The Trend Toward Flexibility

In my last blog, I wrote about how Minnesota's electricity system is paving the way for more renewable energy. More specifically, by voting in favor of adding solar alongside more natural gas - typically used with more flexible generation technology that can accomodate intermittent generation like solar or wind - the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission not only increased the share of solar in the mix in the short term, but pushed the entire system toward being more compatible with larger amounts of renewable energy technologies down the road.

Apparently, Minnesota is not unique in this respect.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) “Today in Energy” daily article last Tuesday revealed that half of the additional capacity built in 2013 was natural gas. And in second place, accounting for 22% of the additional capacity: solar. In two of the ten states adding the most capacity to the grid in 2013, Kansas and Michigan, wind accounted for the majority of their additional capacity. In fact, only two states, Texas and Indiana, added any coal to their portfolios.

Economics is likely the main driving force behind this trend. In the last five years, rapid expansion of large-scale shale gas operations has increased dry shale gas production from 1.0 trillion cubic feet to 4.8 trillion cubic feet between 2006 and 2010. This has driven prices down from around $10 per million Btu to under $4 at times making coal relatively less economical. Solar and wind have also taken off as the cost of the technology (particularly solar photovoltaic) and incentives have driven down prices and delivered respectable rates of return on project investments.

But policy is also driving the trend. Renewable Portfolio Standards, passed in 37 states, mandate or encourage the use of renewable energy technologies to generate a specified portion of a state’s electricity. The need for greater flexibility in the system to accommodate the intermittency of these technologies to comply with these laws along with their greater efficiency is influencing resource planning decisions to favor combined cycle generation plants.

As can be seen in the EIA’s handy graphic, a large portion of both natural gas and even coal plants are being built with combined cycle technology as opposed to conventional technologies. There’s even a small but noticeable amount of solar thermal capacity employing storage technology, another component to making the system more flexible.

Renewable energy accounts for about 12% of electricity generation in the U.S., as of 2013. That figure is expected to increase to 16% by 2040 under the EIA's base or reference case. This is likely too small of an increase and too small of a percentage overall to reduce emissions from electricity generation enough to to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But this projection could change in either direction with changes in policy or costs. If states, like Minnesota, continue to move toward a more renewable energy compatible system through their resource planning decisions, this number could perhaps be a lot higher and put the U.S. as a whole on track to make a substantial dent on our CO2 footprint.

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Energy  Coal Power 

Redlining is Hurting the Twin Cities

When asked to explain structural racism, there are few historical examples that more effectively illustrate the concept than redlining.

Redlining, for those unfamiliar, was a set of housing policies beginning in the 1930s in which federal agencies and private banks labeled neighborhoods based on perceived credit risk. Not coincidentally, the neighborhoods identified as “declining” or otherwise risky were predonimantly nonwhite neighborhoods.

Under that system, new suburban developments with restrictive covenants limiting homeownership to white residents were identified as good investments, and mortgage applications in those neighborhoods were treated more favorably, while loans were consistently denied in neighborhoods labeled “declining” (and typically outlined in red on maps, hence the term “redlining”). In the day-to-day, mundane world of banks, these maps meant bankers didn’t have to deny loans based on race to discriminate. They could deny loans based on neighborhood geography, with very much the same effect. For that reason, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned the practice of redlining.

Unfortunately, according to a study released last week by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, redlining is alive and well in the Twin Cities. Despite a clear legal prohibition against it, private banks in the Twin Cities have been consistently lending more readily and on fairer terms to white borrowers, and to borrowers for loans on properties in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“In fact,” the study notes, “very high income blacks were 3.8 times more likely to receive subprime loans for home purchases than very low income whites…” Following the crash of the subprime lending bubble, banks that had been targeting racially diverse neighborhoods for subprime loans became reluctant to lend in those neighborhoods at all. “Even middle and high income households,” the study tells us, “were much more likely to be denied loans in predominantly nonwhite areas.”

