Legislative leaders of both political parties stepped before the microphones last Thursday to give their spin on the newly released November forecast. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt made one remark that both progressives and conservatives should agree upon: “Minnesota families are making less money than they did prior to the recession, so now isn’t the time for a victory lap.”
Recent Minnesota 2020 articles and reports from other groups have emphasized growing income and wage inequality and declining median incomes in Minnesota. Adjusted for inflation, Minnesota median household income declined by 4.6 percent over the last decade.*
So what can be done to reverse the trend that doubt cites and improve the income and quality of life for Minnesota families?
- An increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 would be a good first step. A recent Raise the Wage Coalition report shows that over three-quarters of the people are over twenty years of age and over 100,000 statewide are married or parents. However, conservatives have generally opposed this simple and direct approach for increasing the wages of working Minnesotans.
- Investments in education are the best long-term approach to increasing the earning power of working Minnesotans. In 2013, state policymakers increased funding for early childhood education, a move endorsed by non-partisan experts and of particular benefit to low-income families. They also reversed a decade of real per pupil cuts in state funding for K-12 education and froze tuition at state colleges and universities, thereby making higher education more affordable for more Minnesotans. Conservatives staunchly resisted the income tax increases which made these investments possible.
- All families need affordable healthcare. In 2013, progressive state policymakers made major progress in this direction by enacting MNsure, which will enable nearly one million Minnesotans to obtain affordable, quality health insurance. Minnesota conservatives also opposed this.
It is encouraging that Minnesota conservatives are recognizing the reality of shrinking family income. It would be even more encouraging if that had the foggiest notion as to what should be done about it.
*Based on American Community Survey one-year estimates for 2002 and 2012.
The U.S. is doing terribly! China is beating us! It’s all the other guy’s fault!
It must be PISA time again. The once-every-three-years international standardized test has released its 2012 scores and rankings. Scores in the US are down, and our ranking remains middle of the pack, trailing much of the rest of the developed world. This has prompted a wave of consternation, much of which isn’t helpful. We’ll take a look at some of the common themes.
The U.S. is flailing.
Scores in the U.S. were down in 2012 (after having increased between 2006 and 2009). We can be embarrassed to have been bested by the likes of Estonia, Slovenia, and Latvia, and we share statistically equivalent company with Norway, Sweden, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Hungary, among others. Leading the charts are Asian jurisdictions -- Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Japan -- with some small European countries like Switzerland and Liechtenstein for flavor.
Then again, the U.S. has always had mediocre test scores. Yes, we live in an increasingly globalized world, so there is some reason for concern that this will matter more than it has in the past. Still, our internal equity problems should probably be a bigger deal to us than persistent worries about our global competitiveness.
China’s much smarter than we are.
There’s a regular bit of sleight-of-hand that happens when we discuss PISA scores, in which the stellar scores from Shanghai are generalized to all of China. This, it turns out, is like generalizing the scores from 2012 Manhattan to the United States in the early twentieth century. Roughly two-thirds of China remains rural, and the top of the education reform to-do list is increasing attendance and access. These are issues we grappled with for much of the last century, but which we have since largely transcended.
Shanghai specifically is a city of college-going elites which excludes low-income migrant families from the schools assessed by PISA. It is in no way representative of China as a whole.
If only we did This Thing I Like, we’d be at the top of the charts, too!
All of the top-scoring and gain-making countries have national curricula, and we don’t! We should adopt one as soon as possible! Oh, hold on a second... pretty much all of the low-scoring and declining countries have national curricula, too. Hmm.
Say it with me: “Correlation is not causation.” Figuring out what thing, or two things, or five dozen things a country has done that impacted their PISA scores is much more complicated [PDF] than seeing what the folks on top are doing.
There are probably some useful lessons we can draw from a careful analysis of PISA data and the contexts and policies that shape those scores. We probably can’t do it in the two or three days after the scores have come out. Breathe, think, and be careful not to read too much into the early punditry.
Budget cuts since 2010 and the subsequent across-the-board cut called “sequestration” that went into effect earlier this year are razing havoc with Minnesota communities’ public housing programs, a new study by Minnesota housing experts reveals.
The Minnesota Housing Partnership and the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Housing a Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) released Out in the Cold: Sequestration and Federal Housing Programs this week.
Surveys of local housing officials found that homeless people and others in need of affordable housing are experiencing greater waits before they can access public housing assistance (Section 8 vouchers), and that the $300 million needed to make public housing improvements is being diverted to operating funds.
