Following the Will of the People

In a representative democracy such as ours, policymakers are elected with a mandate to do the bidding of their constituencies. That's why our politicians are sometimes derided as "poll-iticians," their legislative behavior slavishly directed by public opinion surveys. The alternative, the much-praised virtue of "leadership," is generally hazardous to life in office.

Given the findings of a new national opinion poll on transportation funding then, the highway trust fund patch passed by Congress and signed by President Obama last week makes great sense. It adds nearly $11 billion in nonuser subsidies for driving to $53 billion already forked over, and the new crutch will last just 10 months but be "paid for" over 10 years of fiscal gimmickry.

Well, that's just the way We the People like it. The Associated Press-GfK poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults showed strong support for highways and other transportation modes, but extremely low interest in any way at all of paying for them. Respondents overwhelming panned not only raising federal fuel taxes, but also establishing mileage fees and even letting private investors build toll roads and bridges. Sending more of the bills down to state and local governments got little backing, either.

"Congress is actually reflecting what people want," national transportation think tank chief Joshua Schank told the AP's Joan Lowy. "People want to have a federal [transportation] program and they don't want to pay for it."

Businessman Brian P. McGuire, interviewed by a Washington Post blogger, was even more pointed. "No one should be surprised by a poll finding people aren't will to pay more for something they're already getting at a big discount," he said. "Americans understand the benefits of infrastructure but don't understand how it's paid for. We can either do that the responsible way— raising the gas tax or creating other user-free revenues— or we can continue to pass the buck to our kids and grandkids."

According to U of M Prof. David Levinson's blog, "We don't pay enough for transportation," which I cited while voicing similar complaints last week, state and federal fuel taxes would need to triple to nearly $1.50 a gallon to defray the real cost of roads and bridges.

Most Europeans shell out much more than that already, but it won't happen here anytime soon. Conservatives are especially opposed to paying more at the pump. But it was one of their icons, Margaret Thatcher, who observed that in a fiscal system like ours for highways, eventually you "run out of other people's money."

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Federal Government  Transportation Funding 

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Minnesota’s Flooding & the EPA’s Flood Resilience Checklist

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new set of recommendations and planning guides to help communities improve their flood resilience.

Nowhere is this more necessary than in Minnesota, which has been overwhelmed by over 10,000 lakes and rivers filled to bursting with water. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy released in a statement accompanying the guides that “with climate change, storms are likely going to become even more powerful in many regions of the country.”

Fifty-one of Minnesota’s 87 counties (60 percent) are declared as state disaster areas. As flood waters recede, the damages are just beginning to be fully assessed with the current estimate of $32 million likely to rise in the next few weeks. The new flood resilience checklist has much to offer in the way of community planning for more frequent flooding throughout the state, especially throughout rural Minnesota.

The EPA’s new checklist is focused on viewing a community’s development through the lens of potential flooding problems such as: “conserving land in flood-prone area; directing new development to safer areas; and using green infrastructure approaches, such as installing rain gardens, to manage storm water.”

Because this consistent, higher flood risk is in Minnesota’s future, communities from International Falls to Albert Lea would do well by their citizens to take advantage of the EPA’s recommendations. Additionally, Minnesota’s legislature would do well by their constituents to view these tools as a guideline for their future prosperity.

Moving forward, the adoption of these EPA programs and resources are necessary to effectively prepare and set infrastructure in place that will reduce the need for state and federal disaster funds. The real selling point is the recommendations attempt to develop these communities sustainably with as little long-term environmental impact as possible; otherwise, we could all be underwater.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Environment  Lakes & Rivers 

When Teaching Better Means Teaching Less

When Vox interviewed Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher, the following passage stuck out: “The Japanese were doing all these things differently in terms of teaching. I didn't know how Japanese teachers got to that point, so I went to Japan myself and I asked them. It was this really strange experience where they would all say, "We learned from you. We learned from the US."

