Posted on May 20, 2011 in Education
Last week's EdNotes featured an article highlighting a peculiarity of the current economic downturn: while the employment impact was relatively democratic in nature the nascent recovery has, for the most part, failed to gain traction for those individuals who lack post-secondary education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for high school graduates in 2010 was 10.3 percent, for those with some college, but no degree, it was 9.2 percent, while for individuals with a bachelor's degree, unemployment was 5.4 percent (individuals with associate degrees had a 7.0 percent unemployment rate). The employment gap is mirrored by an income gap as well, with high school graduates earning roughly 60 percent of the earnings of an individual with a bachelor's degree (those with some college fare only slightly better at 68 percent).
Looked at through a closer lens, however, the prospects for most college graduates appear to be fading. While they continue to enjoy an employment advantage, a study out this week from Rutgers University indicates that while those individuals who graduated before the Great Recession took hold were mostly able to find work, nearly half of graduates in the class of 2010 had found employment by this spring. Moreover, while 80 percent of all graduates in the classes of 2006 through 2010 are employed, the report found that median starting income for most recent graduates is lower than for those who graduated just before the recession.
This situation exists in part because at least 40 percent of these graduates took jobs that do not require a college degree. Additionally, the economic downturn created an "employment latency" that contributes to a very competitive job market, particularly for recent graduates with limited or no work experience. This situation appears to affect most sectors, including teaching and nursing, two fields that have heretofore been viewed as "recession proof."
The situation for these recent graduates is not made any easier by the rising costs of higher education, causing many to ask if the degree is truly worth the cost. Tuition and fees at public 4-year colleges and universities has increased by 112 percent over the past decade (when viewed in constant dollars), about twice the rate of inflation over the same time period. Indeed, during the past two years, when the economy experienced either no inflation or a modest deflation, tuition continued to rise as public support for education declined, and institutions made up for the difference by increasing tuition and fees.
This has resulted in an increase in the level of debt carried by students graduating from college, a concern at any time, as student loan debt is believed to delay wealth creation and asset development among graduates, as well as delay personal choices such as marriage and child bearing. According to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in June 2010, Americans currently hold more student loan debt ($829.8 B) than credit card debt ($826.5 B). Average debt levels for seniors with student loans (67 percent of all graduates, or 1.4 million students) increased nearly $5,000 between 2004 and 2008 (to $23,200, from $18,650, or 24 percent).The confluence of higher student debt loads and a poor job market for graduates has led to an increase in student loan defaults and delinquencies, indicators of the severe financial stress recent graduates find themselves in.
The rising cost of higher education has lead to calls for cost containment and new models of financing. Two examples from Texas include legislation to establish priority criteria based on academic promise for the TEXAS grant program, which provides funds for students to participate in post-secondary education. Texas Governor Rick Perry recently challenged the state university system to produce a quality, relevant college degree for a cost of less than $10,000 to the student. That figure is one-third the current average cost for public institutions in the state, and faces an uphill battle in face of diminishing support from state government. Other proposals include reducing the time students spend in college to three years, as is not uncommon in Europe.
A recent change in the eligibility requirements for the Pell Grant (passed during the 111th Congress) increased the number of students who could receive the need-based awards and the maximum awards they could receive (and so greatly expanded the program, to such an extent that the program may now be in financial stress). This has expanded educational opportunity, particularly at two-year colleges, but it also has meant that the program has grown from $16 billion in 2008 to nearly $40 billion in fiscal year 2011 (in part because the program had failed to keep up with inflation, and the 2010 legislation corrected this), with the program potentially facing a $5.7 billion shortfall in 2011. The program is in flux, however, with the Congress considering cuts to the program that would roll back support and limit eligibility.
State contributions to student higher education participation and affordability was the subject of a previous Ednotes on the Issues that discussed changes to HOPE-style scholarships. State aid to students in the United States exceeded $10 B in 2009 (Southern states awarded $4.2 alone). State need-based grants remain a significant support for student college participation, with state aid in this category reaching $6.0 B in fiscal 2009. This support is not evenly distributed, however, and 10 states (only two from the region, North Carolina and Texas) award two-thirds of all need based grants. In the South, need-based aid is less prevalent than it is nationally, representing 38 percent of state grant aid to students, compared to a national average of 59 percent. Having said this, the 15 states in the South provide nearly 43 percent of all grant aid to students in the United States, including nearly 85 percent of all non-need-based aid (due to the prevalence in the region of merit scholarships).
