Lucky Beginnings

I was lucky growing up. I had two parents, and we were a middle class family living in a suburban community outside of New York City. My parents had a very strong belief in the value of education even though my mother was the only one who finished high school.

I was born in New York City, but shortly before I turned six, we moved to suburbia on Long Island. My father still worked in Brooklyn and his commute was 90 minutes each way. I am not sure why we moved but it probably was because they wanted a single family home with good schools. My father, although he never finished high school, was smart, the foreman at a company with a number of people reporting to him. We were not rich, but we lived comfortably. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until it was time for me to go to college, and then she went back to work to earn money to pay my college tuition and in turn, my brother's.

My brother and I were raised with the understanding that we would go to college. I never remember even giving it a thought. Eventually, I earned a bachelor's degree in physics, and continued my education while working earning my second master's degree at the age of 48. I was the first person in either of my parent’s families to complete college. My brother earned a Ph.D. in High Energy Particle Physics.

My wife and I are married almost 46 years. Our son has a doctorate in space physics and our daughter has a M.S. in Library Science. My wife since our marriage has completed a bachelor's and master's degree. I'm sharing my life story, not to brag, but to explain that my life is very much the result of my parents' effort and sacrifice. Our middle class status enabled us to move to communities with good schools and little crime or violence. If they had not pushed education, taking steps to ensure good schooling, neither my brother I would have had the lives we have. The point is that if we had been poor, and our parents' highest priority was putting food on the table and a roof over our heads, it is doubtful we would have had the opportunities we did. My brother and I can talk about our achievements, but we have climbed life's ladder from our parents' backs. Our story is not unique.

When we talk about the education gap, we need to understand it is due to more than the quality of our schools. We need to change a society where a parent or parents must work multiple jobs to feed and house their families. We need to put to bed the fantasy that it just takes hard work to succeed, and build a society where the poor have a chance for a good education and do not have to live in fear of violence, and going hungry or not having a roof over them. We all have a stake in everyone succeeding. Schooling can't change lives if kids life barriers can't get them to school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Achievement Gap 

Minnesotans Don’t Know Enough About Roads

Do we understand what our roads need?  Most Minnesotans are excluded from conversations about transportation infrastructure. Local engineers and policymakers must kindle more public engagement in order to improve sustainability, efficacy, and accessibility in our transportation systems.

Issues like aging structures, insufficient maintenance funds, and evolving energy infrastructure make transportation decisions complex. Despite the severity of these concerns, the Minnesota public is largely uninformed about the pressures on community road systems, according to a new report by The Local Road Research Board (LRRB). For example, LRRB researchers found that many people mistakenly believe that the gas tax covers costs of local road maintenance.

Citizens care about specific problems like potholes and snow clearance, but large-scale issues are often dismissed. The costs of deferred maintenance or long-term planning may not seem immediately relevant, but problems will be more expensive and dangerous if dialogue does not commence.

Due to insufficient communication with elected officials and public administration, Minnesotans are commonly confused, apprehensive, or apathetic in their interaction with transportation decision-making. But with informed citizens, local governments could prioritize solutions that satisfy specific community needs.

Populations, traffic patterns, economic ventures, and recreational activities have changed since roads were first built. New environmentally friendly techniques have emerged. Safe accessibility for cyclists and pedestrians has become a major concern. In order for Minnesota’s neighborhoods to adapt, the public must engage in education and conversation about transportation policy challenges and proposed solutions.

Through community meetings, straightforward online information, focus groups, and media coverage, local leadership can share concerns and discuss possibilities with its constituents. If the public understands the needs and goals of road construction projects, traffic reorganization, or transportation taxes, support and resources will no longer be hindered by confusion or reluctance.

“It might enhance public trust and attention to [transportation issues] if they were more aware of the ways in which local public works leaders have introduced innovations and found efficiencies to keep up the roads even with heightened demands, increasing costs, or diminished resources,” the LRRB report reads.

Local officials and transportation engineers can work to build approachable education, dialogue, and policy solutions about such multi-faceted concerns. With increased engagement, the public will better advocate for sustainable change and repair.

Transportation systems help to define our communities, but they are largely neglected in public dialogue. Every Minnesotan deserves to play an informed role in shaping our transit landscape.

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

Ending Net Neutrality: Greater Higher Ed Costs

This is the third in a four-part series. See also: part one, and part two.

