The Progressive Fix

Rotherham: No Congressional District Left Behind

In an op-ed today for U.S. News & World Report, Andrew Rotherham, cofounder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, intriguingly argues that the best school reform idea is to fix the gerrymandering of legislative districts:

One of the interesting things about my job is that wealthy people ask me for ideas about how best to use their resources to improve America’s schools. There are plenty of important issues demanding attention: overhauling the sorry state of teacher preparation and teacher policy (I wrote an entire guidebook about that), giving low-income Americans more educational choice and improving educational finance are three obvious ones. But, to the consternation of colleagues in the education world, I don’t first suggest those or other specific education issues. Instead, I urge donors to support efforts to reform congressional redistricting. We won’t be able to genuinely improve our schools (or address a host of other issues) until we create legislative districts based on geography rather than gerrymandering.

Read the op-ed in its entirety at U.S. News & World Report. 

Weinstein: March Madness at Time Magazine

Time Magazine (courtesy of the New America Foundation) recently re-published a new way to rank NCAA tournament winners according to their graduation success rates. According to the Time bracket, some pretty prestigious academic universities fair pretty poorly. Harvard, Georgetown, Texas, Wisconsin, and UCLA all lose in the first round followed by Virginia in round two. Among the top ten institutions on the list, seven had graduation rates for their basketball teams of 100 percent. In each of these cases, the rates for the basketball teams were higher than for the male population as a whole. In addition, the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Men’s Basketball team finished 20th on the list, with a team graduation rate of 89 percent compared to an overall male student graduation rate of 55 percent. That might be odd to some basketball aficionados given the large number of “one and done” players at UK (players who go professional after one year of college ball).

So what explains the discrepancy? Is UK really graduating 89 percent of its players? Is the Time Magazine bracket accurate? The answer for both is no.

It is important to understand that Time are not actually using graduate rates (how many entering students get their degrees) with regards to college basketball players. Rather, they have chosen to utilize the NCAA’s questionable bogus Academic Progress Rate (APR), which does not count many “one and done” players who leave to go onto the pros (NBA or elsewhere)

How does APR work? The system awards one point for each scholarship athlete in good academic standing and one for each one who either stays in school or graduates. So if a team has 10 scholarship players, and one drops out and is not on track to graduate, but all the others keep their grades up and either stay in school or graduate, then the team would earn a very good APR score (18 out of 20 points).

Now, it might seem that with all the early departures, Kentucky’s APR would take a big hit. However, if a scholarship athlete in good academic standing leaves to pursue a professional career, there is an adjustment to the APR so that there is no penalty.

So schools like Kentucky, which in reality graduate very few basketball players, get ranked high on Time’s list, while schools that actually graduate most of its players like the University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin, and Georgetown University look poor in comparison (disclosure, I graduated from Georgetown University in 1985).

Second, the comparison of APR and graduation rates for the male student populations at large is not “apples to apples” because APR does not include all dropouts but a graduation rate does. This makes the bracket pretty worthless in terms of usefulness.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not the APR data provided is even accurate. As recent scandals have underscored (see Syracuse University and the University of North Carolina), some institutions may be using a number of tactics (in violation of NCAA rules) to help student-athletes stay in good academic standing.

Maybe Time and New America should leave the prognosticating to the professional bracketologists.

Paul Weinstein Jr. is a Senior Fellow at PPI and directs the Graduate Program in Public Management at Johns Hopkins University.

Oregon Grapples with Broadband Regulation

The FCC’s “Open Internet” order was just released today. Plenty of people are hashing it over, including PPI (see statement here).

However, what’s less appreciated is how the FCC’s action puts the spotlight squarely on states and municipalities. No longer constrained by federal “light-touch” policies, state and local politicians and regulators must decide: Will they act in a way to encourage private investment in broadband networks? Or, instead, will they choose to discourage private investment in their region by regulating broadband prices and excessively taxing broadband providers?

Here’s the simple fact: States and municipalities that choose to place excess regulations and taxes on broadband providers will find themselves losing out on private investment in new networks, with negative long-term economic consequences.

