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Senator Gregg Helps Expose Student Loan Industry Falsehood

By now it's common knowledge in Washington that the proposal pending in Congress to move federal student loans to 100 percent direct lending generates savings by eliminating subsidies to private lenders under the alternative program, the Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. The student loan industry is now trying to draw attention away from those subsidies by arguing that it is actually student borrowers who will generate the savings when the government charges them interest on their direct loans. Take for example a comment that an ardent FFEL supporter posted on this blog last week.

First, under current law, the government will not pay lenders $87 billion [in subsidies] over the next ten years to make federal student loans -- in other words, that's not where the savings from eliminating FFELP comes from, and Second, the projected costs savings from eliminating FFELP represents profit, the margin, what's left over, whatever you want to call it, after the government lends money that costs it about 2 percent to families that would pay 5.6, 6.8 and 7.8 percent...

Thanks to Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) and the Congressional Budget Office, however, we know that this argument is merely a distraction in the form of a half truth.  

HEALTH REFORM: Putting it In Perspective... It Looked Different A Year Ago

I ran into an old friend the other night at an overpriced grocery store (slowing down the checkout out of anyone unfortunate to be in either of our lines), and as we chatted in the parking lot trying to catch up before our frozen food started to drip, he asked me whether he, a progressive, should be disappointed about health reform.

It depends on your perspective, I said, voicing some of the thoughts that had been clattering around in my brain recently. What's your starting point?

If you start from your most optimistic, sky's the limit moment, say last November 4 or January 20, expecting to get a $1.5 trillion deficit-oblivious bill that covered absolutely everyone immediately and had a robust public plan and completely rebuilt our health care system ... you know, all the things that some hoped for in the "happy talk" stage of reform when the stars were all aligned for change but none of the hard decisions had been made and the Republicans hadn't opted for the "try to beat'em, don't join'em Waterloo strategy.." well, then disappointment is understandable.

WORLDVIEW: Dutch Improve Care and Cost Through Competition

When the health care conversation heated up a year or so ago, a spate of articles focused on the Dutch health care system. In the Netherlands, everyone receives health coverage through a network of private insurers, and there is strict government regulation to ensure that everyone competes on a level playing field. We heard very little about the Dutch system for awhile -- but recently, there's been another round of reporting, including this piece from the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Note to Bloomberg: Why Not Use Charter Strategies for Pre-K?

New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to increase the number of charter schools in the Big Apple has generated a lot of buzz since Bloomberg announced it last week. Charter schools are independent public schools that are publicly funded, publicly accountable, and free of charge to students, but operated by independent nonprofit boards, rather than school districts. In late September, Harvard researchers released a study showing that predominantly disadvantaged students who attend New York City’s public charter schools are making more progress towards closing the achievement gap with their suburban peers than a control group of NYC students who remained in NYC public schools.

Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a number of steps to expand the number of charter schools in New York City, including raising the state cap on the number of charter schools, raising additional funding for charter school facilities, and co-locating charter schools with public housing projects.

Not an Isolated Case

The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently released a report revealing that some publicly traded for-profit colleges have been pumping up their enrollment numbers by deliberately admitting unqualified students.

Federal law requires that students who have neither a high-school diploma nor its equivalent must pass a government approved "ability to benefit" (ATB) test before becoming eligible to obtain federal financial aid to pay for college. But during an undercover investigation it conducted at a local branch campus of a large proprietary school chain, the GAO discovered that the school helped prospective students cheat on the ATB test. In addition, while conducting site visits at for-profit colleges around the country, the accountability identified incidents at "two separate publicly traded proprietary schools" in which recruiters "referred students to diploma mills for invalid high school diplomas in order to gain access to federal loans without having to take an ATB test."

Such abuses are serious, the GAO writes, because they can be very damaging to the students involved. "Unqualified students who receive federal financial aid for higher education programs are at a greater risk of dropping out of school, incurring substantial debt, and defaulting on federal student loans," the report states.

The accountability office goes out of its way, however, to emphasize that its findings "do not represent nor should they be interpreted as implying widespread problems at all proprietary schools." Proponents of the for-profit higher education industry have jumped on that statement to downplay the abuses and say that the incidents the GAO uncovered were isolated cases.