In other words, the banks that hold the responsibility for deciding who gets access to capital are continuing to produce similar outcomes to what Congress attempted to fix in 1968. The importance of these racially biased outcomes cannot be overstated.

For multiple generations in our country, white families with the same household income have been given the opportunity to own property, earn equity, pass it on to their families, and build wealth over generations. Black families, on the other hand, have either been denied access to home loans or given subprime loans that are set up for failure. Even for black families that manage to get stable loans and build equity in their own home, the pattern of geographic discrimination against predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods leaves vacant homes and neglected properties that lower the property value for the whole neighborhood.

Somebody should pay for these inequities. The study notes that Wells Fargo bears the largest share of responsibility in the Twin Cities market, representing over a quarter of the lending shortfall in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods from 2009-2012. Community groups ISAIAH and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change have raised the possibility that the city of Minneapolis could sue (as Baltimore and Memphis already have) to recover the damages redlining by Wells Fargo and other banks has inflicted on our city. That might be a good place to start.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Financial Industry  Housing Market  Racial Inequalities 

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Voucher Advocate Is Bored with Common Core Debate, Thinks We Should Have More Vouchers

Education Week recently ran a commentary piece from the board chair of Democrats for Education Reform, who expresses impatience with the debate about the Common Core and argues instead for vouchers. I am less than impressed.

Reading through the commentary, we can see the usual checklist of market reform rhetoric. Reference to the civil rights movement? Check. The false dichotomy of reformers vs. “the status quo”? Check. Overblown claims that “choice is the answer”? Check.

The author cites an anecdote from Milwaukee, home to the country’s longest-running voucher experiment. The results of that experiment after more than 20 years aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement for vouchers. Milwaukee’s voucher students do slightly better than students from under-resourced backgrounds in the Milwaukee Public Schools district, but worse than the district as a whole. Since voucher students can now come from families with incomes up to roughly $67,000 for a family of four, that’s a wash. And, of course, half the families that enter the voucher program leave after two years.

The author also conflates vouchers with “school choice,” ignoring the other forms of choice such as charter schools, open enrollment programs, and magnet schools. All of these exist in Milwaukee, too, and have for over fifteen years. The result of all this choice and competition between schools? A marketplace with lots of mediocre options and only a couple of standouts in each system. It’s a stark reminder that choice alone is not “the answer” for educational quality, contrary to the author’s claims.

Meanwhile, the Common Core -- debate over which has so exhausted the author -- has only existed for a few years, and only the last year has seen much controversy. Of course, if we were much more aggressive about promoting private schools and vouchers, the Common Core debate would grow increasingly irrelevant, since those private schools wouldn’t be held to the Common Core standards. (This is similar to how vouchers enable the publicly funded teaching of creationism.)

The author calls for proposals for other options. How about we stop betting on a market approach to schooling, invest in building and activating schools’ capacity, promote full-service community schools, get explicit about making schools anti-racist, rethink the present accountability system that (intentionally or not) promotes narrowed curricula and scripted, teacher-centered instruction, and promote more student-driven and project-based learning? Just as a starting point.

I understand that the slow pace of change in schools is frustrating. I’m frustrated, too. But to pivot from impatience or boredom with the Common Core debate to questionable voucher systems isn’t helpful. We can do better.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Education Funding 

Friday Reads

Following is a short list of things our staff have enjoyed reading this list.

From Jeff:
Can a Television Network be a Church? The IRS Says Yes (NPR) -- Want to avoid paying property taxes on your $6.3 million home? Call it a parsonage. An NPR report examines how some televangelist mega-churches avoid taxes and IRS scrutiny, despite use of donated funds for purposes that could hardly be considered charitable.

From Lee:
Speaking at Rights Event, Carter Deplores Disparity (New York Times) — President Jimmy Carter reminds us again that the struggle for human rights and equality never ends. I was reading his thoughtful piece in the New York Times when word came champions of women pay inequality had blocked a Senate bill attempting to provide equal rights for women on pay days.

