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Kennedy: Expanding the Conversation on STEM

Congressman Joe Kennedy, The Huffington Post

Open a newspaper or turn on the TV today and you’ll be hard pressed to ignore the steady drumbeat of an improving economy. Unemployment rates are at pre-recession levels. Private sector jobs are growing at the fastest pace since 1997. The number of Americans without health insurance has fallen by nearly 30 percent. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we added over 60,000 jobs last year alone, pushing our unemployment rate down to 5.5 percent.

But this rosy picture is only half the story. Here’s the other half: In Massachusetts, the unemployment rate is over 60 percent higher for black residents than for white and 110 percent higher for Hispanics. Just as alarming, the poverty rate for black families in our state is 144 percent higher than for their white neighbors and 273 percent higher for Hispanics.

These numbers reveal the ugly undercurrent to our economic recovery; we are leaving people behind.

With this in mind, I joined the Latino STEM Alliance last month for a discussion about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. Around the table were business owners, vocational school educators, nursing professionals and other public officials who share my concern that we are building an economy that too many families in our country can’t access.

Here’s the way I see it. Across the country innovation industries are reorienting our economy around sectors like health care, advanced manufacturing, IT, clean energy and robotics. Over the next ten years, jobs in STEM-related fields are expected to grow by over 17 percent compared with just nine percent growth in other fields. That means that if we want to set up our kids for success in a modern economy, we need to ensure they have access to the education, training and skills that those jobs require. That’s where STEM comes in.

The problem, however, is that federal and state STEM efforts to date have failed to reach three notable groups: women, minorities and low-income communities. Today only 26 percent of all STEM jobs in our country are held by women; 13 percent is held by Hispanics and African-Americans combined.

By 2020 there will be an estimated one million unfilled computer programming jobs. But in 2013 there were 11 states where not a single African-American student took the computer science AP test. The numbers weren’t much better for Hispanic or female students.

This is a massive disconnect; a shortcoming that threatens to put these populations at an economic disadvantage for generations to come and keeps their potential on the sidelines at a time when our country needs it most.

We need to dramatically expand our efforts around STEM. Down in Washington, I’ve introduced a piece of legislation called the STEM Gateways Act, which would help direct federal resources to state and local STEM initiatives that specifically target women, minorities and economically disadvantaged communities. As Congress debates several major updates to education policy in the weeks ahead, I will be working hard to push this key piece forward.

Our failure to set up all students for success in an increasingly technology-driven economy is not just limiting their futures. It’s limiting our country’s future as well.

From renewable energy to medical research to cybersecurity, there is no shortage of challenges facing us that can and will be addressed by the students sitting in our classrooms today. Each of those students, regardless of skin color, zip code or gender, should be given the chance to make an impact.

Kennedy keeps up protests against electric rate auction; columnist cites ‘price-gouging’

Michael Holtzman, The Fall River Herald

The upcoming sale of Brayton Point Power Station and the recent New England wholesale electricity auction that will see rates skyrocket in the coming years continue to generate diverse protests — with complaints coming from New England congressmen, financial columnists and workers at the 1,530-megawatt power plant slated to close in 2017.

At the hub of the decision-making is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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Rep. Kennedy and Latino STEM push for equal access to job training education

Madeline Hren, The Daily Free Press

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III joined the Latino STEM Alliance on Monday for a roundtable regarding expanding access to education in science, technology, education and math fields. The collaboration took place following the reintroduction of Kennedy’s STEM Gateways Act, which would ensure that federal STEM efforts are put toward reaching minorities, women and low-income communities, according to a Monday press release.

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Kennedy: Congress must join fight against opiate abuse

Congressman Joe Kennedy, Milford Daily News

Just one month into 2015, the headlines are sadly familiar: Heroin use rising in Kentucky; Accidental deaths from drug use on rise in North Dakota; Massachusetts sees spike in heroin overdoses, deaths.

For years, the statistics around opiate and heroin abuse have begged for action. Last year the city of Taunton experienced over 200 overdoses alone. In the first 20 days of 2015 the city had 10 more. They are hardly alone.

As our country and commonwealth struggle to stem this epidemic, state-run Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, or PDMPs, are a key element of any solution. Four out of five heroin users first experience addiction through prescription opioids. From helping doctors identify drug-seeking patients to monitoring inappropriate prescription practices, PDMPs work to fend off substance abuse before it starts.

Federal support for these state-level programs is critical. In 2005, the National All Schedules Prescription Electronic Reporting Act (NASPER) was passed by Congress and signed into law, helping fund and run PDMPs across the country. However, for the past four years Congress has failed to fund the program.