The Metro Housing and Redevelopment Authority in the Twin Cities has asked 650 families, including 1,300 children, to move from existing apartments due to cutbacks in public support. Nationally, federal funding for the Housing Choice Voucher program has been cut eight percent since 2010, adjusted for inflation, and support for public housing has been cut by 25 percent.
The two groups cited Center on Budget and Policy Priorities research showing from 2,500 and 3,200 vouchers to help pay for housing will be lost to budget cuts by the end of 2014. “Unless sequestration is reversed, cuts to our largest safety net housing programs will force more vulnerable families, seniors, and people with disabilities into unacceptably high housing payments or housing instability,” the report noted. “Some will become homeless.”
In releasing the study, MHP executive director Chip Halbach called the cuts to these proven housing programs tragic. “It is essential that we find policy alternatives,” he said.
MHP said action will be needed at both the state and federal levels to counteract these swelling problems. It called for an end to sequestration and support for a housing bill in Congress (H.R. 1213), called the Common Sense Housing Investment Act. And in Minnesota, MHP repeated its support for $100 million in state bonding for affordable housing.
Why is a commuter train accident that claims 1 percent of Minnesota's annual highway death toll front-page news 1,200 miles away? Multiple-fatality auto crashes right here seldom crack a Star Tribune cover.
The answer starts with the relative rarity of each of these sad events. Deadly car collisions occur with such drumbeat regularity that editors and readers hardly consider them newsworthy. It's the unusual that merits the headlines. Thus, Sunday's derailment of the 5:54 from Poughkeepsie in the Bronx that killed four and injured dozens more gets the big play in print and on the air.
Strangely, though, this overblown coverage tends to give the erroneous impression that public rail transportation is terribly dangerous. In fact, it's car travel that kills tens of thousands in the United States each year and more than a million worldwide, while rail casualties make up a tiny fraction of those body counts.
But because many more Americans regularly drive than ride transit, the majority can even gain comfort from news of mayhem on public transportation, confident that piloting their own vehicles will keep them safe and sound. Of course, that's true except when it isn't, over and over again.
This is a great example of how might, or ubiquity, makes right. Still, it wasn't so until autocentrism gripped our culture in recent decades. As Brandon Keim pointed out in a Nautilus post, in the first half of the 20th century "the idea of a city oriented around transportation in cars ... would have been incomprehensible."
Eventually, however, the common view of motor vehicles as dangerous intruders on public streets -- required by the city of Cincinnati to be modified for a top speed of 25 miles per hour just 90 years ago -- gave way to the invention of jaywalking as an offense by pedestrians against cars.
These days, the longed-for technological answer to motor vehicle crashes, and congestion too, is the driverless car, seen as a big improvement over those "other guys" behind the wheel who cause all the trouble. Google and U.S. car companies are in hot research pursuit of this latest holy grail of automobility. Volvo just announced a big rollout in its home city of Gothenburg, Sweden.
But, as Burkhard Bilger reported in a fascinating (and lengthy) New Yorker article, getting driverless technology to prime time is a lot trickier than practically anyone imagined. We may yet see lots of robot cars on the street in our lifetimes, but think of the news it will make when one of them inevitably runs amok and kills somebody.
Workers at fast food restaurants rallied all over the nation for a living wage. Many of these workers put in 80-hour weeks just to pay for basic living expenses. They say it's time the major fast food chains start paying workers what's fair in their fight for $15 an hour.
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Last week, we asked our staff, "What's making you happy this week?" and posted a round-up of links for your reading enjoyment. It went over well -- both with the staff and our readers -- so we're going to make it a weekly feature. Our staff have had a busy week: watch for a new education report from Michael to be released on Tuesday, and Jeff has some great Minnesota vs. Wisconsin analysis for Monday. But! We're not the only ones writing great stuff, so without further ado, here are your Friday morning links:
More nonsense from opponents of filibuster reform. (MinnPost) I've long enjoyed the insightful analysis of Eric Black at MinnPost. In this article, Eric debunks some of the myths regarding the U.S. Senate's filibuster rule.
Punch Pizza sets its own minimum wage at $10 per hour. (Business Journal) Even before legislators have a chance to revisit the minimum wage next session, organizers can see the results of their hard work in the shifting public narrative about fair wages. The best example this week: locally owned Punch Pizza announced an across-the-board wage increase to a self-imposed minimum wage of $10/hour.
How Google Earth is busting Persian Gulf nations for overfishing. (Quartz) Easily available satellite images reveal so much environmental information that used to be hard to gauge, but this story also reveals that Googling stuff really can be just as much of a scholarly enterprise as it seems like in college!
American Clean Skies Foundation -- a website with nifty little energy infographics, which is arguing that natural gas can be a bridge-fuel, with lower CO2 emissions and generation plants that are more compatible with renewable energy.