This might be news for people in this country who have grown tired of how often Japan beats us on international standardized tests. Especially if they assume that the difference is in the quality of teaching, it might be disturbing that Japan adopted practices developed but unused here. Some might wonder if this is about teachers with such a strong work ethic that they put in substantially more hours of work with students. Those folks would be wrong; the average Japanese teacher spends hundreds of hours less than the average U.S. teacher in front of the classroom with students. (This is true in Finland as well.)

Instead, Japanese teachers spend more time with each other, collaborating and doing research on what works best for their students. In many ways, the assumptions underlying this model are radically different than the assumptions driving much of the U.S. debate about teaching, which seems more interested in shaming teachers for being bad or lazy than in helping them improve.

Entrusting teachers with their professional development and building a system where they are expected to work together regularly to improve their practice would seem a worthwhile use of our time. However, that might require more trust from administrators and policy makers than they’re prepared to give right now.

For the rest of us, though, it reinforces the idea that good teaching can be taught. Indeed, it must be. As Green points out, teaching is in many ways more complicated than practicing medicine, and we have over 3.8 million teachers in this country. (We’d need more if we moved to a system like Japan’s or Finland’s with less student time and more development time.) Hunting for talent can’t be the core of our strategy; developing it must be.

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

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Racial Divisions Plague School Discipline

From unfair hiring practices to unequal incarceration rates, the evidence of persistent racial biases is overwhelming. One area where racial inequality is particularly clear and particularly concerning—is within schools.

Disparities in school discipline are well-documented. African American students are suspended and expelled much more frequently than white students, even though research shows the two groups exhibit similar behavior. This is true in school districts across the country. In a nationwide survey of school-related law enforcement incidents, 70 percent of arrests were of black or Hispanic students.

In Minnesota, the problem is particularly acute. Four percent of all black students are diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders, a rate three times the national average for that demographic. That is the highest rate of any state in the country. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, that rate is 7 and 8 percent, respectively. In Minneapolis, 14 percent of black students were suspended in the 2012-13 school year, compared to just 2 percent of white students. The disparity is not just present within schools but also between schools. In predominately black and Native American charter schools, the rates of suspension are significantly higher than in public schools.

Suspensions and expulsions hinder normal academic development and considerably reduce chance of graduation. They create a culture of hostility and alienation that pushes too many students toward delinquency and incarceration.

No quick fix exists. Despite nominally colorblind policies, racial discrepancies generally result from unconscious biases among those administering discipline, making it difficult to assign blame on any one person or group. But that is not to say nothing can be done.

As Michael Diedrich proposed earlier this year, we should stop modeling discipline in school after law enforcement and instead emphasize rehabilitation and treatment. A critical piece of this involves educators and administrators exercising restraint when they dole out punishments. The state legislature should clarify its existing statutes on discipline and specify legitimate and illegitimate grounds for dismissal. School districts should provide training for its employees that stresses consistency and proportionality in punishment. Additionally, schools should make clear to students which actions could result in dismissal so that they may adequately self-correct their behavior.

If we want to get serious about addressing the inequality issue in our state’s education system, this is a good place to start.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Racial Inequalities 

Sympathy for the Devil?

It may seem strange to work up much sympathy for a booming industry that killed 47 people while virtually leveling their Quebec town last year and later touched off a giant fireball over Casselton, N.D., on the Minnesota border, but that's what I'm feeling these days for the railroads.

Since those derailment conflagrations involving North Dakota crude oil, it's been open season on the once largely neglected workhorses of commercial transport. Everyone, it seems, has a complaint against what I'd now call "the engine that dissects us."

Upper Midwest farmers are upset over delayed shipments of grain overflowing their bins and railhead elevators. Amtrak passengers are getting Soviet-style on-time service because of a glut of freight on shared tracks. A federal analysis found most railroads grossly underinsured for the likely damages of an oil train accident.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson noted last week that more than 95 percent of all BNSF Railway's past due cars are in Minnesota, Montana and the Dakotas. Meanwhile, he said, "farmers are now dumping wheat on the ground."

