Investing in School Infrastructure Means Investing in Internet Access

When I was on the speech team in high school, I spent a lot of time pacing in the libraries and classrooms of schools in small towns around southeastern Minnesota. Even with my focus mostly on the speech I was about to deliver, I still noticed the differences in how old the books and computers were compared to my newer, better funded high school in Rochester. However, there was at least one major difference that I didn’t see because I never turned on a computer: Internet access.

Roughly one out of every four households in Minnesota lacks even the lowest rate of broadband access in line with the state’s goals. This affects families struggling to get by in the metro area, as well as in many rural communities in greater Minnesota.

This isn’t just a Minnesota problem, of course, and the countrywide disparities in rural Internet access received some attention recently from The Atlantic. In its profile, it described one rural district in Maryland which was able to use a federal grant to bring reliable access to its students. Teachers were ready to take advantage of the new infrastructure, enabling expanded learning opportunities for students.

Regular readers will know that I don’t think of technology as a panacea, and we shouldn’t expect much from Internet access that goes untapped or that’s used only to replicate the same teaching and learning that was already happening. This isn’t just about iPads versus laptops. Ensuring that students have access to reliable, high-speed Internet access in and out of school can enable a wide range of opportunities.

As we discuss how best to incorporate technology into our school system in a way that changes pedagogy, we need to make sure our schools have the necessary infrastructure. Only then will we be in a position to work with teachers, families, and students to take advantage of these tools in a way that’s genuinely beneficial for learning. Private philanthropy can help, but to truly get the job done, we’ll need greater public investment.

(If you’d like to learn more, check out the Minnesota Broadband Task Force’s report from earlier this year, the Blandin on Broadband site, and/or the upcoming Broadband Task Force meeting on September 25.)

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Technology 

The Growing College Market

Recently, Campus Pride released its top 50 LGBT-friendly colleges and universities list. Out of all the colleges listed, two University of Minnesota schools made the cut (Twin Cities and Duluth). Colleges are now beginning to welcome the growing population of students who are comfortably out about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

This is starting to become a trend; colleges and universities are competing to recruit this market of students. According to a Pew Research article, the median age for coming out is 20 years of age. This is right around the time a person is typically in their college years.

Campuses are beginning to launch programs meant to attract and retain LGBT students. These include college fairs, support offices, special graduation ceremonies, etc. “Campuses today want to be called gay friendly. They see they’re going to lose students if they’re not, [and] realize the pool of non-LGBT students is dwindling” says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, in a Hechinger Report article. It was only three years ago that Elmhurst College, located in Illinois, became the first institution to ask students about their sexual orientation on their college applications.

A guide to college by the Princeton Review states that it’s important for students to do the research and pick a school where they will be the most comfortable. Homophobia still exists in the real world and many colleges still do not support LGBT rights. However, the growing amount of resources available for the LGBT community in the college setting is a good sign that we are on the right path.

As the LGBT rights movement continues to move forward in our country, we should be encouraging colleges to become more welcoming and aware of this diverse group of students. Colleges that are lacking in these programs should look at how they can start better supporting the sexual identity of their students enrolled.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

Turning the Corner on Great Lakes Clean-Up

The St. Louis River used to look bad. And smell bad. Dead fish were belly-up in the water, and industrial foam covered shorelines. The river looks a lot better these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy yet.

It’s been over forty years since the passage of the Clean Water Act. This groundbreaking legislation has made significant progress in protecting the rivers, streams, and lakes of the nation from being polluted. In 1987, the St. Louis River was designated one of 43 Areas of Concern around the Great Lakes, citing nine major problems, including “Degradation of Aesthetics.”

Since then, we’ve watched as, one by one, sources of pollution into our waters were eliminated here in Duluth. Reserve Mining is no longer dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior. Duluth’s sanitary sewer system now collects most of the pollutants coming through the system. The St. Louis River has begun to turn the last corner on its pollution issues.

Recently, Representative Rick Nolan and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Susan Hedman were joined by Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin to make the exciting announcement: One of the nine Beneficial Use Impairments is now officially off the list. The river looks better than it has in many decades. Twenty-seven years after identifying the river’s problems, with decades of water treatment and habitat restoration completed, the agencies have determined that one problem had been fixed.

