Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Michigan teens will face job shortages

Story Originally Appeared on The Detroit News 

Michigan parents, prepare yourselves: With a 22.9 percent teen unemployment rate heading into the summer of 2013, your jobless kids might be making frequent withdrawals from the Bank of Mom & Dad for their vacation spending cash.

There are a number of factors at work: More competition from older jobseekers, for instance, has put young and inexperienced applicants at a competitive disadvantage. But also at fault are a series of ill-conceived minimum wage mandates at the state and federal level, which raised the cost to hire and train the teens who fill those jobs.

Those same teens can only hope that President Obama and Congress won't make it worse by following through on another proposed increase.

Nationally, teen unemployment has been above 20 percent every summer since 2009. That's four straight summers — soon to be five — of record teen unemployment. And tellingly, they've all occurred during or since the 40 percent hike in the federal minimum wage between 2007 and 2009.

The timing is more than just coincidence. Writing in 2010, economists at Miami and Trinity Universities estimated that — even accounting for the effects of the recession — at least 114,000 young adults lost job opportunities as a direct result of the federal wage hike. (Other economists have put that figure above 300,000.)

Percentage-wise, this came out to a 6.9 percent drop in teen employment in the states affected by all three stages of the federal wage hike. For those teens with less than 12 years of schooling, the relative drop in employment was even higher at 12.4 percent.

One need only look at the businesses where teens are employed to understand why. Nearly 40 percent of the nation's employed teens work in the leisure and hospitality industry (think restaurants, movie theaters, and hotels), while another 25 percent work in retail jobs at grocery stores, service stations and the like.

These types of businesses aren't exactly rolling in the dough. Their profit margins are generally 2 or 3 cents on every sales dollar. Sudden spikes in labor costs — like a 40 percent jump in the minimum wage in two years — leave these businesses with two options: Raise prices, or reduce costs.

When raising prices isn't an option — good luck with that in a rough economy — the only other option is to provide the same product with less service. This might mean having waiters or waitresses bus their own tables, or opting for a self-service alternative to young grocery baggers.

The data bears this trend out: Teens' share of employment in the leisure and hospitality industry dropped by over 20 percent between 200 and 2011. In retail, it's fallen by nearly 30 percent over that period.

This makes it all the more baffling that wage hike advocates in Congress, seeking to fulfill the president's State of the Union call for higher rates would raise the minimum wage by another 40 percent to $10.10.

This may be good politics, but it's certainly not good policy. Teens — whether in Michigan or anywhere else — start climbing the employment ladder through their first summer jobs. Further minimum wage hikes only postpone their ability to get these jobs, which research shows hurts their future earnings, employability, and professional development.

That might not seem pressing to the teens who will just lie on the beach or lounge on the couch for the next three months. But it is much more concerning for their parents, who want nothing more than a good future for their kids — and maybe even some peace and quiet between now and September.

Michael Saltsman is the research director at the Employment Policies Institute.

Bankers: College debt bubble mimics housing bubble

Story Appeared On USA TODAY

A group of bankers have just dumped two more problems on the Federal Reserve's plate.
The Federal Advisory Council, made up of 12 bankers who meet quarterly to advise the central bank, warned that farmland prices are inflating "a bubble" and growth in student-loan debt has "parallels to the housing crisis," which was the primary cause of the Great Recession in the U.S.

Their alarm comes at a time when financial heavyweights on the Federal Open Market Committee, the Federal Reserve's policy-making arm, are debating whether the benefits created by their monthly purchases of $85 billion in bonds outweigh the risk of financial instability.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has argued time and again that the program is essential to the economic recovery, but others are less convinced. Fed Governor Jeremy Stein and Kansas City Fed President Esther George have raised concerns the extended period of low interest rates is increasing the risk of asset bubbles.
"Agricultural land prices are veering further from what makes sense," noted the minutes of the FAC's Feb. 8 gathering, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg news service through Freedom of Information Act requests. "Members believe the run-up in agriculture land prices is a bubble resulting from persistently low interest rates."

As for student loans, recent growth has pushed debt levels to nearly $1 trillion, meaning it "now exceeds credit-card outstandings and has parallels to the housing crisis," the council said after its Feb. 3, 2012, meeting. The bankers told the FOMC that student lending exhibited characteristics similar to those seen in the housing crisis, including "significant growth of subsidized lending in pursuit of a social good" — in this case, higher education rather than expanded home ownership.

Just as the mortgage lending boom pushed home prices upward, student loan lending has put upward pressure on tuition. The bankers said both examples showed a "lack of underwriting discipline."
Bernanke has dismissed parallels between student lending and the subprime mortgage crisis. "I don't think it's a financial stability issue to the same extent that, say, mortgage debt was in the last crisis because most of it is held not by financial institutions but by the federal government," Bernanke told a Bloomberg reporter on Aug. 7.

After the Fed first lowered its target interest rate to near zero in December 2008, the central bank promised to keep it at that level until the unemployment rate — currently at 7.5%, drops to 6.5% or the annual inflation rate rises above 2%. The Fed has also launched three rounds of bond purchases, called quantitative easing, which have pushed its balance sheet to a record $3.3 trillion as of May 1.

The QE spending's impact on farmland prices is being documented by regional Fed banks, particularly across the Midwest's corn belt. The Chicago Fed said the value of irrigated cropland in its district rose 16% in 2012, while the Kansas City Fed reported a 30% jump in the same period.

"Investors who are seeking a positive return on their funds have shied away from bond markets," the council said, according to a Bloomberg story. Instead, they opted for real estate "as both a hedge against inflation and a means of achieving better than the negative real return associated with fixed-income securities."
Increases in land prices have continued even as commodity prices have weakened. Since hitting a record high in March 2011, the S&P GSCI agriculture index, a broad measure of price pressures on commodities, has fallen 25%.

The FAC said it supports the central bank's monetary policy at their February meeting, noting that the recoveries in the housing and auto sectors have been "especially encouraging."

Yet, there have been "collateral consequences" of the current policy; the low-interest environment has pushed "many to seek higher returns by accepting greater interest rate or credit risk," the FAC's minutes said. "As the period of low rates is extended, these pressures have increased."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Downward mobility haunts US education

Story originally appeared on BBC News.

