Private Sector to the Rescue?

As a newly minted think tank fellow seven years ago, I heard Bob Poole, the libertarian Reason Foundation's thoughtful and nonpartisan transportation expert, argue in a local luncheon speech that private investment offered the only feasible way out of America's chronic shortfall in funding roads, bridges, transit and other ways of getting around.

But even conservatives such as Poole weren't unanimous about this. At about the same time, one of the Minnesota Legislature's farthest-right members proposed banning toll roads forever in the state, which would seem to eliminate any incentive for private stakes in transportation infrastructure. Not quite, it turns out.

Several Minnesota enterprises have put up money for highway improvements in recent years, according to interesting reporting by Erin Adler in the Star Tribune. The latest, according to her article, is the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community's commitment of $1.5 million to add a third lane to a milelong stretch of Hwy. 169 near its Mystic Lake Casino next year. The tribe also fronted $17.5 million for an interchange on 169 in 2005, with the state highway funds later repaying the loan.

Often, cash infusions from private interests or local governments speed up the delivery of highway improvements considered vital for customer access or economic development in the short term but buried deep in the state's decades-long expansion plans. UnitedHealth Group and the city of Minnetonka ponied up that way for an interchange on 169, and Woodbury did so to get exits serving developments beside Interstate Hwy. 494. On a smaller scale, Interstate Mills funded a left-turn lane on Hwy. 56 near its Dakota County facility.

Now, even President Obama, stymied by congressional conservatives in his repeated calls for more public funding of transportation projects with a proven record of return on investment, signaled his intention to lure nearly $2 trillion in U.S. corporate cash stashed overseas back home to work on roads, bridges and rails. 

Most recently, Obama discussed this strategy as a way to head off corporate tax-dodging "inversion" mergers with foreign entities such as Minnesota's Medronic Inc. plan to move its headquarters to Ireland. He also has launched a separate push for private investment in infrastructure, especially in rural America.

"Institutional investors ... tend to look for longer-term investments to match up with their long-term debt obligations, while taking relatively low risk," Douglas L. Peterson, CEO of McGraw Hill Financial and a public-private partnership advocate, wrote on cnbc.com. "Infrastructure projects tend to fit that profile: regulated markets, long-lived assets with stable demand and little, if any, competition."

U.S. private investment in surface transportation infrastructure has had a long and checkered history, from the flowering and faltering of streetcar systems in the 20th century to the financial travails of an 85 miles per hour toll road in Texas. Just this week, Nevada officials scrapped plans for privately financing an interstate highway project, which had been championed by the conservative governor. Projected costs had risen too high compared with traditional public bonding, no surprise considering factors such as tax breaks and the profit motive.

Meanwhile, however, there's a surge in private financing of high-speed rail projects, which I examined more closely in today's feature article.

I'm not totally sold on any of this, partly because most private money will cherry-pick just a few projects with the greatest profit potential, leaving the vast majority of the nation fighting over government scraps to stay mobile. Besides, nearly every important U.S. transportation advancement—from the Erie Canal to the Transcontinental Railroad to the Interstate Highway System—has been heavily backed with some kind of public subsidy. On the other hand, much of our transportation system, especially congested urban roads, could benefit from more market pricing discipline. 

I'm confusing even myself here. What seems both certain and prudent is that our multimodal means of access and mobility will continue to be paid for with a mix of public and private money, and finding the right combination will be a never-ending challenge. 

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

Mayo and Shyness “On a Stick” at the State Fair

I never thought I’d see the day when references to the great Mayo Clinic would be uttered in the same breath with our annual attraction to food on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair. It has happened. And it works.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie mixes metaphors to make a good point about Minnesota innovation in a recent op/ed article for the Rochester Post Bulletin. He called on visitors to the Minnesota State Fair, which opens Thursday, to stop by the Innovation on a Stick exhibit in the Grand Stand building.