Posted on May 9, 2011 in Education
A strong band of storms ripped through the South last week, spawning the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1932, with at least 329 people reported dead across seven states, including 238 dead reported in Alabama alone. Among the hardest hit areas of Alabama was Tuscaloosa, home to the more than 30,000 students of the University of Alabama. The storms displaced thousands more and laid waste to homes, businesses, schools and other civic buildings.
While spared a direct hit from the Tornados, the University opted to close weeks ahead of schedule and allow students, many of whom hail from areas also affected by the storm, to return home. Other schools in the state also were affected, including 18 that suffered heavy damage. The Alabama Legislature quickly approved legislation to allow the state superintendent of schools to shorten the school year for districts affected by the storms. The Legislature also approved by voice vote a resolution promising to appropriate whatever funds were needed to repair or rebuild tornado-damaged schools. In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal ordered a review of the state's severe weather warning system to ensure that the system was fully operational and to determine gaps, if any, in coverage.
This immediate response was welcome news to schools and students in Alabama, but the storms reopened a debate about how schools respond to disasters. Alabama has unfortunate experience with this, with a Force 4 tornado striking Enterprise High School on March 1, 2007, collapsing part of the school and killing nine (the first school fatalities due to a tornado since 1990). Following that disaster, the state allocated funds to supplement federal and insurance money to rebuild the school, with a new 525,000-square-foot facility (now equipped with a tornado warning siren) opening three years later, the largest public school in the southeast.
Schools and districts are recommended to have emergency preparedness plans, and at least 32 states (including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) require schools to have them. The National Center for Educational Facilities provides resources for schools and districts on developing and implementing strong emergency management plans which include preparedness, response and recovery (for example, Florida's, Kentucky's and California's Crisis Response in a Box). Within these plans, there is an increasing awareness that schools need to plan carefully and thoroughly for how to prepare for a disaster with students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency (LEP). Project REDD, out of Texas A&M University, offers extensive guidance on serving students with disabilities who are considerably more vulnerable than the general population during as well as following a disaster. Clear and comprehensive planning for LEP students will help to ensure that they are not placed at greater risk than the general population due to their possible inability to understand warnings and instructions provided in English.
The federal government provides some limited support for the development of emergency response plans through the Emergency Response and Crisis Management Grant Program, which distributed $29,000,000 in grants to school districts in 2010. Most states offer technical support, training and guidance to school districts on their emergency response plans, and Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee are among only 11 states nationally that provided state support to districts for this planning.
Beyond the cleanup and rebuilding, however, schools must address a wide range of issues following a natural disaster or other catastrophic event. Students returning to schools face challenges relating to trauma, dislocation, stress and uncertainty. Children, especially young children, need immediate support in learning how to manage their emotional response to an emergency event, support that may often be only available in schools. The National Association of School Psychologists provides considerable guidance on this issue, as does the American Pediatrics Association. Among the most important components of "moving on" is the quick resumption of routines, including the return to classes when possible. To do this, however, it may be necessary for schools to move into new facilities or share space in existing space with students from other parts of an affected area. Counseling and support are of critical importance, and may be needed even after the physical recovery from the disaster is completed. Reports from previous, large-scale disasters, including Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, indicate that trauma may continue to plague schoolchildren for years after the event.
As the communities across the South clean up from the April tornados that swept the region and begin to address the long-term consequences, state policymakers are looking toward an active hurricane season and the potential of still further tornado activity. Further west, rains in the upper Midwest are causing the Mississippi River to rise to alarming levels, flooding communities and displacing students and their families, even as communities in Texas are dealing with drought fueled wildfires that have scorched more than a million acres of the state. For schools and school districts across the region, it would seem to be a good time to make sure that their emergency plans are up to date and understood by school faculty, administrators, and members of the community.
Posted on May 9, 2011 in Energy and Environment
Increasingly, natural gas has gained popularity as a cleaner substitute for fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, and the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," has made shale gas an economically viable alternative to conventional natural gas sources. Shale gas is located much deeper in the ground, typically at least 2,000 feet below the surface, and historically has been much more difficult and expensive to recover. Hydrofracking uses a cocktail of water; sand or ceramic material; and various chemicals that are injected at a high pressure into the shale, in order to fracture the rock and release the gas. A vertical hole is dug, then the drill is turned horizontally to continue the well from the vertical bore. Piping encased in cement feeds the mixture of 99 percent water and sand or ceramic, and 1 percent chemicals, into the shale. The sand holds the fracture open so that the gas can seep into the well, and the chemicals work as thickeners and lubricants, allowing the fluid to work its way through the fissures.