An integral part of the American Dream is under threat - as "downward mobility" haunts the education system in the United States.

The idea of going to college - and the expectation that the next generation will be better educated and more prosperous than its predecessor - has been hardwired into the ambitions of the middle classes in the United States.

But there are deep-seated worries about whether this upward mobility is going into reverse.

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the US is now the only major economy in the world where the younger generation is not going to be better educated than the older.

"It's something of great significance because much of today's economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills - and that is now at risk," says Mr Schleicher.

"These skills are the engine of the US economy and the engine is stuttering," says Mr Schleicher, one of the world's most influential experts on international education comparisons.

Lack of opportunity

The annual OECD education statistics show that only about one in five young adults in the US reaches a higher level of education than their parents - among the lowest rates of upward mobility in the developed world.

For a country whose self-image is based on optimism and opportunity, the US is now a country where someone with poorly-educated parents is less likely to reach university than in almost any other industrial country.

It's the opposite of a Hollywood ending.

And about one in five young adults in the US are now defined in educational terms as "downwardly mobile" - such as children who have graduate parents but who don't reach university level themselves.

When the global story of higher education is so much about rapid expansion and the race to increase graduates, it's almost counter-intuitive to find a powerhouse such as the United States on the brink of going backwards.

It's easy to overlook the dominance of US higher education in the post-war era - or how closely this was linked to its role as an economic, scientific and military superpower.

The US had the first great mass participation university system. The GI Bill, which provided subsidies for a generation of World War II veterans, supported three times as many people as are currently in the entire UK university sector.

An American born in the 1950s was about twice as likely to become a graduate as someone born in the rest of the industrialised world.

As the cars ran off the production lines in Detroit, rising numbers of graduates were leaving universities to become part of an expanding middle class.


But the US university system is no longer the only skyscraper on the block. It's been overtaken by rivals in Asia and Europe.

Today's young Americans have a below-average chance of becoming a graduate, compared with other industrialised economies.

The US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a speech a few weeks ago, asked how the US had in "the space of a generation" tumbled from first place to 14th in graduation rates.

So what's gone wrong?

The spiralling cost of higher education in the United States is often cited as a barrier - and the collective student debt has exceeded a trillion dollars.

But Andreas Schleicher argues that a deeper problem is rooted in the inequalities of the school system.

He says that the level of social segregation and the excessive link between home background and success in school is "cutting off the supply" between secondary school and university.

The meritocratic, migrant energy in US culture is no longer operating in the school system.

"If you lose the confidence in the idea that effort and investment in education can change life chances, it's a really serious issue," says Mr Schleicher.

Middle-class squeeze

A US Senate committee examined this sense of imperilled optimism, in a hearing called Helping More Young People Achieve the American Dream.

The economist Miles Corak was among the expert witnesses - and he says the US education system reflects a wider picture of the "hollowing out" of the middle class.

"What you're seeing is the inequality of the labour market being echoed in education."

Prof Corak describes a polarising jobs market, with the very rich and very poor diverging - and a collapse in jobs in the middle ground, such as clerical or manufacturing jobs.

For such families, sending their children to college had once been a "defining metaphor for the country".

But it seems that the education system is no longer holding the door open to the brightest and the best, regardless of background.

The Philadelphia-based Pew research group compared the outcomes of young people in 10 western countries, in a project called Does America Promote Mobility as Well as Other Countries?

It found the US had the strongest link between family wealth and educational success - and the lowest mobility. Advantage and disadvantage were being further amplified in education.

Research manager Diana Elliott says in the US "income has a pervasive hold on mobility".


Another study by Pew, against the backdrop of recession, examined the phenomenon of downward mobility and found that a third of adults classified as middle class would slip out of that status during their adult life.

It reflected a modern sense of insecurity, where families could no longer assume their children would be as prosperous. In fact, about a quarter of children born into the middle class were expected to slip downwards.

None of this matches the image of the US as a place for fresh starts and self-made millionaires. Modern American history almost assumes an upward incline.

But evidence of this downward drift has been gathering in recent years. A study by the University of California, Berkeley, showed that school leavers in California in 1970 were more likely to stay on to higher education than their counterparts in 2000.

In terms of international education, that's like finding out that athletes were running faster 40 years ago.

Such current difficulties should not be mistaken for any kind of end-of-empire zeitgeist, says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Instead he says it's a more practical question of money. The rising cost of higher education is a deterrent. And there is a wider question of finance for higher education at state level.

He also says there is another "dirty little secret" of US higher education - that too many people who enrol at university fail to graduate - which pushes down the graduation rate in international comparisons.

Bouncing back

Andreas Schleicher also says there are reasons for optimism. Almost more than any other country, he says the US has the financial resources, the capacity and the flexibility to change course quickly and to catch up.

There are already plans to recover lost ground. President Barack Obama has been re-elected with a promise that the US will regain its global first place in graduation rates by 2020.

And as part of this drive, the American Association of Community Colleges, in a project called Reclaiming the American Dream, has an ambitious plan to create five million more college places.

But it's an aspiration against a gloomy background.

"The American dream has stalled," the association's report says, describing a society where typical family incomes having been falling for more than a decade.

"A child born poor in the United States today is more likely to remain poor than at any time in our history. Many other nations now outperform us in educational attainment and economic mobility, and the American middle class shrinks before our eyes."

It's as if It's A Wonderful Life had been remade - without the happy ending.

Jimmy Wales: Boring university lectures 'are doomed'

Story originally appeared on BBC News.

The boring university lecture is going to be the first major casualty of the rise in online learning in higher education, says Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

The custodian of the world's biggest online encyclopaedia says that unless universities respond to the rising tide of online courses new major players will emerge to displace them, in the way that Microsoft arrived from nowhere alongside the personal computer.

"I think that the impact is going to be massive and transformative," says Mr Wales, describing the importance of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that have signed up millions of students.

"It's also been slower than anyone would have anticipated. But I'm not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn't be our framework."

Instead he thinks that universities need to use online technology where it really works.

And from his own experience as a student, the traditional university lecture should have been condemned decades ago and replaced with an online video recording that can be stopped and started.

Recorded lectures

"I was taking an advanced calculus class and my instructor was reputed to be a fabulous researcher, but he barely spoke English. He was a very boring and bad teacher and I was absolutely lost and in despair.