More than 50 Minnesota citizens gathered at the base of Spirit Mountain ski area in Duluth, just above the banks of the St. Louis River, to hear about the successes and lessons from our investments in cleaning up the river and Lake Superior. Representative Nolan and Administrator Hedman spoke about the big picture, all the contaminated sediment removed, all the clean-up milestones reached. Minnesota is checking off its clean-up to-do list, thanks in large part to the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

It was inspiring to listen to local citizens talk about what the restoration of the river and lake have meant to them. Fishing guide Carl Haensel talked about his clients finding fish in sections of North Shore streams that were freshly restored to their natural state. Local resident Connie Moeller talked about the loons returning to the bay by her house—a bay that has been a federal Superfund site. Hydrologist Marty Rye ticked off statistics about fish habitat improvements through the coastal areas of the Superior National Forest.

Thanks to the GLRI, and matching funds provided by Minnesota’s Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment, plans are in place to take the remaining eight Impairments off the list. The work should be done by the year 2025.

Many of our environmental issues took decades or even a full century to create. Attitudes about our waterways and our industries have changed dramatically in that time. While the 1970s and 1980s were about raising awareness of the awful issues we faced, and while the 1990s and 2000s were about cleaning up the messes, in this decade we are turning the corner and beginning, cautiously, to call parts of our work done.

With visionary leadership from across the Great Lakes basin, with support from St. Paul and Washington, we are turning the last corner at the far end of the Great Lakes. The finish line, where water in our community is fishable and swimmable, is in sight. Thanks to the GLRI and the Legacy Amendment, we’re headed straight to that glorious finish.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Environment  Lakes & Rivers 

Remembering Ralph Hofstad: The Importance of Human Resources

Researchers and journalists meet people along the way who they admire for what they’ve done, and really like for personality reasons. It is precious when the admiring and liking come together in the same person.

I was reminded of that while researching a recent article that looked at the enormity of Minnesota’s food and agriculture industries, how that ties in with academia and builds a cluster of strength in our state economy, and how a Land O’Lakes investment in the University of Minnesota will keep building this strength.

Ralph Hofstad, a former president at Land O’Lakes and a charismatic farm leader for all of agriculture, died on Aug. 25 at age 90. Patrick Kennedy offered a particularly good obituary in the Star Tribune.

I have two especially fun memories of Ralph that should be shared. They reveal how interconnected our food and agriculture industries are, like the clustering of tech companies in Silicon Valley, and how dependent on academia we are for developing human resources, also like Silicon Valley.

In the one instance, former Pillsbury Co. executives William Spoor and Win Wallin called on Hotstad, offering an “expenses paid vacation” to the south of France. “You won’t need to pack a bathing suit,” Hofstad recalled being warned. “You will only be meeting with farmers.”

Pillsbury was exploring ways to introduce its Green Giant line of vegetables into Europe. A good-size vegetable cooperative in southern France was a logical partner and could start producing something new to most of Europe—sweet corn.

Hofstad went and met with local farmers and co-op officials. I remember Hofstad saying, “They were right. I didn’t get to the beach.”

This was a case of a major consumer food company accessing nearby talent from a dairy cooperative to explore a possible business tie that would have been in the interests of the Minnesota economy. That is precisely the interchange of knowledge and talent we constantly hear about in northern California.

A second memory is offered here for everyone involved with cooperatives or engaged with teaching at Minnesota business schools and schools of management.

Once when Land O’Lakes had an especially profitable year, a reporter from a major Wall Street business publication flew in and inquired if the cooperative was considering “going public.” During an interview for a book I was writing, Hofstad said he asked, “What do you mean by “going public?’ We are public. Our dairy farmers own us and they’ve invested a lot in us.”

Compounding the problem, the reporter then asked, “But what good are you if the public can’t invest in you?”

Here’s the lesson for business professors:

Hofstad said, “You know, Lee. You really need a good management team around you if you want to run a cooperative. I had a few there that day. They restrained me. I didn’t go up over the table and slug the guy.”

