Apr 2020

Conversation with Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise on Education In A Recession

As COVID-19 has challenged the fabric of the nation and plunged the country into a recession, the former governor of West Virginia, Bob Wise joined me in a conversation to talk about the implications from the perspective of federal policymaking.

Gov. Wise served in the US House of Representatives before he was governor, and I got to know Gov. Wise when he was leading the Alliance for Excellent Education, as he worked to help the federal government rethink what should high schools ought to look like across America. We worked together on issues of digital learning and how can you personalize learning for all students across the country—and we got to know each other well in the months and years after America’s last recession.

The transcript of our conversation, which you can watch online at YouTube here, has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Michael Horn: Bob, welcome. Last time we had a recession in this country I think we had met just beforehand. In, 2008, as my book Disrupting Class coming out, and you sort of saw the potential in that and then the recession really hit, and the federal government swung into action a few times I’d love you just to talk about what did the federal government do the last time that there was a recession, as it impacts education, as we start to think about what we might see this moment, going forward.

Gov. Wise: So a little bit of history 2008 2009, the federal government in 2009 followed up on a stimulus package that President Bush put forward and then President Obama comes in, he puts forward a stimulus package that deals a lot with education. $750 billion total, but 100 billion goes to education. It was designed so that 50-some billion of it propped up as what’s called a stabilization fund to help school districts and states preserve the education systems essentially they had, and they even had $5 billion in there for trying innovative approaches.

Now that was 2009. Flash forward to the last stimulus package a couple of weeks ago. It’s $2.2 trillion dollars, not 750 billion. And yet, education got 30 some billion, about one third the amount of which [it got the last time, and only] 15 billion or 16 went to K-12. And so, everyone says wait till the next one, but the problem what I’ve observed from 18 years in the Congress is there may be a next one and maybe one after that but there’s no guarantee though that education comes out any better. And so while my concern is that this is a far worse recession than what we’re going through what we saw in 2008 and 2009, and yet education, higher ed, and K-12 will be facing even greater problems and pressures at the state and local level.

Horn: And so we’ll stay on 2008-2009 for a moment and the stimulus packages there. What were the lessons that you took away from what worked well then and what maybe did not work as well? And then we can take a pause and start to say, Okay, what do we draw from that in this current moment? There are obviously some deep structural differences as well which we can get into.

Wise: Well anytime you’re trying to shovel 100 billion dollars out the door in a matter of weeks or months obviously there’s a lot that is not done well. I think overall it was necessary, probably, it was necessary to preserve the education system, basic education system. Having said that, in some ways it was too prescriptive. The administration announced, there were only four ways to work with low-performing schools once they fell under a certain category. So it could be prescriptive there, on the other hand they also were willing to try some innovation, and to, as I said, there was a $5 billion fund. But the reality is that anytime you have that amount of money that has to be sent out the door that quickly if it’s going to make a difference, then they’re going to be some mistakes made they’re going to be some things done right.

There is a key difference this time, though. The difference is that, in 2009, the Obama administration had just come into office, they got the stimulus package through the Congress, but they didn’t have all their appointees in yet. Secretary Arne Duncan was fairly new as well as his assistants. The secretaries were fairly new. Now let’s flash forward, if there is a benefit it is that this administration has been in office, it does have the appointed people in place, we hope, and also there’s an established bureaucracy—and I don’t say that in a negative way. There’s an established civil service that has been through a stimulus package before and should be able to get this one moving particularly because this one does not have the amount of money connected to it at least in this first wave that the last one did.

Horn: So are you expecting that to change? If you put on your crystal ball, I mean you said there’s no guarantee certainly that more dollars are going to come in, but there’s certainly conversation that there will be an additional package that hits in May or something like that. What do you foresee and how do you think this will all unfold in the weeks and months ahead?

Wise: So I always live with the glass half full. And my hope is that this was just a down-payment, a recognition that something had to be done in the short term while everyone’s engaged in education triage, but that as the extent of the crisis becomes known as that there would be more allocated. I haven’t heard that and really most of the public discussion right now is around increasing the small business loans and forgivable loans and so on and that’s critically important, extending unemployment and job training, particularly for healthcare workers.

But I haven’t heard the basic needs of education being discussed, and also may be extending Pell Grants. Yet this is a critical time once again. … What we had in 200 was a recession—I’m not making light of it—you can have a recession and a crisis. And this is a recession and a crisis, unlike we have seen where the entire country is shut down. The best thing to do for education right now is to call itself Boeing or the airline industry. We’ve got 50 million empty seats in K-12, and we’ve got another 22 million in higher ed. There’s 750,000 people that work in the airline industry. There were probably 5 million that work in the K-12 educator sector alone. So significantly more.