Push for minimum wage hike led by localities, Democrats. (Washington Post) Mike DeBonis and Reid Wilson took a good look at local efforts around the nation to raise the minimum wage to lift people out of poverty. The details revealed should strengthen Minnesotans' resolve that we can't wait for Washington; justice and economic equality can be led from the ground up.
Planet Money Makes a T-shirt (NPR) -- The folks over at Planet Money have just wrapped up an awesome series, "From Seed to Shirt" in which they followed the making of a t-shirt from the cotton field to our closets. Here, they have presented the whole story through text and video. It's beautifully presented and well worth a look.
The University of Minnesota's Family Medicine and Community Health program archives physician training presentations, aimed at broadening physician education while also serving as an important community public health resources. Last month, Dr. Kola Okuyemi presented on e-cigarettes, unregulated drug delivery devices that skirt anti-smoking laws. Short version: there's no good data around e-cigarettes use and many reasons for immediate public action.
Jane McGonigal: Massively multi-player… thumb-wrestling? (TED)
Massively multiplayer thumbwrestling! Mostly I enjoy seeing the often self-serious TED crowd acting a little silly, but the lesssons on the emotional power of games are also worth it.
Posted in News & Notes
The state’s financial outlook for the current biennium improved by over $1 billion, based on the November forecast. The improvement is the result of a $787 million increase in projected revenue and a $247 million dollar reduction in projected expenditures. As a result, the state budget surplus for the current biennium is expected to grow from $47 million (as forecasted at the end of the last special legislative session) to $1.085 billion.
The revenue improvement is primarily the result of increases in projected individual and corporate income tax collections. Other major categories of state revenue showed little change relative to earlier projections. The projected expenditure reduction is distributed among several categories of state spending, with the largest decline relative to the previous end-of-session projection falling in the area of health & human services.
State Economist Laura Kalambokidis noted that the improvement in projected revenue is largely due to improvement in the state’s economy, which continues to outperform the national average. Minnesota’s 3.5 percent GDP growth in 2012 places it among the top six most rapidly growing states. Furthermore, employment has increased to the point where the number of jobs in Minnesota exceeds the post-recession peak achieved in 2008. Minnesota’s unemployment rate is now 4.8 percent—a full 2.5 percent below the national average.
The first $246 million of the improvement in state finances is statutorily dedicated to paying back the K-12 school funding shift. This shift accumulated over previous biennia as the legislature dealt with the recurring state budget deficits by delaying school aid payments to the subsequent biennia, thereby creating a one-time reduction in state expenditure. At its height, this accounting gimmick amounted to $2.8 billion—including both the aid payment delay and the levy recognition shift. With the improvement in state finances indicated in the November forecast, the shift is entirely eliminated.
The scramble over what to do with the state budget surplus will begin in earnest during the 2014 legislative session. At a press conference this morning, Governor Dayton signaled his interest in repealing three unpopular business taxes enacted during the 2013 session, changing the Minnesota’s tax code to more closely conform to federal law, and increasing Minnesota’s Working Family Credit. State policymakers would also be well-advised to increase the state’s budget reserve—as recommended by the 2009 Minnesota Budget Trends Study Commission—in order to deal with future revenue volatility.
State Economist Kalambokidis noted that the potential for volatility in the November forecast projections. At this point, we are only five months into the FY 2014-15 biennium (which began on July 1, 2013). Ongoing instability in the federal budget situation and uncertainty over the amount of revenue that will be generated from the new state taxes enacted during the 2013 session contribute to the degree of uncertainty in this forecast.
However, conservative predictions that jobs would flee Minnesota as a result of the tax increases enacted during the last session have not been borne out, as demonstrated by the fact the job growth in Minnesota continues to outpace the national average and state revenues are accumulating more rapidly than earlier projected. While the final chapter has yet to be written, the November forecast indicates that Minnesota is on the right track.
Click here to go to a website with links to various November forcast documents from Minnesota Management & Budget.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but teachers are often left out of conversations about the quality of their work. For as much attention as policies like linking teacher evaluations or pay to test scores get, there’s not nearly the same focus on what can be done to help teachers improve. Fortunately, teachers are working to gather feedback and ideas from communities across the state. A couple weeks ago in Rochester, Education Minnesota—the state’s teachers’ union—kicked off a statewide tour of community conversations around teacher quality. The next conversation is scheduled for Thursday, December 12, in Brooklyn Park.
[Full disclosure: I am a graduate of Rochester’s Century High School and have worked for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, a local affiliate of Education Minnesota.]