We’re talking about promoting Minnesota innovation here, not necessarily the state’s contributions to health or food nutrition. The state fair exhibit will show how Ritchie and other Minnesota promoters and entrepreneurs are working to attract a World’s Fair here in 2023. Rochester, he told the southern Minnesota newspaper readers, has been a leader in such bold thinking about the future. The Destination Medical Center anchored on and surrounding the Mayo Clinic, with state and local support, is an example of bold thinking that will be remembered a hundred years from now, Ritchie added.

Promoting a world’s fair proposal and keying off our annual, humorous attraction to fair food served on a stick, Ritchie is at the same time highlighting a quirkiness of Minnesota culture. We sometimes have to laugh at ourselves in order to tell people about us. “But while we are a major world player, we are often too shy or polite to brag about our achievements and institutions,” he wrote. “Hosting a world’s fair is an opportunity to invite the world to our backyard – where we can comfortably share our remarkable stories about the Mayo Clinic, the Boundary Waters, our amazing colleges and universities and all the hardworking, creative people making Minnesota the most civically engaged and economically successful state in the nation.”

Overcoming shyness, it should be noted that world fair promoters are finding legitimate things for Minnesotans to brag about. A good example of that comes from Stamford, Conn., where the Stamford Advocate recently informed its readers that Minnesota entrepreneurs would “Launch Innovation on a Stick at Minnesota State Fair.”

That is getting the word out no matter how it is served.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Economic Growth 

Learning to Ask the Right People the Right Questions

It’s interesting to me that so much of the work of a student in school is about finding the “right” answers, while so many leaders and policy makers struggle to find the right questions.

Earlier this month, the education-focused Hechinger Report covered the debate within many districts about which technology to buy. The article’s frame emphasized the tablet vs. laptop split (which, as the article noted, is mostly an iPad vs. laptop split, since nearly all tablets used in schools are iPads). In exploring this specific question, the article touched on a broader point: Before we can make these choices, we must pose the right questions to the right people.

This is most clearly demonstrated when the article quotes a veteran teacher who has successfully incorporated iPads into much of his practice. He said, “You’ll probably never find the answer of what is the right device. First you have to ask: What do you want the device to do for your children?”

Think about those last two words. “Your children.” That could refer either to a parent or guardian’s children or to a teacher’s students. Both groups—families and teachers—need to be included when making these decisions.

This inclusion must go beyond tokenism. Putting one teacher and one parent in a working group with ten district administrators is not inclusion. Holding a meeting to tell faculty or families about the district’s plan after it’s been set is not inclusion. The conversations that must happen in more schools and more districts are about what families want for their children, what teachers need to help meet those goals, and how schools can support that work.

Not every decision can be made this way, but many more should be. Education technology is poised to become a $10 billion industry in the next couple of years. If new tech is to have an effect on learning, teaching is going to need to change to take advantage of what the new tools offer. Making good decisions here requires including the people closest to the classroom in defining priorities, responsibilities, and plans.

This style of education governance isn’t very common right now. Recent reforms have focused more on top-down technocracy for teachers and encouraging families to leave schools rather than help improve them. We could do with a little more democracy to figure out what we want technology, and really schools in general, to do for children.
 

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

Politics of Anger

Last week, I spent 16 hours sitting in a DFL booth at our county fair. For those who have not had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer in a political booth at an event like a county fair, it is an interesting experience. It gives you the opportunity to talk with people;  some who agree with you and some who do not. Actually, the most interesting discussions can be with those who disagree. I know I have had discussions lasting more than 30 minutes with people who hold opposite views to mine. We often end by agreeing to disagree and shake hands. These are good educating discussions—giving us all a chance to understand those with different viewpoints than ours.

It is also fun to hand out candy to kids. We asked the kids to promise to vote when they turn 18 if they took a piece of candy. I am not sure how many will remember their promise, but if one more person votes when turning 18, it is worth the effort. By the way, they just had to promise to vote—not for any particular person or party. Some of the other good things about the fair is you have people come to the booth, and say they did not realize there were other democrats in the area. This is probably not true in the metro area, but it certainly is if you live where I do. We do get a chance with these people to invite them to our meetings and events. For me, another good thing about the fair is the opportunity for some good food. It is not the State Fair, but the 4H booth had some good hamburgers.