"So I went to the campus tutoring centre and they had Betamax tapes of a professor who had won teaching awards. Basically I sat with those tapes and took class there. But I still had to go to the other one and sat there and wanted to kill myself.

"I thought at that time, in the future, why wouldn't you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people's heads?

"We're still not quite there. In university you're still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it's not working very well. It's not even the best use of that professor's time or the audience."

Online courses provide such libraries of video lectures, supplemented with interactive information, that can be used at any time on a tablet computer or laptop.

And Mr Wales suggests the future model of higher education will be to allow students to use recordings of lectures - and to use the teaching time to discuss and develop what students have been watching.

"It seems much more effective and is the direction I think we're going to go."

Wikipedia itself is central to this changing landscape in which huge amounts of high-quality information are available free anywhere with an internet connection.

The sheer scale of the information and the volume of its consumption has no parallel in history. Wikipedia's latest internet traffic is running at more than 21 billion page impressions per month.

But he says it remains uncertain whether universities will be ready to change. "There's a certain inertia in the system."

Adapt or die

"The really interesting challenge for big-brand universities is whether they are going to move into that space. If we thought of universities as normal businesses we would say, 'Will they be able to adapt to the PC revolution?' It's that kind of question. Will Harvard or MIT, Oxford or Cambridge, be able to adapt? Or will Microsoft come out of nowhere?

"It's going to be really fascinating to see it unfold."

In terms of technology in education, he says we should look at how it's being driven by interest in home schooling.

"In the US, for younger children, the home schooling movement is huge.

"There are a load of online educational resources, they're booming. Parents are looking for the best education for their kids, they realise these tools are working. There's a marketplace for it long before the traditional school is going to think about it."

Mr Wales himself grew up in a small private school run by his mother and grandmother in Alabama. There were four other children in his grade.

"It was like a one-room schoolhouse, the kind of place Abe Lincoln went to school," he says.

"Education was our life, something incredibly valued by my family."

Developing world

An important part of Wikipedia's future focus, he says, is going to reach the modern world's version of isolated school houses in the developing world.

In wealthier countries there might be the luxury of a debate about whether Wikipedia is better or worse than printed encyclopaedias. But Mr Wales wants to support languages in Africa where there have never been encyclopaedias in the first place.

Wikipedia operates in 286 different languages, but the content is very unevenly spread. There are more than 4 million articles in English, while Xhosa, spoken by almost 8 million people in South Africa, only has 147 articles.

"Our role in languages of the developing world is quite different from our role in English.

"We've still got a long way to go. I'd say we've increasingly turned our focus to the languages of the developing world. It's really of great importance. Our goal is a free encyclopaedia for everyone in their own language."

He rejects the idea that Wikipedia's instant knowledge represents some kind of dumbing down. It has long been accused of being the hidden hand in countless school and university assignments.

But Mr Wales says it plays a vital democratic role in allowing ordinary people to become informed in a way that would never have been possible before.

If there is a story in the news, people can find out the background for themselves. "We can see it in our traffic. There's a massive spike.

"In some rose-coloured view of the past we all went home and read books about it. The truth is that we didn't.

"It's remarkable that people now have the opportunity. It's not a Utopian state, but people have the possibility to do their own research."

Pub quiz

Mr Wales also defends what Wikipedia represents for free speech in countries with censorship and a lack of human rights.

"The impact of the knowledge we bring is important, but what is much more deeply political is the concept of Wikipedia, that ordinary people should be able to participate in the grand human dialogue.

"It's a very subversive idea in a society that is top-down and 'do as your masters tell you,'" he says.

The online encyclopaedia is now 12 years old, launched in the same month as iTunes and when Greece adopted the euro. It has grown to 26 million articles and has more than 500 million individual users a month.

Wikipedia's next development will be to make it easier for a wider variety of people to write and edit articles, with an editing tool that is more user-friendly.

"For people who aren't computer geeks, it's intimidating. The user base of active editors tend to be computer-savvy. We want to diversify, so they can be geeks but not computer geeks."

Of course, there's still a big unanswered question. How would the king of Wikipedia get on in a pub quiz? Would he have to illicitly check his smartphone under the table?

"I've declined to go on a TV quiz show. There's no upside for me. Unless I get every single question right I'm going to be subject to mockery. Because I'm meant to be the encyclopaedia guy."

Lack of sleep blights pupils' education

Story originally appeared on BBC News.

Sleep deprivation is a significant hidden factor in lowering the achievement of school pupils, according to researchers carrying out international education tests.

It is a particular problem in more affluent countries, with sleep experts linking it to the use of mobile phones and computers in bedrooms late at night.

Sleep deprivation is such a serious disruption that lessons have to be pitched at a lower level to accommodate sleep-starved learners, the study found.

The international comparison, carried out by Boston College, found the United States to have the highest number of sleep-deprived students, with 73% of 9 and 10-year-olds and 80% of 13 and 14-year-olds identified by their teachers as being adversely affected.

In literacy tests there were 76% of 9 and 10-year-olds lacking sleep.

This was much higher than the international average of 47% of primary pupils needing more sleep and 57% among the secondary age group.

Achievement gap

Other countries with the most sleep-deprived youngsters were New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Australia, England, Ireland and France. High-performing Finland is also among the most lacking in sleep.

Countries with the best records for getting enough sleep include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Japan and Malta.

The analysis was part of the huge data-gathering process for global education rankings - the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The rankings of results for maths, science and reading were published at the end of last year, with Asian education systems dominating the top of the tables.

But the researchers also wanted to find out more about the influence of home life. There has been much analysis of the impact of family wealth and poverty, but the Boston College researchers also wanted to measure factors such as sleep and nutrition.

So the tests were accompanied by questionnaires for teachers, pupils and parents about sleep patterns. And this information was compared with pupils' test results, so that the performance in maths, science and literacy could be compared with levels of sleep.

Brain food

"I think we underestimate the impact of sleep. Our data show that across countries internationally, on average, children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show," says Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center.

"It's the same link for children who are lacking basic nutrition," says Mr Minnich, based at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

"If you are unable to concentrate, to attend mentally, you are unable to achieve at your optimal level, because your mind and body are in need of something more basic.