And so from an impact on GDP, education, I think, which is roughly six and a half percent of GDP, is every bit as significant in an economic sense, as much as it is in the, in the fact that this is our future—in our country’s future that’s not in those seats right now in some capacity. And I say that figuratively because obviously there’s a lot of distance learning and online learning, and some innovation taking place right now. But what we don’t have is a fully functioning education system.

Horn: So from the lessons that you learned in 2008 and 2009 and you know what worked well and what, maybe was too prescriptive and worked less well or dollars didn’t get out as quick as possible, if you’re an educator right now sitting in their seats, trying to navigate this crisis and they’ve been in triage mode for the last several weeks but starting hopefully to lift their heads up a little bit and think about the bigger picture. What would you say for them? What should they be preparing for as they navigate the current moment?

Wise: You described well what I call the three “Ts” we are in. We’ve gone from where we were in triage. We’re moving now against the backdrop of turbulence. And [the question is] how do we move to transformation? And so, you’re right, in both higher ed and K-12 for the very first time you’ve been in triage for a month, and you’re now able to lift your head up a little bit and say here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not working. Here’s what we envision—begin envisioning—what it is we’re going to really move toward and also what it is we need. I would say that there are probably two more stages left one is this stage of immediate triage because as these district leaders—once again, 14,000 of them—have to prepare their budgets and do their layoffs or whatever restructuring they’re going to do are going to, they’re doing that right now. March, April, May, those are the months that you do that. And so they need immediate help but they also need to know what it is that is coming down the road that they can be looking toward and so they should. So what I would say is make sure you don’t assume it’s going to happen. Make sure that that your representative, that member of Congress, that Senator, that they understand what’s happening in their districts, whether it’s through digital we don’t do visitations right now. Those school visits, but whether through his digital meetings requests, certainly showing what’s happening in the districts that they’re familiar with. It’s about doing some informing right now.

Horn: If you are a governor right now and sitting in that seat, what would you be asking Washington for?

Wise: So I’d be asking Washington for to understand my situation in here. I’d be asking for, yes, additional funds, and I’d be making the case why, but I’d also be asking for flexibility and, to the administration’s credit—that is the Trump administration’s credit—there is significant, the, the Secretary and others have really given a lot more flexibility in how you use existing federal funds. Having said that there are a couple of things that you specifically need in this next stimulus package. You need a broadband package. There was no money, no money put in except for $25 million for rural areas. There’s no money put in to extend broadband and yet we know that the Internet connectivity at home is as important now as water, gas, and electricity. No money [was given], $2 billion dollars was what was requested in the House bill. Second thing I’d be requesting is, as I say, some flexibility in moving that money to where it needs to be. And I’d also like a little federal pressure to say what is it that’s going to come out of this. How do we make this turbulence constructive? Turbulence in the sense of when a lot of times you can be on an airplane that’s a pretty rough ride, but you get there 45 minutes earlier. That’s what a pilot one time described as constructive turbulence. Washington can’t be and shouldn’t be dictating what I’m going to do in West Virginia or in California or in Alabama or wherever, but what it can be doing is saying, how do we come out of this better than we were? And how can we showcase what you’re doing? Also, and perhaps that’s another thing is, where there’s a bright innovative idea and somebody is actually moving something rewarding and showcasing it

Horn: Yeah, that makes sense. So let’s just dive in in the broadband and go through these components before we wrap up. On the broadband, you know obviously over the last several years, Education Superhighway has done a tremendous job of moving dollars to schools so that they could have high speed connectivity in every classroom. They’ve done an amazing job. I think 99% of schools now have high-speed connectivity in the classrooms. Homes, though, as we see in this current crisis, are wildly disparate in terms of that. What tools does the federal government have at its disposal to change that situation for students in light of the fact that it’s pretty painfully clear this is a utility?

Wise: It’s a utility and a necessity. It’s what FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel calls the homework gap. It’s one thing to be having broadband connectivity at school. Thank goodness that goal was 99% coverage in five years has been met. So centrally, we don’t have the Lifeline Fund—that’s the program that benefits low—income families—that is nowhere near funded enough. So it’s clear. And in some ways, Michael, this is dollars and cents, but it’s an investment that we have to make just like we have made. Getting electricity to rural areas back in the ’30s and ’40s. It was a central goal of this country. And so I would say broadband is one because that’s not only about that, first of all, it’s about students, but it’s also about a family’s ability to cope and live in the increasingly technological society we’re in as well. And then that also can lead you to [asking, what] are the ways that we can now provide social services using technology much more effectively? It’s what some people call braiding. So you want to have a community school. Is there a community digital school that you can have, in which the Department of Human Services, the welfare department, the mental health services of counseling and so on, all of it has some online component or distance component that perhaps it didn’t have before. And so, that to me is another reason for the increased connectivity that’s so critical.

