End of an Era

A little more than seven years ago, Minnesota 2020 was founded with John Van Hecke as its founding Executive Director. At the time of its founding, many were rightly skeptical that a progressive think tank could thrive in Minnesota and have the kind of impact on public policy that its founders envisioned.

John Van Hecke successfully navigated the challenges of a start-up organization and built Minnesota 2020 into a respected, credible source for data-driven research. His vision, oversight, and editorial perspective have all been contributed to the foundation on which our organization stands. His weekly column has attracted a loyal following each Friday, and is often reprinted in newspapers around the state.


John at a press event in 2009

Seven years later, John has decided its time to step back from the organization he built. He’ll continue to write for us as a Senior Fellow from time to time, but today is his last day in the office, and tomorrow’s Journal will be his last weekly Friday column.

On behalf of the entire staff at Minnesota 2020, we wish him good health and good fortune, and want to express our profound gratitude for his many accomplishments here. We’ll continue to build on the foundation John built. It remains as vital a mission as ever to widely share a progressive, research-based vision for a prosperous, just, and sustainable Minnesota.

We’re beginning to organize a party to more properly celebrate John’s accomplishments. Stay tuned for more details. In the meantime, I invite you to write him a note in the comments to wish him well and let him know what his work at Minnesota 2020 has meant to you.

Posted in News & Notes

1 Comment ->

How Conservatives Co-Opt the Language of Equity

Here we go again.

Conservatives running for governor in Minnesota have justified their calls for school vouchers and market approaches using the language of equity. Now, the leading conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate has joined the chorus denouncing Minnesota’s educational equity gaps. Calling the test score gaps between black and white students in Minneapolis “immoral,” he went on to argue for defunding district schools and doubling down on the questionable market-based strategy conservatives love.

On the surface, this looks like a simple case of everyone agreeing about a problem but disagreeing about the solution. In fact, matters are more complicated. It’s no coincidence that a conservative’s policy recommendation is to move from a public service to a market. That measure is right up there with cutting taxes as a favorite conservative tool. The problem this candidate sees isn’t actually the test score gap but rather the institution of public schools.

Similarly, progressives who favor adequate and equitable funding for public schools, more full-service community schools, and greater democratic involvement in school improvement aren’t simply reacting to test scores. We’re trying to overcome a history of systematic oppression at many levels of society, prolonged underfunding of schools, and widespread opportunity gaps between the comfortable and those working hard just to get by.

We may have reached a common rhetoric but that shouldn’t be confused with a shared understanding of the real problems. We don’t actually see the same problem, which is why our preferred policies look so different.

The unfortunate reality is that conservatives have co-opted the language of equity to argue for a market-based approach that has a terrible track record for promoting equity. Markets have not produced equity in housing, health, or food; why should we expect them to produce equity in education?

Functioning markets produce efficiency but even a basic introduction to economics should include the disclaimer that they don’t automatically produce equity. What’s more, the conditions required for an equitable education are fundamentally incompatible with a competitive market. Striving to create “better” markets in schools will not produce a fair school system.

Innovation can happen outside the marketplace. Results can happen outside the marketplace. Equity almost always happens outside the marketplace. Those looking to promote equity should be wary of conservatives using the language of civil rights to justify defunding our schools.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Achievement Gap  Conservative Policy  Racial Inequalities 

A Good Week for Workers

As anyone who reads Minnesota 2020 with any frequency knows, we worked hard to make the case last year for a minimum wage increase. Tomorrow, that law takes effect, and it's a great occasion to celebrate, for us and for all of the groups who made up the Raise the Wage coalition. After more than a year of hard work knocking on doors, making phone calls, writing reports, holding press conferences, and contacting elected officials, the Coalition will finally get to see the outcome of our hard work: more than 325,000 Minnesota workers are getting a much-needed raise.  

Also this week, New York City's new paid sick leave law went into effect, representing the culmination of a similarly hard-fought campaign in New York, and meeting an urgent need for workers that Minnesota has not yet met. Too often, workers who are barely getting by are forced to make nearly impossible choices between caring for themselves and their children, and losing their jobs.  New York City is taking the lead, implementing a policy solution that will stabilize employment for low-wage workers, and create a more sustainable and healthier work environment for everyone. This is a good idea for New York City, and it would be a good idea in Minnesota, too.  

Finally, we started off the week with an NLRB ruling that holds that fast food companies like McDonald's are "joint employers," which means they can no longer hide behind their franchise operators when workers are being mistreated. For the fast food workers around the country who have been organizing for higher wages and benefits, this represents a major breakthrough that appropriately holds large corporations accountable for wages and working conditions in their stores.  

Let's find energy in a week full of celebration-worthy labor news, and keep fighting for worker justice everywhere.   

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Minimum Wage 

1 Comment ->

Ending Net Neutrality: Dropping the Bottom Out of Innovation

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

As discussed in previous blog posts, the potential for internet service providers (ISPs) to throttle speed to content providers (such as Netflix, CNN.com, MN2020.org, etc) that don’t pay a premium is a looming problem. If you’re unconvinced by arguments based on free speech principles and the justice of keeping access to ideas open, perhaps the economics of the end of net neutrality will be convincing.