"Sleep is a fundamental need for all children. If teachers report such large proportions of children suffering from lack of sleep, it's having a significant impact.

"But worse than that, teachers are having to modify their instruction based on those children who are suffering from a lack of sleep.

"The children who are suffering from a lack of sleep are driving down instruction."

That means that even the children who are getting enough sleep are still suffering from this sleep-related dumbing-down.

Cramming school

The researchers uncovered regional trends that bucked expectations.

Asian countries are the highest-performing in maths tests - and Mr Minnich says this has often been associated with long hours and cramming in after-school classes.

"One would assume that they would be extremely tired," he said. "And yet when we look at the sleep factor for them, they don't necessarily seem to be suffering from as much sleep deprivation as the other countries."

Getting a good night's sleep isn't going to transform an underperforming country into an education superpower. For instance, the least sleepy pupils seem to be in Azerbaijan, but they are still considerably behind the most sleep-deprived pupils in Finland.

But researchers say that it does show how differently individual pupils might be placed on the ability spectrum, with lack of sleep representing the difference between being high-performing and average.

There are also big changes as pupils get older. Younger pupils in South Korea have among the lowest levels of sleep deprivation in the world, but in secondary school they have some of the worst problems.

There are differences within countries too. At the level of US states, among secondary pupils Colorado has a much worse problem with lack of sleep than Massachusetts.

What the study does not show is why young people are missing out on sleep - or why more technologically advanced countries seem to have the biggest difficulties.

But sleep experts point to a particular problem due to technology in children's bedroom - specifically the use of screens on smartphones or laptops late at night.

Serious barrier to learning
It isn't only that young people are kept awake by messaging their friends or using the internet. The light from the screen, held close to the face, is physically disruptive to the natural onset of sleep.

"Having a computer screen that is eight inches away from your face is going to expose you to a lot more light than watching a television on the opposite side of the room," says Karrie Fitzpatrick, sleep researcher at Northwestern University in Illinois.

"It's going to tell your brain to stay awake," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

"That light can reset the whole circadian rhythm system and say, 'Wait a minute, it's not time to go to bed'."

Lack of sleep is also a serious physical barrier to learning.

"Sleepiness is a problem at all stages that are relevant to learning, memory and academic performance," says Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

Research into sleep disorders and brain function has shown the importance of sleep in memory and consolidating information.

Without sleep, the brain struggles to absorb and retain ideas.

"There is a growing interest in the associations between adequate sleep and academic performance," says Prof Dijk.

'Loss can be reversed'

Dr Fitzpatrick says lack of sleep is going to leave pupils more emotionally volatile, more potentially disruptive and physically struggling to learn.

And she says that the loss of sleep and short-term attempts to catch up can cause further and complex disruptions to the way the brain tries to store information.

But there is good news. If you start getting enough sleep on a regular basis, the loss to learning can be reversed.

"As long you haven't gone into extreme sleep deprivation, if you go back to seven to nine hours per night, as long as there has been no permanent damage, you can probably restore the functionality of accumulating, processing and being able to recall memories," says Dr Fitzpatrick.

"The basis of learning will likely be restored to normal levels."

Otherwise trying to study without sleep is going to be tough. "Your brain is running on empty."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Student debt worries? Options for paying it off

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Opening up the mailbox to find those long-awaited college acceptance letters is one of the high points for high school seniors. Incurring student loan debt, however, is the reality for millions of these young students who need a way to finance their education.

According to a TransUnion study, student loan balances increased a whopping 75% from 2007 to 2012. The average debt per borrower increased by 30% to $23,829.

There is some good news, however, for those who have taken out federal student loans. The interest rates on those loans are lower than private loan interest rates.Borrowers also have more legal rights with federal loans than they do with private loans. Here are some important rights to be aware of:

1. The Right to Defer Payment. Say you're in graduate school or the military. You can defer loan payments until you are out. You can also defer payments through a hardship deferment if, for example, you are sick and unable to work.

2. The Right to Pay Based on What You Earn. One such program is the "pay as you earn" plan that puts the monthly payment at 10% of your discretionary income based on your income and family size.

3. The Right to Loan Forgiveness. For those who work in areas such as early childhood education, law enforcement, public health, emergency management, the military or government positions, they may be eligible to have their student loan balances forgiven … if they've made 120 payments under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

4. The Right to Change the Payment Schedule. For those graduates making less than they thought upon graduation, they can elect to change their payment schedule from the standard schedule of 10 years to an extended repayment plan of up to 25 years. Doing so will, of course, decrease the monthly payment, but increase the overall interest paid on the loan.

Perhaps one of the best ways for today's students to manage their money wisely is through personal finance classes in high school. Such classes provide students with critical guidance on finances and areas such as how to handle all those tempting credit card offers. Yet, according to research from the Council for Economic Education, just 22 states required a high school course in economics in 2011, and only 14 states required that a course in personal finance be offered.

By educating themselves on their student loan rights and responsibilities, borrowers can find themselves on more solid financial footing after graduation.

Ex-CIA chief David Petraeus to be N.Y. college professor

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

NEW YORK (AP) — Ex-CIA director David Petraeus is replacing one kind of intelligence work with another.

Macaulay Honors College at City University of New York said Tuesday the retired four-star general has been named a visiting professor for public policy. He starts Aug. 1.

Petraeus has a doctorate from Princeton University and has written widely on international relations, military strategy and tactics and national security issues.

He says in a statement released by Macaulay that he's pleased to teach at the college, where most students are children of immigrants. He says he looks forward to leading a seminar on the global economic slowdown.

Petraeus was a hero of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He left the CIA in scandal last November after it was uncovered he'd had an affair with his biographer.

Lawrence teachers file labor complaint against state receiver

Story originally appeared on the Boston Globe.

The teachers union in ­Lawrence has filed two labor complaints against the state-run city schools, contending that ­receiver Jeffrey Riley is violating Massachusetts law by refusing to negotiate the terms of a new contract.

The state took control of the struggling public school system in 2012 and plans to implement wholesale reforms starting with the next school year, including a new performance-based salary structure and extended school days.

Education officials say that under the state’s 2010 education ­reform bill, Riley is authorized to make the changes outside collective bargaining. But Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said Riley and the state are overstepping their bounds.

