We don’t often think about how we pollute our watersheds and corrode our cars to preserve public safety, but this is the confusing math of road salt in winter. Keeping roads clear of snow and ice is a critical safety responsibility in Minnesota. Road managers as well as homeowners with driveways depend on salt to help with that.
Road salt ends up washing chloride into groundwater and aquatic ecosystems. As the chloride concentration in water goes up, it starts harming the animals, plants, even drinking water that make Minnesota's aquatic resources so valuable.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently reported that in over a quarter of its monitoring wells in metro-area sand and gravel aquifers, the chloride levels outstrip the EPA’s drinking-water guidelines. As little as a teaspoon of road salt can seriously pollute 5 gallons of water, and there’s often no real way to get the chloride out of the water after it’s there.
In the MPCA’s recent draft list of metro-area bodies of water that are impaired by chloride, 35 out of 44 are new to the list for 2014--and many more waters around the state still haven’t been tested.
High-tech moves like Cottage Grove’s infrared road-sensing salt trucks, which minimize salt use by keeping it to where it’s most needed, are a promising investment but harder to afford for many communities. Prewetting salt or using liquid brine (perhaps a low-cost option from cheese producers, like they’re trying in Wisconsin) is another helpful option, which MnDOT uses because that makes the salt stick better to the road. Not only does that speed up melting, but it uses less salt. Even driving the salt trucks slower can cut down on the amount of salt.
It would be a relief if we could phase out salt altogether, and transportation departments in Minnesota have recently been testing out a whole series of agricultural byproducts to clear up winter roads, mixtures based on lower-chloride things like sugar beets or corn. When these alternatives are used on their own without also using some salt, they unfortunately still don’t get it done to MnDOT’s standards. Blending alternative deicers with salt brine has actually been an improvement over straight salt in MnDOT tests, though, likely because those blends can pack in more deicing ions in the same volume of stuff.
For homeowners, try to shovel and scrape as much as you can, and you won’t need salt as often. Figure on skipping salt entirely on your own driveway when it’s under 15 degrees, too. Regular old sodium chloride doesn’t actually do much to melt ice below that temperature; stick to sand in those cases.
The gargantuan school district serving the City of Angels has proved a useful testing ground for the principles of our “Star Trek Ed” series. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has over 640,000 students, more than many states (though not Minnesota, which has a bit over 845,000). A couple years ago, LAUSD decided to give every student in the city-state an iPad. The results aren’t great, with teachers showing much less faith in the program than administrators, and district officials regularly uncovering new costs.
Let’s see how this matches up with the three Star Trek Ed factors.
The Shiny Factor
iPads are very shiny. Schools across the country have rushed to adopt the Apple products -- specifically Apple, since iPads account for 94% of the tablet marketplace in schools -- hoping that the technology will engage students, narrow the digital divide between tech haves and have-nots, and increase individualization of instruction. Curriculum writers and software developers have been happy to get in on the action, too. Pearson, for example, is the proud supplier of LAUSD’s iPad curriculum.
The Substance Factor
On the other hand, iPads mostly represent new ways of doing old things rather than truly disrupting education. This is in part because of how they’re being used in classrooms. LA teachers apparently only got a day of training from Apple and two from Pearson. The district didn’t give them much time or support to adapt their instruction, assessments, or non-tech curriculum to the new tools, either. As a result, much of the shiny promise of iPads is going unfulfilled in many LAUSD classrooms. (Especially the classrooms in the three high schools where students hacked the tablets’ security and had their iPads confiscated.)
The Speed Factor
Over time, more teachers will grow comfortable using iPads effectively. Students will figure out how to better use their tools for classwork. However, LAUSD burned through a lot of its potential (and goodwill) in rushing the rollout. It’s understandably tempting for school districts to take on this sort of major tech initiative, seeing as how it appears up-to-date and student-centered. Districts nonetheless need to take the time to manage the new technology properly.
Districts should also remember that technology comes with bigger costs than they might think at first. In addition to the hardware itself, there’s the ongoing costs for support, the software license fees and subscriptions, and the wireless connectivity infrastructure to update. It’s no point asking everyone to use iPads to access the Internet if the school’s wireless network can’t handle the demands. We can and should learn from LAUSD’s experience so we can do a better job investing in technology in our schools.
