Nine Out of Nine School Board Candidates Agree…

If you don’t live in Minneapolis, you probably don’t care that half the seats on the city’s school board are up for election this year. If you care about education policy in Minnesota, though, you probably should. For better or worse, much of the energy and advocacy around education reform in Minnesota comes from key leaders’ perspectives on and reactions to the Minneapolis Public Schools. The future direction of that district, then, matters to all of us.

In my discussions with other observers, as well as from what I’ve seen of the declared candidates at a Coalition for Quality Public Schools forum and Minnesota 2020’s own video forum, it appears that there are a few areas where the candidates generally agree. I think these points of agreement are encouraging, and they warrant further exploration.

The first point of agreement, drawn out clearly at the CQPS forum, is support for the idea of full-service community schools. It’s an idea I wholeheartedly support, and I’m proud to have taught at one of the few schools in Minnesota that can claim the title of full-service community school.

The second point of agreement is something that probably shouldn’t be newsworthy but is: All of the presently declared candidates appear to believe that the Minneapolis Public Schools should be in the business of strengthening its own offerings rather than spinning them off into charter schools. Considering that four years ago, that was a position articulated by at least one candidate, and that there are certainly others in Minneapolis still hoping for such an outcome, the fact that nine candidates running for three wards and two at-large seats have steered clear of this position is noteworthy.

Instead, we see candidates all firmly committed to strengthening the district schools of Minneapolis. The candidates’ positions on school closure can be paraphrased as ranging from, “Only under very rare circumstances” to “Under no circumstances.” This is not the direction taken by district leaders in other districts, such as Chicago, where school closure and charterization have become the norm.

Both of these points of agreement are encouraging signs. If we can truly move to a discussion of education that focuses more on strengthening district schools and transforming more of them into full-service community schools, that would be to the public benefit. While some charter schools can and do play a productive role in our education landscape, the business of school districts should be strengthening their own schools, not closing them.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Policy Not for Sale

The Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon v. FEC decision put another nail in the coffin for meaningful campaign finance regulations, but the impact of the ruling may prove to be less profound than one might think.

The Court’s removal of the aggregate limits set for individual contributions during an election cycle hardly signifies the arrival of big money in politics, nor should it have come as a surprise in the judicial era of Citizens United, a time in which corporations are legally regarded as people and spending money is equated with free speech. When the dust settles from Minnesota’s November elections, voters should not expect a radical departure from the current political landscape.

While it is nearly certain that record amounts will be spent in the current election cycle, this influx of capital is more likely to strengthen an existing pattern of incumbent advantage than it is to change the colors on the district maps. In Minnesota’s 2012 congressional election, all nine incumbents raised more money than their opponents and eight of them were successful in their reelection bids. 2010 offered a nearly identical picture, and the 2014 election cycle is on pace to continue this trend. The McCutcheon ruling did not fundamentally alter our political system, rather it further stratified the troubling reality that candidates who raise the most money nearly always win elections and that incumbents on both sides of the aisle tend to raise much more money than their challengers.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has made it quite clear that any legislation placing limits on campaign contributions will face an uphill battle in the highest court. Last month Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL) each proposed the so-called “Democracy is for People Amendment” in their respective chambers, which is (as the name suggests) a constitutional amendment that would prohibit corporations, unions, and nonprofits from donating money to elections, while reestablishing Congress’s capacity to regulate individual contributions. Though it may seem like an improbable approach, a constitutional amendment is likely the only effective way to offset the grossly disproportionate influence large donors have in our political system. The proposed amendment has received limited attention from the media, and unless it or similar initiatives garner more public support the likelihood of substantive campaign finance reform remains slim.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Federal Government 

Deadbeat Uncle Sam?

As Minnesota's two seasons -- winter and road construction -- collide again this month, the state is launching transportation projects worth $1.1 billion at 74 Twin Cities locations, 194 in Greater Minnesota and 40 others not on highways.

Included is capacity expansion work that will complete Hwy. 610 in the northwestern metro, widen Interstate Hwy. 94 from Rogers to St. Michael and Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park and add priced congestion lanes to I-35E north of downtown St. Paul. So much for conservative claims that our government is bent on increasing traffic congestion.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is going full speed ahead on this ambitious to-do list -- what Commissioner Charles Zelle likened to "building a Vikings' stadium in a single season" -- despite warnings that Washington could welch on its promise to pay about one-third of the costs.

Officials in Arkansas and Tennessee have already scaled back their road work programs in the face of a new projection that the federal Highway Trust Fund will dry up in July without congressional action.

South Dakota is nearing a decision to do the same thing. Other states are likely to rush their paperwork for reimbursement of road construction and repair outlays to the feds, which could speed the time when the fund runs short. Minnesota officials aren't worried, though.