“The receiver is giving himself absolute power to make all decisions regarding the state of education in Lawrence, power the law does not grant him,” said McLaughlin.

The takeover followed years of poor academic performance and marked the first time the state had assumed full control over a local school district. Under the 2010 law, the education commissioner can alter contract provisions to “maximize the rapid academic achievement of students,” giving the receiver far more authority than superintendents.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the Legislature made a point of giving education officials broad powers to overhaul chronically poor schools.

“I think the statute is quite clear, and that’s exactly the author­ity we are exercising here,” he said.

The labor complaints mark the first time the landmark 2010 law has been challenged, and if upheld could have far-reaching implications in the ­debate over the role of teacher unions in reforming poor public schools.

McLaughlin said Lawrence teachers have gone three years without a new contract, and he accused administrators of not bargaining in good faith. Teachers unanimously voted to take legal action at a meeting earlier this month.

The complaints were filed with the state Labor Relations Board, which will investigate the matter. If an investigator determines there is probable cause of a violation, the case goes to a hearing.

McLaughlin said teachers have been increasingly discouraged, and they believe that the receiver is effectively dismantling their rights as a union.

“He’s exceeded his authority,” McLaughlin said Monday. “He’s trying to take away all of our collective bargaining rights, and this was not the intent of the Legislature.”

Chester said that under the law, the receiver can make changes to the compensation structure without the union’s approval and said he was not surprised by the complaints.

“I anticipated the changes we’re implementing in ­Lawrence would make many people uncomfortable, especially those with a vested interest in the status quo,” he said.

Riley said the education overhaul law was enacted to “make possible the very changes happening in Lawrence ­today.”

“This became the first and still the only community in ­receivership because it failed too many students for too long, and dramatic new approaches are needed,” he said in the statement.

Riley said administrators have asked the union to work with them on various efforts, but were rebuffed.

“Not only did leadership ­refuse to participate, they chose to litigate to preserve a failed system,” he said.

In the two complaints, the union says the receiver is failing to bargain in good faith and created a new stipend program for teachers without bargaining.

Chester said the new pay scale will reward the best teachers and will increase pay across the board. On average, salaries will rise $3,000, he said.

The new merit-based system is a marked departure from the traditional “step and lane” ­approach, in which raises are largely determined by years of service.

“A new teacher could be at the top of the scale within five years,” Chester said.

The state education board will discuss the receivership in Lawrence at its regular meeting Tuesday.

McLaughlin said teachers broadly support the effort to improve the schools, but said the union needs to retain its rights.

“We’re open, we’re reasonable,” he said. “But there’s a clear anti-union agenda here.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

Investigators uncover financial aid fraud ring at Contra Costa College

Story originally appeared on Contra Costa Times.

SAN PABLO -- Nearly two dozen people face charges related to a widespread financial aid scam in which they received money to attend Contra Costa College but never went to class, a prosecutor said Thursday.

About 20 of those phony students -- some charged in the scam, some not -- received As, Bs or Cs in drama classes in which they apparently never set foot, triggering an internal investigation at the college district centering on the drama department.

Longtime drama department chairman Clay David, who was later placed on leave, filed a claim against the college alleging he was punished for speaking out against homophobia on campus. He no longer works at the college and district officials would not say Thursday what led to his being placed on leave.

The scheme, known as a "Pell runner" scam, has plagued colleges across the country, with the abuse of financial aid money costing taxpayers untold millions. But it is believed to be the first of its kind in Contra Costa County.

"I'm sure there are other people who are doing this that are getting away with it," said Contra Costa prosecutor Dodie Katague, who is handling this case. "The scam is easy to commit: you just have to lie on your application that you are broke, get a check and after you get a check you withdraw from the classes. It's very hard to catch because the record-keeping is lax."

The elaborate fraud ring at the San Pablo community college campus, according to prosecutors, was hatched by a Richmond couple in 2011. Authorities say ringleader Yvette Hummel, 45, and her boyfriend David Murphy, 54, ran the scheme like a business, using fliers and contracts to recruit people for their scam. Hummel would obtain personal information from the recruits and use it to enroll them in college classes and apply for financial aid, court records show.

In exchange, Hummel asked for a 25 percent slice, about $675 of the $2,775 a student on financial aid receives per semester, and offered a $50 referral fee, records show. None of the alleged scam artists is younger than 30, and many are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

The fraud was uncovered after one student came forward, Katague said. Investigators, including the FBI and the Department of Education, realized all 22 people involved were sharing the same two addresses belonging to Hummel.

Criminal charges were filed in November, but the case remains active, with authorities searching for eight suspects. Four suspects, including Hummel and Murphy, have taken plea deals that include jail time and probation; Hummel must pay $83,740 in restitution to the college. The 10 remaining suspects have court dates this month.

The fraud was limited to the college district's San Pablo campus, officials said, and did not occur at either Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill or Los Medanos College in Pittsburg.

The scam isn't the first for the college district, however. In 2007, dozens of students in the college district, most of them at DVC, were charged with felonies involving a cash-for-grades scheme. Most pleaded no contest to reduced charges, and some were expelled from school or had degrees rescinded.

In the "Pell runner" scam, students apply for the aid with a federal agency, which sends reports to the college detailing who is eligible for the money. District spokesman Tim Leong said all the students on paper appeared to be eligible for financial aid, and so were sent checks.

The investigation found that drama instructors did nothing criminal, Katague said, but raised questions about grading in the department, which resulted in the district-led investigation.
Said prosecutor Katague, "They were good at drama and lousy at bookkeeping."

During the investigation, the college district placed David on administrative leave based on accusations of misconduct and unprofessional behavior, but did not elaborate on the allegations. The district and David signed a settlement agreement in February in which David resigned but remains eligible to keep his retirement benefits.

David, a tenured professor who has taught and directed theater on campus for 19 years, declined to comment, citing a clause in the settlement agreement.

David, who is openly gay, said in his October 2012 claim against the district that the campus has a history of homophobia. The claim seeks an amount in excess of $25,000 from the district, saying he was subject to harassment, including gay slurs and threats by students in class, and that his pleas for help were ignored by administrators.

