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Patricia Murphy: Hey Congress, Remember Legislating? The 5 Best Ideas From the States

It’s no secret that not much actual legislating happens on Capitol Hill these days. When it comes as a pleasant surprise that the government doesn’t shut down every December, the bar for achievement during the rest of the year stays relatively low.

The good news for Washington is that the old cliché about the states being “the laboratories of democracy” still holds true, with bold new ideas — large and small — coming out of state capitols. Some governors’ experiments have gone horribly awry; the Kansas tax cuts come to mind. But elsewhere in the country, governors and state legislatures of both parties have managed to enact proposals so innovative that they’re worth sharing.

Here are five of the best:

1) Arkansas’ required coding classes. Arkansas isn’t exactly competing with Silicon Valley for tech talent yet, but Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is leading tech education by making Arkansas the first state in the nation to require that every public and charter high school offer computer-science classes in its curriculum. Compare that to the 1 in 10 rate of schools nationally. To integrate the program quickly, Hutchinson mandated the classes count toward students’ math requirements for graduation and be offered online through Virtual Arkansas for schools unable to ramp up for the 2015-16 school year. Hutchinson has said his eventual goal is to have a full K-12 computer science curriculum in every school in the state. If it’s effective, it’s no doubt a program that other states will follow.

2) Georgia’s criminal justice reform. With everyone from President Barack Obama to Republican presidential candidates looking for ways to overhaul the criminal justice system, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has made early strides in addressing Georgia’s troubled prison population. With input from Democrats in the state, policy experts and even former inmates, Deal enacted a series of changes to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons and to make their re-entry into society as successful as possible.  One program gives inmates access to charter schools to earn a high school diploma, rather than a GED.  Another innovative step allows former inmates applying for state jobs to skip the box that discloses felony convictions, a small but symbolic step that has made it easier for them to get jobs once their sentences are served.  “We banned the box,” Deal told the New Republic.  “It isn’t going to affect them getting an interview.”  

3) New York’s “P-Tech” 9-14 schools. During Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s first year in Albany, he launched a pilot program in Brooklyn to create a six-year program to graduate underserved students with high school and associates diplomas in computer systems technology. The first Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools  students graduated in 2015. Three were offered jobs with IBM, while the others plan to pursue bachelor’s degrees.  With initial major sponsorship from IBM and a partnership with City University of New York, the program model has already been replicated in 32 schools across New York and in two more states.  

4) South Carolina’s teachers for rural schools.  At Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s anti-poverty forum in Columbia, S.C. this month, Gov. Nikki Haley shared her experience visiting her children’s high-performing public schools in Columbia and then visiting decrepit, crumbling schools in rural South Carolina. She called the disparity “immoral” and announced her plan to both improve teacher quality in poor, rural school districts, where teachers often leave after two years or fewer for more successful suburban schools or to exit the profession altogether. Haley’s plan  would offer free college tuition to any graduating high school senior who commits to teach for eight years in one of South Carolina’s rural districts with chronically high turnover rates. The loan forgiveness would be converted to pay raises and other incentives for more seasoned teachers or those who make a shorter, but still substantial commitment.

5) West Virginia’s jobs programs.  Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed a series of initiatives to help West Virginia deal with the state’s major coal-related job losses and get people back to work in new industries.One of the more innovative proposals is the Small Business Assistance Act, his bill to allow people who have recently been laid off and are receiving unemployment benefits to continue to receive them while they start a small business and invest in it. Tomblin announced the idea during his State of the State, and will work to get it passed through the legislature this session. Because 96 percent of the employers in West Virginia already small businesses, it’s a small idea that could have big results.

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