From Maria:
Conscious Uncoupling (The Economist) -- If anyone is interested in reading up on the energy implications of the Russia/Crimea situation, the Economist article below is a bit above a "101" level but digestable for most. It gives some interesting high lever insight on the geopolitics of energy and the constraints of energy transmission and cooperation:

From John:
The Polarized Partisan Geography of Inequality (The Atlantic) — Minnesota's 6th Congressional District has the least income inequality in the US. What's up with that?

From Rachel:
One Designer’s Lonely Crusade to Make Packaging Disappear (Slate) — As an environmentally conscious designer, I enjoyed these imaginative ways of creating less or no-waste product packaging.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

We Don’t Always Know When We’re Biased

Most of the bias in our society operates without people being aware of their own bias.

Over at the Shanker Institute’s blog, research associate Esther Quintero has rounded up some key points about implicit bias, which operates below the conscious level, using the same system as other mental shortcuts that help us function in day-to-day life.

This bias gets into everyone. As Quintero writes, “Stereotypes operate implicitly...regardless of our own race/gender, and even when our personal beliefs are completely to the contrary.” That doesn’t make its effects any less harmful, but it hopefully makes it easier to accept that having implicit bias doesn’t put you in the same camp as Bull Connor; it just means you’re a human being living in a society that continues to be marked by its past and present racism.

The ramifications of this are broad. Quintero offers three classic studies looking at the effect of implicit bias on hiring and academic tenure decisions, as well as on letters of recommendation. It’s also fair to hypothesize that implicit bias may contribute to the racial disparities we see in school discipline responses and special education identification. Especially when formal policies are ambiguous, like when “defiance” is a suspendable offense, implicit bias subverts decision making.

There is some good news about weakening implicit bias. The more familiar we are with an individual, the weaker our implicit bias becomes, at least with regard to that individual.

For teachers, this means that building strong individual relationships with their students can help undercut any implicit bias that might affect their judgment and behavior. Additionally, teachers can help students disrupt their own implicit biases by, for example, intentionally structuring group work to help students build those individual associations and break down stereotypes.

At the policy level, this is another argument for smaller class sizes. The more students a teacher is trying to serve, the longer it will take and the harder it will be for them to build strong individual relationships with each student. Additionally, this offers additional reasons to pursue integrated schools. Finally, policymakers should support professional development that helps teachers build awareness of and counteract their implicit biases without shaming them as bad people.

By default, schools in a society with deeply embedded institutional racism and sexism (and other forms of oppression) will replicate and perpetuate those problems. However, we can use the available research on implicit bias and teachers’ capacity for building relationships with their students as tools of anti-racism. We need to do so intentionally, with the recognition that the default state is harmful implicit bias.

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

Paycheck Inequality is Bad Economics

The Paycheck Fairness Act bottled up in the U.S. Senate – at least until out-of-touch senators start hearing from their wives and daughters – is a human and civil rights issue. The parliamentary ploy requiring at least 60 votes is a long-used tool to fight fairness.

Requiring a “super majority” to pass equal pay legislation is the legacy of fights and delay tactics used against all civil rights legislation that emerged in the 1950s and came to pass in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, only the most segregationist members of Congress would honestly acknowledge their motivation. More tried to cover their tracks, implying that holding up civil rights legislation was somehow humane and good for Black Americans until they were “ready” for full citizenship and economic rights.

American women are ready for equal pay. Senators’ arguments that equal wages would lead to women’s job losses are convoluted, patronizing reasoning. Women do the work of men. But they get paid about 80 cents to a man's dollar.

The Minnesota Legislature, to its credit, is considering legislation to overcome this inequity regardless of what the dysfunctional Congress might do. Karen McVeigh offered a thorough look at the U.S. bill and the rationale behind it April 8 in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

She cites a National Partnership for Women and Families study that found the disparity ranges from 64 cents to 90 cents for American women in different jobs and geography. A separate report from the MSN Money staff found that the pay discrimination extends to even fields where women dominate the workforce. This includes elementary school teachers and social workers, although that shouldn’t be the case in Minnesota given the state’s existing government pay equity law.