Mich. sea cadets send SOS in wake of federal budget cuts

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Harrison Township — As a member of the Great Lakes Division of the Navy Sea Cadets, Jon Allen spent thousands of hours during his childhood working aboard the group's training vessel Pride of Michigan. With the cadets, he had the chance to experience things most youngsters never will.

"I learned to drive the 80 foot long Navy ship at age 13, a year before I learned how to drive a car," said Allen, 20, who rose through the ranks and became the ship's Chief Petty Officer. "That's not something that you normally get to do."

Allen is now in his third year at the Milwaukee School of Engineering working toward a career in civil engineering, a subject that he first became interested in because of his time on the ship.

"Just being on board and getting that hands-on experience, that made a difference," said Allen. "The ship is definitely the biggest asset the program has."

But as a result of federal budget cutbacks, the program that has helped hundreds of youngsters find career paths could be left without the funds to stay afloat.

It's part of the trickle-down effect of the $1.2 trillion sequestration. The Great Lakes cadet program currently relies on $40,000 to $50,000 in annual funding from the U.S. Navy, which provides money to sea cadet divisions throughout the country.But this year, says Lt. Commander Luke Clyburn, the money never came.

"We put in a request like we do every year," said Clyburn, who has led the cadets for 40 years. "They said they wouldn't be giving out the money this year."

Although the program receives donations from various organizations, the immediate absence of the majority of funds has left these cadets in the lurch. Representatives from both the Naval Sea Cadet Corps and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations did not return requests for comment.

Parents are concerned

More than 30 youths between ages 11 and 17 work on the ship, used in the 1970s by the Navy for training midshipmen, throughout the year. It's one of three Navy vessels being used by such cadet groups.

The cadets use Pride of Michigan for everything from practicing ceremonies and repairing engines to diving shipwrecks and conducting research in the Great Lakes, said Clyburn. The goal is to prepare the young men and women for roles in the Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Merchant Marines and for professions in engineering and marine biology. There is no military commitment for cadets in the program.

Because the program is funded by other sources, parents pay only $350for their child to join the cadets, which in many cases wouldn't even cover the cost of scuba diving certification.

Currently, the cadets are preparing the ship for dry dock repairs and inspections. But once they get it back in the water, the group's organizers and parents are concerned they may not have the money to keep up the programs and maintain the ship.

"I don't even want to think about it. It would be devastating," said Amie MacDonaldof Madison Heights, whose son Billy, 14, is in his second year with the cadets. "Their future would look a lot different. I would hope that it would be all positive, but you don't know."

Funding for the program has come from many sources throughout the years, but over the past decade, it's been primarily federal funds distributed to the Navy for recruiting and research, said Clyburn. He says being forced to find funding closer to home could actually strengthen the program in the long run. But he's concerned about maintaining it for the short term.

"It's going to be tough to keep up with everything we've been able to provide these years," said Clyburn.

Fundraisers, lobbying planned

Having the practical experience on a ship helped Commerce Township resident Dennis Moore's son Kyle earn a spot in the U.S. Naval Academy Summer Seminar, a prestigious program for high school students interested in attending the academy in Annapolis, Md.

Attending the academy has been a lifelong dream for the 17-year-old junior at Lakeland High School in White Lake Township, and the camp could help make that possible.

"When you submit the application for the summer seminar, they look for what they call demonstrating interest," said the Dennis Moore. "Being in the sea cadets program was a way of demonstrating that interest."

Another cadet, Nicholas Ratinau, 17, of West Bloomfield, is preparing to begin school at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in New York in the fall to study engineering.

"The more I got involved with the cadets and the more I learned about it, the more I got to like it," said Ratinau, who has been a cadet for five years and is the lead petty officer on the ship. "I wouldn't have taken this path if the cadet program wasn't available."

To make sure the program will be around for years to come, parents and volunteers are working to put together fundraisers, lobby businesses and organizations for donations and gather items for an auction.

On Saturday, they found out the cadets would be taking part in the Celebrate the Lake" festival on June 8.

"We're going to do anything we can do to make this program continue. I promised my son," said MacDonald.

One of the newest cadet recruits, 13-year-old Gage Dyer, hopes the program can continue because he feels it will help him accomplish his career goal of becoming a marine biologist.

"To learn scuba diving at 13, that on a resume alone would show them this is what I want to do," said the Milford teen who says he already knows he wants to attend Texas A&M for college. "I'm hoping I can continue in the program until I graduate. This is what I want to do and there's a great opportunity here."

Is a mortgage a smart way to pay for college?

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

Money Watch, a personal finance column that runs every Saturday, features a financial planner from the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors answering reader questions about saving, protecting and growing your money.

Q: My wife and I have no debt. Our home, cars and credit cards are paid off. We make the maximum contributions into our 401(k) plans, although we don't take advantage of catch-up contributions. But because our kids will be going to college in four years, should we take out a home mortgage now to lock in a low rate and deduct the interest payment? This way we will have some money to pay for college without borrowing from our 401(k) plans.

A: Congratulations on being debt free! That is a huge accomplishment, and one that you should be proud of.

I agree that you need to find a way to help pay for your kids' college expenses without tapping your 401(k) plans. Even if you have the best intentions, if you are ever laid off or quit you will have to pay back the 401(k) loan immediately or face stiff taxes and penalties. And it may not be the best time to have to pay back a loan, having just lost your salary.

MONEY WATCH: Pay down mortgage or save for kids' college?

I am not sure taking out a home loan to pay for your kids college education is the best decision, either. You would be putting your home at risk, which isn't a good idea. And never let the tax benefits influence your financial decision. You can only deduct the interest on your mortgage if you are itemizing your deductions, and even then you would only benefit from the amount of deductions that are greater than the standard deduction ($11,900 for 2013). This means if you take out a mortgage and then have $13,000 of itemized deductions, you really only benefit from a $1,100 deduction. Multiply this deduction by your tax rate to get the actual tax benefit, and you will find that it really isn't all that much.

If you decide that using a mortgage is the way to go, one option would be to take out a home equity loan. The interest is still deductible, the upfront costs are typically lower, however the interest rate will probably be higher so you will need to ask your mortgage lender about your options.

I would start by determining your financial goals. When do you want to retire? How much money do you want to have for living expenses each year? Be sure you take into account health care expenses, car replacement, travel and any other financial goals you have. Determine how much you need to save each year in order to accomplish those goals.