The United States' geologic composition contains large amounts of natural gas, perhaps third in the world behind only Russia and the Middle East, and many SLC states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, have huge reserves of the fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), although natural gas consumption is rising in the United States, imports have been steadily declining over the last few years. The report points out that, from 2007 to 2010, imports declined by approximately 1.2 trillion cubic feet, or one-third. This is due largely to the rise in domestic production from shale gas formations, which has more than tripled during that same period, resulting in lower natural gas prices, as well as new jobs in the industry. These trends are at least partly attributable to the increased development and use of hydrofracking.
There are, however, various environmental and health concerns associated with hydrofracking. At least 32 states allow the practice in areas containing natural gas, and in 19 states the practice is carried out on a regular basis. A growing number of residents in states like Texas claim that hydrofracking has fouled their drinking water wells and even caused the tap water to smell like industrial chemicals, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor. Louisiana will be holding public hearings this summer to consider approving hydrofracking for oil in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, near Baton Rouge. Concerns have been raised regarding environmental impacts for the capital city. The practice has been employed since 2008 to drill in north Louisiana's Haynesville Shale, but never in close proximity to such a large a population.
Last month, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman's office released findings that the chemicals used in the hydrofracking process ranged from generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid, to extremely toxic substances, such as benzene and lead. The report also stated that, between 2005 and 2009, companies used products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX chemicals), which are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The report found that approximately 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical were injected into the shale over the five-year period.
However, some experts argue that a movement away from other fossil fuels could have positive environmental results, such as cutting carbon dioxide emissions and slowing climate change, the benefits of which outweigh the environmental risks associated with hydrofracking. Don Siegel, a hydrology professor at Syracuse University, believes that drilling for natural gas would benefit the state far more than it would harm it, according to a report by the Syracuse Post-Standard. He points out that, since natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, then a shift toward expanding gas recovery could cut carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 17 percent, dramatically reducing the state's carbon footprint until alternative energy production becomes more viable. However, even Siegel, and many experts like him, admit that hydrofracking, especially high-volume hydrofracking, which uses millions of gallons of water per well, does entail some inevitable risks and should be heavily regulated.
In the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress exempted hydrofracking from federal oversight, but last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was initiating a study to examine the potential adverse impacts of hydrofracking, the results of which can be expected sometime in 2012. The EPA also asked nine of the major natural-gas production companies to begin releasing information pertaining to the chemicals injected into the ground during hydrofracking.
Last December, New York became the first state to restrict hydrofracking, resulting from an executive order issued by then Governor David Paterson, who placed a moratorium on the practice until the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is able to conduct an assessment of potential environmental impacts. Although the moratorium was set to end July 1 of this year, the DEC has stated that its review will not be completed by that time, most likely ensuring that the practice will be banned in the state for at least the duration of the summer, according a report by the Utica Observer-Dispatch. In addition, this week, the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition filed a lawsuit against the DEC on the grounds that hydrofracking violates myriad state environmental laws.
It is likely that other states will see similar debates regarding the use of hydrofracking as a tool for extracting natural gas. The question of jurisdiction, who gets to decide if the practice is appropriate for a particular area or region, will be the subject of ongoing debate. Until the EPA releases its 2012 report, states will most likely be left to decide how these practices are regulated, and to what extent their intervention is required.
Posted on May 9, 2011 in Health and Human Services
A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that treatment admission for prescription pain pill abuse has quadrupled nationally in the past decade, and that this increase spans every age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, employment level and region of the country. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that about 20 percent of people in the United States, or 48 million, have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons. Even more alarming, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses from prescription drugs in the United States doubled from 1999 to 2007, and each year more than 20,000 people die from overdoses, far more people than are killed by controlled substances like cocaine and heroin. In addition, the South has one of the highest rates of overdose related to prescription drug abuse and misuse.
National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske has called prescription drug abuse the nation's "fastest-growing drug problem," and last month he revealed a new strategy by the White House to reduce misuse of such drugs by 15 percent in five years through a nationwide education campaign; training for clinical practitioners; and establishing prescription drug monitoring programs in all 50 states (currently, only 35 states are operating such programs). In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is asking makers of pain medications to assist in supplying materials that physicians can use while counseling patients on the risks and benefits of using prescription pain medications.