So, I told you some of the good things about the fair, but there was one event that really upset me. A gentleman walked by our booth and made some comments accusing us of various things, most of which I missed, but I heard him say that we were trying to destroy Christianity. Now I know destroying Christianity is not in our platform, but what bothers me the most is the anger and bitterness of this gentleman.

Many of us really get emotional about our political views, and often call our opponents names, although not always out loud. For me politics should be a way to express different views, and then have our governing bodies develop a strategy for the future using those opposing views. Yes, sometimes I may be too utopian, but whatever our political views we need to avoid the anger and out of control emotion.

If we want to end the polarization that is taking over national, state and local politics, then we have to listen to our opponents respectfully, and not resort to name calling. At times it may be difficult, but I think it worth the effort.
 

Posted in News & Notes

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A One-Sided Fight over St. Paul’s Streets

Under pressure from the City Council last week, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman outlined a $54 million street-improvement program—more than 10 percent of his proposed $515 million operating budget for 2015. Hizzoner thus significantly raised a group of rebellious council members' bid of $22 million for streets after they likened his earlier plan to "putting a Band-Aid on a broken hip."

There's a lesson here. Despite all the buzz about Americans' flagging interest in driving, despite Congress's serial brinksmanship over highway funding, despite all of St. Paul's recent transit improvements connected with the Green Line light rail launch, it's where the rubber meets the road that still counts in transportation policymaking.

And despite all the conservative grumbling about subsidies for transit, it's motorists who do most of the feeding at the public trough. Little of Coleman's $54 million for rebuilding and repaving streets, and not a penny of the $34.4 million in new money he's earmarking, will come from user fees for driving such as fuel taxes and registration fees. Instead, it comes from taxes and special assessments on property, whether the owners drive or not.

Now, it's been argued that city streets are a "public good" that benefit drivers and non-drivers alike by providing access for buses, bicycles and emergency services while boosting property values and commercial activity. True enough, but who comprises the overwhelming predominance of traffic on those streets? The folks behind the wheel who pay nothing directly for the privilege.

Coleman's plan focuses on rebuilding bumpy arterial streets, some of which may qualify for Minnesota's 9 percent share of highway user funding that goes to Municipal Street Aid. More money may actually come from diverting $10 million of a $14.5 million residential street repair fund to the arterials. That's not a bad idea. I've often thought that city streets where people live should be left in lousy shape to discourage drivers from speeding. I've even dreamed of turning them into greenways, limiting everyday motor access to the alleys.

The mayor's budget calls for 2.4 percent increase in the property tax levy, a sure target for criticism from some quarters. But if spending trims begin, don't look for any in street repairs. A more likely candidate for the axe is Coleman's proposed introduction of paid parental leave for city workers. The projected cost there is $200,000—or 0.37 percent of his streets budget.

The way this plays out will tell us once again what we value most in our autocentric society.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways 

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The True Potential for MOOCs

Massive open online courses, MOOCs for short, burst onto the education scene in 2012. Their emergence as the ‘cutting-edge’ future of education supposedly spelled the end for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and K-12 education.

Put simply, this shift hasn’t happened, nor will it.

Along these same lines, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently proposed a “revolutionary” education plan that limits oversight and funding for national education policy.

He suggests that: “if you have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus, that person maybe should teach every calculus class in the country.” The reasoning behind Paul’s philosophy is identical to that of advocates for fully realized MOOC education.

Simplistic statements about who is “best” at something aside, Paul seems to be attempting to fit the wide discipline of education into one small aspect of teaching, the explanation of content. Using this worldview it must surely be deplorable that no one has learned everything there is to know on all known subjects. Wikipedia has all of the information right there!