With more college students than ever jumping on the Internet, the issue of net neutrality is ever more relevant on campus.

During the FCC’s open comment period; ed-tech startups, The New America Foundation, Educause, numerous public and private colleges, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) all filed complaints condemning the possible end of net neutrality.

What stakes do these disparate actors have in this issue? The simple answer is cost.

With increasing pressure and scrutiny to keep the cost of higher education in check, an open Internet offers great potential as an equalizer. For example, ed-tech companies have—or better or worse—been able get their start via the internet as a distribution service.

Organizations such as the ARL have pointed out that “more and more content is [being] made available in a primarily digital form” and therefore “maintaining an open internet is critical.”

It’s not hard to imagine the harmful effects losing net neutrality would have on college life. Students, attempting to access materials online for research projects would be waiting in a digital queue as ISPs place a ‘speed cap’ on these networks.

Higher education institutions, like K-12 schools, don’t have an abundance of money to spend on faster access.

Additionally, the fall of net neutrality has the potential to derail open thought and argument at colleges and universities. Open access to all points of view is vital in developing an intellectual and ideological “place” in the world; however, without a neutral access point (i.e. the internet) certain viewpoints could be stifled by dramatically slowing access to them.

Without equal access to sites such as,, and, this blog post would have been significantly more difficult to write, to say nothing of researching and writing college-level projects and papers.

From students to ed-tech company managers, the potential end of net neutrality is cause for significant concern. The final post in this series will examine how losing net neutrality would put innovators and small businesses in the same straits as students and educators at all levels.

For a few additional introductions to the complex issue of Net Neutrality, try PBS Idea Channel’s discussion or The VlogBrothers “Net Neutrality Argument in 3 Minutes,” and, most helpfully, Vi Hart’s comprehensive Net Neutrality Review.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education  Technology 

Go-To Banking, Part 2

Read part one

The expanding list of transportation options makes our multi-modal system stronger. All of these services should be lauded for its efforts. There is one catch, however. Each transportation service requires a debit or credit card as a payment option. For the 16.7 percent of Minnesotans who are unbanked or underbanked, debit and credit cards are out of reach.

The FDIC classifies unbanked as those people lacking any kind of deposit account at an insured depository institution such as a savings or checking account. Underbanked housholds have a bank account but also rely on Alternative Financial Services (AFS) like money orders, non-bank check cashing, payday loans, and prepaid debit cards. Each of these services exacts heavy fees, making these services more expensive than traditional banking.

While 16.7 percent of unbanked or underbanked households is too many people with too few options, it is the lowest percentage in the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin is at 18.7 percent). However, like so many of the great successes in Minnesota, there is a large disparity in who shares in that success. Whereas 14.8 percent of family households (as compared to non-family households) were without full banking services, 36.5 percent of households led by a single female were without full banking services. Of those making under $15,000 a year, 58.5 percent were fully banked. Only 39.5 percent of black households were fully banked, compared to 84.7 percent of white households. This is consistant with national disparities where 41.6 percent of black households are fully banked compared to 77 percent of white households. People across the county are working on different ways to give everyone access to banking options.

Chicago has come up with one solution to help those without banking services while serving its transportation mission. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has switched to a new fare payment system called Ventra. Ventra operates similar to the Twin Cities' Metro Transit Go-To card in that a person can buy long term passes and store funds. Its additional feature makes it different. The Ventra card also functions as a prepaid debit card, usable anywhere debit cards are accepted. This may seem like a large jump but in fact is just a continuation of previous services.

The fare cards preceding Ventra, Chicago Card and Go-To, also stored money for later use. The transit service restricted transactions to their proprietary transportation services but the principle of a financial exchange instrument is the same. Eliminating the payment restriction allows people to save money in their transit account just as they would in a traditional bank account. This change would allow those without banking access to the services traditionally accessed though bank accounts.

The transition in Chicago has been controversial, however. The CTA outsourced fare collection and the prepaid debit card system to the private company Ventra rather than keep it agency managed like the Chicago Card. The outsourcing has led to price increases similar to what was experienced when Chicago sold all city parking meters to investment firms. When Ventra took over fare collection for the CTA, single fare tickets increased from $2.25 to $3.00. The one-day pass jumped from $5.75 to $10, a 74% increase. The prepaid debit card is similarly riddled with high costs and hidden fees. Though it is free to activate, estimates using the card will cost $188 per year. This is more expensive than most other prepaid debit cards. This is a good reminder that outsourcing government isn’t better for citizens. It might look cheaper on paper, but only because costs are externalized, especially to those already struggling.