QUALITY: US Leads Industrialized World In Preventable Deaths

We've mentioned soaring U.S. health costs many times before, but a recent Commonwealth Fund report puts into perspective '"what we pay for" versus "what we get" from our health system.  In comparison to other industrialized nations, according to The Washington Post, the U.S. is one of the top spenders on health care -- $2.4 trillion annually -- but we rank near the bottom in preventable deaths.

The report, Reducing Preventable Deaths Through Improved Health System Performance, found the US had the highest rate of preventable deaths, with 110 out of 100,000 dying in 2002-2003. For example, controlling for age and whether death is preventable from certain conditions, the study found women under the age 75 died from health care-amenable causes at a rate of 96.41 per 100,000 in the U.S., versus 68.15 in Canada and 57.40 in France. Though all countries made progress in lowering rates of preventable deaths between 1997 to 1998 and 2002 to 2003, the United States made the least progress, dropping from 15th overall in preventable mortality to 19th, said a similar study in Health Affairs.

AfPak Channel: Talibanistan: The Talibs at home

About a year ago, while sitting at my home in Washington, DC, I found myself with a sort of delayed-stress longing for the Taliban. The desire stemmed from an overseas dispute, a business deal gone bad. Back in January 2008, I’d been forced into a hasty transaction—shortly after five policemen knocked at my front door in Islamabad and announced their intent to kick me and my wife out of Pakistan. We had an hour to leave. Fortunately, through some well-connected friends, we managed to get 48 hours to pack our apartment into boxes, find a good home for our kitten, Cricket, and sell the four-cylinder Pajero Mini SUV that we had used to scoot around Islamabad for the past year...

HEALTH CARE: Liberty, Justice ... and Politics

The Hastings Center recently published a series of articles on American values and health reform, including one on stewardship by New America's Len Nichols. Hastings has now created a related web site and blog, The Values and Health Reform Connection to expand the conversation. They invited me to write one of the inaugural essays, "Honest Debate - and Pragmatic Solutions." I wrote about values and politics (not as synonyms) and honesty and quality. (I think working moms by nature and necessity tend to find themselves pondering the practical side of things more than the ethereal and philosophical) I'm cross posting below. Other early contributors include Maggie Maher, "Dr. Val" Jones and William Sage. Hastings also invites your comments and contributions, as do we. 

Liberty. Justice, Responsibility, Solidarity.

These are some of the American Values highlighted in the Hastings Center's report on "Connecting American Values with Health Reform."

Watching health reform unfold here in Washington, however, that "Connection" is painfully elusive.  The debate is not a careful calibration of competing rights, values and obligations. It's a political moshpit. Instead of values, we have vitriol.

COVERAGE: Mapping the Uninsured by Congressional District

The Urban Institute has an excellent new analysis of variations in insurance coverage by congressional district.

Analyzing the latest data from the American Community Survey, the Urban researchers looked at rates of private coverage, public coverage, and uninsurance for non-elderly adults (under age 65). They also examined how these rates varied with poverty, producing the fascinating maps you see above (click to open in a new window) and the following conclusions:

  1. Rates of private coverage are lowest in districts that have higher poverty rates, which tend to be concentrated in the South and West;
  2. The needs in these high-poverty districts have led many to above-average rates of public coverage;
  3. Despite these higher rates of public coverage, uninsurance remains most serious in districts with low rates of private coverage.

The underlying context of this analysis is to provide a clearer picture of the states and districts which will benefit the most from the passage of health reform. So let's take a look at some particularly interesting and politically relevant districts and states (NPR has an equally nifty map of the uninsured using the latest Census data):

Checking in with Head Start’s New Director

After two years without one, the Office of Head Start will soon have an appointed director: Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, says she will take the post on October 13th. She was appointed by Carmen Nazario, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at HHS.

In a brief phone call with Early Ed Watch yesterday, Sanchez Fuentes described two areas that she will focus on from the outset: understanding the needs of training and technical assistance programs; and enhancing "transparency" among members of the early care and education community so that people "feel that information is flowing back and forth."

Another goal, she said, is to "helping states to learn from the lessons of Head Start" as they try to build cohesive early learning systems as envisioned under the proposed Early Learning Challenge Grant program. "We can use Head Start," she said. "A lot of programs already have infrastructure in place. The question is, how can you build off of what already exists?"