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11.11 'Starting Point' From Deficit Panel Co-Chairs Ignites Debate

Thursday, November 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who are co-chairing President Obama's deficit commission, say the plan they put out yesterday is a "starting point" and they sure did start something, judging from the reaction today. It's important to remember that this isn't the actual deficit commission plan; it's just a basis for discussion for the panel, which is to vote December 1 on its recommendations. So far Bowles and Simpson are speaking for themselves, with no assurance of getting backing from a majority of the other commission members, Congress or the White House.

So why bother talking about it at all? Because the concrete details of this proposal are spurring an argument that this country needs to have: an argument over what it takes, what it really takes, to keep the federal budget on track and control the national debt. That debate needs to be about making choices and putting values to work in the way we spend our money: What's fair? What's important? Who pays? And what are we willing to do?

A good place to start is Fiscal Future Daily, the new blog launched as part of the nonpartisan Choosing Our Fiscal Future initiative from Public Agenda and the National Academy of Public Administration. We sum up the deficit debate from a wide range of views, put it in context, and focus on moving the debate forward.

Today's edition of Fiscal Future Daily tracks the fierce reaction to the Bowles-Simpson plan, and you can check out our archive of previous editions as well. You can also keep up with the latest with Fiscal Future's mobile phone apps, our Facebook page, @FiscalFuture on Twitter, and at


11.04 One Choice Leads To More

Thursday, November 4th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Elections are one of the major ways we make choices as a nation, and this week's election results are certainly a big choice by the public, as Republicans take control of the House. But elections aren't the only way choices get made, and the choices between elections are just as important - and just as difficult.

That's particularly true when the choices are about money. The nation is facing both a difficult economy right now and a national debt that simply can't be sustained over the long term. That's a challenge that will stretch over the next two years, but a lot of choices will be put on the table in the next two months. The presidential deficit commission is scheduled to vote Dec. 1 on its final report. And Congress will have to decide whether to keep the Bush tax cuts, let them expire, or craft a compromise.

Dealing with these problems is going to require making choices and weighing tradeoffs: what we want as nation, and what we're willing to pay to get it. And these choices belong to the public.

One of the biggest problems in the debate over our national debt and the federal budget is that no one seems to agree on what a "good" budget is. Does that mean a balanced budget? Or one that's judged by the overall economy: small or no deficits in prosperous times; big deficits to stimulate the economy when times are bad? Is it based on the size of our national debt? Or maybe it's about whether the budget is sustainable in the long run?

Don't worry if the debate is confusing. One reason it's confusing is that economists and policymakers disagree on what should be done. The Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States tried to address that sticking point by coming up with Six Questions To Ask About Any Federal Budget. We think a yardstick like this will be extremely important in the next few months, as crucial decisions are made and plans are put on the table.

And for more on the choices we face, take a look at our slideshow for scoping out the basics, and the Visual Budget Tool for crunching the numbers yourself. You can also keep up with the debate with Fiscal Future's iPhone and Android apps, and join us on Facebook and Twitter.


10.28 The College Cash Crunch

Thursday, October 28th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

College tuition continues to rise, but this year student aid went up as well, according to the latest figures from the College Board. While the extra $10 billion in federal aid will certainly help, no one seems to think this is a shift in the long-term trends - the "squeeze play" feeling many Americans get when it comes to college costs.

There are two colliding trends in public attitudes on college costs: the public feels a college education has become more and more necessary for success in life, even as they believe the cost of college is further and further out of reach.

Those trends may be feeding skepticism among the public that colleges aren't doing all they can to control costs. Public Agenda's most recent "Squeeze Play" survey found 6 in 10 Americans agree that "colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices." Over half (54 percent) say that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education."

It's also important to remember that many students - particularly the ones who have trouble completing college - are paying their own way and may not even be eligible for aid. Our With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them survey found about 7 in 10 of those who leave school report that they did not have scholarships or financial aid, compared with about 4 in 10 of those who graduate.