"At this point we are not delaying any projects," said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. "Our finance people say we have a cushion. For a period of time, we're OK."

Threats of the so-called "richest country on earth" failing to pay its bills have become commonplace lately amid partisan gridlock in Washington. But while debt-ceiling controversies seem to have been settled, a bipartisan rush to a transportation fiscal cliff proceeds unabated.

Practically no one -- with a rare exception or two -- dares to raise federal fuel taxes, which have supported highways since 1932 and especially since the birth of the interstate highway program in the 1950s. But the rate was last raised to 18.4 cents a gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel in 1993 and has lost more than a third of its buying power to inflation. Meanwhile, driving is down and fuel economy is up, further depleting collections. In the breach, Congress has appropriated more than $53 billion in non-user general funds to prop up the fund.

This and other subsidies for drivers have brought user support of highway costs to less than 42 percent in Minnesota, a share barely more than transit riders pay at the farebox for considerably less convenience, access and mobility.

President Obama and a full ideological spectrum in Congress have proposed all sorts of non-user gimmicks to keep the highway fund solvent. None of these ideas has gained broad support so far.

Bringing the fuel tax into the 21st century would be the right way to fix what has become an ongoing government debt crisis, but it won't happen in an election year -- or probably any non-election year, for that matter. Expect more driver subsidy bandaids instead of Uncle Sam reneging for long on his pavement obligations.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways  Transportation Funding 

E-Cigarettes’ Future in Minnesota

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen more people on campus using E-cigarettes, outdoors or even in class. People smoke to get that nicotine fix and E-cigarettes do that. A smoker on campus observed that E-cigarettes has helped him kick his cigarette habit. However, current research, although inconclusive, suggests otherwise.

The main question to consider is what general effects do E-cigarettes have on those use them? A new study from The Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education has shown that “e-cigarettes may not increase rates of smoking cessation.” Another concern, is the increased use by minors, because E-cigarettes are painted as a safe way to facilitate nicotine intake. A study found that middle and high school students who smoked an E-cigarette were also more likely to smoke a cigarette which is troubling. As studies show any mode of nicotine intake, and effects of nicotine itself, can be harmful.

While there are limitations with these studies, the initial research will help the FDA wrestle with whether it should regulate the E-Cigarette industry or not. In the end, any sort of nicotine intake isn’t advisable.

Let's continue down the research path to ascertain the effects of E-cigarettes on health, their effectiveness as a smoking cessation tool, and how best to regulate their sale and use. This last one is especially important so that we don't hook another generation of children on a potentially deadly habit.

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Regulation  Public Health 

Remember What We’re Testing

We’re now over halfway through the testing window for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs). Testing began on March 10, and it ends on May 9. Weeks, and in some cases months, of test prep have led to these two critical months, when students show what they know and care about. The results will be used to label schools and evaluate some teachers, with that pool of teachers growing next year.

Many students will be taking the tests on computers, while others will use pencil and paper. Students in third through eighth grade will take both math and reading tests, with students in fifth and eighth grade taking science tests as well. Tenth graders will take a reading test, eleventh graders a math test, and biology students in high school will take a science test.

Going untested will be all other subjects, as well as any standards that don’t appear on the tests (like most of the writing and research standards in English). While the difficulty of both the math and reading tests have increased in recent years, most questions will still not get at the highest levels of learning.

At many schools, preparing for the MCAs included identifying those “bubble students” who might hit the artificial cutpoint for “proficiency,” but weren’t certain to. Students who were already proficient likely received some enrichment and keep-it-together encouragement, and those who definitely weren’t hitting the target this year hopefully still received remediation. Still, those bubble students got special attention at many schools.

The final results? A comparison of this year’s fourth graders with last year’s fourth graders (to pick a grade at random). An estimate of how this year’s seventh graders advanced in the two months after testing last year, the three months of summer break, and seven months of school this year. Another look at how Minnesota’s social, economic, and educational inequities translate into test scores.

We will not see a complete representation of student learning, nor will we see a wholly accurate picture of how effective our schools and teachers are. We certainly won’t get information that lets us know what to do to help students in the time that remains in this school year, and it’s unclear how much of the data we do get will be useful in determining what to change or sustain next year.

Is there some utility to all this? Yes. But let’s remember exactly what it is we’re measuring, and what that does to our students’ experiences of school.

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

LGA & Property Taxes: Frozen Aid = Tax Increases

This year's House Omnibus Tax bill improves on reforms made last year to city Local Government Aid (LGA). In 2013, policymakers made significant improvements to the aid formula and increased the appropriation to partially replace what was lost over the preceding decade. However, that bill failed to finish the job of LGA reform by annually adjusting the appropriation to keep pace with inflation and population growth.

