A General Motors Moment
By Gov. Wise
I recently spent two days in West Virginia making presentations for the statewide local education fund, the Education Alliance, about the economic return from boosting high school graduation rates and the necessity of having a college- and career-ready standard as the benchmark. To read more about my discussions there, read my guest post on the organization’s new blog.
The previous week, Governor Joe Manchin called the state legislature into special session to take up eight bills designed to strengthen West Virginia’s run at the second round of the Race to the Top (RTT) competition. After a week of legislative wrestling over the usual issues—charter schools, teacher evaluation, performance pay—everyone agreed to call time out, recess for two weeks, and a working group of the main stakeholders, including the unions, are meeting to see what can be resolved.
“Was calling the special session without an agreed-upon outcome a mistake?” was one frequently raised question. Others criticized that the state should not be acting “just to chase the federal dollar.” West Virginia is undergoing what almost every state is currently experiencing—the convergence of several critical forces, each with its own momentum, that bring the opportunity for major change.
The first critical force is the growing demand for greatly improved student outcomes. From absurdly high dropout rates to declining international performance, the severity of several educational crises are driving policymakers and the public to call for significant gains in student performance.
The second driving force is continued budget shortfalls. As an energy producer, West Virginia has not been hit as hard as many other states during the current recession. Yet just this week the projection was that revenues for the year would be at least $228 million below previous projections; this is no insignificant sum for a small state.
These two factors alone create a “General Motors Moment.” The product was already lackluster, and now there is far less revenue to continue turning out what people weren’t buying anyway.
Enter the third force: the federal government offering incentives for change through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) competitive grants like RTT and the Investing in Innovation (I-3) grants.
So what about the question of whether state legislatures should be holding special sessions and thrusting themselves into contentious debate just to better their bid for federal dollars?
My response? Don’t be driven by the federal funds. Take these actions because you know you should. Many of these reform measures should be enacted even if there was not a single federal dollar on the table. The benefit here is that federal funds are available—at least until October 1—to assist states in making necessary changes.
Perhaps the possible federal funds makes this even more like GM; there’s a public demand for better product, money drying up, and available federal assistance to make vitally needed change. With ARRA that funds RTT and other competitive measures expiring September 30, this may be the only opportunity for states to receive some financial help to enact the critically important reform measures.
So if the status quo is not acceptable, state legislatures must take the tough actions. Call repeated special sessions, argue through the long-standing divides, and resolve the contentious issues. There may not be this impetus and momentum for another decade. And by taking the right action, you may also receive some federal dollars.