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 

Could Go-To Banking be the ticket?

Significant praise has been heaped on ridesharing services. Uber, Car2Go, HourCar and NiceRideMN, to name a few, are lauded for increasing transportation options. Each service adds another way to get from point A to B, making our multimodal system stronger. These networks run best when switching from one mode to another is easy and obvious.

Now, however, these services accept payment in different methods. Uber and Lyft charge through a smart phone application. Car2Go and HourCar have membership cards to unlock the vehicles; and NiceRideMN uses a credit card or a membership card. Each of these services uses a different system, making it challenging to switch from one to another. This makes our multi-modal network weaker. There should be one card that works across all platforms, so each mode is easily accessible. The Metro Transit Go-To cards can be that card.

Go-To cards already make for a more efficient public transportation system. They can be used as a monthly pass or as stored value, so no accidentally throwing out a needed transfer. With only a quick swipe needed for payment, boarding the bus is faster. When money is added to the card, an extra 10 percent is added, making taking the bus an even cheaper option than driving. With a solid track record of success, expanding Go-To cards to all the transportation options just makes sense.

The expansion would benefit many regular Go-To card users. Many high school students use a Go-To card everyday. Since 2013, all public school buses to high schools have been discontinued and replaced with Go-To passes. The collaboration between Met Transit and Minneapolis Public Schools gives each eligible student a Go-To card that provides rides between 5:00am and 10:00pm. Adding the other multi-modal options to the card improves access for these students. It facilitates students to take the bus to the library or a museum and take a NiceRide the last 5 blocks, making the city a classroom for all students.

Let’s expand Go-To cards to NiceRides and car-sharing services like Uber and HourCar. Adding Go-To cards to other transportation services would strengthen our multimodal transportation system helping people connect to destinations in a way that works for them.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Personal Finance  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Geezers Behind the Wheel

Minnesota's "Queen Mother of Comedy," the late, great Merrilyn Belgum, used to crack about how tough it was to get old. "I can't see or hear," she'd say. "Thank God, I can still drive!"

I was reminded of this wry observation and its transportation policy implications when a Minnesota 2020 colleague alerted me to a recent Minnesota House Research report entitled "Older Drivers"—shortly before I was due for my driver's license renewal. 

As someone who's doing really well for an old man on Medicare, I didn't know whether to take that as a hint or not. Regardless, I passed the vision test and was granted another four years behind the wheel.

As I've found so often in my Baby Boomer lifetime, I'm part of a serious trend. According to the report, the number of Minnesotans over the ages of both 65 and 85, respectively, is expected to double from 2010 levels by 2035. By 2030, 69 of the state's 87 counties will have an elderly population of more than 20 percent. In recent years, the traffic crash and fatality rates for older drivers has been declining, but the percentage of overall crashes involving us geezers has been rising.

Historically, crash rates are the highest among the drivers at each end of the age spectrum. Minnesota and most other states have attacked the problem for the young-'uns with a number of policy changes in recent years and continue to strengthen restrictions on them.

Similar measures targeting elders are few and far between. While youthful recklessness is implicated and addressed, there's been little response to the declining vision, hearing, cognitive ability, motor function and physical resilience that may come with advancing age.

In fact, Minnesota law specifically prohibits extra driving examinations based on age. A few states have required a new road test for older drivers, required doctors to report medical conditions that could impair driving and shortened the renewal cycle beyond a certain age. According to the House report, Minnesota mandates several renewal policies—a relatively short 4-year cycle and in-person application and vision tests—for all drivers regardless of age.

Our state does allow case-by-case evaluation of licensees based on reports of potential driving impediments received from family members, police or physicians. Still, a significant protection against seniors driving badly is just self-regulation, voluntary restriction of time behind the wheel, according to the report. An 88-year-old friend of mine has done just that, relying instead on his bicycle to get around his south Minneapolis haunts.

"The increase in older Minnesota drivers will likely continue to raise various policy questions," the House report concludes, noting that potential responses need not be limited to driving privileges alone. Attention should be paid as well to "the capacity and geographic distribution of other transportation options (such as transit service)," it adds.

And that's a refreshing step outside the box of autocentric thinking that permeates our culture. My city-dwelling friend can ride his bike or the bus to practically anywhere he needs to go. But greater percentages of the elderly live in Greater Minnesota, where distances are daunting, transit service is sparse and what exists is heavily used by older folks. Road crash and fatality rates also are much higher outside the Twin Cities. Minnesota is a national leader in providing rural transit, but it will need continuing improvements in that area as the population ages.