Of all the outcomes we track about Minnesota schools, our graduation rates may be the most disconcerting. Our economy and our future rely on a workforce more educated and technically skilled than any previous generation. The kids we fail, the kids that drop out, the kids our system pushes out represent a failure to realize the potential of our state’s future. That such a disproportionate percentage of the kids who don’t graduate are students of color dooms us to another generation of intolerable racial inequity if we don’t act.
Maybe that’s why close to 100 organizations have signed on to the Minnesota Safe Schools for All Coalition. Research shows a strong correlation between bullying and negative outcomes in school, including drops in test scores and graduation rates. Leaving aside the devastating emotional costs of bullying including shame, insecurity, and even suicide (which should be enough reason), the achievement costs of doing nothing should be persuasive to anyone who cares about Minnesota’s future.
The proposed bill aims to create a school climate where students learn social and emotional skills to have develop positive relationships, and support from staff when they need it. Rather than suspending bullies and leaving bullied children to suffer alone—an approach that leaves both students fail—this bill asserts that it’s our job to intervene, to use restorative justice to support every child and give them the chance to succeed. To do that, we need to define the problem, we need to clearly state who is protected so that staff and students alike understand the law clearly, we need to create systems to report and track incidents of bullying so we can better understand the problem, and we need to provide the adults in schools with the training and support to respond to bullying effectively. The proposed bill does exactly that.
This week, teachers and community groups rallied together to launch an effort to pass the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. It’s not enough on it’s own, but it’s one of the best feasible, immediate examples of the kind of transformative change we need in Minnesota schools.
Community members joined for a Town Hall meeting last night with Testimonies and concerns about raising Minnesota’s Minimum wage to $9.50 by 2013. Senator Hoffman was present during the discussion to decide how much to campaign this issue. Because of low wage jobs in Minnesota many workers find them selves in difficult situations on what to spend money on, while others don’t have a bed to sleep on or even a stable place to call home.
Just a decade ago, clean energy champions talked almost exclusively of the familiar wind, solar, and biomass energy generation options. Since the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom just a few years ago, the clean energy debate has become a bit muddied. Beyond arguing that domestic natural gas production is good for energy and natural security, proponents of fracking and natural gas have been appealing to those concerned about climate change, arguing that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” to a lower carbon society.
But skeptics of this line of reasoning are numerous. A new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that fugitive (uncaptured or accidental) natural gas emissions from fuel extraction and processing are much higher than previously thought, bolstering natural gas skepticism.
For a bit of background, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions consist primarily (84% as of 2011) of carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane and Nitrous Oxide (yes, laughing gas) make up the majority of the remainder contributing 9% and 5% to total emissions respectively. Used as a substitute for gasoline and diesel, compressed natural gas primarily consisting of methane has lower greenhouse gas emissions and much lower CO2 emissions in particular. Moreover, electricity generation from natural gas can be run either to cover base load demand or with variable output, a key characteristic to be compatible with intermittent electricity sources like wind, solar, and other renewable energy generation methods.
As a result, even MIT’s Energy Initiative center and our now Secretary of Energy advocated the natural gas was a low-carbon alternative that should be pursued to bridge the country toward renewable energy and to slow global warming.
But low-carbon energy is misleading. When it comes to climate change, a gas’s warming potential is of key importance. Using a relative scale, CO2 has a global warming potential of 1 and all other gasses are compared to CO2’s ability to trap heat and warm the planet. Methane – the primary component of natural gas – has 25 times the warming potential of CO2. In other words, not fully combusted, natural gas is worse for climate change.
The new report, demonstrating that methane emissions are actually higher than previously thought, calls to question where the “bridge” built by natural gas is actually leading us. Though the EPA recently decided to cut its estimates of these fugitive emissions, the report argues that these emissions are actually 2-8 times higher than the EPA originally estimated. Many of these emissions come from fuel extraction, including natural gas drilling and fracking.
Moreover, other articles have argued that an increase in natural gas use hasn’t really been seen as connected to more renewable energy. Renewables only account for around 8% of total energy consumption in recent years, most of which comes from large hydropower which is not new nor considered renewable by many environmental organizations.