One state struggling with this decision is Oregon. The Oregon situation is both complicated and illuminating, because it brings together so many different strands. Oregon currently has a set of rules for property tax called “central assessment.” As applied in Oregon, these rules mean that broadband providers such as Comcast pay property taxes based not just on the value of their facilities in Oregon, but on a tax base including intellectual property and other intangibles worldwide. This rule had the effect of driving up Comcast’s tax payments in Oregon by a factor of six, according to the company. The state legislature is considering a bill that allows the central assessment rule to be partly but not fully rolled back, leaving providers such as Comcast still exposed to substantially higher taxes.

The same high-tax rule would also apply to Google, if and when the company follows through on potential plans to build a gigabit fiber network in Portland, Oregon. The bill does offer potential relief for Google and other potential builders of gigabit broadband networks, with a tough caveat: They would have to meet certain build-out, price and performance characteristics in order to qualify for deeper tax reductions. In particular, the provider would have to

 …. offer communication services at or above a speed of 1 gigabit per second symmetrical service and at a price to customers that does not exceed 150 percent of the United States average price for the same speed of symmetrical service. The Public Utility Commission shall determine the maximum price of service and may update the standards for speed, type and price of service as the commission considers appropriate. The commission shall recertify each qualified project under this subparagraph every five years

In effect, the bill gives the PUC a mandate to set rates for gigabit networks–a return to the old-style top-down utility regulation that once helped throttle innovation. Rate regulation would make it much more difficult for providers to put together packages that would work for consumers and support investment. What’s more, because the regulators can change the price and speed standard at will, companies who build gigabit networks and qualify under this clause have no assurance that their tax bill won’t suddenly skyrocket, even if they have met their original promise. Indeed, regulators will be under political pressure to raise speed standards and lower maximum prices.

Now, the partial tax rollback, combined with the conditional tax reduction for gigabit providers, is better than the original tax rules. But if Oregon state legislators really want to attract private broadband investment and spur innovation and growth, they shouldn’t boost taxes on broadband providers and encourage regulators to micromanage prices and services. After the FCC’s open internet decision, that’s a lesson that all states and municipalities are going to have to learn.


House New Democrat Coalition Unveils Pro-growth Policy Agenda

Today, the House New Democrat Coalition unveiled a comprehensive, pro-growth policy agenda. 

After suffering enormous losses in the last two midterm elections, Democrats need a new strategy for recapturing Congress.  Such a strategy should aim at winning back competitive districts, largely in suburban America, and it would target moderate voters, without whom the party cannot build electoral majorities.

The New Democrat Coalition’s prosperity agenda is an important step toward crafting a winning strategy. It presents a new policy blueprint for pragmatic Democrats, who want to break the political stalemate in Washington and get things done. Most important, it outlines a progressive, pro-growth alternative to a polarizing populism that can only narrow the party’s appeal.

This agenda aims squarely at lifting and expanding the middle class. It puts growth before redistribution, and builds on America’s strengths in rapid innovation and entrepreneurship. It seeks to expand vital investments in infrastructure and a skilled workforce, but it also recognizes that tax reform and regulatory improvement are also key catalysts of growth.  And, crucially, the NDC recognizes that the right way to restore public confidence in government is not simply to enlarge it, but to reform and modernize it.

With this document, the NDC is assuming a position of intellectual and political leadership in the party.  It’s important that its voice be heard, because its members know how to compete and win in precisely the kind of competitive districts Democrats need to retake.

Despite Weather, Regulatory Improvement Event Still On Schedule

Despite the inclement weather, we are still planning to hold our event today as scheduled, Innovation in a Rules-Bound World: How Regulatory Improvement Can Spur Growth.  If that should change, we’ll let you know here.

Ehrlich: The Wrong Way to Enact The Wrong Policy — The FCC’s No Good, Very Bad Day

“This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” said Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler, whereupon he cast the deciding vote for the most far-reaching plan ever developed to regulate the Internet.  Let’s hope he isn’t in charge of the First Amendment, too.

