosted in part by historically high corporate profitability", middle- and low-wage workers continue to fall behind. In 2012, the real weekly earnings of full-time workers were down about 2% for those at the bottom of the pay scale, flat for those in the middle, and up 2% for those at the top. He discussed broadly the policy and economic factors that created this situation and said that governing from one economic crisis to another is not good for business or the economy. The constant state of fiscal crisis on Capitol Hill, created by matters such as the debt ceiling, sequestration, the fiscal cliff and the annual budget process, leaves businesses uncertain about the economic future and reluctant to grow, hire or even start up. He said that what he considers to be Congress’ singular focus on deficit reduction is adversely affecting the economy, business and all the other factors that follow. 
 
Mr. Timmons
Timmons opened his testimony by saying, "Manufacturing remains an important economic force across the country. To retain that strength we need to address the fact that it is now 20 percent more expensive to manufacture in the United States compared to our competitors, and that figure excludes the cost of labor." He noted that manufacturers in the US must have access to a workforce that meets the demands of the 21st Century to continue to thrive. He spoke to many issues that fall under the purview of the Committee, including what the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) considers to be a recent trend toward an "aggressive" National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that has overreached its authority. He also cited a "skills gap" that is concerning for his members, saying, "Our most recent Skills Gap survey identified approximately 600,000 positions going unfilled due to the lack of qualified applicants. In fact, 82 percent of manufacturers reported a moderate-to-serious shortage in skilled production labor." He went on to say, "We have created an education system that is almost completely divorced from the economy at large. The only way to address this monumental challenge and support the economic recovery is to align education, economic development, workforce and business agendas to work in concert and develop the talent necessary for success in the global economy." He specifically cited the America Works Act, legislation introduced by Congressmen Lou Barletta (R-PA) and Brad Schneider (D-IL) as a piece of legislation that would help manufacturers, and called upon Congress to take on and complete comprehensive immigration policy reform.
 

Member Questions

 
Chairman Kline asked Governor Herbert to talk more about what he considers to be troubling workforce and training programs and policies. He noted that the Committee will be trying to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act again, and asked what it is that Governor Herbert is doing in Utah that they might incorporate into that proposal. Herbert noted that he hears from businesses and others about burdensome regulatory requirements and that at the state level they counted regulations and found that they have 1,969. They then determined that 368 serve no public purpose and changed or got rid of them. "That’s been a shot in the arm for the business community," said Herbert. He urged Chairman Kline to do the same—"Count ‘em up," he said. Kline said "I can’t even imagine," and the governor replied, "That’s part of the problem." Chairman Kline did note that the Affordable Care Act has already produced 13,000 pages of regulations.
 
The chairman then asked Mr. Timmons about training programs and funds and how they are working or might work better. Timmons said that the programs need to be more accessible and focus on needed skills—skills that match unfilled jobs. He also said that manufacturing workers need to go through certification programs so that they have portable skills. He noted that NAM is working on such a program, as well as a military badge program that quantifies veterans’ skills and helps them see how they translate to manufacturing jobs. 
 
Ranking Member Miller’s questions focused on the fiscal cliff and other economic policy crises that have dominated Congressional calendars in recent years, saying, "Running this government on a ninety-day leash means you can’t build anything." Dr. Bernstein agreed strongly with the Chairman, saying that while regulatory uncertainty and economic uncertainty contribute to the reticence of private industry to spend capital and expand, "I think economic uncertainty is a bigger concern than regulatory uncertainty." 
 
Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked Secretary Fornash to share her thoughts on the appropriate role of the federal government in state education matters, which he thinks should be led by locally elected school boards. Fornash said that the federal government should focus on supplementary funding for at-risk students, but that the challenge is appropriate accountability for those federal dollars. She said that states like Virginia need flexibility in meeting federal requirements while they work to raise academic rigor and close achievement gaps. She also said that states need to be creative and flexible in those efforts, and sometimes federal programs don’t allow for that. 
 
Representative Rob Andrews (D-NJ) pursued an aggressive line of questioning with Mr. Timmons related to recess appointments to the NLRB and court cases challenging the constitutionality of those appointments. He was making the point that NAM is part of a coalition that is taking issue with President Obama’s recess appointments to the Board, but did not raise those issues when Presidents Bush and Reagan did the same. 
 
Representative Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) posed some questions related to higher education. He noted that today’s undergraduates are taking longer to graduate and that stretching out studies as costs increase means that these students are taking on more debt, and federal aid programs are being strained. He noted that the government is currently spending $41 billion on Pell grants—an alarming number compared to 2006’s level of $13 billion. In addition, student loan debt now surpasses credit card debt and automobile debt—combined. He asked Governor Herbert how to get students to graduate in a timely fashion and then get them employed; Herbert responded, "After I answer that question, I’ll get started on world peace." Herbert did note that strategies such as using technology to teach postsecondary programs, addressing the issue of excessive remediation and better connecting degrees offered with jobs available are steps in the right direction. 
 
Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) asked Secretary Fornash some detailed questions about the state’s waiver application and some controversy around the proposed "Annual Measurable Objectives" (AMOs). Fornash said that the state had addressed the concerns and she and her colleagues are working hard to eliminate the state’s achievement gap. 
 
Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN) made some remarks about charter schools and how they can support improved education, noting that there aren’t many in Virginia. Secretary Fornash agreed, citing some of the policy barriers to the growth of charters in her state, but said the state has done very well with another model: STEM academies. There are 16 of them, which are operated as public private partnerships, with curricula that reflect the needs of local business. She also talked about how in Virginia, high school graduates will also be required to meet an industry certification requirement—a new requirement that came out of the state’s waiver application. 
 
Representative Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) noted the increased need for postsecondary education for successful employment and asked the panel how to prepare the country’s most vulnerable populations to be successful in this changing workplace. Bernstein responded that while it is very important to be sure the country has a skilled workforce, it is also important there are more lower-end jobs. He said to reach these goals, the federal government must invest in educational and other services—the so-called "non-defense discretionary" programs that are at risk in the sequester debate. 
 
Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA), a supporter of career and technical education (CTE), asked what the panel might recommend at the secondary level to address the skills gap. Timmons responded that there are many opportunities for improvements, noting that not all manufacturing jobs require four-year degrees. He pointed to NAM’s work in skills certification and the "Dream it. Do it." campaign as efforts that might have useful results.
 
Representative John Tierney (D-MA) pressed Dr. Bernstein to repeat his assertion that it is fiscal policy that is causing the uncertainty at the center of the private sector’s hesitancy to invest in growth. He then said that, in fact, the uncertainty is caused by "our friends" who won’t come to a "reasonable" approach to the fiscal issues before Congress. He then pressed Governor Herbert about some of his decisions related to education spending, and noted that higher education employees in Utah recently saw a 1.6% increase in their wages, while K-12 teachers haven’t received a raise in four years. Governor Herbert responded that those decisions are district ones and that increased health care costs are likely the cause of level wages. 
 
Representative Luke Messer (R-IN) shared with the panel that his state superintendent recently told him that the school system is having a hard time supporting their full time employees and their teacher aides, noting that the Affordable Care Act was going to cost the district over $700,000. He asked Secretary Fornash if Virginia is having similar issues. She replied that the state is still evaluating, but that the seasonal employees at higher education institutions and museums are of particular concern in this process. 
 
Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT) noted that he recently heard from Connecticut’s Governor Malloy on the issue of manufacturing jobs and programs, noting that the Education and the Workforce Committee could do much to help. He then said that he is also hearing that it is the fiscal uncertainty that is preventing businesses from charging ahead with expansion plans. 
 
Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN) has come to Congress from Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, giving her a certain perspective on the issues discussed at the hearing. She noted that she believes community and technical colleges can be crucial in addressing the skills gap that troubles manufacturing, and noted that she recently visited a Rolls Royce plant in Indiana and that the facility is a high-tech one that will need workers with highly technical skills. Timmons agreed with the points Brooks made. 
 
Representative Susan Bonamici (D-OR) noted that she strongly supports language immersion programs. She is also concerned about education investments and the skills gap. She noted that she is developing legislation to help employers deal with the skills gap and also voiced her belief that investments in early childhood are crucial. Bernstein agreed with her about the importance of such investments and warned of the detrimental effect sequestration would have on these programs. 
 
Representative Virginia Foss (R-NC) asked Secretary Fornash questions about Virgnia’s longitudinal data system and the privacy issues it raises. She also asked what the state is planning to do with the data it collects on teacher preparation programs. Fornash said that the state is very proud of the system, is aware of and compliant with the privacy issues, and that the data is being used across state agencies to drive improvement. 
 
Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) asked whether manufacturers had a skills gap or a wage gap. She contends that the wage being offered in manufacturing of $10 per hour must not be enough to get folks there, and maybe the industry should reconsider their strategy for filling vacancies. Bernstein asserted that wages should be going up and aren’t, and there is a decline in real pay for recent college graduates.
 
Ranking Member Miller had the opportunity to ask a second round of questions and asked Governor Herbert and Secretary Fornash about the proportion of institutions of higher education budgets that were made up of state funds. Governor Herbert noted that in Utah, 50% of the budget goes to public education generally, and another 15% goes to higher education. Fornash said that in Virginia, 10% of the budget goes to higher education. Miller then asked Fornash about remediation and the associated costs associated, saying it "has to stop." He said that Congress has helped with the affordability of higher education by addressing student loan interest rates and creating the Direct Loan program, but costs continue to go up, and that Congress has to look at how the money is being spent.
 

Conclusion

To close the hearing, Chairman Kline commented that the discussion had been wide-ranging. He noted, "We have work to do here," and thanked the witnesses for their time and expertise. 
 
For more information on the hearing, including an archived webcast, testimony and opening statements, visit http://edworkforce.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=318334.