Next, see what is left over. Although it can be difficult, you must put your own financial goals first. Your child can always take a year off from school to save money, or use student loans to pay for college, but there are no loans for retirement. If you don't save enough, you will put your kids in the position of having to support you later in life. I bet they would rather pay for their own education than have to pay for your retirement!

If you need to reduce the amount you are saving for retirement, be sure you at least take full advantage of your employer match.

If after you fully fund your own goals you find that you have some money left over each month, you can use a 529 plan to save for your kids' college expenses. Some states provide an income tax deduction to contribute to a 529 plan; however, there is no federal deduction for contributions. Check with your state-sponsored 529 plan to find out if there is a deduction available. The money in the 529 plan will grow tax-free, and can then be taken out without taxes to fund college expenses. You can even continue to contribute while your child is in college in order to get the tax deduction and some tax-free growth.

Finally, sit down with your kids today and let them know what they can expect in the way of college funding from you. They may have to take their second choice college, or put in the extra hours so they get a scholarship, but either way, they will be OK! Involve them in the discussion so there are no surprises. This will also be a perfect opportunity to teach them the value of planning for their personal finances.

Monday, March 25, 2013

CEO Blog: Getting America Back to Work Begins In Our Schools

In his State of the Union address last night President Obama reminded the nation that education equals employment.
In the First Lady’s box sat a single mother from North Carolina whose studies at a community college earned her a high-tech position after she had lost a job as a mechanic.
The President wants states to require students to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. Given the global economic challenges we confront it is essential we provide every American with the opportunity for a quality education. But that is not possible if our educational infrastructure is in disrepair.
Last September the President proposed spending $30 billion dollars as part of his American Jobs Act to modernize and upgrade schools and community colleges. The President should not retreat from this important proposal. Not only would it be a valuable investment in our children, but it also would quickly create more high-paying jobs here in the United States.
As president of JE Dunn Construction, a construction company that is a national top 10 builder of educational facilities, I have seen first-hand the need for major renovation in outdated school facilities.
We are already working on updating many educational facilities around the country, and there are many more badly in need of repair and renovation to improve the learning environment for our children.
Inner-city schools averaging 60-70 years in age too often have poor heating and inadequate lighting. A child cannot learn well if he is shivering in his classroom while squinting to read his textbook. Other schools have no air conditioning even though the school year in some districts starts during the heat of the summer or extends through the summer. Buildings built for baby boomers are energy inefficient, which causes higher operating and maintenance costs over time. Schools also need state-of-the-art technology to teach students for the 21st century high-tech world.
Sustainable building practices need to be utilized in renovations, additions and new construction. Parents and students are becoming educated on the energy, environmental, and cost benefits at the local and global levels. The saving in energy provides a payback for the improvements and more. We are seeing many educational facilities convert to green building practices systems. That’s responsible spending that pays off in the long run because of the decrease in energy costs.
Though I am a fiscal conservative who wants a balanced federal budget, I recognize the need for spending on essential projects now so I encourage Congress to support President Obama's proposed investment in education. The bill would provide a one-time stimulus for our national education infrastructure at a time when it is desperately needed.
A $30 billion education capital improvements bill could create an economic multiplier impact of three times, resulting in $90 billion back into the economy. It would also create approximately $10 billion in immediate construction payrolls. That’s critical for an industry that is the most depressed sector of the economy right now. Typically every dollar invested in a construction contract results in 30-35 cents reapplied directly into labor. And every dollar spent in take- home money has a positive impact on the economy.
At JE Dunn Construction, we have witnessed the same trend that many construction companies have seen over the past few years – a drop off in hiring due to an industry that needs additional capital to expand. This stimulus would create opportunity for job creation in an industry that has seen decline, while also serving the needs of school facilities in dire need of updating.
The president wants an economy that is fair for all, where opportunity and unlimited potential is available to any student, no matter the income bracket of his parents. I want that too. Upgrading our country’s educational infrastructure is a critical step to achieving that goal for our children, while quickly putting many of their parents back to work.
Terry Dunn is President & CEO of JE DUNN Construction Group, one of the nation’s leading building companies, where he has worked for 37 years. Among his many business and civic leadership positions Terry has served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts of America and is Vice Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City. He is Chairman and Trustee of the Kansas University of Medicine and Biosciences, and a board member of the University of Missouri Kansas City Bloch School and the Midwest Research Institute.

Chicago Announces Mass Closing of Elementary Schools

Chicago will close 54 schools and 61 school buildings by the beginning of the next academic year in the country's third-largest public school district, a move that union leaders called the largest mass closing in the nation.
The district will shutter 53 elementary schools and one high school by August, primarily in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. The district, which has a $1 billion annual deficit, has said it needs to close underutilized schools to save money.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen 20 percent in the last decade, mainly because of population declines in poor neighborhoods. The district said it can accommodate 511,000 students, but only about 403,000 are enrolled. It said that nearly 140 of its schools are more than half empty.
The controversial decision to close dozens of schools follows a bitter strike by Chicago teachers last September, fought partly over the Chicago Teachers Union's accusation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was undermining community schools in poor areas of the city.
The school board must approve the closings and will vote on the matter May 22.
The 61 closings account for about 10 percent of elementary school facilities, according to the school district.
"Consolidating schools is the best way to make sure all of our city's students get the resources they need to succeed in the classroom," said Emanuel in a statement.
The union objects to school closings, saying they destabilize minority neighborhoods.
"They keep saying that closing schools is going to save money," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "This will not save money. It's going to cost money and it's going to leave abandoned buildings, which is another recipe for disaster."
During a news conference at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which is marked for closing, Lewis accused Emanuel of being on a ski trip when the announcement was made.
"Mayor Rahm Emanuel should be ashamed of himself. Shanda!" Lewis said, using the Yiddish word for shame or scandal. Both Lewis and Emanuel are Jewish.
The staff of the mayor, whose children attend private school, were not immediately available to comment on his whereabouts.
Several parents don't want to see the schools closed.
"It took three schools to find the right place for my grandchild," said Menjiwei Latham, a grandparent and guardian of a student at the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, which serves special-needs students.
Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that as a former teacher and principal, she knows school closings aren't easy, "but I also know that in the end this will benefit our children."
Declining Enrollment in Urban Schools
Urban school districts around the country have been grappling with the issue of declining enrollment.
Over the past decade, 70 large or mid-sized cities have closed schools, averaging 11 per district, according to the National Education Association, a labor union for school teachers. This includes Washington, D.C., which closed 23 schools in 2008 and plans to close 15 more over the next two years. Philadelphia announced earlier this month that it would close 23 schools.
At the heart of the dispute over school closings in Chicago is the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but mostly non-unionized. The number of charter schools has risen even as neighborhood public schools are closed.
The union said 88 percent of students affected by Chicago school closings or other actions in the past decade were African-American and most closed schools have been in poor neighborhoods. The union said 86 Chicago public schools have closed in the past decade. The district has not provided its own number.
Chicago has promised a five-year moratorium on school closings, following this year.
Parents and school activists have complained that closing neighborhood schools endanger students because they are exposed to greater gang violence if they cross neighborhood boundaries. Chicago recorded 506 murders largely due to gang violence in 2012.
Many of the schools being closed are in the same neighborhoods that have seen frequent gun violence.
"The greatest impact is on the city's most wounded neighborhoods, places already traumatized by violence," Mark Naison, director of the Urban Studies Program at Fordham University wrote on his blog. "Make no mistake about this, this is both a local and a national tragedy."