Horn: Yes, that makes sense. So let’s fast forward in your crystal ball, where you’re out now, we’re coming back in a year from now in April, and we look at what districts, the federal government and so forth have done. What are your hopes in terms of the transformation piece of this? You’ve made the point that what’s different this time around from, say compared to the dot-com crash or 2000-09 and the financial meltdown, is that there is a crisis on top of the brutal economic conditions at those times and maybe even more brutal than those combined in some ways, given the job losses as well.

There’s a deeper crisis, occurring that is literally transforming how we school right now. So I am going to guess that you’re not going to say, hey you know we’re all going to be virtual schooling in a year from now, ideally, but what does this look like, and what is really taking advantage of this opportunity in your mind. Realistically, you know, what can we expect states and districts and schools to do a year from now, as, as, as they move back to some semblance of standard operating I imagine?

Wise: So, a year from now, first of all let me go to the visionary versus, it’s how they work through the next several months, and there are going to be severe budget reductions there’s no almost, there’s no doubt about it. You cannot have 16 million people filing unemployment claims and not paying taxes for some significant period of time—that number will only grow—and not expect severe reduction so sales taxes income taxes all down. Then the district leader has two choices. You can follow the old LIFO inventory system—last in first out—and that means whatever you innovative thing you were working on, whatever changes you were seeking to bring, they go on the shelf. Last in first out, because that’s got to cut the budget. We eliminate those right off the board, and we’ll come back to it maybe in the future. That’s the way that you do that and then a year, you know, you’re not going to be any better off than you were. You probably will still be in a hole, and you’re not going to have advanced learning needs in learning outcomes for students. So the key I think here is through that with the federal government get some understanding of what the funding situation is going to be so that you have some predictability and then say this is where we want [to be]. This is what we’ve been working on through triage. This is what we believe is working, this is what isn’t working, but we also understand that coming back we can’t, we’re not going to be the same as we were before. And so therefore, particularly given the uncertainty of both the virus and the economy. So let’s, let’s start moving in, building support to move toward where we want to be. That’s incidentally a collective process that means that’s a culture change, but it’s also about bringing your faculties together your, your students, the community to understand why it can’t be the same. And so that goal is, this is a case where every school in every district, literally, will be shaping their own vision, but it’s going to be a different process [everywhere]. At the end of the next year, you may not see improvement yet in student outcomes, you’ll see improvements in processes that are going to lead to those changes in student outcomes and let’s also remember one other thing while we’re talking about postsecondary in some ways that this isn’t about companies, rehiring as the economy comes back, because so many of these jobs are going to be lost and people will move on. This is going to be one of the most massive redeployments of a workforce that we’ve ever seen perhaps ever except for coming out of World War II. And so you’ve written a lot about the income sharing agreement. And I talked some about the individual learning account. There’s a lot of similarity. We’re gonna have to look at the federal level, as to whether or not there’s a way to create a means for, particularly students over 18 to 64, being able to move toward the kind of training and certification that they’re going to need for their next job. That’s much farther down the road, but it can’t be too down the road because once again, I honestly believe that for this, this set of conditions we’re in, we’re going to need the equivalent of another GI Bill because which took 16 million GIs coming home, but there were no jobs for 16 million people. Put 8 million of them in an educational setting, different settings, and the result was the single greatest economic development and acceleration in our economy for several decades. We lived off of it for three decades. And I think that as bad as all of this is right now, if we respond to that kind with that kind of response then we may well eventually see this as constructive turbulence. But it is going to be painful for education for a while.

Horn: The individual learning accounts idea—our friend, Governor Jeb Bush, who ran unsuccessfully for president, when he was running he had this notion of individual savings accounts for education for every student. One of the casualties of him not getting further in that race is that idea seems to not be talked about very much anymore, but I think it’s a really important one as we imagine a future in which people are not going to school one time for college and then launching their careers, but they’re going to continue to have to learn in formal and informal ways through some programs that may not be accredited and to have a reservoir of funds that the government has said this is actually critical to the economy, not just you as an individual. I think that makes all the sense in the world so that they can navigate that turbulence in their own lives, let alone what we’re seeing right now across the country.

Wise: Well, it’s, it’s also the difference between a recession, and a recession and a crisis. In a recession people say we’re slow coming in and slow coming out and we don’t really have to change that much and we lay a few people off—it goes 3% across the board. Higher ed takes a hit first. K-12 usually not as much but still gets hurt. Here we’ve got a crisis, and when you have a crisis, then sometimes big ideas do emerge to the fore. And once again, if you’ve got 16 million people sitting out there right now, and more to come. And they’re going to be, the economy is not going to be a V-shaped recovery like some people write, then this is a time to be actually talking about. If the federal government is putting up 2.5 trillion dollars in one tranche, there’s money in there for an individual learning account that benefits us for generations to come.

Horn: So let’s hope we start to see some innovation along those lines. But Bob, always wise, I appreciate you joining me.


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