This concern is understandable. University of Minnesota researchers reported last month that higher storage and rail shipping expenses cost Minnesota farmers nearly $100 million in just March, April and May this year. 

The NFU's Johnson also protested shipping delays plaguing corn-based ethanol fuel, nearly two-thirds of which is delivered by rail. "Failure to bring ethanol to market will hurt consumers because of higher gasoline prices and will work against our efforts to offset imports of foreign oil," he wrote to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Now there's a conundrum for you. What do farmers blame for their transport troubles? Of course, all the oil trains clogging the tracks, which also reduce the need for imports of black gold. 

In their own interests as well as everyone else's, the railroads are working mightily to get more efficient. Warren Buffett's BNSF alone is investing half its annual profit—$5 billion—this year in beefed-up infrastructure, rolling stock and staff. In addition, BNSF is negotiating a labor contract provision to allow most of its trains to be operated by a single engineer instead of the standard two-person crews. This has sparked blogosphere outrage, raising the specter of even more dangerous oil shipments. The company insists it wouldn't trim crews minding any hazardous cargo, but critics doubt the pledge and call for federal regulators to step in.

And then there's the insurance issue. The small railroad whose runaway oil train devastated Lac-Magantic, Quebec, carried only $25 million worth. Cleanup alone, not to mention payments for death, injury and property damage, is expected to cost $200 million. So the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway has declared bankruptcy and its assets have already been auctioned off.

But even $1 billion in coverage, the most available in the insurance market, might not be enough in a worst-case train wreck. Addressing this problem, BNSF has proposed an indemnity system modeled on that of the nuclear power industry. Nuke companies pay into a federal disaster fund and get some liability protection in return. At least one critic says the railroads don't deserve that kind of treatment.

As Politico pointed out, common carrier rules bar railroads from refusing any cargo or shipper-owned tank car that meets (generally loose) federal standards, but gives them all the responsibility for accident damages. Despite the fistfuls of money they're making these days, that's a tough situation. Considering that the alternatives to freight by rail are nonexistent, unappealing or economically unsustainable, let's keep pushing the railroads to safer and more prompt service, but also muster a little sympathy for these iron horse devils. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Energy  Community Safety  Freight Rail 


Minnesota’s Stagnant Broadband “Expansion”

In 2008, Minnesota set a goal to become one of the top five states for advanced broadband speeds by 2015; unfortunately, Minnesota has fallen to 23rd in the nation. Why are we failing at solving this problem?

Education is the most powerful motivating factor for expanding internet capabilities throughout the state, so that’s where we’ll start.

More and more education will happen using the internet and online learning tools. Teachers will still be in our schools, no doubt about that; however, if schools and teachers want to stay ahead of the curve, they will accept that curriculum must be supported by online resources.

But what use is online learning for students and communities with limited access to those resources?

Comcast has recently announced an extension to their Internet Essentials program, which assists low-income families with students to access high-speed internet. The program determines which families are eligible by the student’s ability to access free or reduced-price lunch at school. The extension allows those families with previous debts to Comcast to be forgiven and will focus more intensely “on schools where 100 percent of students receive a free lunch through the National School Lunch Program.”

Comcast has been plagued by bad press lately, however and, without a committed philanthropic mission, this relatively small expense could be seen as attempting to earn positive headlines in a troubled time.

What is truly needed is the approach that Connect Minnesota’s Broadband Task Force (BBTF) has been taking for the last six years. The BBTF’s goal is to connect all Minnesotans to some sort of broadband service by next year, 2015. In their 2013 Report, the BBTF outlined that their efforts are simply not adequate for the size of the project in question.

The situation for students is dire because although “most schools are able to offer students at least limited internet access at school,” many of the “rural area have no such access to do their online work at home.” This fact, paired with the fact that 30 percent of low-income families in the Twin Cities lack access, spells out the dismal situation for Minnesota’s broadband capabilities.