Minnesota can improve on Chicago by implementing the system though the Go-To card. Met Transit would expand the functionality of Go-To cards by letting them act as savings accounts. Public oversight from the Met Council would prevent the price gouging seen in Chicago, giving everyone the opportunity for affordable transactional instruments, creating more options for the unbanked and underbanked.


(Banking data from the FDIC 2011 National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households)

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Personal Finance  Poverty 

Clouds Hang Over Economic Reports and Forecasts

After a few decades of writing about economic reports, trends and forecasts, I've learned it is far easier to analyze what went wrong after the sky has fallen, not while it is falling. Simultaneously, it has been obvious over time that we should never assume the current situation won't change in the near or distant future.

What's prompting this is the rash of generally good news we keep getting about recovery in the Minnesota and national economies. But hanging over monthly and quarterly statistical reports of improved jobs and economic progress are warnings that global problems will slow the U.S. economy.

Minnesota's econnomy is a microcosm of the national economy. At the same time, Minnesota is more trade dependent and thus more exposed to the global economy than at least half the U.S. states.

Two reports this past week from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) serve as a warning. On July 23, the IMF said the U.S. economy slowed in the first quarter due to severe weather across much of the nation that, among other things, kept consumers away from shopping. A day later, the IMF revised downward its growth projections for the global economy, citing weaker growth in the U.S., Russia and major developing countries.

The IMF still sees growth through the coming year. But not all forecasters do.

Bernard Condon, writing in the UK's Independent newspaper, reported on economic forecaster David Levy's warning that the U.S. will likely fall into recession in 2015.

Levy, whose family started the Levy Forecast newsletter in 1949, pegged the collapse of the housing bubble and warned that it would lead to what we now call the Great Recession. His grandfather had called the 1929 stock market collapse that became the Great Depression.

One of the most troubling parts of Condon's article is the support the Levy forecast got from Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University economist. Prasad warned that the global economy is unsustainably riding on endless U.S. consumer spending. Future global recession recoveries will not be singularly buoyed or mitigated by US consumers.

Problems abroad can thus boomarang back and take down the U.S. economy.

These are valid points deserving our attenton or concern although there is little Minnesota can do about it except ride out the storms these clouds may bring. From our farms to factories to front offices, Minnesota is a trade dependent state. That is mostly good, but it does leave us vulnerable and makes a compelling case for greater economic diversification.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Economic Growth  International Trade 

Five Years of Racing to the Top

Congressional conservatives have made it hard to get much done these past few years. This has led to a series of creative workarounds by the Obama administration, including the Race to the Top grant competition five years ago which in part took the place of passing new education legislation. I’m less than thrilled with the program which led to many states agreeing to significant policy changes but only funded a few of those efforts.

Minnesota was not one of the major grant recipients although we did get a smaller Early Learning Challenge Grant in 2011. Five years after Race to the Top, the twelve states receiving the “big” grants (amounting to about one percent of their total education budgets) have spent much of the money. Major priorities include teacher evaluation systems, Common Core adoption and implementation, and beefing up science, math, and technology options.

The federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top priorities meshed in many ways with its conditions for receiving a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Together, these two policies sparked a wave of teacher evaluation systems that place more weight on test scores and fed an image of the Common Core as a federal program (even though it was initiated by foundations and the states). If you like  analogies, Race to the Top was the carrots and the NCLB waiver process was the stick.

As the carrots run low, the Department of Education is left with the stick although they haven’t threatened most states’ NCLB waivers. It’s a make-do approach to policymaking that has encouraged the rapid adoption of several policies, many of which have struggled as they move to implementation. With a new administration taking over after the 2016 elections, it seems likely that the new President and Secretary of Education will continue to use the waiver process and perhaps the occasional grant competition as a way of promoting their policies. This is especially likely if conservatives continue to choke Congress’ ability to function. Were a conservative policy activist such as Michele Bachmann or Scott Walker become the Secretary of Education, the likely result would not be pretty.