As a nation, we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels. In Minnesota, this primarily means using less coal. The debate over clean energy shouldn’t be muddied with half-truths about natural gas. It’s still a fossil fuel, it’s still non-renewable, and under current regulations and practices, it could be much worse for climate change even if it can claim to be low carbon. Instead, Minnesota and the U.S. in general should start focusing on investing more in renewable technologies and giving nuclear options a closer look.
The Guardian, the UK publication whose online reach is now becoming a conscience for the world, points out significant differences in public policies from one country to the next and asks its readers, “Why not here?”
In an early December article, Why Is Sweden Closing Its Prisons?, Erwin James ponders if similar incarceration and rehabilitation services might work in the UK. We, of course, should be asking the same questions in America and right here in Minnesota.
Sweden’s recent decision to close four prisons stems from a 6 percent decline in prison population between 2011 and 2012 with similar declines on pace this year and projected for 2014 as well.
James and The Guardian give a good look at Sweden’s criminal justice system and especially the social services it provides released criminals to prevent repeat offenses. The article notes that Sweden’s less than 70 incarcerated prisoners per 100,000 is half of England and Wales’.
Let’s pause and make comparisons closer to home. Sweden has more than 9.5 million people, and about 4,500 people behind bars. Minnesota has a little less than 5.4 million people (2012) with 9,452 people locked up as of Jan. 1. By some counts, Minnesota’s 145 prisoners per 100,000 people ranks second, behind Maine, for the lowest incarceration rate in America.
Minnesota’s rates look good against national comparisons, but not against Sweden. The International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of Essex shows the U.S. leads the world in prison population rates per 100,000, with 743 people in prisons and jails. That’s nearly 200 more than second and third place finishers Rwanda (595) and Russia (568). 2011 statistics showed 54 percent of 218 countries and independent territories around the world had prison populations less than 150 per 100,000 population.
So start the cheer, “We’re No. 1!”
I’m betting we will hold onto that distinction. We, as a nation, are cutting food stamps (SNAP) and housing assistance for the poor. We are pricing education out of reach for poor and working class families, and our tax and wage systems still favor the wealthy and highly educated, transferring wealth upwards from the middle class.
No surprise some of our MnSCU universities are cutting programs to cope with enrollment declines. Our public policies encourage enrollment in our prison system instead.
In all the uproar over for-profit colleges, the one question that rarely gets asked is why? Why are Minnesotans enrolling at such high numbers in for-profit colleges when the state, especially the Twin Cities, has such a robust, affordable community college system?
MnSCU is a tremendous Minnesota asset, which should have drastically limited for-profits' need.
Yet, as MinnPost reports, "[o]ne in seven Minnesotans who sought education beyond high school turned to a for-profit institution in recent years," according the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Rasmussen alone has grown 500 percent within the last decade. With attendance higher than ever, scrutiny of these institutions is vital.
Part of the reason for growth is the aggressive marketing, especially in communities with high concentrations of first generation college students.
Rasmussen, for example, dedicated 18 percent of its revenue to marketing. Capella spent nearly 30 percent—well above the for-profit average—on marketing, according to a detailed U.S. Senate report on this issue.
Recruiters employed by for-profit institutions outnumber career and student service employees. In fact, the senate report found that among the thirty schools it examined, in total there are nine times the amount of recruiters as career-services staff. At Rasmussen College, the number of recruiters matches the increase in students while the career services remains stagnant as enrollment climbs. (Go to page 16 on the .pdf)
One of the greatest criticisms of for-profit colleges and universities is their inadequate job placement statistics. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education produced “Gainful Employment” guidelines. The regulations aimed to ensure students are receiving solid preparation for a good job. A federal judge, however, struck down the regulation, and the USDOE is back to the drawing board.
Gainful Employment rules would limit many of the aggressive and misleading marketing tactics for-profits tend to utilize. Students both, traditional and nontraditional, must be aware of the affordable community college options that would provide a better frame of comparison if they're headed to college.
Our love affair with driving has hardly been more reflected and confirmed than by the long-running popularity of a radio show devoted solely to maintaining cars. For more than two decades, Click and Clack, the brothers Magliozzi, have regaled motorists with a weekly supply of jokes and automotive advice on NPR's "Car Talk," now on episode No. 1349.
No disrespect to the grease-stained jesters, but for a more intellectually nutritious and just as entertaining program about automobility, check out a new Freakonomics podcast titled "The Most Dangerous Machine."