As a veteran of the Clinton Administration, whose policy of light regulation set the stage for today’s burgeoning Internet, Wheeler’s decision is a disappointment, to say the least. This Administration – an administration that in almost every other aspect I support – is shackling the Internet in a regulatory straitjacket designed for the monopoly phone system eight decades ago in order to implement “net neutrality.”  It isn’t going to be a very good fit.

Neutrality is the idea doctrine that everything on the Internet should travel at the same speed, whether it’s a high-definition concert or video game, a signal from a remote heart monitor, an email to Aunt Tilly, or a video of a cat playing the xylophone.  Advocates prefer this “one size fits all” approach to letting the market decide how price and quality should be lined up, much the same way Sears does when it offers the consumer “good,” “better,” and “best.”

But advocates – often paid by the big Internet sites who like the Internet just like it is, thanks – have conflated this issue and used language as surreal as Wheeler’s, claiming this market-based process is equivalent to letting service providers throttle or impede the traffic they don’t like, or asserting that “priority” service will kill the innovative Internet, as if first class travel killed air travel or Priority Mail ended daily delivery to the home.

But it’s one thing to implement a mistaken policy.  It’s even worse to do so in a mistaken way.  Right now, as we speak, there is a bipartisan effort underway in the Congress that would enact the core protections of “neutrality,” but would do so by statute, period, full stop, as opposed to the long and tortuous road today’s decision will find itself on when it is challenged (and probably overturned) in the Courts.

The difference is important.  Aside from eliminating the possibility of legal challenge, The Congressional route would eliminate the regulatory baggage that today’s “reclassification” potentially allows.  For example, the FCC can force a provider of a phone-like service to offer their infrastructure to competitors at government-reviewed prices, and can even regulate prices generally.  Chairman Wheeler says the FCC will “forebear” these extreme regulatory prerogatives, but if he’s serious about that, then why not embrace a Congressional law that makes that clear?

What I fear, and fear greatly, that the advocates for “reclassifying” the Internet as a phone-like service really want more than “net neutrality” – they want the Internet to be a public utility for all purposes.  After all, they might argue – and some have, calling on us to emulate failed public-sector Internets in places like Australia – the Internet is just so damned important that it needs to be under public control.

Yes, the Internet is important.  So is food, but we let farmers grow it.  And the Internet is not at all like public utilities we’ve known, like electricity and the old phone system.  The Internet is not a series of “dumb pipes” that blindly carry content the way the phone system was a “dumb system” that just closed circuits or “dumb wires” carried electricity.  It’s a complex system that requires management and that doesn’t tolerate “busy signals” or “brown outs” if there’s overload.

But more importantly, unlike electricity or phones, there are many ways to provide broadband connectivity in the market today.  Virtually every household in America now can receive broadband from three or four sources – from cable systems, from fiber or, when fiber isn’t there, from ever-improving DSL over the old phone lines, from mobile sources (in which we are the world’s leader), or from satellite, often the last alternative, but usually an acceptable one.

What the “public utility” view really argues is that the government should pick one of these, or some combination of these, to meet our broadband needs rather than letting this competition play itself out, which is something like deciding the winner of a ballgame in the middle of the second inning.  It’s this very “platform competition” that has allowed the U.S. to vault past most of our industrialized competitors, certainly those that don’t crowd their populations into cramped apartment blocks that are cheap to wire.  Is that what we, as Democrats, really want?

There’s still time to adopt a legislative compromise, achieve the “neutrality” objective, and put the issue to bed for good.  And if the making of sound policy doesn’t move my Democratic friends, consider this:  A future Republican President is elected and announces that the FCC will change course and go back to the framework first laid out by President Clinton.  Without a statute in place, there is nothing to prevent President Jeb, Rand, Ben, or whomever from putting net neutrality on the shelf and leaving the Internet without even the most basic consumer protections most would agree are necessary.

And during the debates leading up to that election, President Rick or Rick or Carly will look over at Secretary Clinton and ask if the Clinton Administration made a mistake when it championed the 1996 Telecommunications Act and brought over a trillion dollars of investment in to build the Internet.

If good policy doesn’t move you to accept the legislative solution, perhaps that unfortunate political outcome will.