The Race to the Top experiment has shown both the power of competitive grants to provoke policy change and the limitations of those grants in ensuring high-quality implementation. We would be better served by actual education policy set in law.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform  Race to the Top  Federal Government 

Socialism—It’s Not a Dirty Word

The United States is unique among the world’s democracies in the relative absence of socialism as an accepted world view and political movement. Unlike most democracies, the U.S. does not have a socialist party capable of winning major elections—a fact that might surprise some Tea Party members who insist that President Barak Obama is himself a socialist!

Yet socialism has played an important role in American history—especially here in Minnesota, where socialists were at the heart of the labor and progressive farm movements, were elected mayors and city council members in both Minneapolis and St. Paul and played a critical role in the foundation of the Farmer-Labor Party.

Signs that history may be repeating itself surfaced in Minneapolis this past November when Ty Moore of Socialist Alternative came within 229 votes of being elected to the city council.

Given the growing divide between the one percent and the rest of us, it is no wonder that socialist ideas are making a comeback. A 2011 poll by Pew Research showed that 49 percent of respondents between the ages of 20 and 29 had a positive view of socialism compared to 43 percent for capitalism.

So why bring socialism out of the closet? What does if offer America and more specifically Minnesota in the current historical moment?

First, socialists believe in class conscious politics and aren’t afraid to use words that reflect that consciousness. When did every American with incomes between $20,000 and $500,000 become middle class? Who erased the term working class from America’s political vocabulary? Naming things as they are is an essential first step to reconnecting working people with the democratic process.

Secondly, socialists refuse to approach public policy with one hand tied behind their back. Not every form of social ownership is a good thing, of course. But the simple act of broadening our public imagination can lead to better public policy ideas. The socialist impulse has given us creative and arguably superior approaches to health care (single payer) professional stadiums (community ownership) and municipal cable. It has given us land trusts in urban neighborhoods, food coops, and commons-based approaches to governing the Great Lakes.

Third, a lived emphasis on the social in socialism is essential to restoring a healthy civic community. Socialism’s core principle is another “S” word —solidarity. As an ideal, socialism is a timely counter to the resurgence of libertarianism, itself a marginal movement (if not a dirty word) only a decade ago.

A 21st century encounter with socialism offers neither the comfort of a uniformly heroic past or a clear-cut road map to a more equitable future. Rather, it offers something more fundamental. Far from being a “dirty word” an honest encounter with socialism as a word, world view and political practice may just be the tonic for a political dialogue worthy of a mature and dynamic society.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Government Policy 


Ending Net Neutrality: Leaving K-12 Behind

This is the second in a four-part series. Read part one here.

Every Minnesotan has a stake in the fight to keep the Internet an accessible, open platform. Schools and education groups, however, are particularly vulnerable to the damage of losing net neutrality.

School librarians are notably opposed to Internet service providers tearing down net neutrality access protections. Already strapped for time and resources, the country’s librarians have a unique view on how their jobs could become much harder if net neutrality were lost.

Lynne Bradley, the director of government relations of the American Library Association, quoted in the Washington Post, states, “We can't afford to pay more [to ISPs]. As public institutions, we're being threatened with limited resources and are trying to provide the best possible service we can given the access we currently have.”

As discussed in my earlier post, the ISPs’ proposal eliminating net neutrality would throttle content based on the bits per minute the content provider (such as Netflix, Twitter, offers as well as the amount of money the content providers give to the ISPs distributing it.

This would inherently limit the ability of public institutions and their limited budgets to ensure that all of their students and teachers have access to the educational materials needed to continue learning and teaching.

Rebecca Buerkett, a librarian and technology specialist in a New York public school district, wrote an Education Week article arguing that the loss of net neutrality could harm the equalizing potential of the Internet, aggravating the existing gaps already between students.

She points out that “for students who might otherwise be ‘low on the totem pole, on the Internet, they're the same as everyone else…Protecting good technology access for my students is very important.’”

ISPs may not even deem educational content to be a significant use of their bandwidth. With the proposed change, these corporations could decide on a whim what content deserves to be sped up or slowed down. It isn’t hard to imagine that educational materials could take a back seat to entertainment providers (such as Netflix or gaming services). Our policymakers and education leaders should know that maintaining net neutrality is important for Minnesota’s children.

Read part 3

For a few additional introductions to the complex issue of Net Neutrality, try PBS Idea Channel’s discussion or The VlogBrothers “Net Neutrality Argument in 3 Minutes,” and, most helpfully, Vi Hart’s comprehensive Net Neutrality Review.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Technology 

Friday Morning Reads

Below is a weekly round-up of news, videos and books that our staff and writers are enjoying this week. Enjoy!

