I love the idea of charter schools, and I love that many charter schools have stayed true to that idea. Schools designed by teachers to innovate, experiment, and share their findings with the rest of the world? Yes, please!
Many charter schools live up to this idea. Some take on kids at risk of dropping out of the school system entirely, even though this jeopardizes their ability to make performance targets. Many do innovative work with technology, culture, and pedagogy. There are good people leading and teaching in these schools, and we should applaud the individual successes when charter schools have found ways to help students who were struggling in their previous schools.
However (and you knew there would be a “however”), the charter concept has been shifted from its original purpose. It wasn't the hard workers building good schools that did this; it was a collection of market idealists, profiteers, and those with animus towards district schools.
At their best, these folks want competition between charter schools and district schools to “unleash the power of the market.” (I've explained why that doesn't work.) This comes from a misplaced idealism that assumes competition will drive increases in the quality of education, when really it just increases the importance of marketing.
At their worst, these folks want to use charter schools as a way to shame and starve district schools. This describes a small but influential fraction of charter advocates. They've rejected the spirit of collaboration and innovation that animated the early charter concept, preferring a crusade against local school districts. It's this approach that spreads the inaccurate picture of charter schools being generally superior to district schools. That's where conservative candidates get the idea that the best way to improve low-performing schools is simply to encourage more charters.
The transformation of the charter concept from a helping hand into a fist does a disservice to everyone working to make more schools good places for kids. There are many schools – district and charter alike – that are doing great work. Others need more resources and fresh approaches. Let's lower our voices, unclench our fists, and work together to build a range of schools that meet the needs of the full spectrum of students.
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One of the maddening things about the foreclosure crisis for housing activists is how simple it would be for banks to resolve many of the cases that end in eviction. Community organizations have expended significant energy and taken dramatic actions defending homes from the banks one home at a time for homeowners like Bobby Hull, Monique White, and Rose McGee, who should never have been at risk for eviction in the first place.
This session, many of those same organizations came together to ask the legislature to regulate foreclosures in Minnesota, dramatically reducing the number of Minnesota families displaced by banks. Directing the grassroots power of foreclosure victims and their neighbors directly against a powerful financial industry lobby, the coalition got off to a slow start and the bill initially seemed destined to die in committee. Activists staged call-ins and sit-ins in what looked very much like last-ditch acts of desperation to revive a dead bill.
In the last week of the session, though, the bill — SF 1276 — sprang back to life and made it to the Senate floor. In the bright spotlight of a public floor vote, conservative Senator Branden Petersen was the only representative in either house willing to go out on a limb for the banking lobby against common sense reforms to help Minnesotans stay in their homes. The 61-1 vote in favor of the bill in the Senate was followed quickly by an even more resounding 123-0 vote in the House.
The persistence of grassroots activists at Occupy Homes MN, ISAIAH, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, and the rest of the coalition paid off. Thanks to their efforts, the Minnesota legislature passed one of the most aggressive foreclosure prevention bills in the country, putting an end to “dual tracking,” requiring lenders to offer modifications to all eligible homeowners, requiring services to ease the paperwork burden for modification applicants, and giving homeowners a right to sue to stop a foreclosure if mortgage servicers fail to follow the law. Had this been enacted years ago, it could have already prevented thousands of foreclosures. It will prevent thousands more in the years to come.
The vote should serve as a warning to the “too-big-to-fail” set and encouragement to foreclosure activists around the country. No party is willing to stand with big banks in public in 2013. When the vote was called, the Minnesota legislature voted with homeowners.
In the final hours of this year’s Legislative session, the Minnesota House approved a measure that gave in-home child-care providers and personal care attendants the right to vote for organizing. The victory drew applause from union members in the House gallery prompting Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington to angrily denounce the group, “We’re not in charge — let them applaud. They own the place!”
This might make you wonder, if not working Minnesotans, who would conservatives prefer “own the place!”? Don’t worry, here’s a top 10 list to answer that question.
1) ALEC – American Legislative Exchange Council
While in control of the state Legislature, conservatives got much of their worst legislation directly from this D.C. based group. Sure, it doesn’t represent Minnesotans but that never stopped conservatives from using ALEC bills verbatim to push extreme anti-immigration and anti-labor legislation during the 2011 session.