These trends make it all the more important for colleges to engage stakeholders in how to address cost and productivity. Engagement is critical to making progress on these challenges, and our report, Changing the Conversation About Productivity, examines ways colleges can bring faculty and other stakeholders together effectively. We also recommend Boosting Community College Success, our web page with tools for public engagement and other resources for educators, communities, parents and students.


10.28 Pushing Back Against Bullying

Thursday, October 28th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The federal Department of Education launched a new initiative on bullying this week, sending a "Dear Colleague" letter with advice to schools and colleges, with plans for a White House summit next year.

Prominent people in both political parties are coming together on the issue, including former first lady Laura Bush, who is the latest to endorse the It Gets Better project launched in reaction to a string of tragic deaths involving gays harassed because of their sexual orientation.

Public Agenda's research shows bullying is all too common, and also touches on something deeper in the public's thinking. Nearly three-quarters of Americans consider bullying and harassment a serious problem in their local public schools, though not as serious as illegal drugs and lack of respect for teachers.

More than one-third of Americans (35 percent), including 39 percent of parents, say they were bullied themselves when growing up. But only 8 percent of the public and 10 percent of parents say they were bullied "a lot."

That would be reason enough to take the problem seriously, and there are a lot of good resources out there to do it. But the broader desire among parents and the public for safe, orderly schools is one of the most consistent themes we've found in our research over the last few years.

For example, when we asked about the most pressing problem facing high schools in their community, both parents (63 percent) and the public (56 percent) said "social problems and kids who misbehave" was more important than low academic standards. And when we surveyed high school teachers, fewer than one in five said their students are civil and respectful to each other. Eight in 10 teachers overall said there are persistent troublemakers in their schools who should be removed from regular classrooms. Nearly half complain they've been accused of unfairly disciplining a student.

For the public, orderly schools are fundamental to learning. As educators work to address bullying and other discipline problems, that consensus could make a difference.


10.21 Immigrants And Their Children: Living In America

Thursday, October 21st, 2010 | Scott Bittle

In the fierce debate over immigration, one fact sometimes gets lost: the children of immigrants are actually one of the fastest-growing segments of the population.

Their numbers have doubled over the past two decades, from 8.3 million to about 16.5 million. Put another way, children of immigrants account for three quarters of the growth of America's child population since 1990. But how are they faring in American society, particularly in a time of economic stress? How do their experiences compare with their parents?

Public Agenda and the Urban Institute examined some of these questions at "Children of Immigrants and Their Parents: Two Perspectives on Life in America," a panel discussion broadcast live on C-SPAN. In addition to Public Agenda Research Director Jon Rochkind, the panel included included Ajay Chaudry, senior fellow of the Urban Institute's Center on Labor, Human Services; Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center; and Selcuk Sirin, assistant professor in the NYU Department of Applied Psychology. The panel was moderated by Tara Bahrampour, immigration staff writer for the Washington Post.

Public Agenda looked at many of these questions in our survey, A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Life in America, which found that most immigrants believe they made the right move in coming here, both for themselves and their children.

You can find presentations from the speakers here, or watch the entire discussion on the C-SPAN Web site.


10.21 Prospects For Curing The Serious Diseases Of The 21st Century

Thursday, October 21st, 2010 | Francie Grace

What does science need to move forward toward unlocking the unknown about HIV, cancer, autoimmune disorders, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, cellular and genetic diseases, and more?

Nobel prize-winning biologist Dr. David Baltimore (left, with NPR's Robert Siegel) says scientists just beginning to dig into what could be a decades-long investigation of an issue need to know early on: Will the financial support be there for me to continue my research? Can I make a stable career of this?

Dr. David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize 35 years ago for his research in virology and has had a profound influence on national science policy on such issues as HIV-AIDS and recombinant DNA research, is wary of predictions about exactly how long it will take to develop vaccines and new therapies. "We've always said, about an HIV vaccine, that we're at least 10 years off - and we've always been right," said Dr. Baltimore, at the Maxwell School/Public Agenda Policy Breakfast in New York today.