These memories explain why I really liked Ralph Hofstad. And why about 300,000 farmers did, too.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture  Co-ops 

Local Government Aid Reductions by City 2002 to 2005

Although conservative gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson recently voiced support for the city Local Government Aid program, there is nothing in his legislative record to indicate that he was ever a proponent of LGA. As noted in a September 15 Minnesota 2020 article, Johnson voted in favor of the largest and most prolonged series of LGA funding cuts in the program’s 43 year history.

Since 1972, LGA has helped cities provide adequate levels of public services at reasonable tax rates by targeting aid dollars to cities that have a need for assistance due to lack of adequate tax base and/or high expenditure need as measured by the city’s demographic characteristics. Recent reforms to the program enacted in 2013 helped to reduce year-to-year volatility in LGA payments and more effectively target aid dollars to cities with the greatest need for assistance.

As assistant majority leader in the House from 2003 to 2006, Rep. Johnson consistently supported Governor Tim Pawlenty’s plan to cut LGA. Although it is not uncommon to cut city aid during a recession, the cuts that Johnson supported resulted in a nearly 23 percent LGA reduction from 2002 to 2005—over four times greater than any previous LGA reduction, even though the recession associated with these cuts was not as severe as the two preceding recessions that led to LGA cuts.

Not all cities were affected by the 2002 to 2005 aid reductions in the same way. Click here for a table that shows the reduction in LGA for all Minnesota cities with a population in excess of 5,000. This table shows the final LGA received within each of these cities from 2002 to 2005 and the percentage reduction in LGA from 2002 to 2005. Because the cuts in 2003 were made to cities’ certified 2003 LGA (i.e., the aid promised to cities in statute for 2003 prior to subsequent reductions), the percentage reduction in LGA from the certified 2003 level to the final 2005 level is also shown.

All but five of the 139 cities listed in this table experienced a reduction in LGA from 2002 to 2005.  Most metropolitan cities that received LGA in 2002 lost all of their aid. However, many greater Minnesota cities and the core cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul were also hard hit. While the percentage aid loss among these cities was not as great as the percentage loss among metropolitan suburbs, these communities are more heavily dependent on LGA dollars and thus the LGA cuts frequently comprised a larger share of their budgets.* Not shown in this table are state cuts to the homestead market value credit, which affected many communities that received little or no LGA.

When it comes to support for city LGA, actions speak louder than words. And the actions of Jeff Johnson while assistant majority leader in the House should give pause to local officials who rely on LGA dollars to help pay for city services and to local property taxpayers who count on the tax relief that LGA provides.

Posted in Fiscal Policy | Related Topics: Local Government  LGA  Minnesota Cities 

Deeper Learning Is for Everyone

There’s a different sort of “different sort of school” out there, and more students should have access to it.

Deeper learning typically combines many different aspects, including a significant focus on student-centered and project-based opportunities and performance assessment that goes beyond the simplistic and decontextualized questions that characterize too many standardized tests. It tends to look very different from the traditional style of education that many adults remember from when they were growing up, and it offers an alternative to the more regimented approaches that get a significant share of the positive attention today.

While no model will be the perfect fit for all students, we should raise questions when only certain groups of students tend to get access to a particular kind of school. Unfortunately, student-centered, deeper learning tends to be concentrated on the higher-paid end of the socioeconomic spectrum, especially when we assume that students from families struggling to get by would do better with tightly controlled, back-to-basics education. Make sure they can read first, goes the argument, and then we’ll see about the other stuff.

However, a recent study by two Stanford professors—Diane Friedlander and Linda Darling-Hammond—challenges the idea that students of color or students from lower income families don’t belong in student-centered environments. Instead, they find significant evidence across a variety of measures (yes, including test scores, but also more telling factors like college persistence) that students whose demographics would put them on the wrong side of the achievement gap can in fact thrive and succeed at the highest levels in student-centered environments.

For schools to achieve these results, the researchers make several recommendations. In addition to always-important characteristics like high expectations and a focus on mastery rather than task completion, they point to small-group advisories for academic support, customization of instruction, and a focus on social and emotional development, among several other attributes. Additionally, when converting from a more traditional model to a student-centered approach, it’s critical that teachers be involved in the process, that staff share the same vision, and that teachers have useful time for collaboration with different groups of their peers for developing and sharing tools and techniques that work.