2) Big Corporations
They are people, too? Right? At a time when most middle class Americans are struggling to rebuild after the recession, conservatives took aggressive lengths to support big corporations instead of working Minnesotans. In fact, one conservative admitted, "When it comes to the corporate taxes, that's a very big concern for us too.”
3) Members of the National Organization for Marriage and Minnesota Family Council
Sure they skirted campaign finance laws, but these groups who go about their public accounting in non-traditional ways while supporting “traditional marriage” are friends with a lot of conservative Minnesota policy makers. Luckily, now they are on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of Minnesota law.
4) Bob Davis
Speaking about the families of the victims of the Newtown shooting, the ultra-conservative radio personality said, “I would stand in front of them and tell them, 'Go to hell.’” While most, you know, decent people would find the comment disturbing, that hasn't stopped conservative members of the Minnesota Legislature from being frequent guests on his show.
I really wish I was joking on this one.
During their short time in control of the Legislature, conservatives fought tirelessly to end job creating clean energy laws. Arguing that, "The climate changed before we were here; the climate will change long after we're gone." Conservatives continue to back carbon heavy forms of energy production over new, cleaner, forms of production that create more stable high-wage jobs for Minnesotans.
7) Wayne LaPierre of the NRA
Even after terrible national tragedies, conservatives successfully fought against common sense reforms that would have protected Minnesotans’ second amendment rights while making our communities safer.
8) #2 Pencil Producers
While progressives were busy passing a bold education bill that included all-day kindergarten for every Minnesota child, conservatives pushed the failed high-stakes-test policies of the past.
9) The 1%
Progressives created a 4th tier income tax rate so families making over $250,000 will pay their fair share. Minnesota conservatives, ignoring our history of economic success, argued that the new taxes would “threaten Minnesota’s competitiveness.”
Minnesota leads the country when it comes to tax revenue lost because of tax havens in other countries. Ending those loopholes will mean losing our #1 spot but it will also mean better funded schools. Conservatives fought to keep the loopholes but progressives won the fight. This one time, I think I’m happy that Minnesota will no longer be a national leader on an issue.
Despite what most of us were taught in kindergarten, the American "ownership society," to quote George W. Bush, hasn't been very good at sharing. One example: We own millions more cars than there are licensed drivers.
But maybe the All Mine Culture is evolving, especially when it comes to urban transportation. Modern bicycle sharing is spreading to every corner of the country, so fast that the U.S. fleet of 9,000 shared bikes is projected to quadruple in the next couple of years as dozens more cities get on board.
Minneapolis, already served by Zipcar and HOURCAR auto-sharing services, is launching a two-year pilot program to make up to 250 vehicles available for occasional use.
Meanwhile, U.S. driving has been declining for nearly a decade. There are economic reasons for this -- Great Recession joblessness that reduced commuting and the $7,800 annual cost of owning and maintaining the average American private car -- but lifestyle changes of both younger and older Americans are playing a part, too.
Driving our own cars everywhere we go is still the dominant U.S. mode of mobility, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But as shared transportation choices proliferate and become more convenient, everyone benefits. Early adopters get better health and lower costs, drivers face less traffic congestion and we all share cleaner air.
Long before I started college in Fall 2010, MnSCU schools like mine (Minnesota State University Mankato) had been cutting course offerings and raising tuition thanks to a decade of declining state higher education funding.
As the graph below shows from 1999-2011, successive state legislatures have trimmed an astounding 48% from Minnesota’s public colleges and universities, when adjusted for inflation and student population. This far exceeds the nationwide 23% average higher education cut.
A February MnSCU report highlights that before Minnesota began disinvesting in education, the state’s “higher education appropriation per student was 24% higher than the national average; now it is 17% below.” This has shifted the education funding burden to the middle-income and working-class students that typically attend state colleges. In 2002, the state covered 2/3rds of the average MnSCU student’s costs. The state now covers only about 1/3rd of the costs.
Since I’ve been in college, there have been even more cuts. As part of the deal that ended the 2011 state shutdown, which covered fiscal years 2012-2013, lawmakers cut $170 million from MnSCU. As a result, my tuition has steadily risen, from $2,815.60 for fall semester 2010 to $3,175.04 this coming semester.
Fortunately for students, this year’s legislative majorities will raise higher education funding back to adequate levels. However, after a decade of cuts, it’s not likely we’ll see a major difference on campus. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. Furthermore, changes in how the state generates revenue will help us sustain proper funding levels for the future.