Dr. Baltimore was, however, quite clear on what he thinks it takes to give science the fuel it needs to get to those breakthrough moments: strong, steady commitments in policy and funding, allowing researchers the freedom to follow whichever trails are the most promising - and not necessarily the ones that looked that way at the time a project was initially funded.

One thing that slowed early research into AIDS, says Dr. Baltimore, was a lack of commitment by the scientific establishment to investigating HIV. He reacted by calling on his colleagues to get involved, and, getting involved himself. "Today, we understand the virus very well," he said, adding that while the search for a vaccine continues, there are also people looking at alternative approaches to the problem.

There are many challenges in research, from cancer - characterized by Dr. Baltimore as "very slippery," with a great ability to adapt and defeat a therapy - to stem cells, a field with funding especially but not uniquely vulnerable to political change. No matter what the area of research, however, scientists diving into what could be many years of study on a problem need to know: Will the financial support be there for me to continue my research? Can I make a stable career of this?

Dr. Baltimore, president emeritus and a biology professor at CalTech, as well as past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is also a longtime member of the board of directors of the biotech giant Amgen, experiences which provide him with multiple perspectives on funding and other issues in research.

One of the major challenges in medical science is the gap between basic research and applying it in clinical practice: the "valley of death," as Dr. Baltimore dryly called it, and a difficult one to cross. Federal funders don't see that as their job, while pharmaceutical companies will do it only when they're sure it'll work. Venture capital has played an important role here, but more is needed. Academics, he suggests, "need to bring in sources of capital - maybe a consortium, like they did in the semiconductor industry."

In some cases, particularly with neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, science still hasn't found the cause, so it can't offer the answer, Dr. Baltimore said. He compared it to understanding the connection between smoking and lung cancer. "Medicine has to get to finding the underlying causes and then devising a lifestyle that avoids the causes," he said.

For more of Dr. Baltimore's observations, click here to watch the video of the entire event.


10.01 As Many As A Third Of All Votes Will Be Cast Early This Year

Friday, October 1st, 2010 | Scott Bittle

As many of one-third of all the ballots in this year's midterm elections will be cast early this year, as absentee voting continues to gain ground. There's been a lot of debate over what this will mean for both the political system and our civic life as the national ritual of Election Day declines.

But Public Agenda's research shows voters' reasons for this are pretty simple: convenience, and, confidence in their choice.

When Public Agenda surveyed voters about their experiences at the polls after the 2008 election, we found little dissatisfaction about the voting experience itself. Most people said they didn't face any problems voting, and hadn't in previous years, either. In fact, polling places got good marks compared to other institutions where people transact business in person. More people (79 percent) rated their polling place as "very organized" than gave good marks to their post office (65 percent), Department of Motor Vehicles (54 percent) or fast food franchise (35 percent).

So why vote early? The vast majority of the early voters we surveyed (86 percent) said it was a matter of convenience rather than necessity, frustration or a previous bad experience. And for many, there was also a sense of "why wait when I already know how I'm going to vote?" Three-quarters of the early voters said one reason for their choice was because they had already made up their mind.

From all the opinion data, the public is in a frustrated mood this year. And the nation's system for casting and counting ballots has been controversial since the 2000 election. But so far, the simplest explanation for early voting seems to hold up: it's just easier.


09.29 Temperature Rising On Immigration Reform

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010 | Francie Grace

While Congress is not yet ready to act, with the economy still far in front as what the public perceives as the nation's top problem, candidates in the upcoming elections are feeling the heat on immigration reform.