We need more schools that apply this approach serving all communities, and many teachers are interested in pursuing this kind of work. We need school and district leaders, as well as state and federal policy makers, to give them the freedom, support, and encouragement they need.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Classroom Methods  Curriculum  Student Assessment 


Voter Registration is First Step

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. Albert Einstein

Last time we had contested Constitutional Amendments on the ballot Minnesotans learned the rules and played fair. The proposed Voter ID Amendment, wrapped in enough mythology to confuse the voting public, went down in flames. Passionate proponents of the amendment, most of whom hailed from out of state, failed to recognize that Minnesota voters (and their children) are “way above average”, especially when their rights are challenged.

Still, the high stakes game of voter suppression continues. Across the nation—and in our surrounding states—the race is on to change the rules—or, more precisely, the rulemakers. As partisan, and misled, legislatures have promoted changes to election laws the role of the Secretary of State has taken on a controversial and powerful role; secretaries of state have been put in the position of making Solomon-like decisions on a host of voter qualification and regulation issues.

In the words of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, “The fights over voter ID and early voting are just the latest reminder of how important the rules for elections are in shaping the electorate and determining the eventual outcomes. A fair and unbiased electoral process need not—ought not—be a partisan issue. Minnesotans expect that, regardless of party, the Secretary of State—the rulemaker and rule enforcer—will rise above the partisan fray to assure the electoral process reflects the spirit and intent of the Voting Rights Act.

Thoughts of All Things Electoral come to mind as we gear up for Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, September 23. Voter registration is the first and essential step in a process that involves everything from early voting to voter ID to staffing and monitoring the polls.

Though the Secretary of State candidate may not top the ballot or grab the headlines the elected official in that position wields unprecedented power. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has aggregated a range of resources on voting laws and litigation, changes and legislation-in-progress. The review gives a sense of just how many balls are in the air as we face the mid-term elections.

Though the contests for Governor and Senator get top billing, Minnesotans are well advised to consider the stakes, study the issues and pay heed to the critical role and responsibilities of the Secretary of State.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Minnesota Elections 

An Agency for All Seasons

For a region like Minnesota's Iron Range, economic diversity has always been a challenge. In response to this reality, the state created an entity in 1941 to tackle the needs and economic issues of an area that is so tethered to one engine: The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB).

The current IRRRB Commissioner is Iron Range native, Tony Sertich. Commissioner Sertich, as the head of the IRRRB, is a member of the Governor’s Cabinet and oversees an agency whose sole purpose is to help promote an economic future for the region that is both sustainable and diversified.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the IRRRB is funded by a portion of the taconite tonnage tax on ore taken out of the ground in the region. In 2013, the board approved a fiscal budget of $31.2 million dollars. While attracting larger employers of more sustainable industries is something the IRRRB actively works to achieve, the board also uses dollars for a myriad of other purposes.

One way it aids the region is through its Infrastructure Grant Program. Communities use these funds to maintain municipal water and sewer systems, demolish outdated and dilapidated properties to expand commercial and housing opportunities and to update the energy needs of the area through conservation and installation of renewable energy systems.

In 2011, Commissioner Sertich led the creation of the Local Business Loan Guarantee Program. The program is a new model that works to help local, small businesses gain access to capital through loans at local banks that are guaranteed with IRRRB funding. Businesses apply at their local financial institutions. The maximum amount for a loan is $75,000. As of June, the program has invested more than $1 million a month in loan support for local business and has made more than $44 million in business investments over the past two years.

For the Iron Range, the IRRRB truly is an agency for all seasons. Its reinvestment programs for local communities and businesses are invaluable for future bottom up growth. Even though attracting large employers is still a major concern for an area looking to find an identity to compliment mining, it is important that economic policy remain true to the vitality of local business. The IRRRB is successfully doing both.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: mining 

What Price Parking?

I grew up in suburbia and never questioned its autocentric assumptions. Then I drove a Mustang to graduate school in New York and immediately learned that a car was not only irrelevant on transit-rich Manhattan Island, but a downright burden. Parking regulations required frequent tedious searches for a new spot on the crowded curbs. One of the happiest days of my life was the day the car was stolen.