It might be a generation before Minnesota sees the true impact a decade of cuts yields. I can tell you form a personal perspective, however, having higher tuition debt going into a still fragile job market will likely lead to economic setbacks for my peers and I. We’ll be holding off on buying houses. We’ll have to get another 10-20 thousand more miles out of our old cares. And most of us will hold off on big ticket consumer goods.
Long before southeastern Minnesota’s rich Silica Sand deposits became an attractive energy industry resource, companies had been mining modest amounts of silica in the region for less controversial purposes, such as glass-making, abrasives, and golf course sand traps, according to the DNR.
Those wary of more mining advocated for a 1-mile buffer around streams and lakes to decrease the potential threat of pollution from the mines. Industry retorted that the buffer would effectively halt new mines, resulting in a compromise.
Sweeping statewide regulation is pretty much off the table. The process for creating a new silica sand mine in southeastern Minnesota goes a little something like this: Find a spot, do a study, get a permit, build a mine. The hydraulic study is intended to determine whether the mine will pollute and the DNR permit is to keep mines in check that are operating within one mile of trout streams in a specific part of southeast Minnesota.
While the standards could have been stronger, all in all, it is better than no regulation. The new silica sand mine regulations require at least four different environmental entities be involved in the process. The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) will be given $1 million over two years to create an interagency task force to “provide technical assistance regarding the mining, processing, and transporting of silica sand and develop the model standards and criteria.” The EQB will also review the standard process for approving a silica sand mine and determine whether new steps should be taken due to the increased mining interests.
The MPCA and the Department of Health (DOH) will evaluate air quality issues around silica sand mining. The MPCA will adopt rules to control particulate emissions and the DOH will develop air quality health-based values. The DNR is not only responsible for the permitting process but also for overseeing silica sand mine reclamation, should it happen. They are allotted $600,000 the first year for silica sand mining rulemaking.
However, actually following the interagency group’s recommendations is up to the local governments and municipalities. This is one of the elements that makes me nervous. Should one county (let’s say it is upstream from another) allows lax standards, it can affect the entire watershed. A statewide regulation could have set a consistent standard to avoid this problem.
As silica sand mines boom over the next few years, Minnesota needs strong oversight and local government cooperation to protect southeastern waterways. We can only hope the resources allocated to the studies and permitting process are used effectively and more will be provided if necessary. If not, we can expect to see big problems with southeastern Minnesota’s water and public health.
For the first time since Feburary 2010, Minnesota’s economy lost jobs two months in a row. The North Star State shed 11,400 jobs in April after dropping 3,300 in March.
The jobs reports for the last six months have inspired optimism. If that trend had continued, it would have relieved worries about the state’s economic growth. But with the significant losses in April, that relief may have to be put on hold.
Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (TTU) and Government were the hardest hit in April. With weakness in trucking and wholesale trade, TTU dropped 5,700 seasonally-adjusted jobs. The drop in this sector exemplifies the greatest weakness in the private sector in 2013: weak demand. Consumers cannot afford to buy more things, and businesses are not betting that they consumers will anytime soon.
Government jobs contracted by an additional 2,000. After finally returning to pre-recession employment levels at the end of 2012, the government sector, which includes all levels of government as well as public school employees, has fallen in each of the last four months. The contraction this spring has largely been driven by cold spring and federal sequestration. The later than usual spring has delayed the opening of municipal parks and golf courses, and the hiring has also been delayed.
April was not solely a gloomy month for the state economy, however. Unemployment fell one-tenth of a percent to 5.3%, the labor force participation rate ticked up to 70.9, and the number of unemployed Minnesotans fell below 160,000 for the first time since June 2008.
A main reason that it took a full five years for unemployment to drop below pre-recession levels is that only two of Minnesota's five largest sectors have grown since then. Jobs in Health Care and Professional and Business Services have increased by 43,000 and 15,000, respectively.
On the other hand, three of the largest sectors in the state are still shrinking. There are 6,400 fewer government jobs in Minnesota than in 2008, or about 2% of the total, although employment in this sector has remained much more stable than other areas of the economy.
Manufacturing and Trade, Transportation, and Utilities have only barely begun to recover from their low points in early 2010. Both sectors are highly dependent on the health of consumer spending, since they include making, transporting, and selling products. Seeing these two large sectors struggling to increase employment again points to the mediocre nature of the recovery. As jobs and household wealth have stagnated, consumer spending has not grown fast enough to spur producers and distributors from adding many jobs.