Here are a few resources and developments that you might want to check out:

* Was that an undocumented worker? The familiar question casts a shadow over the gubernatorial race in California;

* Immigration: a boon or a burden to the economy? One of the topics in the spotlight at a forum this week at the Brookings Institution;

* Immigration: Who Gets To Come, Who Gets To Stay - - our Citizen's Survival Kit guide to the problem and the pros and cons of different types of solutions to this issue;

* A Place To Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Life In America - - our public opinion research in which we asked both documented and undocumented immigrants about why they came, why they stay, and their views on a long list of issues including their feelings about America.


09.23 It's Funny Because It's True: Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The first thing to remember about Jon Stewart and his proposed Rally to Restore Sanity is that he's a comedian.

And that means the Daily Show's rally will essentially use the National Mall as the set for large-scale sketch comedy, a piece of performance art, should the actual permit come through. (If there's any doubt that that this is primarily about comedy, the presence of Stephen Colbert's rival March to Keep Fear Alive should put that to rest). Lots of people are taking this way too seriously, as a threat to Democratic get out the vote efforts or a riposte to other media personalities like Glenn Beck.

Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that Stewart hasn't hit a nerve here, with many in the public and, honestly, with many at Public Agenda. Stewart, from his mostly liberal vantage point, has been a consistent critic of our polarized, overheated political discourse, and so have we, looking at things from our own, nonpartisan point of view. When he says there's a majority of Americans who would support pragmatic solutions to many problems, we would say our own surveys and engagement work shows that to be true. Really, is anyone satisfied with the state of America's political dialogue? Does anyone think this is the way things are supposed to be?

We'd add a few additional points. The media and the political system donít do a good job of laying out choices and alternatives. Compromise seems out of fashion. The public gets very little help in moving along its learning curve on complex issues Ė and the political system oversimplifies those issues anyway.

We'd do better, as a nation, if we got past the anger and started thinking about how we're actually going to do all the things that need to be done: get the economy on track, improve our schools, change our energy future, secure the country against terrorism, get the federal budget on a sustainable course.

Maybe comedy is the best approach. We in the deliberative democracy world, and the public policy world overall, tend to be very sober, terribly sincere, and, to put it bluntly, wonky. But you can't be angry and laughing at the same time. Nor can the overheated rhetoric continue to expand if we pop a few bubbles occasionally.

So, yes, "Take it Down a Notch for America" seems like a pretty appealing slogan right now. A little irreverence can be a powerful thing.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
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09.22 Where Do We Need A Superhero? In The Principal's Office

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

The new documentary "Waiting for Superman" poses the question "Who will become a hero now?" when it comes to fixing American schools.

The movie offers a lot of possibilities, with much of the attention focused on high-profile figures like District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, leader of the Harlem Children's Zone. But Public Agenda's research suggests the place where more superheroes are needed is several rungs further down the ladder, and much, much closer to the people who need rescuing. The place to start is in the principal's office.

There are lots of jobs in this world where a good boss is the difference between an organization that succeeds and one that fails. That's particularly true of schools, where the principal can be the biggest single factor in whether a school is making progress or not.

And you can see that reflected powerfully in the attitudes of teachers. Public Agenda has surveyed teachers extensively over the years, and it's clear to us that the fear of a bad boss, and the hope of a good one, drives much of the disenchantment and skepticism teachers often show toward top-down school reform. In fact, for teachers, schools can become entirely different places depending on whether they see their principals as effective or not.

For example, two-thirds of teachers who give their principals fair or poor ratings consider "lack of administrative support" a major drawback of teaching, compared with only 16 percent of those who give their principal excellent or good ratings.

That's not surprising. If you have a bad boss, you're more likely to say bad management is a problem with your work, regardless of what kind of work you're doing. What's more surprising is how this pattern continues into teachers' views of almost every other corner of school reform. Teachers who say their principals are unsupportive are more likely to complain about issues like testing, the lack of freedom to be creative, and to say there are too many kids with discipline problems. One Public Agenda study grouped teachers as being "Contented," "Idealistic" or "Disheartened" in their jobs. While healthy majorities of the contented and idealistic teachers gave their principals "excellent" ratings, just 14 percent of disheartened teachers said the same.

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