All of the top states growing in broadband availability are investing in the infrastructure to achieve wide-spread availability. Much like electricity and phone lines, the internet has already proven to be capable of much more than imagined at its conception, which is why availability remains absolutely vital.

A child’s potential should not be determined by their access to the internet, Minnesota has a responsibility to her citizens to ensure that they are competitive and prosperous.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Rural Minnesota  Technology 

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Beginner’s Luck at Farmers Market

We celebrate Minnesota farmers markets abundance in August and Colleen Landkamer, state director of USDA Rural Development programs for Minnesota, reminds us that USDA is promoting farmers markets all across the country. That being the case, there is no time like the present to note an extraordinary find at the St. Paul Farmers Market. A new food industry sector may be developing right before our eyes.

Mark Christopher, who with wife Sue has Maple Leaf Orchard across the river at Spring Valley, Wisconsin was selling plump, bright red cherries at the market. Since I've never cooked with locally grown cherries before, I had to give them a try. Best cherry pie I've ever tasted; best pie I've ever baked.

A call to the orchard suggested there might have been luck involved. The cherries can be pretty tart at the beginning of the season and become juicy and sweet by the end of July-early August pickings. Your recipes can't anticipate how much sugar or corn starch may be needed to produce baking perfection.

This tasty treat has relevance to area economic development. There just might be a cherry industry developing in Minnesota like that in Door County (Wis.) and in Michigan.

University of Minnesota scientists and individual plant breeders have had great success in developing apples over the years, and their work with cold-hearty grapes has created a successful and rapidly growing wine industry as well. Less well-known is their work with cherries, apricots and plums that date back to the early 1940s based on varieties available that can be traced to release dates.

Here's what makes the tasty, not-so-sour sour cherries from the St. Paul Farmers Market so promising. Christopher said the cherry variety he raises was largely developed by Bill Eubank who has a River Falls area orchard. Someone from the large, local Bailey Nurseries at Newport bought cherries from Christopher at the farmers market and came back the following week to ask what they were and where did he get them.

Christopher put the Baileys together with Eubank. They have teamed to start producing the trees for orchards and backyards, trademarked as part of Bailey's First Edition collection of plants and called the Sweet Cherry Pie cherry tree.

The talent has come together. That isn't beginner's luck.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Agriculture  Business Growth 

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The Reformed Status Quo

It’s common to hear today’s debates about improving our schools framed as “reformers” squaring off against “the forces of the status quo.” At least, that’s how people pushing a given reform will tend to frame it. In recent years, though, the status quo has shifted, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

The status quo now involves nearly every state in the country using a teacher evaluation system that incorporates test scores or other student performance data into teachers’ ratings. The specifics vary from state to state, and some states continue to tweak the details. However, it is now the norm for states to require the use of student performance data in the evaluation of teachers.

The new status quo for most states also includes the Common Core State Standards. Only a couple of states hadn’t signed on to the standards, with Minnesota in an odd half-in position, having adopted the English/Language Arts standards but prohibited by state rules from adopting the math standards for a few years. While a few conservative-led states have abandoned the Common Core in recent months, they’re not doing so because of any allegiance to “the status quo,” and certainly not to the teachers’ unions who are often held up as the embodiment of that status quo. Instead, it’s been far-right Tea Party elements worried about federal overreach (because of the U.S. Department of Education’s support for Common Core in the Race to the Top grant competition and the No Child Left Behind waiver process) that have been most effective at challenging the Common Core.

Finally, the prominence of the early childhood experience as a matter of education policy (as opposed to the historical child care/human services focus) is a new part of the status quo. We may still be debating how best to give more children a high-quality early education, but most people are on board with the principle.

It’s been a tumultuous few years for education policy, and we’ve seen the status quo redefined as a result. There are some who are uncomfortable with this new state of affairs, and with the way it was achieved with targeted philanthropic and political efforts. As we grapple with what parts of the new status quo are and aren’t working as intended, we would do well to emphasize more democratic participation and an understanding of “a good education” that's broader than test scores.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Race to the Top 

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Unbound Opportunity Thanks to Open Data in Minneapolis

Due to a recent policy passed by the Minneapolis city council, macro-data about city processes and day-to-day operations will become available online. MinnPost’s Bill Lindeke best characterizes open data as “a movement that combines government transparency, bottom-up crowdsourcing, and high-tech geekery into an unpredictable stew of numbers.”