The Minnesota labor market is improving, but slowly and not without set-backs. Five years later, the state has not recovered from the Great Recession.
Tea Party stalwart Rand Paul, son of Ron and a U.S. senator from Kentucky, has proposed a new way to pay for transportation projects. This is good news, of a sort: a government-shrinking, tax-averse conservative acknowledging that public infrastructure indeed should be supported by public funds.
What's not so encouraging is Paul's financing method—huge tax cuts for corporations. Say what? He'd slash the tax rate for repatriating overseas capital to the states from its current level, as high as 35 percent, all the way down to 5 percent. Presumably, he thinks we'd get a windfall of homesick money far exceeding the trickle now shedding one-third to repatriate. As if by supply-side magic, the rate goes down and collections skyrocket, covering existing revenue while producing new riches for roads and bridges.
Given the track record of similar right-wing cut-tax-and-then-spend schemes in the past, that happy outcome is anything but assured. What's more, for years, U.S. multinational corporations have been pleading for as little as a one-day repatriation tax holiday. Perhaps Paul's bill just puts a popular face on an extreme pro-capital fiscal policy.
As transportation policy, as well, his idea comes with at least two major drawbacks:
- Deeply discounted repatriation might provide one-time revenue, but roads and bridges need never-ending funding. Even "one-time" construction of a new highway puts government on the hook for costly maintenance as far as the eye can see.
- Looking to deep corporate pockets for transportation money would put one more stake in the heart of what's left of the user-pays principle. With taxes on driving frozen nearly everywhere, roads and bridges nationwide now draw at least half their funding from non-user sources. In the long run, this isn't good for either our mobility or our prosperity.
In fact, nationwide transportation funding is looking more and more like our own Vikings stadium finance fiasco: We'll be sure to get the goodies we want, but heaven forfend that we pay for them out of the obvious pockets.
Encouraging some people in poverty to access assistance programs like food support (formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) can be tough. This is especially true of senior citizens. While about 65 percent of eligible Minnesotans participate in SNAP, only 41 percent of eligible seniors do. The reasons for this disparity are plentiful: stigma, lack of awareness, the desire for independence, and the challenges of applying, to name a few.
One recent change will lower that last barrier. Minnesota recently introduced a streamlined application for seniors age 60+ that consists of only two pages. The standard SNAP application for most participants is eight pages long plus seven pages of instructions. (The standard application also screens for health care and cash assistance, which is convenient if you want to apply for multiple programs but cumbersome if you only need one.)
Once someone submits their SNAP application, they must go through an interview with a county benefits determiner. Minnesota offers a phone-interview option, meaning that homebound seniors can still easily apply. They can even designate another person (like a family member or care aide) to do their grocery shopping for them.
Minnesota’s eventual plan is to offer a shorter SNAP application for people of any age, which would be a terrific step towards ending hunger in Minnesota. Increasing SNAP investment is a smart move, especially considering that it’s paid for with federal dollars, not state. Studies show that every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates up to $9 in economic activity—and since benefits are spent at local grocers, local communities reap the rewards. Improving access to nutritious food also lowers health-care costs. Every time we make it easier for people to utilize the benefits for which they are eligible, we make a better Minnesota.
I have a lot of favorite things that come with summer weather, and one of them is browsing a farmers market in sunglasses and sandals. The St. Paul Farmers' Market is great on a Saturday morning and tomorrow morning (May 18th) is going to be one of the best all year. This is because they (along with a lot of other really great partners) are sponsoring MN Goes Green from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the St. Paul Union Depot, just one block away from the market.
MN Goes Green is a FREE event to promote sustainability and green living in Minnesota. In one day you can see green fashion, bring in damanged items to flex your Fix-It muscles, hear informative speakers, and learn the best ways to source local groceries. I have been involved in the environmental movement for over 10 years and I can tell you, there is always something new to learn to improve your life and the health of the planet.
With so many environmental stressors facing our earth, it is important for Minnesotans to do our part to effectively use and conserve common pool resources. Our air, water, and land need to continue supporting future generations as they have supported us. This will only happen if we take sustainability by the reigns and make environmentally conscious decisions. So come on down to MN Goes Green tomorrow morning and take your steps to becoming a responsible enviro-citizen!