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August 19, 2015 - Institutionalized Cronyism: The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, Pt 1

Cronyism tends to be something that politicians and businesses attempt to hide. However misleading, the goal has long been to cloak private agendas in public relations in an effort to convince the citizenry of some important benefit to the average person. The realm of education, as we all know has been no exception. The massive workforce development initiative that ramped up in earnest under the Clinton administration with the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, is a prime example. Both of these acts laid substantial infrastructure for the career-tracking of students--collecting student data via the education system, sharing that data with state and federal departments of workforce development, and beginning to make decisions about children's educational and career pathways--what opportunities will even be available to them--based on that data. In other words, these measures have been about ranking and sorting students so that other people can direct and manage them. It's a far cry from self-determination or self-governance, principles that ensure a voluntary, co-operative society.

Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, there has been plenty more legislation that has negatively impacted true education and self-determination while pretending to improve career opportunities nationwide for children and adults alike. The most recent instance is the Obama administration's Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA). 

States have leapt on board with these federal initiatives over the past couple of decades, gobbling up any funds Washington offered, creating workforce development programs, boards or departments, along with career-tracking infrastructure, etc. There seems to be precious little understanding or concern at either the federal or state level regarding the ethical, social, or economic implications of such measures--implications we've previously discussed on this blog (here, here, and here, for starters). 

An Initial Glance at WIOA

There is so much coming at all of us every day in the way of troubling legislation that it's impossible to get to all of it. Some of it we only start to look at after it's already passed. But better late than never when it comes to understanding what we're facing and what must be resisted. So, recently, we at Resounding Books started to read through WIOA with a careful eye. What we found in the first 30 pages alone should be enough to alarm any citizen...and frankly, any state legislator. We still have a ways to go in analyzing the almost 300-page bill that has been in effect since July of this year. But we thought it was important to give you a heads up on what we're already discovering. 

A strengthening of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, WIOA institutionalizes public-private partnership, a corrupt structure that undermines the proper voice, will, and authority of the people. As usual, the bait is money in the form of grants to states. But there's something far more troubling unfolding here...

Normally, when a state accepts federal moneys, the funding is provided to state agencies. Those agencies are subsequently bound by the terms of any grant they accept. While agencies could reject funding based on unfavorable terms, it's rare to do so. Unquestionably, this grant process is largely how state authority and autonomy have been undermined, certainly in relationship to education policy. Legislators and governors are likewise easily disposed to facilitate acceptance of such moneys (via appointed boards, committee formation, task forces, or legislative or executive sign-off) as well as compliance with grant terms (via efforts to achieve enabling public policies). Even if rejecting or returning the money would actually permit such officials better to provide for citizens and protect their interests, poor economic policy and management at the state level often leads politicians to rely heavily on federal funds as a means of plugging budgetary holes. It also often seduces them into thinking they could more easily achieve goals that would more wisely be accomplished without strings attached. The grant moneys, in other words, have a indirect but profound effect on legislators and governors, not just a direct effect on  the behavior of state agencies.

We've all known the ins and outs of this scenario for a long time, in fact. We're now wholly accustomed to watching it play out.

What we are not accustomed to seeing, at least not blatantly, is legislation that stipulates the behavior not just of state agencies and bureaucrats but of elected state officials themselves. Yet this is precisely what WIOA is intended to achieve. Again and again in the first 30+ pages of the legislation, it is the state's chief executive who's behavior is highlighted and directly impacted. In fact, to the untrained eye, WIOA ostensibly gives governors expanded powers.

A Co-option of Gubernatorial Authority

Seven times in just the first 31 pages of the legislation, one finds the phrase "the governor shall." A simple search demonstates that this same phrase occurs a total of 42 times throughout the 298-page document. "The governor may" occurs another 15 times.

Once WIOA funding flows to a state, the governor will be responsible for a range of mandated responsibilities that will, in essence, make him a regional vice president of a massive, federally directed workforce development scheme.

And, surprise, there will be accountability measures to ensure that the governor and his state are delivering results. So, when we say the legislation ostensibly gives governors increased authority, that's exactly what we mean. The authority might look great on the surface, but it is little more than a ruse. In fact, WIOA, through grant moneys, corrals governors as agents of the federal government in the name of improving job outlooks for all.

Aside from the wholly unethical aspects of the workforce development scheme WIOA is designed to advance, such a direct effort to co-opt the gubernatorial role and office is troubling. Governors should only be directly accountable to the people who elected them. And, in fact, technically, only the people of a state and their elected representatives have authority to set a governor's job description and responsibilities. States that accept WIOA funding will be undermining this very important principle of representative governance. If your governor is accountable to those driving a federal initiative, such as WIOA, his or her accounability to you is necessarily diminished, along with the concerns and priorities of the rest of the state's electorate.

As Resounding Books continues to work through WIOA's language, we'll have much more to say about the details of this act, including what, precisely it would have governors doing (HINT: If you know anything about workforce development already, you won't like it). We'll likely be enlisting some savvy friends in the effort. In the meantime, we already feel strongly justified in encouraging readers to start sifting through WIOA on their own. If possible, get friends to work with you. Many hands make light work, and additional perspective is always valuable. In addition, consider doing the following:

  1. Submit strategic open-records requests to determine if your state is preparing to--or already in the process of--applying for WIOA grant moneys.
  2. If you discover that your state is applying for WIOA funding, gather as much information as possible concerning how those moneys will be spent.

More as soon as we can manage it...

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