Open data will be collected from a large variety of city departments and services and has the potential to transform Minneapolis for the better, long-term.

Crowdsourcing data, which means soliciting a large group of people to contribute thousands (perhaps millions) of seemingly innocuous data bits to show trends and see solutions to problems, is the best possible way to find improvements in the living beast that is the Twin Cities metro area.*

For example, Lindeke gives the brilliant example of requiring taxis and lift car services to log their anonymous GPS data in order to track traffic patterns, speeds and density in the city. This idea could be extremely useful in understanding the evolution of transit in the Twin Cities based in real, hard data, and that’s just one possibility for the strengths of open data.

Bill Bushey, a founder of Open Twin Cities cities in Lindeke’s article that open data “actually enables the city to function more efficiently,” and it could. By understanding the great potential that open data has in bettering innumerable situations, Minneapolis has made an enormous step forward in embracing living technology.

Organizations passionate about issues including health equity, transit development, clean energy and economic trends in particular neighborhoods will find that open data policies are invaluable in moving forward.

Many in the policy world are “nerding” out about the potential data windfall coming our way, and you should be too.

* This sentence was edited for clarity. (Aug 13, 11:39 am)

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Technology  City Management  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Keep Calm and Carry On

Minnesota has a large Liberian population. That fact, coupled with the Ebola-related death of Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian government official whose family resides in Minnesota, has resulted in some concern amongst Minnesotans concerning Ebola. Mainly, what if the virus finds its way here?

There are plenty of articles outlining the flu-like early symptoms of Ebola including headaches, vomiting, fever, stomach pain, weakness, muscle/joint aches, and more. And if you have any of these symptoms, particularly after traveling to an affected West African nation or being in contact with someone who has been, you should absolutely take the proper measures: go to the doctor and limit contact with others. But, really, what this outbreak boils down to is a good public health infrastructure and fear.

A good public health infrastructure that extends beyond our nation's boarders stops Ebola outbreaks. A good public health infrastructure also lends itself to a better economy and more stable society. And while there are certainly issues concerning Ebola we should be wary of, contracting it should not be high on that list. 

Ebola is transferrable through bodily fluids. With a clean and efficient health care system and space, it is nearly impossible for outbreaks to occur. Some have contrasted the current Ebola outbreak’s casualties, which as I write this stands at over 900, with 2012’s malaria casualty estimate: over 600,000. While any loss is a great loss, this Ebola outbreak is hardly comparable to the regular loss of lives of more common diseases like malaria or cholera. 

Ebola’s power, much like anything else, comes from how we sensationalize it and fear it. However, when times are tumultuous and we feel as though we reside in a liminal state, it is all too easy to slip into panic, leaving reason behind.

In fact, there really is a lot to fear internationally right now. Political tensions, war, disease and other social and political injustices surely add up. However, we must remain calm.

In times like these, an influential history lesson taught by my eleventh grade history teacher comes to mind.

England, World War II, bitter war forces families and British nationals into rag-tag bomb shelters. In the event of German invasion, posters reading “Keep Calm and Carry On” were produced, though thankfully never distributed. Going to sleep at night and not knowing whether you’ll wake up due to war is a type of fear I am grateful to have never known. However, when this fear is rampant is also when we must remember most that we cannot afford the abandonment of logic and reason in trying times. 

Yes, our world faces bloodshed, disease, inequity and more. However, in the face of these dangers we cannot crumble and allow them to overrun us with fear. We must remain resolute, search for fact, and remain true to logic. And as cliché as the statement has become in recent times, we really must keep calm and carry on.

Posted in Health Care | Related Topics: Community Safety  Public Health 

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