Senators balking at pay equity legislation will whitewash their reasoning, defending it as just trying to protect women’s jobs.

Last year's Minnesota 2020 Made in Minnesota report showed just how counterproductive pay inequality is, citing that women drive the retail and services economy. She-conomy.com found women make the purchasing decisions for 93 percent of food and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, 92 percent of vacations, control 89 percent of household bank accounts, 80 percent of health care spending, buy 66 percent of personal computers and 65 percent of new cars.

Given that economic data, gender inequality in paychecks isn’t just unfair. It’s stupid. Or more politely, as President Obama said on Tuesday, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Job Growth  Gender Inequalities 

More Transit Blarney, and its Effects

Last month, I showed why transit ridership figures considered authoritative understate the totals by a billion or more and how autocentric conservatives use these statistics to plead their case

The beat goes on. Katherine Kersten just cited the American Public Transit Association's flawed annual report to add more noise to the echo chamber.

She parrots full-time transit-basher Randal O'Toole's "closer look" at the APTA's numbers, including some careful cherry-picking of those from particular places. Rail ridership declined in the Twin Cities last year, Kersten and O'Toole tell us, conveniently ignoring the fact that overall regional use climbed by 300,000 trips, boosted by surges in bus and Northstar commuter rail boardings. This despite weekend shutdowns for construction and maintenance on the Hiawatha Blue Line, which still stayed 25 percent above projected ridership for 2020.

Right-wingers correctly point out that even though APTA's raw figures are the highest in decades, per capita ridership remains far below that of earlier times. The connection to massive government investments in motorways, hugely subsidized by non-users and dwarfing those for transit, is artfully absent from their commentary.

Unfortunately, such half-truths impact policy. For one current example, federal commuter tax credits for transit riders dropped almost in half on Jan. 1, to $130 per month. At the same time, parking tax breaks for drivers rose to $250 monthly from the $245 that equalled the transit benefits last year. 

U.S. Senate progressives attempted to keep the playing field even at the end of last year, but were stymied by conservative opposition, according to the Government Executive blog. Three months later a Senate committee approved a retroactive raise in the transit credit to match that for parking and added an employee benefit for bike-share subscribers.

Will the fix go any further? Bipartisan negotiations over a much bigger budget deal brought parity to riders and drivers for the first time in 2012. Whether conservatives will agree to this again remains an open question.

But if we had a full accounting of the actual growth of transit, and an even-handed reflection of it in conservative punditry, such plain fairness would stand a better chance.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation 

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If Congress Wants Different Ed Policy, It Should Replace NCLB

Sometimes a criticism of policy is a reasonable argument. Other times it’s a diversion.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weathered criticism for conservatives in Congress. They were unhappy about the role the federal government played in promoting the Common Core. Duncan flinched away from the attacks, describing himself as “just a big proponent of high standards,” with the shared nature of the Common Core State Standards a less important concern. He also offered the questionable claim that no federal grants required the Common Core.

So here’s the thing: Yes, Common Core adoption was helpful in the Race to the Top grant contest and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver process. Yes, there are reasonable criticisms to make of the Common Core’s design, implementation, and testing requirements that don’t require indulging conservative paranoia about national standards as the grasping hand of Big Brother. None of this, though, makes Congressional conservatives’ attacks on Duncan anything other than a sideshow.

Yelling at Arne Duncan about the Common Core is one of the least productive things Congress can be doing on education right now. If they really want to decrease the power of the Department of Education, they should pass a new education bill replacing NCLB. The law is overdue for replacement, and its failures are well-documented. Working on a new law that maintains NCLB’s attention to equity concerns while addressing its larger failings would be a worth use of representatives’ time.

It would also require conservatives to compromise on various points, so there’s no chance of it happening. Still, for legislators to chew out the Secretary of Education for trying to advance education policy when the legislature is apparently incapable of producing an alternative smacks of hypocrisy.