If LGA is not adjusted to keep up with growth in the cost of items that cities purchase, all growth in those costs will be borne by property taxpayers (or city budget cuts).  As explained in a 2013 Hindsight post, under these conditions city property taxes will grow faster than inflation, even if the total city budget grows at the rate of inflation. 

An April 22 Minnesota 2020 article demonstrated how a frozen LGA appropriation tends to push city tax rates higher, with cities with the highest rates to begin with experiencing the largest rate increases. The analysis below describes what happens to the total level of city property taxes paid when the LGA appropriation is frozen. The data, methods, and assumptions used are the same as those outlined in the April 22 article.

In the graph below, the cities examined are divided into five groups.* “Non-LGA cities” receive no LGA because their local tax base is sufficient to meet their entire expenditure need. The remaining cities are placed into four groups of equal size, with cities with the smallest aid gap (defined as a city’s need for state aid as measured by the new formula minus the amount of aid it actually received in the preceding year) as a percentage of prior year levy comprising the first quartile and cities with the largest gap comprising the fourth quartile. The property tax change shown is based on the unweighted average for each group expressed in constant (i.e., inflation-adjusted) dollars.

Cities with the largest aid gap—which tend to be low property wealth communities with few resources relative to local needs—see the largest property tax increases. Taxpayers in these fourth quartile cities will see a 16 percent average increase in projected property taxes (after adjusting for inflation) between 2014 and 2020. Taxpayers in cities within the first three quartiles see smaller but still significant tax increases.

Freezing the LGA appropriation will not impact Minnesota cities uniformly, but will drive taxes up most in those cities with the smallest tax bases and the greatest need for state assistance. The result will be an increase in statewide tax disparities. This situation can be averted simply by allowing the LGA appropriation to increase to keep pace with inflation and population growth. More on this in the second part of this series.


*Excluded from this analysis are 111 cities that are already receiving LGA in excess of their need for state assistance as measured by the new formula. Under current law, the aid for these cities will be gradually reduced over time until it equals their need for state assistance.  The aid levels for these cities would not be affected by an LGA appropriation adjustment.

Posted in Fiscal Policy | Related Topics: LGA  Property Tax 

Potholes: A Patch or a Real Fix?

As winter slowly melts into spring around here, the one smart transportation policy every Minnesota driver supports is Fix it First. As in: Please fill the gaping canyons along my daily commute before they wreck my shocks, struts and backbone. 

This year road crews at every level of government are straining to mitigate the effects of the state's most severe winter in 30 years. The epic outbreak of potholes has even inspired poetry. My favorite commemorates the one so big it "has a Starbucks."

But if potholes seem more prevalent and cavernous than in the past, it's not just because of the return of a "real" Minnesota winter. An underlying reason is that more and more of our motorways are aging and, like many of my Boomer generation, sorely in need of reconstructive surgery. It's expensive to dig up and rebuild a street from the ground up, about $1 million a mile, but it needs to happen every 50 years or so before Mother Nature does the demolition herself.

Guess what? Half the nearly 140,000 miles of roadways in Minnesota are past the half-century mark, and the backlog of needed work keeps growing as resources stagnate or shrink. And the older the road, the more vulnerable it is to potholes.

"We're paving streets by the shovelful right now," St. Paul city engineer Jahn Maczko told the Star Tribune this month. "And that's not effective, and it's not efficient ... Winter is not the problem. Our infrastructure is the problem."

Yes, Fix it First is a great plan, but not with a bandaid approach. As the Michigan Department of Transportation points out in a "Reality Check," it's a myth that "road crews just throw some asphalt in the potholes to fix them. They need to fix them right the first time so it lasts." Sorry, no can do. "Pothole patches are just that—a patch. A true fix will require much more."

To head off potholes before they happen, and save public and private money in the long run, we need to get serious about maintaining our constantly depreciating assets—instead of just patching them over and over.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways  Automobiles  Road Safety 

Video: Social Justice Needed in Marijuana Enforcement

The collateral costs to an individual from a marijuana possession arrest add up fast, and last much longer that the immediate detention or sentence. In Minnesota, these costs disproportionately fall on communities of color for a variety of reasons including over-policing in certain areas and unfair seizure laws.  

It's time we reform marijuana laws and enforcement policy, and consider full legalization. Minnesota 2020's latest report attempts to re-frame this debate so that we consider economic and social justice in our justice system. 

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Racial Inequalities 

Falling Into Segregation

More and more, it looks like we can’t integrate our schools unless someone forces us to.