But maybe education requires more than explanation. Perhaps students benefit more from interaction with a learned professional who encourages individual engagement with complex notions and creative means to solve problems.

Educator James Goodman wrote on Salon.com that: “Real learning comes from engaging with material. Whether you’re forming an argument about a character’s motives in a novel, debating the root causes of World War I, trying to make sense of the relationship between temperature and pressure of gases, or trying to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, the best learning doesn’t happen when the answers are simply given to you.”

In many cases, MOOCs may fit into this equation in order to learn about an interesting subject you didn’t have time for in school or to pursue a hobby or passion, with more intention.

EdX, the non-profit host of free MOOCs from institutions such as Harvard and MIT, has shown nearly 2.5 million students interested in their courses; however, only 10 percent complete the coursework. MOOCs have transformed from an omen of education’s doom to a “genre.” Similar to web series housed on YouTube, such as CrashCourse, these online video-based courses aim to reach interested parties to increase knowledge, not replace educational institutions.

Schools are not perfect in their mission for educating our children. However, they offer far more than only a computer screen ever will.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Community Education 

Learning Across Generations and the Conditions for Innovation

The more time I spend studying interesting efforts to improve education, the more examples I see of isolated examples that do an extraordinary job of combining the right resources and people to achieve great things. Figuring out how to make the extraordinary more, well, ordinary means thinking about the conditions that help these sorts of efforts begin and thrive.

Recently, Education Week covered the growth of programs aimed at helping parents and guardians raise their own educational level as their children go through school. Responding to the well-documented associations between children’s educational outcomes and those of their parents, these programs are meant to interrupt the intergenerational cycles of educational struggle.

Especially with the rising cost of child care, people often struggle to add post-secondary work to their jobs and child-related responsibilities. Finding ways to integrate child care with meaningful educational opportunities for adults offers one way to meet two needs at once.

In one example, a community college co-located two high schools on site. According to Education Week’s reporting, "The college and high schools integrate child care for parents taking classes, and try to frame instruction in ways relating to parents’ career goals and parenting issues.”

It would be quite possible for more Minnesota communities to sustain similar efforts. Local high schools and MnSCU branches could partner up with early childhood educators in different ways depending on local needs.

The underlying conditions required for such efforts to be successful on a wide scale include adequate K-12 and postsecondary funding, committed leadership, proactive engagement with families, and sustained investment in early childhood education.

Each of those conditions is achievable, and each one has additional benefits beyond enabling the kind of multigenerational education Education Week profiled. This broader, more inclusive vision for education is about laying the fundamentals for many different innovative approaches that can adapt to provide what’s best for each area’s students.

Supporting democratic, community-minded education should be a progressive goal as the limitations of technocratic and market-based reform grow clearer.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Community Schools 

Minnesota’s Suicide Rates

The Minnesota Department of Health expects to share new data in early September on suicide deaths across the state with the hope rates decrease, or at least hold steady. Minnesota has seen a continuous rise in suicides over the last decade, especially among older adults— a direction that mirrors a national trend in adult suicides. 

Jon Roesler of the Minnesota Department of Health says there has been an increase in suicide across the state in all age and demographic groups —especially in the “baby boomer” generation—a demographic to which Robin Williams, at age 63, belonged. As the state population ages, there are higher rates of suicide death. In fact, between 2010 and 2030, the number of adults age 65+ is expected to nearly double. Roesler calls it a “perfect storm.”  Roesler additionally notes another disturbing trend: an increase in the number of women dying by suicide.

While loss of jobs may be a contributing factor, Roesler stresses there are multiple stressers including isolation, substance abuse and mental illness. Roesler says “it’s feeling like a new normal and not a satisfactory new normal.” He also was quick to add that there is hope on the way. “The good news is that is suicide prevention programs help," says Roesler. He adds, "We have seen it work especially in youth prevention".

The Minnesota Department of Health is currently working on a new state suicide prevention plan that will "look at how to take our limited resources and make effective policy.” That plan is expected to be released January of 2015.