There are reasonable debates to be had about the Common Core, and any serious replacement for NCLB will actually require compromises that the right seems unwilling to make on any issue. With that said, let’s not confuse conservative complaints about the Common Core for actual education policy.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Reform  NCLB 

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What About Welfare Fraud?

Many of us cheered the recent arrest of a wealthy Minnesota couple accused of fraudulently receiving over $167,000 in medical and SNAP benefits while living the high life. A question many people are probably asking is, “How did they do it?” It's tough to say for sure, but based on news accounts, their alleged scheme sounds very elaborate.

Applying for any kind of government benefit requires pretty extensive documentation. Depending on the program, applicants may be asked to provide things such as:

Can some of these documents be falsified? Certainly. People really determined to lie will find ways to lie, whether on their taxes, resumes, or benefits applications. Government benefits workers have finite time and ability to verify the authenticity of every single document (and doing so might be quite invasive, such as calling a boss or landlord) and obviously don’t have a fail-safe way to investigate income or assets that isn’t ever reported in the first place.

That doesn’t mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater by making it more difficult for people to apply for economic supports. Given that fraud rates are incredibly low (for instance, 98 percent of SNAP benefits are paid to eligible households), making the application process more invasive would deter far more people in real need than people determined to cheat the system. We might shut out a few fraudsters, but we could also shut out many, many more people who really are in poverty but have limited time or ability to jump through a dozen more hoops.

I already work with many clients who would benefit greatly from some extra income support or health insurance but just aren’t willing or able to deal with the application process and ongoing reporting requirements.

Technological improvements might provide a middle ground between verifying more information and maintaining accessibility for people in need. For instance, MNsure has (or is in the process of developing) the ability to compare applicants’ reported citizenship status, Social Security number, income, etc. against federal records. Those with discrepancies are asked to provide more proof. Bringing all benefits applications under this MNsure framework would increase accuracy while reducing the amount of paperwork that most clients have to send in.

While the media loves a good sensational “welfare fraud” story, the truth is that most of our government’s economic supports really are going to people who are rightfully eligible for them. I’m as horrified as anyone else about fraud, and I hope offenders are brought to justice. But I also hope that we continue to improve not only the accuracy, but also the accessibility, of our support programs for those in need.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Social Services  Poverty  Nutrition 

Put the “Comprehensive” Back in Sex Education

For some late teens and young adults, engaging in the “hookup culture” is part of growing up. Instead of turning a blind eye and hoping our kids aren't part of it, we should get serious about educating people about the issues that come with the behavior, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual  assaults, rape and harassment.

Many of our college campuses have been and continue to do just that, helping students lead healthier, happier and safer lives, including Macalester. There are numerous talks and campaigns that are embracing the fact that college students are having sex, and are trying to encourage safer sex practices rather than shying away from the fact. However, what are high schools doing to ensure that these students come into college equipped to deal with the stresses like college, where casual sex is a prevalent practice?

Young people (ages 15-24) are particularly affected, accounting for half (50 percent) of all new STIs, although they represent just 25 percent of the sexually experienced population,” according to a 2013 CDC report. Abstinence only education isn’t realistic at all. To ensure that these kids don’t end up pregnant or contracting STDs, comprehensive, age appropriate sex education is important. The world these kids live in is a lot more complicated and dangerous than people want to believe.

According to the American Public Health Association, “Experts in the fields of adolescent development, health, and education recommend that sexuality education programs as part of a comprehensive health education program assist young people in developing a positive view of their sexuality, provide them with information necessary to protect their sexual health, and help them acquire skills to make informed decisions, both now and in the future.”

Morally and ideologically justifying why or why not the “Hookup culture” exists, isn’t going to help anyone. In the end, everyone should have youth's best interests at heart. These students are going to enter the world, unprepared to deal with the variety of issues related to sex, including pertinent issues such as rape, sexual assault, and harassment. Thus, comprehensive sex education should aim to address these issues.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum  Public Health 

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