The Rochester conversation began with a panel including students, teachers, a parent, a Winona State administrator, and a member of the Rochester Diversity Council. After the panel, the 58 attendees split into small groups to discuss ideas. The Rochester ideas will be combined with those generated at upcoming meetings in Brooklyn Park, Saint Paul, Bemidji, and Duluth.
The panel and discussion topics included teachers’ flexibility in supporting students’ varied learning styles, communication between families and teachers, the use of mentors and instructional coaches in the Rochester Public Schools to help teachers at all experience levels improve their practice, and efforts to keep up with the ever-advancing set of technologies available to teachers and students.
While this kind of work may not be as flashy as putting together a slick campaign for a policy, it is the kind of collaboration and outreach that we should support. Even if it doesn’t fit the dominant narrative, it’s important to highlight and celebrate teachers’ unions taking responsibility for their members’ quality and working with communities to ensure teachers are meeting the needs of the students and families they serve.
If you’re in the metro area (or up for a commute) and want to be part of the next conversation, it’s at Park Center Senior IB World School in Brooklyn Park (7300 Brooklyn Boulevard) on Thursday, December 12th. The next conversation after that is on January 28 at the Wellstone Center at Neighborhood House in Saint Paul (179 Robie St. E). The online registration form is available on this page.
Quick update, Minnesota ranks 6th in the nation for total wind production and is already halfway to its 25 percent clean energy by 2025 goal—set by 2007's Next Generation Energy Act—with almost 15 percent of the state’s total electricity coming from wind generators in 2012.
The state is on track to add an additional 7 million MWh of wind by 2018, with a possibility for more as state leaders contemplate expanding Minnesota’s renewable energy standard.
According to a new Environment Minnesota report, Wind Energy for a Cleaner America, Minnesota’s wind energy is already avoiding more than 4.5 million metric tons of climate-altering carbon pollution—the equivalent of taking almost 950,000 cars off the road, while saving over 2 billion gallons of water per year—enough to meet the needs of over 80,000 people. The report also shows that today’s wind energy in Minnesota avoids 4,280 tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxides and 5,287 tons of sulfur dioxide, which cause acid rain and soot.
Thanks to its current and future benefits, wind power is a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to reduce the carbon pollution fueling global warming 17 percent by 2020. The plan calls for an expansion of renewable energy, investment in energy efficiency, and the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
Unfortunately, the main federal incentives for wind – the investment tax credit (ITC) and the production tax credit (PTC) – are currently set to expire at the end of 2013. Without these incentives, new wind developments in the state will likely stagnate. Minnesota’s congressional delegation should work to ensure that the tax credits are renewed so the state's wind energy industry continues expanding.
Hanna Terwilliger, Clean Energy Associate with Environment Minnesota, a statewide, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water, and open spaces.
New Orleans families have had a turbulent time of things these past few years. Shortly before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was put into a Recovery School District by the state of Louisiana, opening the doors to more school choice and competition. After the hurricane killed or displaced many of the poorest families in the city, reformers doubled down on the competitive choice model and claimed victory when test scores seemed to rise. They were less upfront about the change in student demographics. Since then, the PR campaign on behalf of New Orleans-style reform has been relentless.
This is not to say that some students aren’t in better schools than they were before. Some are, while others are in worse schools. The entire district, such as it is, has been turned into a maze of educational options, with the burden shifted to families to figure out what to do for their children.
One of the major cheerleaders for this approach is Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, and a recent guest blogger on the “Rick Hess Straight Up” blog at Education Week. Kingsland laid out a three part series of posts arguing that something called “Relinquishment” may be inevitable.
What is Relinquishment? Basically, New Orleans on a large scale. Families navigating a wide range of options (conceivably public and private), with government providing “regulation” in the form of tests, consequences, and, one hopes, health and safety checks.
There’s a similar system in place in a different city, but one which doesn’t get the same PR buzz. The original Relinquishment city: Milwaukee. Milwaukee, where over twenty years of vouchers, and over fifteen years of charter schools and in-district open enrollment has resulted in three systems nearly indistinguishable in their mediocrity, with a couple of standouts per system.
One reason why competitive school choice, now known as Relinquishment, hasn’t fufilled its designers’ hopes is that it doesn’t help anyone build the capacity they need to get the job done. This was explained on the same blog the week before Kingsland’s posts by a different guest blogger, Jal Mehta of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Mehta, skeptical of Relinquishment, distinguished between “thin” theories of school change (e.g. No Child Left Behind, alternative certification, and competitive choice) and “thick” theories of change that emphasize building professional knowledge, strengthening human capital, and improving organizational processes in schools.