ISPs are basically the only beneficiaries of net neutrality's discontinuation. Established content providers and start-ups are both in jeopardy from this policy change.

For established organizations, including news organizations, entertainment outlets, and gaming websites, the significant revenue needed to pay ISPs the premium to be “fast-laned” could slow expansion. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity, these new expenses mean “businesses would have less incentive to expand their sites and applications.”

Many start-up companies, regardless of their market, utilize the Internet for at least one of three things: 1) advertisement and brand recognition, 2) feedback and improvement and/or 3) product distribution. During a conference in Maine, Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, points out that the death of net neutrality “would hurt small start-ups and give cable companies an unfair competitive advantage over content providers that do not own their own delivery infrastructure.”

In 2006, for example, “Twitter” was unknown. But, due to its identical speed with Facebook, users were willing to try it out. Now, in 2014, Twitter is the third most used social network in the history of the Internet.

The economic debate over net neutrality comes down to where internet revenue distribution. ISPs argue it should go into their pockets, due to the physical infrastructure they must build to continue serving their customers. On the other hand, supporters of open speech, start-ups and content providers believe that the money should go to the innovators and providers of content, regardless of their corporate affiliation.

Progressives should stand for free speech, great educational opportunities, and a strong and competitive economy. That means standing up for net neutrality.

 

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 Economic Development | Related Topics: Economic Growth  Technology 

1 Comment ->

The Housing-Education Link

Housing policy is education policy, undeniably and inseparably. A new study further supports this idea.

Johns Hopkins researchers followed families using affordable housing and found that families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line who spend either more than half or less than 20 percent of their income on housing tend to observe adverse effects on children’s cognitive ability. The researchers suggest that, within this group, those who spend more than half of their income on housing aren’t able to afford as many additional supports for their children while those who spend less than 20 percent wind up in especially subpar living conditions.

Based on these associations, the researchers suggest that 30 percent is roughly the “sweet spot” for expenditures on housing relative to other goods and services. Unfortunately, nearly nine out of ten renters with particularly low incomes spent more than that at the time of the study.

Creating effective housing policy that provides enough reasonable, affordable housing to meet demand has proven persistently difficult. Despite several different strategies over the years, the results in the U.S. have been largely disappointing.

This isn’t to say that housing policy has no impact. The enduring effects of racist housing policy from the early and mid-20th century continue to haunt our society. It’s creating and sustaining equitable housing that has been the challenge.

The connections between housing situation and cognitive ability have obvious repercussions in education, where the effects of non-school factors have long been known to exert great influence over student performance. This makes sense; when the real life concerns of your home and neighborhood outweigh the perceived importance of school, focusing more energy on home life than on school is rational.

We need to think across many sectors when looking to address equity gaps. Gaps in housing quality, health quality, and income security all affect education, and the resultant education gaps go on to play a role in perpetuating housing, health, and income gaps (although disparities continue to exist between racial groups with the same levels of education). A broad-based equity agenda includes educational equity, but must also include other areas as well. Full-service community schools are one way of partially addressing some of these outside gaps, but we must push for equity in all aspects of our society if we are to achieve it in any one area.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: K-12 education  Racial Inequalities  Poverty 

Crowded Classrooms: Mapping it Out

Minnesota has consistently ranked among the relatively low in terms of pupil-teacher ratios in recent years. However, the pattern shown on the map below reveals that even adjacent school districts can have dramatically different average student-teacher ratios. Thus, it is clear that there is no single cause for the variation in ratios across the state; race, income, and basic population density all come into play.


For help identifying individual disctricts, see this map.

Conventional knowledge holds that a lower student-teacher ratio ensures more individual attention and better academic performance. Student-teacher ratios are often a major factor for parents when comparing schools, or making the choice between public and private education for their children.

Although most parents would prefer that their child be placed in a school with a low student-teacher ratio, not all families can afford to act on this preference. Many low-income and minority parents do not have the means to travel farther or pay for private schools, leaving already disadvantaged students packed into overcrowded classrooms. This disparity is evident in the fact that suburban districts such as Central and Eastern Carver County have among the lowest ratios in the state while inner-city districts lie at the other end of the scale.

Another important factor that influences pupil-instructor ratios is whether a district is rural or urban. Only a few districts in western Minnesota exceed a student-teacher ratio of 18, simply because populations are lower. This phenomenon complicates the assumption that low student-teacher ratios indicate smaller class sizes and a higher quality of education; students at many rural schools lag behind their urban counterparts because of limited resources, despite low student-teacher ratios.

In general, Minnesota’s student-teacher ratios will continue to grow until recent trends in educational funding are reversed. Budget cuts have limited new hires and made teacher layoffs a necessity in many school districts, and schools are suffering as a result. High student-teacher ratios are a symptom of a much larger problem, and the only solution is meaningful investment in the future of Minnesota’s educational system.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Class Size  Education Administration 

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 

1 Comment ->

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 

1 Comment ->

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 InsideHigherEd.com, EdTechMagazine.com, and ARL.org, 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, Walletnerd.com 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 

1 Comment ->

Next Page