Voter Registration is First Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Minnesota Elections 

An Agency for All Seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: mining 

What Price Parking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining a “Full-Time” Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

Waiting for Superpolicy

One of the themes running through 2010’s Waiting for “Superman” and many branches of education reform rhetoric is the notion of a “sense of urgency.” It’s the idea that the issues in our school system (whatever the speaker may have diagnosed them as being) are so pressing and so immediately hurting kids that we must change them dramatically and as quickly as possible. But can that be counterproductive? Is it true, as Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute has written, that “kids can wait for good policy making”?

DiCarlo wrote that as part of a longer piece in mid-2013, arguing that good policy making often takes longer than the politics and rhetoric of school improvement can tolerate. It’s an idea he revisited recently when he diagnosed one of the major political problems of testing-and-markets oriented reformers. In his analysis, reformers often overpromise on both how significant the results of their proposals will be and how quickly those results can be achieved.

In some ways, it’s a variation on a theme discussed by longtime educator and reformer Larry Cuban, who devoted a blog post in late August to discussing the “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct” first described in Charles Payne’s book, So Much Reform, So Little Change. Some of the key parts of that pledge are, “I will not overpromise,” “I will not expect change overnight,” and “I will not try to scale up prematurely.”

How can we reconcile these arguments—informed as they are by a detailed understanding of the real history of various reform attempts in this country—with the sense of urgency that so many of us across the ideological spectrum feel? Not easily, that’s for sure. When we can see individual children struggling, it’s natural to ask, “How long will this take?”

Maybe the answer lies not in the particular policies we settle on, but how we get there and who is part of the process. A more inclusive decision-making process that welcomes teachers and families as valued voices in the long work of improving schools will be long and messy. It will also, however, put more hands on deck since more people will have been involved in considering options and selecting a direction in which to proceed. This also allows change to happen school by school and district by district, on the terms set by each community. It’s a form of empowerment we need more of in today’s attempts to address educational inequity.

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

Friday Reads from the MN2020 Staff

Below is a round-up of links to things that our staff are resonating with this week. Something a little on the lighter side for a Friday afternoon. Enjoy! If you have time, tell us... what's making you happy this week?

From Conrad:
Behind-The-Scenes Look At MnDOT Traffic Operations (WCCO) — Technology is such an integral part of a 21st century transportation system that it's hard to keep track of everything that makes our travel safer and more efficient. I reviewed some of it in an article this week, but forgot some other longstanding wizardry right here at home. WCCO-TV offers a nice look at how freeway cameras and a traffic app work in the Twin Cities.

From Deb:
2 Q-C women marry after 72 years together (Quad-City Times) — At ages 90 and 91, these two Iowa women marry after 72 years together.

From Camille:
Margaret Atwood's new work will remain unseen for a century (The Guardian) — One of my favorite authors is the first to contribute to the Future Library, a project which will publish new novels 100 years after they are written.

From Steve:
Every year around this time, I get invited to join a fantasy football league, and can never quite muster sufficient interest in non-Vikings NFL games to join in. A new, Minnesota-based web startup called Fantasy Geopolitics might be more my speed. 

From Lee:
Texas Governor Perry's lawyers invoke Louis XIV to dismiss charges (Reuters) — Attorneys for Texas Gov. Rick Perry are reminding us that legal briefs can make clever and fun reads.

From Maria:
Alternative Energy Revolution (XKCD) — When I first started to get to know wind power as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, Morris, the same (but less dramatic) thought popped in my head as I too read the Tripod Trilogy.

From Michael Diedrich:
The Ghostbusters are an Antidote to Lovecraft's Dismal Worldview (Tor.com) — Appropriately timed for the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters, this is a fun analysis, which may also double as an exercise in dramatically overthinking a piece of entertainment.

From Jeff:
Groucho Marx Quotes (GoodReads) -- Groucho Marx was one of the funniest guys of the twentieth century and his one-liners are the stuff of legend. One of my favorite Groucho quotes (not included in this list): "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

From John:
Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. As Corrigan demonstrates, there's so much going on in Gatsby in so few pages.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

The Economic Weight of Mining

Up in the beautiful realm of Northeastern Minnesota, there is a region aptly known as the Iron Range. The name comes from the ore that is abundantly in the ground: taconite. This precious rock is used to make steel, and on the Range, there not only is a lot of it, but it is an amazingly pure grade.

To call the mining industry the region’s most important economic sector would be vastly understating all that it does to make the lives of those who live there better. Taconite supports high wage union jobs, funds agencies that promote economic development through business grants, supports schools and higher education throughout the state, and aids residents in property tax relief. It facilitates all of this development through one simple tax.

In 1964, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Taconite Tax Act. The act created a statute that relieved the mining companies in the area of property tax obligations for the land they operate on in return for a tonnage tax paid for all ore taken out of the ground. In 2014, the amount of the tax was set at $2.56 per ton of ore. According to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, more than $102 million was collected in 2012. Out of that revenue, nearly $14 million went to cities and townships, nearly $16 million went to local school districts, over $14 million went counties, $16 million went to property tax relief, and $30 million went to the Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board.

The economic impact of the mining industry to the Iron Range beyond tax revenue also cannot be ignored. According to  the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth, mining accounts for more than 11,200 jobs directly and indirectly in the state and adds billions of dollars to the regional economy.