When taken properly, opioids, which are synthetic versions of opium and include drugs such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone and others, can help people deal with chronic pain. However, they can become addictive or be used for nonmedical means. Abusers typically crush and inhale the pills, or inject them, in order to produce a euphoric high. Oftentimes, these drugs are obtained from friends and family members, but the growing number of pain clinics that supply drug dealers and addicts with illicit prescription painkillers has contributed to the epidemic.
Many states across the nation have begun addressing the proliferation of these "pill mills." For instance, in 2007, Utah initiated a statewide media effort, the "Use Only As Directed" campaign, to educate people on the dangers of prescription drug abuse. The state also created guidelines for clinical practitioners who prescribe opioids. The effort resulted in a nearly 13 percent decrease in prescription drug overdose deaths in just one year. Other states, such as Ohio, have created task forces to assess the problem and determine proportional responses.
Florida has become a hub for prescription drug activity. According to a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state Medical Examiners Commission, during the first six months of 2010, there were 1,268 deaths in the state caused by misuse of prescription drugs. More than 850 pain clinics currently are registered in Florida, where doctors prescribe about 85 percent of all opioids purchased in the United States. The state passed legislation (SB2272) last year to begin strengthening regulation on pain management clinics. Some of the provisions in the legislation included: limiting anyone paying cash for a prescription to a 72-hour supply; requiring specific training for doctors who practice pain management; and establishing a database for monitoring prescription drugs. The state is going further this year with regulation. A bill (HB7095) in the House of Representatives would ban most doctors from dispensing certain controlled substances and limit pharmacies to dispensing no more than 5,000 doses of those drugs during any given month. It passed the House on April 21 with only one dissenting vote. The slightly different Senate bill (SB818) would mandate that the state's prescription drug database conform to federal requirements. Also, the Senate bill does not include the 5,000 dose a month limit on pharmacies, on the grounds that many facilities, such as cancer centers and nursing homes, often dispense large amounts of needed painkillers. Neither piece of legislation would repeal existing law requiring a database (Governor Rick Scott pushed for such a repeal early in the session, on the grounds that it would infringe on patient privacy.)
Although other states have not seen the level of prescription drug distribution as Florida, they have been severely affected by trafficking. Among them is West Virginia. According to the state Health Statistics Center, in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, 390 people in the state died from accidental overdoses of prescription drugs. That number has quadrupled since 2001, when only 91 deaths in West Virginia were attributed to prescription drug overdoses. Overdose associated with prescription drugs is now the leading cause of accidental death in the state, accounting for more fatalities than even car accidents. The state has run a prescription drug monitoring program since 1995, but is examining ways to expand treatment and prevention programs.
Kentucky is considered a major destination state for the Florida "pill mill pipeline," an underground prescription drug network weaving north through the Appalachian states. According to Governor Steve Beshear, 82 people die each month due to prescription drug overdoses, making it the leading cause of accidental death in the commonwealth. Kentucky has been operating a variety of prescription drug treatment and assistance programs, as well as a prescription drug electronic monitoring system, for more than a decade, and has become a model for other states, including Florida. The governor's office has pointed out that patients' information has remained secure, and that there has never been a breach in the system.
Georgia, whose rural communities also have been severely affected by the influx of prescription drugs from the "pill mill pipeline," became the most recent Southern state to enact a prescription drug monitoring program. The General Assembly passed Senate bill 36 this year, which establishes a database for tracking prescription drugs and flagging patients who attempt to get multiple prescriptions filled, or "doctor shop," as well as doctors and pharmacies that repeatedly fill such requests.
Posted on May 4, 2011 in Government Operations
State employee health insurance coverage policies vary widely in the SLC region. Therefore, a direct comparison of practices is unreliable. In order to accommodate for the discrepancies, the SLC collected state employee premium information for its 15 member states on a case-by-case basis. This information is available on the following table.
|Alabama||Link||State Employee's Insurance Board|
|Arkansas||Link||Employee Benefits Division, Department of Finance & Administration|
|Florida||Link||Department of Management Services|
|Georgia||Link||Department of Community Health|
|Louisiana||Link||Office of Group Benefits, Division of Administration, Office of the Governor|
|Mississippi||Link||Department of Finance & Administration|
|Missouri||Link||Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan|
|North Carolina||Link||State Health Plan|
|Oklahoma||Link||Employees Benefits Council|
|South Carolina||Link||Employee Insurance Program, Budget and Control Board|
|Tennessee||Link||Department of Finance & Administration|
|Texas||Link||Employees Retirement System|
|Virginia||Link||Department of Human Resource Management|
|West Virginia||Link||Public Employees Insurance Agency|