Monday, March 4, 2013

Preschool Debate: Opposing Viewpoints

Story first appeared on USA Today -

Preschool debate obscures core problem: Our view

'Fragile families' harm children's development

In the eyes of many parents and most educators, starting a child's schooling before kindergarten is an indisputable virtue. Your kid acquires learning and social skills that give him or her an advantage.

So it's hardly surprising that President Obama used his State of the Union Address to call for extending that middle- and upper-class habit to all children, at government expense.

But before the checks go out, it would be wise to consider a broader question: Can the middle-class experience be replicated that easily? The evidence says universal preschool alone won't get the job done.

A few small, high-quality programs have shown enduring benefits for at-risk kids. But intensive study of Head Start, the nation's largest and oldest preschool program, finds that the beneficial effects, which are real, wear off by third grade.

The probable reason is not hard to deduce. Children are most likely to succeed in school when pushed by parents who provide stability, help with schooling, and instill an education and work ethic. But for decades now, the American family has been breaking down.

Two-fifths of children born in the USA are born to unmarried mothers, an eightfold increase since 1960. Many succeed thanks to the heroic efforts of strong, motivated single parents and other relatives. But research shows that children of single parents suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low performance in school.

Ron Haskins, an expert on children and families at the Brookings Institution, calls single parenthood a "little motor pushing up the poverty rate." In 2011, the rate for children of single mothers was more than four times greater than that for children of married couples.

Researchers at Princeton and Columbia, following 5,000 children born to married and unmarried parents, have found that the effects of single parenthood seep into every aspect of kids' lives.

A typical pattern in these "fragile families" looks like this: When a child is born, most fathers and mothers are in a committed relationship. By the time the child reaches 5, though, many fathers have disappeared. As the mothers move on to new relationships, the children face more instability, often with new siblings born to different fathers. Boys without strong male role models are more likely to turn to gangs and crime.

Single mothers read less to their children, are more likely to use harsh discipline and are less likely to maintain stable routines, such as a regular bedtime. All these behaviors are important predictors of children's health and development.

It is a tragically familiar pattern. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Johnson administration official and later a U.S. senator, warned about an alarming rise — to nearly 24% — in unmarried births in the black community. His prescient warning created a furor among liberals and civil rights leaders, who accused him of blaming the victim. The rates are now 73% for blacks, 53% for Hispanics and 29% for whites.

Even today, solutions are undermined by ideological warfare. Liberals blame poverty. Conservatives blame the culture. Both are right. The problems are intertwined, and defy easy solutions. Fighting poverty, promoting marriage and stable relationships, intervening with home visits, and improving education all help, but there is no magic answer.

So, sure, explore Obama's plan to expand quality preschool, and make sure kids aren't then dumped into failing elementary schools. But don't miss the core problem. The primary engine of social advancement has always been the family, and it is breaking down.

Preschool Closes Achievement Gap: Other Views

It takes the right kind of program

Brian Resnick, National Journal: "At the very least, it can be argued that preschool does no harm to long-term academic achievement and socioeconomic standing (although one study found it can negatively affect a child's social skills). Because preschool is most beneficial to poorer students, increasing access to it could only help close the stubbornly persistent achievement gap between whites and minorities.

Nevertheless, it will be a tough sell to Republicans who may think the upfront cost of the plan is too much to justify benefits that won't be seen for decades."

Jonathan Cohn, New Republic: "My takeaway is that paying attention to early childhood can help at-risk kids, and in some cases help them a lot. But it takes the right kind of program, which means, among other things, experimenting to see what works best. Fortunately, this seems to be what President Obama and his advisers have in mind."

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council: "Obama and his Big Government supporters think that starting school at a younger age will help solve society's problems. But a study of the federal preschool program Head Start shows that for all the money spent on the program, it had little effect on educational outcomes after preschool concluded. Children need parental involvement and attention. They need strong families. What a 4-year-old needs more than anything is a loving, secure home with a mom and dad who love each other. There is no better way to start a young life. We cannot have secure, well-prepared, confident children if we continue to sustain a culture where no-fault divorce, cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births are the norm."

Erika Christakis, Time Ideas: "The cornerstone of Obama's proposal is a plan to make preschool education available for all 4-year-olds at or below 200% of the poverty line. But the devil is in the details, and in this case, those details may not be developmentally appropriate for young children. If you need a cautionary tale of what goes wrong when politicians and school boards ride roughshod over the developmental needs of children, you need look no further than the dramatic changes to kindergarten over the last decade."

Kevin Glass, Townhall.com: "It's important to ... acknowledge the successes and failures of such programs to date. States can and should serve as laboratories of democracy before a heavy-handed federal government turns modest programs into universal mandates. President Obama's early childhood education proposals are incredibly vague, but there's hope on the federal level for targeted early childhood education policy that works. Heavy-handedness and a lack of introspection on previous federal education policy might doom early childhood education reform to failure."