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

The Importance of Teachers, Time, and Training

“Blended learning” is one of those buzzwords that flies around the edu-sphere. Done right, the combination of in-person and online education, often spread between time in school and time at home, has real potential to aid in helping each student learn at their own pace. Done incorrectly, it turns into a frustrating waste of time and money. A pilot project at a handful of schools in Oakland, CA, recently got some attention from Education Next. The story highlights key areas that districts considering blended learning should remember.

The first of these is the central role of teachers in making a pedagogical shift of any kind happen. In the Oakland blended learning example, according to Education Next, “all the teachers within the schools that implemented blended learning were “early adopters” who wanted to try something new.” It’s tough to overstate the significance of voluntary adoption in place of top-down mandates for creating positive changes in teaching. If a change is successful, those early adopters can become local experts, helping other teachers who have become interested master the new approach (especially in schools and districts that prioritize local, teacher-led professional development).

Time is another critical consideration. The roll-out of blended learning in Oakland wasn’t a rush job. It certainly wasn’t the kind of massive, district-wide technology purchase like the $2 million iPad boondoggle in Los Angeles or the bulk iPad purchases many Minnesota districts have made or discussed. Instead, different schools in the Oakland pilot tried different tools, learning from each others' successes and failures. This is the kind of deliberate pacing that allows teachers, principals, and district administrators to learn and make informed choices as they work for change, rather than betting big on one fast, big purchase.

Finally, the Oakland experiment realized the importance of training. Teachers spent at least an extra hour a week on training and collaboration. The foundation footing the bill made specialists available, especially to schools that struggled the most. The current goal is to adapt the early lessons into training and coaching support for expanding the approach.

The importance of teachers, time, and training aren’t just important for blended learning. They’re important to all major changes in how teaching and learning happen in schools. We need a school system that trusts teachers as leaders and gives them the time and training they need to make education better.

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

Ending Net Neutrality: A Primer

Net neutrality is the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all service consumer equally, regardless of bandwidth use. Currently, consumers and website creators buy access to the Internet at the same rate regardless of use. But, that could change.

Instead of allowing Minnesota 2020 or online retailing giant Amazon to be accessed at the same speed, the proposed tiered system could deliver Amazon to you at a faster speed than Minnesota 2020, simply because Amazon was able to pay your specific ISP (such as Comcast or Time-Warner Cable) more money for its bits to load faster.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing a rule to “protect and promote the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission, and thereby to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability and remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” The FCC has extended a public comment period on the issue of classifying ISPs as common carriers, so anyone (including you) can leave a comment on their website.

ISPs dislike this rule, because it treats them as common carriers. Common carriers (including buses, trains and cargo ships) cannot refuse or limit service to any user, since the service they provide can be accessed simply for a fee.

Classifying ISPs as common carriers is in the public’s interest because it ensures that anti-trust laws against monopolies are enforced and that the Internet maintains its status as a level playing field. Without this classification, ISPs could refuse to build high speed internet infrastructure in rural areas because they will not be turning an acceptable profit.

To put it simply, net neutrality is one of the most important undiscussed public policy issues. In subsequent posts, I will explain the specific implications that the loss of net neutrality could have in many different sectors that impact Minnesotans’ daily lives. There's much to think about it.

For 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 Economic Development | Related Topics: Communication  Technology 

There are no Magic Bullets

If there is one thing that my Introduction to Global Health class taught me, it is that there are no magic public healthcare policy bullets. We simply cannot isolate issues to identify micro-solutions sufficient to overcome large scale, sytemic challenges.

Minnesota, compared to the rest of the United States, has an exceptional health care system. According to the United Health Foundation, Minnesota’s health care system ranks number three, with our strengths being a low prevalence of physical inactivity and diabetes, a strong high school graduation rate, and low rates of premature death and cardiovascular disease deaths. However, MPR’s recent reports that investigate Minnesota health disparities are revealing a disturbing trend. Marginalized individuals have higher rates of health discrepancies. This marginalization threatens the whole.

Marginalized Minnesotans' health disparities aren’t simply due to poor health care access although that certainly can play a role. Health disparities are often linked to external factors such as stress faced by discrimination, the proximity of one’s home to an interstate, and the home's condition.