In a time for our state when nonferrous mining is such a divisive political issue, it is important to remember why so many people have trouble dismissing its expansion. The issue of precious metal mining is one of huge importance and carries with it some very real risks to the environment if not implemented safely. It's also wise for us to survey all that mining has done for our state so we can understand both sides of the debate more clearly. For Iron Rangers, mining isn’t simply a business sector, it puts food on their tables, promotes all types of business and funds all levels of education. In short, it is a way of life.

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

Getting Psychological in Less Traditional Schools

Context, we’ve been told, is everything, and that’s certainly true when exploring options for improving education.

Yesterday’s article discussed psychological approaches to improving student engagement and learning that emphasize growth mindsets and students’ sense of belonging in school. These are important shifts in how students perceive their schools and their teachers, and one aspect I didn’t have space to discuss was how they might look different in “alternative” pedagogical models like student-driven, project-based learning.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about project-based learning in the student-driven context. As a short recap, it’s a much more student-directed model for learning than the traditional teacher-led classroom. Students initiate their own projects in consultation with teachers, agreeing on the standards and measurements the project will apply. As one might imagine, the way teachers communicate high expectations, growth mindsets, and a sense of belonging in this system will look different.

In fact, one could argue that teachers using this model are already required to be more attuned to these factors than teachers in the traditional model. The project design process requires regular and explicit communication about expectations, rigor, and assessment. Teachers are more often going to be co-learners with students, especially when the student is exploring a topic that’s less familiar to the teacher (while still being in the discipline). The most effective ways to keep students motivated as they execute their plans for their projects will tend to reinforce growth mindsets, and knowing that everyone else is experiencing something similar will hopefully build that sense of belonging.

In many ways, the systems used in “alternative” schools may already be addressing some of the under-utilized but important routes to learning and student engagement. We would do well to think more seriously about moving these pedagogical models into the mainstream more often, in consultation with the teachers who will be carrying them out (many of whom would already love to do this, but who find themselves constrained by narrow, test-obsessed requirements).

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

Meeting Needs of an Aging Population Increases Access for All

Between now and 2045, the number of Minnesota adults aged 65 or older is expected to skyrocket. By 2030, more than 1 in 5 Minnesotans will be considered older adults, according to data from Minnesota Compass and the Wilder Foundation.

Minnesota's aging population: Prepare for lift off
Source: Minnesota Compass

This trend is not limited to the state. Nationwide, the number of adults aged 65-74 will nearly double from 21.7 million in 2010 to 38.6 million in 2030. And as the older adult population continues to grow, it also grows in political significance. Meeting the needs of aging adults offers Minnesota an opportunity to invest in transportation and housing solutions that will increase community access for all ages.

Median income levels of older households remain nearly $20,000 below the Minnesota average. In 2012, one third of adults aged 50+ paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing. The JCHS reports that older, severely-cost-burdened households spend 43 percent less on food and 59 percent less on healthcare than similar households who live in housing they can afford. And nationwide, 600,000 people ages 70 and over stop driving. A recent ranking by USA.com suggests that the Twin Cities region has the second lowest population density of the nation’s 25 metropolitan areas, which means people have to travel farther and longer to get what they need. Older adults are often more cost-burdened and isolated than any other age group, but local policy solutions can meet these needs. 

Offering more diverse and affordable housing options located near amenities—or near transportation to amenities—can lessen the cost burden older adults face. Many want to live in homes they already occupy, so providing subsidies for remodeling housing with disability accessibility features could be a crucial step. Expanded transportation options near these affordable homes would increase the mobility of older adults, making it easier for them to access health care, the grocery store, and their family. Easy transportation options could enable older adults to stay in the workforce, increasing their income and lessening their cost burden. 

Communities that meet the needs of older adults help everybody out. Housing and transportation are cost burdens that much of the population faces, regardless of whether they have grey hair. Rather than being a burden to society, accommodations for older adults can lead to innovative solutions to transforming the accessibility of Minnesota’s cities.    

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Rural Minnesota  Housing Market  Senior Issues 

Workers Share of Corporate Income Falls

Corporate income goes to either one of two places: employees or corporate owners. According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, workers’ share of corporate income in 2013 fell to its lowest point in over sixty years—a further indicator of mounting wage and income inequality.

The employee versus owner share of corporate income can swing significantly over short periods of time, with the owner share falling sharply during a recession and growing rapidly during a recovery; changes in tax law can also have a short-term effect. However, the overall trend in the employee share of corporate income since 2000 has been downward, falling from approximately 82 percent in 2000 to 73 percent in 2014.

The downward drift in the employee share of corporate income corresponds with the decline in median household income, which from 1999 to 2012 declined by 11.2 percent nationally and 9.3 percent in Minnesota after adjusting for inflation, based on data from Minnesota Compass. (Since 2010, Minnesota’s median household income has increased slightly, while national median household income has continued to decline.)

The declining share of corporate income going to workers is yet another indicator of a trend that continues to be the greatest economic challenge of modern times: growing income inequality and shrinking median income. These trends undermine the great engine of the state and national economies: consumer demand driven by the purchasing power of middle-income families. So long as the share of income accruing to working households continues to erode, robust and sustainable long-term job and economic growth will remain illusory.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Corporate Business  Workers' Rights 

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