In just over a half hour, host Stephen Dubner and a lineup of experts explore the past, present and future of auto safety—or, more properly, auto peril. The car, Dubner tells us, "has changed the way we think about distance," but it's also "a deathtrap," killing 1.2 million people worldwide every year.
Even so, the show isn't a downer. There's plenty of comic relief, as in the multi-distracted driver caught on a researcher's video talking on two cell phones while smoking a cigarette, driving though a work zone and running a yellow light. Or the fun fact that the inventor of the first gasoline-powered car in America, John W. Lambert in 1891, also precipitated the nation's first auto crash.
And did you know that seat belts are among "the most cost-effective life-saving devices ever invented"? Compared with air bags, they deliver 60 times more bang for the buck, Dubner notes.
There's plenty more to amuse and inform on the podcast, but I won't let slip any more spoilers. Check it out yourself.
A curious statement appeared in the press release from conservative legislators regarding last week’s November forecast. That forecast marked a $1 billion plus improvement in state finances, the full pay-back of the K-12 education funding shift, and a projected $825 billion surplus for the current FY 2014-15 biennium. In response to these developments, Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie stated “This surplus calls into question the wisdom of burdening the economy with higher tax rates.”
With little difficulty, one can imagine what Senator Hann’s quote would have been if the November forecast had revealed a large deficit instead of a large surplus. In fact, all you have to do is substitute the word “deficit” for “surplus” and you get the right wing quote for this alternative universe. If there’s a surplus, it’s the fault of the tax increase. If there’s a deficit, it’s the fault of the tax increase. Since every forecast reveals either a deficit or a surplus, conservatives were guaranteed at least one problem that they could pin on the progressive tax increase enacted during the 2013 session.
The fact of the matter is that the “no new tax” clique at the State Capitol was predicting job losses, business flight, plague, and pestilence if the income tax increase on the top one percent of Minnesota households was enacted. However, the November forecast projections reveal the opposite: Minnesota job and income growth is among the most robust in the nation and our unemployment rate is two-thirds the national average. While the November forecast is only a projection, it is based on the best information currently available—and that information casts major doubt on right wing predictions of doom.
Folks in the heart of a major metro typically don't have the “last-mile" transit problem—those times when the bus takes you most of the way but there's that last stretch where you have to walk. In some cases it's a few blocks, but in suburbs or exurbs it could actually be a mile or two.
Attracting more transit riders and growing the network is much easier when more people feel like the network reaches where they are and where they’re going. Generally, people will use transit only if they think it’s better (on cost or convenience) than how they get around currently. That's why it's important we continue working the last-mile issue.
Making it easier to use foot power for the journey's unmet leg is an important step for travelers. Around the cities, bike-share programs like the Twin Cities’ NiceRide are poised to make spontaneous transit trips easier, but two-wheeled travel will be a lot safer and more appealing with some infrastructure upgrades. Including more physically separate, curb-protected bikeways around the cities would be a real boon to transit---and the same goes for the suburbs too.
A few infrastructure alterations can really go a long way, even in less dense communities. Better connecting the south metro's Red Line and upcoming Orange Line BRT stations, by bike, with the areas around them is a particularly good investment in making transit more convenient to people who might not yet be considering it. Towns should be looking at the small but potent alterations they can make to cul-de-sac communities and surface-lot-intensive business areas, such as more direct walking and biking paths leading to transit stops.
Smaller-scale transit that can actually work in tandem with longer-distance lines like new light rail or BRT can also be a real help for less dense communities, especially when “reverse” commuters are taking those longer-distance lines to work—one way that the Southwest LRT is meant to operate. Emeryville, California lies just off the Bay Area’s longer-distance BART train system, but in the 1990s it was starting to get passed by economically. A far-sighted collaboration between local government and businesses created a shuttle between Emeryville workplaces and the BART, to cover that pesky last leg of the commute. The businesses saw the clear benefit in being more accessible to employees, and they funded the shuttle through business improvement districts, which has kept it free to riders.
The bottom line is that there’s a solid array of options for working the last-mile problem, and by taking strong steps to deal with that problem, we will multiply the effectiveness of the transit network we already have. Park-and-rides are important, but the ideal transit system eliminates more and more of the need to even get in a car.