This lack of resources has consistently undermined state prescription monitoring efforts. And one essential piece has been jeopardized in particular – interoperability. That means the ability of one state’s PDMP to talk to another state’s, to prevent doctor shopping across state lines. In my conversations with service providers and advocates across Massachusetts, this is a concern that comes up time and again, particularly in areas like the SouthCoast, North Shore or Western Massachusetts, where neighboring states are often just a few miles away

NASPER specifically works to address this communications breakdown by requiring any state seeking federal funding for a PDMP to submit a plan for improving communication with bordering states. It is one of the many provisions that the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be considering as we debate NASPER in the days and weeks ahead. At a time when overdoses mount by the day, prescription monitoring is an investment we can no longer afford to shortchange. It’s time for Washington to reauthorize NASPER and fully reinstate the program’s funding.

Of course, prescription monitoring is just one piece to the puzzle. We need better support systems for the tireless local champions tackling this issue on the ground in every community. We need to achieve true mental health parity, so substance abuse treatment is a right and not a privilege. We need to work with international partners to crack down on drug trafficking. We need to reform reimbursement rates to ensure patients have access to affordable care. We need to support U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark’s efforts to help tackle the heartbreaking rise of opiate-addicted newborns and U.S. Rep. Bill Keating and U.S. Rep. Steve Lynch’s work to ensure these powerful pills are tamper resistant.

As we are reminded with each overdose, each lost son or daughter, each heartbroken family and shaken community – there is no obvious answer or easy fix to this epidemic. Prescription monitoring certainly will not solve the problem on its own. But by reauthorizing NASPER and putting real resources behind it, Congress can show the country that it is an active partner in this fight.

Community Colleges Open Doors

Congressman Joe Kennedy & Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, SouthCoast Today

Instead of slides and samples, two members of Congress were put under a microscope last month when we visited the biotech lab at Middlesex Community College in Lowell. Students and faculty shot questions and comments our way about higher education affordability, access to job opportunities and the obstacles that still exist for many students. We learned a lot from this dialogue, but one lesson was highlighted above all else: Community colleges open doors.

The stepping-stones that community colleges provide have long been a draw for students. Some look ahead to more traditional four-year institutions, while others focus on acquiring the skills and experience needed to be competitive in the global job market. As our economy continues to recover and new pockets of growth emerge, focus on career building is especially critical.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to prepare students for the demands of our modern economy. Creative public-private partnerships are leading to updated facilities, hands-on internships, job placement programs, and enhanced academic opportunities. Students in the lab at Middlesex had been sought out by recruiters from Boston University’s biomedical program, while others were interning or working fulltime at leading area companies.

As our country continues to invest in new sectors of domestic manufacturing and works to regain its competitive edge in industries where production has gone overseas, community colleges have the ability to provide a pipeline of qualified workers with in-demand skills for in-demand jobs.

In Massachusetts, the economic landscape has shifted toward high-tech manufacturing, research and development in growing fields such as clean energy, biotechnology and medicine. But quality education, cutting-edge resources and innovative programs aren’t limited to Massachusetts’ better-known universities.

Last year, Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence opened a Health Education Simulation Center for paramedic and medical technology students; the Department of Labor named Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner the lead institution for its Advanced Manufacturing Mechatronics and Quality Consortium, providing $6.5 million to install state-of-the-art equipment for hands-on learning; Bristol Community College in Fall River has been leading the way on clean energy education with its innovative Green Center; and MassBay Community College in Wellesley and Framingham launched a cybersecurity program, preparing students for the front lines of some of our most pressing global challenges.

Despite the benefits and growing opportunities, completing one’s educational goals at community college has become increasingly difficult. Inadequate preparation in high school lands many community college students in remedial classes where they rack up tuition costs without acquiring credits that count toward a degree or other certification. Many students have full-time jobs, family obligations, and commitments not faced by traditional college students. Altogether, it requires an increasingly treacherous juggling act just to stay ahead of coursework. Even the hardest working students — and the vast majority are hardworking students — would gain from additional resources and support structures.

Actor Tom Hanks recently penned a powerful editorial for the New York Times that drew national attention to the opportunities available at America’s community colleges. He described how a community college education helped shape who he is today, opening doors to opportunities he never knew existed — and all at a price his family could afford. But as Mr. Hanks acknowledged, financial costs and extracurricular responsibilities have increased in the 30 years since his own experience.

Congress has an opportunity to clear a path to the doors of opportunity at community colleges. Both the Higher Education Act and the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act are due for comprehensive reauthorization and in need of updates that strengthen the ability of community colleges to do what they do best. President Obama laid out a plan to make two years of community college free for qualified students. In an economy where 65 percent of all jobs in 2020 will require some type of post-secondary education, few investments could have a more powerful impact on maintaining the competitive edge of our workforce.

As a former dean at a community college (Tsongas) and Honorary Chair of the Governor’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Council (Kennedy), we have seen firsthand how these institutions provide a highly individualized ladder to success. You don’t need a microscope to see how a responsible investment in our community colleges and their students will have far-reaching and long-lasting benefits.

Rep. Niki Tsongas represents the Third District of Massachusetts and was a former Dean at Middlesex Community College; Rep. Joe Kennedy III represents the Fourth District of Massachusetts and is Honorary Chair of the Governor’s STEM Council.