Many, if not all, of our lifestyle choices impact our health. If we choose to smoke, we put ourselves at a higher risk for lung cancer. If we drink excessively, we put ourselves at a higher risk for liver damage. However, do we want to accept a Minnesota that allows for marginalized individuals to face higher health care costs for a lifestyle they do not choose but is forced upon by economic status?

Consider long-term health care cost to society. Kids going to the hospital for an asthma attack due to home location to hospital bills that the family may or may not be able to afford, undermining family economic stability. It also reduces the hospital space for people who endure non-preventable emergencies. A society ruled by stress, a notable health issue in the LGBTQ community, only increases our nation’s mental health epidemic and affects our society’s ability to be as productive, and happy, as we can be.

Resolving and improving these challenges won't be easy. There is no magic bullet. We can’t focus on health care and expect it to improve drastically just as we can’t simply focus on housing development or education. We can't lose sight of the big picture in our world of specialization. Seeing the forest is just as important as seeing each tree.

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Health Care Reform  Public Health 

Good Jobs, Bad Jobs Reports for Clearwater County, Rural Minnesota

The Minnesota county with the highest unemployment rate in June also saw the greatest month-to-month improvement among Minnesota's 87 counties.

Clearwater County, in northwest Minnesota, had a full one percent drop in the official unemployment rate from May with unemployment falling to 9.5 percent in June from 10.5 percent in May and and from a painfully high 14 percent as recent as April.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) released June unemployment data for counties on Tuesday, July 22. Statewide, Minnesota is among the Top Ten states for low unemployment, at 4.5 percent, but the extremes of both high and low unemployment continue to be localized in counties far from the Twin Cities metro area.

Tom Burford, manager of the Farmers Publishing Co. community cooperative and editor of its Farmers Independent newspaper at Bagley, said he suspects the statistical improvement in the county unemployment rate reflects a return to more "normal" employment in June. "We really had awful spring weather," he said.

A few firms, such as component parts engineering and manufacturing company Team Industries at Bagley, have added jobs, he said. At the same time, no new factories or new businesses have opened in the county and started hiring in June.

Clay County is the Minnesota side of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area. It had the lowest unemployment rates in June at 2.8 percent. Stevens County, which had a statewide low of 2.6 percent unemployment rate in May, had its June rate bump to 3.0 percent.

The Canadian border county of Koochiching, meanwhile, saw June unemployment increase a tick to 9.2 percent, from 9.1percent in May, to join Clearwater County on the high end of the unemployment list.

Except for Clay, statistical measures of employment and unemployment are influenced by thin numbers in demographic information in several rural counties. Clearwater County, with five incorporated cities that are all small towns, had only 8,695 residents in the 2010 Census. County seat Bagley, the county's largest city, had a population of 1,392.

As Burford noted, it doesn't take a huge number of jobs gained or lost to impact the unemployment rate in densely populated counties. Going forward, however, it will take jobs creation and higher paying jobs to lift people out of poverty and get unemployed people back into the jobs market.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Unemployment  Rural Minnesota 

Game-Based Ed Gains XP

Say the word “game” to someone and their first thought might be of a frivolous (perhaps even trivial) pursuit. However, effectively merging the best of games with education offers real potential for increasing learning and personal development in many areas.

The Atlantic has covered some of the leaders in bringing game-based learning to higher education. Notoriously slow to change its pedagogy, college and university learning is dominated by the lecture approach that too often bores students and proves less effective than desired in helping them learn. A few professors have applied the principles of game design—narratives, quests, collaborative guilds, experience points (XP), etc.—to their classrooms, and have seen increases in attendance, engagement, and performance.

The use of gamification isn’t limited to the college level. Perhaps the most widely known gaming-and-learning Minnesota educator is White Bear Lake elementary teacher Ananth Pai. He has put significant time and personal resources into using technology-supported games to help K-12 students learn better. The results have been impressive.

In higher education and the K-12 environment, the benefits of games reach far beyond test scores. The effects of well-designed gamification support collaboration, persistence, and problem solving, along with many other tough-to-measure areas. Gaming at home, whether with classics like chess or newer games like Set or Quarto (both of which have been around for years, but which are still new in comparison to chess), has also been shown to help children build executive function, strategic thinking, concentration, and impulse control, among other areas.

