Opinion

6 ideas for expanding economic opportunity in 2016

In recent months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken a number of bold policy steps to expand economic opportunity for New Yorkers, from dramatically raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers and public sector employees to pardoning thousands of people convicted of nonviolent crimes as teenagers whose ex-offender status has limited their ability to get decent-paying jobs.

In 2016, as the governor looks to build on the impressive start to his opportunity agenda, he should make job training and higher education a key focus in an effort to boost a large number of low-income New Yorkers into the middle class. The Center for an Urban Future has laid out six concrete policy ideas that the governor and the Legislature could take in 2016 to expand and improve skills building in New York.

1. Increase REDC investments in job training

New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils have been the cornerstones of Cuomo’s job creation strategy since their creation in 2011. While there is much to applaud about this new bottom-up approach to economic development, the 10 REDCs have not made significant investments in job training and workforce development. Although one of the explicit mandates of the REDCs is to “train the workforce of today and tomorrow,” only a little over 1 percent (about $7.8 million) of the $710 million in funds the state made available in 2014 went to job training. This is too little.

Cuomo, officials at Empire State Development and legislative leaders should set a goal of setting aside at least 10 percent of the dollars awarded to each regional council for investment in workforce development partnerships and initiatives. To maximize the effectiveness of these workforce development dollars, the state should consider directing the funds to support regionwide industry partnerships aligned to the sectors that the regional councils have targeted for investment.

2. Expand TAP to meet the needs of nontraditional students

In New York, the share of students attending SUNY and CUNY community colleges on a part-time basis has jumped from 32 percent to 42 percent since 1980. Yet the way New York allocates financial aid is stuck in the 1950s. In 2013, for example, fewer than 1 percent of the nearly 150,000 part-time students enrolled at the state’s public community colleges received financial aid through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program. As a result, tens of thousands of poor and working poor New Yorkers who can only afford to study on a part-time basis are struggling to afford school long enough to earn a credential.

This year, Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature should make it a priority to amend the TAP so that it does more to help the thousands of nontraditional college students succeed and graduate with a marketable degree. Two changes should be made as soon as possible: expand part-time students’ eligibility, and extend the program from a traditional calendar of fall and spring semesters to a year-round calendar to account for the fact that a majority of today’s college students are nontraditional – i.e. attending a two-year college, or working full-time while attending classes.

3. Overhaul adult literacy funding in New York state

With 1.7 million adults in New York lacking a high school diploma, the state’s policymakers need to make a bold new commitment to strengthening the state’s lackluster adult education system. New York funds adult literacy services through several programs, most importantly the Employment Preparation Education program. That program, to put it bluntly, is a mess. Program funding has not been increased since 1995, even though the number of adult New Yorkers with limited basic literacy skills – and the number of immigrants with limited English proficiency – has skyrocketed over the past two decades. In addition to more funding, EPE needs a wholesale makeover. The program uses an antiquated funding structure, provides noncompetitive monopolies to school districts in each county and, worst of all, discourages innovation to meet the needs of its clients.

There is a unique opportunity now to improve the situation. The recently enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act restructures federal funding for adult education. The governor and Legislature should establish a task force on adult literacy whose goal would be to propose a new structure for EPE that connects the adult literacy field to postsecondary education, workforce development and economic development. Second, the state should commit to enacting that structure with a substantial boost in funding and a promise of regular cost-of-living increases over time.

4. Make high school equivalency testing more accessible and meaningful

New York has long had one of the lowest high school equivalency pass rates in the nation, a major problem since companies in nearly every industry today require a high school credential. But the state’s high school equivalency exam has only gotten more difficult to pass in recent years. In 2014, New York state switched from the General Education Diploma to a new, more rigorous high school equivalency test, known as the Test Assessing Secondary Completion. The new exam is moving to computer-based testing, and to the same Common Core State Standards being implemented in the K-12 system. Unlike the Common Core transition that’s taken place in public schools across the state, however, the transition to the new equivalency test has been severely under-resourced.

There are three things state officials should do in 2016 to improve the state’s high school equivalency system. First, the state should provide at least temporary assistance for professional development to strengthen the capacity of adult education teachers to align their instruction with Common Core standards. Second, the governor and Legislature should provide funds that enable test providers to purchase computers for use in test administration. Computer-based tests provide instant diagnostic feedback to testers, not only on whether they passed, but where they need more instruction. Furthermore, classrooms equipped with computers for TASC testing can double as instructional spaces for teaching computer literacy. Finally, the state should support higher test administration fees to encourage nonprofit organizations to expand their participation in the TASC. Currently, the fee paid to test providers is a rock-bottom $25 per test, a level that falls short of the staffing and administrative resources the providers need to register test-takers and administer the test. In fact, the reimbursement rate is so low that a large test provider in the Bronx is planning to exit the program later this year.

5. Create advancement opportunities for home health aides

Home health aides are one of New York’s fastest-growing occupations, but also one of the least desirable. Today, thanks to an aging population, Medicaid and Medicare coverage and clients’ fierce desire to stay out of institutional care, the number of home health aides has more than doubled to 180,000 since 2005. Yet home health aides earn little, and have few prospects for a stable career. Their median annual wage is $22,050, and even long-serving aides earn little more than minimum wage.

A task force of organizations that includes the New York State Nurses Association, AARP and a number of other key stakeholders has proposed an Advanced Home Health Aide title to be recognized in the state’s “scope of practice” regulations. Home Health Aides with at least one year of experience could undergo rigorous training and certification to become an advanced aide, who would then work under the supervision of a registered nurse. The nurse would assign an additional set of eligible "advanced" tasks, such as administering pre-packaged routine medications. The Advanced Aide would earn slightly higher wages and a more equal relationship with other care providers, providing an important career step.

Cuomo included the proposal in last year’s executive budget, but the bill stalled in the state Senate. This year, the Senate should take steps to work through any legitimate concerns and enact the bill.

6. Establish a statewide knowledge center and clearinghouse for workforce data

In late 2013, the state Legislature took a big step in the right direction by passing a law that allows colleges and public workforce programs to access the earnings and employment information of people who complete their programs. For the first time, this enables them – and the state and local officials who fund these programs – to see how their graduates are doing in the labor market in the long term. If used correctly, this information would allow policymakers and the public to determine which programs are providing the best outcomes for their participants, and for program administrators themselves to learn how well their programs are doing compared with others.

As a supplement to the law’s passage, the state Department of Labor should take the lead in forming a partnership with an academic institution that has a reputation for excellence in analyzing labor market data. The Legislature should then fund a research center at the university that would serve as the state’s clearinghouse for wage data. Housing the clearinghouse at a university would allow the state to benefit from the expertise of academics in conducting important research while keeping the data protected. In addition, a university-based clearinghouse would have greater capacity to leverage state dollars with philanthropic dollars dedicated to evaluation of workforce programs.

Tom Hilliard and Christian González-Rivera are senior researchers at the Center for an Urban Future. A longer version of this op-ed can be found at nycfuture.org.

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