From Lee:
From one Hmong family, four of Johnson High's top students (Pioneer Press) — It was enough to make a fellow East Sider want to go out and give his neighbors a big hug. Mila Koumpilova offered an inspiring salute to the Terrific Thaos in Wednesday's Pioneer Press. St. Paul and its Johnson High School are so lucky. Carlton College is, too. Heck, the entire state has a family to look up to, encourage going forward, and try to emulate.

From Conrad:
Jon Stewart, one of our greatest political satirists, takes on the Highway Trust Fund fandango in Washington.

From Nick:
The Letters That Warren G. Harding’s Family Didn’t Want You to See (New York Times) — As a budding historian, I am really excited that 29th President of the United States, Warren G. Harding's letters are about to become public. I'm sure that it will offer a more complex view of this controversial man!

From Lucille:
Five Ways Unions Are Trying To Get Their Mojo Back (Think Progress) — An encouraging snapshot of union progress across the country.

From Steve:
People Kept Complaining This Restaurant Sucked, Look What They Found Out… (The Meta Picture) -- Here's a very entertaining example of why "blame the workers" isn't always the best default analysis. Also... put down your cell phone and enjoy your meal.

From Jeff:
Obituary: Chester Nez (The Economist) -- This obituary tells the story of the last of the Navajo code-talkers, who died last month. These U.S. marines used their native language, which their own government once tried to prevent them from speaking, to help win WWII.

From John:
The Surprisingly Predictable Patterns of Random Choice (Science Friday) — We're not good at random; we just think that we are. In fact, we're pretty predictable in getting random wrong. Science Friday.

From Deb:
I just picked up Hilary Clinton's new book and look forward reading it. I've been intrigued with the Clinton's since I first started covering them during their time as governor and first lady of Arkansas.

From Michael:
The Original Tea Partiers: How GOP Insurgents Invented Progressivism (The Atlantic)— Click-bait headline aside, this is an entertaining story of some of "Fighting Bob" La Follette's political battles in Wisconsin early last century. For those looking for an example of a political insurgency that actually did some good, it makes for great reading.

From Maria:
I just finished reading Rough Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains by Keith Heyerdahl Meldahl. It's a pretty fast read that is a very interesting and not overly technical history of essential how the western US, including the Great Plains, was made. The author has a good sense of humor and lots of passion for the subject that drew me in. A nerdy read for sure but incredibly fascinating.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

Intolerable Disparities in Minnesota’s Child Well-Being

Minnesota treats children well, but not equally. New data about the status of Minnesotan children shows the state’s overall strengths, but the extent of racial disparities is intolerable. It is time for policymakers, teachers, and community leaders to pay better attention to kids of color.

Minnesota ranked fifth in the nation for children’s general well-being in the annual KIDS COUNT report, released July 22. Minnesota has landed in the top five states for overall child well-being for over a decade which definitely warrants a pat on the back.

In general, Minnesota's economy is flourishing, our schools succeed, and our healthcare systems save lives. Compared to much of the US, Minnesota’s children thrive. Still, many non-white kids do not.

“The report found the state has some of the worst disparities in the country, with nearly half of Minnesota’s black children living in poverty,” MPR’s Sasha Aslanian writes.

Individuals below the poverty line are more than double as likely to be non-whites in Minnesota. We cannot forget about the children in impoverished homes, the resources they lack, and their unfair future ahead if nothing changes.

Neighborhoods with high poverty levels often have higher pollution, more crime, and poorer-performing schools. As the amount of Minnesotan children in poverty increases, kids are at a higher risk for health problems and academic failure.

Research on education, healthcare, and family life shows startling racial gaps. Minnesota’s non-white students are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten and almost 40 percent of black and Hispanic students do not reach the 4th grade reading standard, according to the report.

This inequality is a pressing issue that cannot be solved fast enough. Citizens need to pressure their leaders to prioritize growth for children of color—now.

Minnesota must implement stable programs and infrastructure that address racial disparities among children. These changes should originate from local governments and state legislation, as well as school boards and community outreach organizations.

Every child deserves access to Minnesota’s top-ranked resources. By working to solve the current deep-rooted inequality, we can build a better future for all Minnesotans.

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Children's Health 

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