Beginning September 1, Minnesota will be able to participate in a national data system that Roesler feels will help guide state policy. Just last Tuesday, Minnesota was approved for the needed $216,000 in funding for the National Violent Death Reporting System operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The system will allow the state to collect data on circumstances on violent death (which includes suicide and homicides) which will ultimately help drive suicide prevention policy by determining risk factors.

"Everyone in Minnesota has a role to play in preventing suicides," said Dr. Dan Reidenberg, SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices for Education Executive Director). "By knowing the warning signs and what to do if you are concerned about someone, you can save a life."  There are a number of suicide prevention hotlines available 24 hours a day.

Check out Tuesday's online discussion about mental health. 

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Mental Health 

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Moose Inspire Public-Private Partnership

Aiming to restore the dwindling moose population, the state of Minnesota has blazed a new trail in environmental research funding. On August 11, Minnesota launched the first of its kind public-private partnership with the Call of the Moose campaign. This innovative collaboration will set a precedent for future public-private relationships to enhance scientific attainability.

Moose are iconic animals, but they struggle to survive. Minnesota’s moose population dropped by 52 percent since 2010. The reason behind the rapid plunge in moose survival is not yet clear. Various factors like ticks, abandonment, wolves, habitat destruction, and disease play a role, but more research is needed to reverse the downward trend.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently conducting the largest research project ever undertaken in the state to solve the moose dilemma. The DNR created the Minnesota Moose Research and Management Plan, which outlines strategies to track moose populations, evaluate causes of death, regulate hunting, monitor disease and parasites, and examine moose-habitat relationships.

All of this research is expensive. Community support for moose population restoration is inadequate. The state of Minnesota stepped into new territory by partnering with the Les Kouba Marketing Group (LRM) to raise funds for moose research and launch awareness efforts.

In memory of renowned wildlife artist Les Kouba, the LRM will donate a portion of its profits from sponsorship or sales of Kouba products to fund moose research over the next three years.

Artwork by Kouba is also featured on the new critical-habitat license plate, which depicts an adult moose next to the words, “Reinvest in Minnesota.” Available since August 1st, the moose license plate is an addition to a statewide conservation fundraiser, with seven other animal plates offered, to raise money for habitat restoration and environmental research.

The Call of the Moose campaign embodies Minnesota’s dedication to ecological restoration and scientific achievement. The new public-private partnership will surely demonstrate the benefits of joint resources and support. Hopefully, Minnesota legislators will continue to consider this new type of coalition as a potential strategy for other fundraising efforts to expand the state’s research and innovation capabilities.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Environment 

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Friday Reads from the MN2020 Staff

Happy Friday! Below are a few things that we've enjoyed reading this week. 

From Lucas:
Urban Growler in St. Anthony Park: “We are the new Northeast” (CityPages) — St. Anthony park is quickly becoming the "New Northeast." I made a pit stop at one of the areas new breweries, Urban Growler, this weekend. Their food and beer is great. This is one of many new exciting small businesses emerging along the Green Line.

From Michael:
How John Oliver Beats Apathy (The Atlantic) — A nice piece examining what John Oliver has done differently with his new show that makes it both entertaining and an often-effective call-to-action.

From Deb:
Once doomed State Fair carousel marks 100th birthday (KARE 11) — Boyd Huppert of KARE 11 is one of my favorite story tellers.

From Conrad:
I've been harping lately on the policy silliness in Washington over highway funding. It's so bad that even a right-winger like U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden occasionally lapses into semi-sense. He briefly voiced support the other day for raising federal fuel taxes -- with a typical conservative proviso that increases in the regressive levy at the pump should be balanced with cuts elsewhere, most likely the progressive income tax -- but almost immediately backed away, without further comment on the flip-flop. Anyway, here's some real sense from the Bipartisan Policy Center on what to do about this recurring problem.

From Nick:
Spot The Historical Error In This “Downton Abbey” Publicity Picture (BuzzFeed) -- Guys, you had ONE job.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

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