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of that harsh lesson decades ago. In the Big Apple's trendy SoHo district, a new condo building is on the market with an option to buy underground parking spaces for $1 million a pop. That works out to as much as twice per square foot as for the $8 million to $10 million apartments upstairs. No takers were reported as of last week, but car stalls elsewhere in lower Manhattan, as well as in tony neighborhoods of Boston and London, have fetched $500,000 or more.

"Parking is in serious demand and has proven an excellent investment with no sign of a decline," a London real estate executive told the Times.

Richard Pryor once said that cocaine was "God's way of telling you you have too much money." Six-figure parking may be another one, and it tells us something about the irrational allure of motoring "freedom," even in locales where you will be hard-pressed to stash your luxury vehicle anywhere nearby.

As Sarah Goodyear noted on The Atlantic CITYLAB, "It's not just the 300 square feet ... outside your apartment building that your car requires to be fully functional. If you drive a personal motor vehicle for basic everyday transportation, there's also the 300 square feet at your job, and at the supermarket, and outside the restaurant where you have dinner. There's the 300 square feet at you kid's school, at the hardware store, at the coffee shop. Wherever you go, you're going to need a parking space."

Motorists don't have to think about this in most of Minnesota and the rest of the United States. That's because both business and government have chosen to subsidize "free" or cut-rate parking with higher merchandise prices and non-user taxes in service of the autocentric right to drive and stop anywhere without hassle. Estimates of the number of U.S. off-street parking spaces range from 105 million to 2 billion, according to Goodyear, and that doesn't count millions more curbside, most of them unmetered.

Surface parking lots cause heat islands and pollution, Goodyear adds, and "arguably they also create traffic by incentivizing driving, making life less convenient rather than more ... It took a century to engineer cities in such a way that space for cars, even ones that are sitting idle, became valued more than space for people ... Are we willing to do the simple math and start heading in another direction?"

Good question. One way is to replace parking minimums in many city zoning codes with parking maximums, a reversal pioneered in Britain and Brazil. Another is to price parking closer to its actual value to consumers, which theoretically should appeal to free-market fundamentalists. Steps like this can "improve everyone's mobility," according to a Drexel University study that urged more consideration of parking in comprehensive transportation management.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Minnesota Cities  City Management  Automobiles  Infrastructure 

Defining a “Full-Time” Student

I received my Associate of Arts degree at Century College before transferring to the University of Minnesota to complete my bachelors degree. To do so, I made sure to take enough credits that would count towards my degree each semester to stay on track.

 Graduating on time is still a large problem in the college world. In order to successfully complete a two-year and a four-year degree on time, the typical college student needs to take 15 or more college credits per semester. However, federal guidelines that dictate a full-time student are less than the needed 15 college credits to finish on time.

As Complete College America has stated, without achieving the goal of completing at least 15 college credits per semester, the average student will fail to graduate on time. Interestingly enough, federal financial aid policies have set a minimum requirement of only 12 college credits to be considered a “full-time” student. 

With the already high costs of seeking an education, this would be a heavy burden on those who stick to that minimum.

The University of Minnesota has a 13-credit policy that states that no matter how many college credits you take, you will pay a flat rate tuition that totals 13 credits. This policy was implemented in order to encourage the average student to graduate in four years, which will save time and money in the long run.

At my former school, Century College, fall 2014 tuition rates are per-credit based, with one credit costing $160.60. With the pay-as-you-go method, students cannot be fully motivated to aim for the 15 credit target.

Although the community college is the less expensive alternative, the University of Minnesota had a higher graduation rate in four years in 2012 (50 percent) compared to Century’s graduation rate in 3 years (18 percent). 

Students should be prepared by Day 1 to understand what schedule they need to follow. Although different student resources have been implemented at the college level, such as Century’s GPS Lifeplan, they do not do enough to target the student before they reach college. We should be planting the knowledge of what the future student needs to know before they fall behind. Classes on what to expect in college would make a lot of sense to be taught at the high school level. Better preparedness would go a long way for the incoming student.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

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