As with all innovations—especially where technology is involved—the use of game-based education shouldn’t be enforced by top-down mandates. Instead, it relies on teachers putting the time and effort into changing the way they teach to use gaming principles effectively. They should be supported in this effort. Teachers who have already had success would make good candidates for local, teacher-led professional development for other interested teachers.

There is a lot of good to be reaped from integrating games and education, and teachers who are interested in doing so should have the flexibility, trust, and support they need to make it happen.

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

Community Collaboration Helps Shape Policy

Public policy shapes and regulates our country, states, and municipalities but it can also strengthen and empower communities. Unfortunately, policy is too often created without enough (or any) input from those it affects. To change this typical top-down implementation framework, communities must organize their members to help fight for policies that they, collectively, are passionate about and will benefit from.

The Twin Cities Labor Chorus at the East Side Freedom Library

Minnesota is home to many unique communities—towns, neighborhoods, cultural communities, and others—that each face their own obstacles when trying to bring people together. Some communities experience large variation in ages, ethnicities, countries of origin, and languages, and these differences should be celebrated. While such celebration doesn’t always come easily, one way to help connect people is by sharing personal narratives, which help people empathize and create movements that win the policies that can help all different members.

My recent tour of the East Side Freedom Library opened my eyes to the necessity of community ties and collaboration. Formerly the community's St Paul branch library, one of three historic Carnegie libraries, it has been reinvented as a community space where members of the community can share their stories and research the area’s rich history. Peter Rachleff, the president and project visionary, shared with me his ideas of the many ways (plays, paintings, sculpture, readings, etc) people could tell their stories.

This combination of storytelling and historical research helps neighbors connect with and understand those around them, despite any barriers. These established connections can lead to further discussions and understanding, helping a group of people come together because of their differences to help change things for the better.

This type of hyper-localized community building is just one of many examples around the state. Others include: community centers run by local parks and rec boards and resident volunteers, schools that directly involve parents in their children’s education, and community gardens.

Too often people become disconnected from their neighbors, their town, or their city, and what they need is a connecting force or institution to bring them together. Public policy that builds these connections creates a feedback loop, empowering people to take control and shape future policies that affect their communities. We should expect more public policy to make stronger and more supportive communities where hopefully all people, no matter their differences, will benefit and thrive.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Libraries  Progressive Community 

Fix the Green Line Slowdown

Given that the average rider's trip on the new light rail Green Line is just 3 miles long, its slower than expected travel times between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns shouldn't discourage patronage much. In fact, weekday ridership is already 10 percent above projections for next year, even before a likely boost once fall classes start at the University of Minnesota campus bisected by the tracks.

Metro Transit officials have said all along that if you want a quick trip the length of the Green Line's route, take the 94 Flyer bus down the freeway. The light rail is designed more for shorter connections to the many busy nodes between the downtowns.

But one impact of the Green Line slowdown—sometimes clocking well more than 20 minutes over the 40-minute end-to-end timetable originally estimated, according to the Star Tribune—should be a concern. That's the added cost of putting more trains on the line in an effort to keep closer to the posted schedule. According to Frederick Melo in the Pioneer Press, that could inflate the service's $35 million annual gross operating budget, already a sore point with transit-bashing conservatives.

Trains often being forced to wait at 46 traffic signals in St. Paul has been blamed for the delays. City officials have rejected giving the light rail signal preemption such as the Blue Line enjoys along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. "That is just seriously bad engineering," UofM Prof. David Levinson told the Strib. "If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible."

Former Metro Transit planner Aaron Issacs has suggested a sensible compromise on—give the trains full signal preemption at 19 intersections along University Avenue where combined car-light rail traffic is 3 to 8 times greater than that on the cross streets. 

"It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic," Metro Transit chief Brian Lamb said in a statement quoted in the Pioneer Press.

So far, city officials say giving the Green Line the green light anywhere would unduly disadvantage drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the tracks. They contend that fine-tuning a signal system that is supposed to give the trains partial priority can solve the problem. According to Isaacs, however, "There are simply too many traffic lights spaced too close together for conventional signal timing with priority to move the trains along."

I live in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis and often drive across Hiawatha and the Blue Line tracks. Sometimes I get delayed a few seconds by the trains. Big whoop. If St. Paul leaders want to reap the full benefits of the Green Line's game-changing transit improvement, they should do more to help it operate efficiently and economically.

Photo from Metro Transit, Flikr

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Central Corridor 


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