Exhibit A is the recent Atlantic story detailing the return to segregation, specifically in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and throughout the Old South generally. Districts forced to adopt integration did so, and saw their academic performance gaps narrow thanks to higher scores from black students. Meanwhile, black and white students alike built relationships (or, if you prefer, “increased their social capital”) across racial lines. Of course, this was not an easy process, and the early days of integration in particular were difficult for students. Still, the net effect was positive.

These gains are being lost now that the courts have stopped requiring districts to integrate. Absent that pressure, and in an attempt to lure white students back from private schools and the suburbs, districts redrew attendance zones to resegregate their schools. The result is a gradual reversion to the bad old days, to no one’s benefit.

It would be easy and comfortable to write school segregation off as a product of Those Backwards Southerners, but it’s alive and well up here, too. Part of this is the result of heavily segregated housing, with Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, and Buffalo, NY, topping the list of most segregated metropolitan areas. Chicago, St. Louis, and Reading, PA, are also in the top ten, joining Birmingham and Gadsen, AL. When housing is that segregated, it’s tougher to integrate schools.

Nor is it just housing. The way school boundaries get drawn and the roles played by private and charter schools also contribute to school segregation. This is how New York City’s schools became the most racially segregated in the country, and why observers in the Twin Cities have watched our schools grow more and more segregated as well.

The message running through all of these examples is that, left to our own devices, we in the United States segregate our schools. It isn’t always done with the blatancy of the Jim Crow era, and it’s possible to find exceptions at the individual or even (rarely) the city level. For the most part, though, we regress to segregation when not compelled to do otherwise.

To some, this may not be a problem. To others, it may be a problem to which they don’t see a solution. To others still, it’s a problem with a solution, but there’s insufficient political will to carry out that solution. Whatever your perspective, we need to name this for what it is.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Racial Inequalities 

Demand Versus Need in Minnesota’s Oil Pipelines

The Midwest and Great Lakes are quickly becoming a hub for transporting and refining one of the world’s dirtiest and most destructive fossil fuels on the planet: tar sands oil.

Pipelines in the area are nothing new, but over the last several years the region’s infrastructure has seen a dramatic transformation: a Canadian company, Enbridge Energy Partners, is undertaking a massive expansion of its system. If successful, this expansion will expose the already threatened Great Lakes to larger and more toxic pipeline spills and lay the groundwork for increased carbon emissions that undercut our region’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution.

Enbridge wants to expand the existing pipelines because they say the refineries the company serves have increased their orders for oil. But is that demand actually a “need?” What constitutes need? Does our society “need” more oil? Or are there better, more sustainable solutions to our growing energy demands?

If expanded, the Alberta Clipper pipeline will be nearly the size of the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline and carry 800,000 barrels per day from the tar sands oil formations of Alberta, Canada, to the Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. That’s enough fuel flowing through a pipeline to fuel 22 million cars.

Most of the oil sent to the Superior refinery is later shipped to market further east. Even without the proposed expansions, the pipelines coming into Superior already exceed the capacity of those going out at a rate of around 400,000 barrels per day. This excess capacity has recently led to proposals to load crude oil on barges in Superior and ship them across Lake Superior and the Great Lakes.

The public speaks

This spring, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held a series of public hearings on a Certificate of Need for the proposed expansion of the crude oil pipeline. The fundamental question to be answered is, does Minnesota need this pipeline?

The PUC hearings were well-attended. In Duluth, approximately 60 people spoke. The divide between supporters and opponents could hardly have been more clear. Virtually everyone who spoke in favor of the pipeline had some sort of potential economic gain from the project moving forward, for example a contractor to Enbridge, a vendor for construction services, or an Enbridge business partner. Virtually everyone who spoke against the project spoke on behalf of the greater public benefit: clean water and clean energy, in addition to the personal losses they would experience.

The opponents to the project outnumbered supporters 3:2.

Since the goal of the hearings was to guide the determination of whether the project was actually “needed,” one quiet voice said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. Jane, from Duluth, spoke at length about her own struggles with defining “need.” She lives simply, travels Duluth by bus and by foot. She spoke about need versus demand. Just because Enbridge’s customers ask for more oil doesn’t mean they need it.

“Demand is not need,” Jane testified. She just booked a cheap flight to visit friends, but “I don’t need to do that, I just wanted to.”

Demand is not need

Demand is our consumer society looking for the best possible deal to sate our consumptive appetites. What if that pipeline were not expanded? Market forces would make us pay more for the gas to power our trips to the shopping mall, or to heat our McMansions.

Minnesotans need clean water. Minnesotans need clean air.

Minnesotans do not need increased threats of toxic spills and increased greenhouse gas emissions that come with oil pipelines.

Enbridge may be able to demonstrate to the PUC, in the language of business and economics and markets, that the Alberta Clipper expansion is “demanded.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s needed.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Energy  Environment 

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