Marching on for Women’s Equality

I was 14 years old in 1976 when I marched in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with a local chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW). It was a short march in a small Western New York town. But, that march was transformative and fed my hunger to learn more about the women making headlines of the time: Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug, to name just a few. It wasn’t until I went off to college not far from the home of the historic 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that my lessons began about the first wave of feminists, the suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

We honor the work of those brave early feminists on this Women's Equality Day, commemorating the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that granted women the right to vote.

Fast forward 94 years. Not only do we vote—we are being voted into office. "We are growing in number,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told the NY Times.  “But more importantly, we are growing in our power."  And making other strides. Early this year at home, the Women’s Economic Securities Act (WESA) was signed into law. 

Now, we must continue the work of the early feminists. What do women want and need? I emailed that question to a few women in my network and here's what they all agreed. Women need financial equity. Narrowing the gender-based wage gap is the number one issue on the minds of women I heard from:

"Pay is the most important feminist issue facing women today. We continue to face stereotypes in terms of pay structures and that harms women. Thirty years ago Minnesota passed the Local Government Pay Equity Act which was the state's way of leveling the playing field in terms of pay attached to men's and women's work. As a result pay is assigned to women's work as well as men's work based on skill, effort, working conditions, and responsibility for employees of cities, counties, and school boards. We do this through job evaluation and gender neutral rating of jobs. However, the private sector pay scales are so focused on market rates that include within them historic discrimination. Caregivers (women) are paid less than road repair workers (men), teachers (women) are paid less than engineers (men), marketing associates (women) are paid less than groundskeepers (men) even though the levels of responsibilities, problem solving, know how, and communication skills of the women's jobs are often greater than the men's jobs. We have a great deal of shifting to do in this respect."                                                                                                                                                         -- Patty Tanji, Pay Raise/Compensation/Pricing Strategist, Open Workplace LLC

"It’s been only 40 years since women could obtain a credit card in her own name without a man co-signing it for her. It was 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed. I find that shocking. And, here we are forty years later talking about whether feminism is a relevant term anymore. We are still seeing institutionalized inequity in pay scale. We need to be treating people equally and paying people for their value. It's about equality."
-- Cecily Sommers, Futurist/Author, Founder of The Push Institute

“Additional funding must be made available for women business owners. The biggest obstacle for female entrepreneurs is access to capital, particularly venture capital, where women-owned businesses only receiving 6-8 percent of the funding. Achieving parity in the area would mean true equality for women in the area of business development.”
-- Elaine Wyatt, Executive Director, WomenVenture

The Peggy Olsons of the world may have helped coin the cigarette advertising slogan, We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, but we have a long way yet to go until the work of men and women are valued equally. What will Minnesota be like for women forty years from now? Let’s continue working together—men and women—to ensure policies are in place to help close the economic gap so we can all enjoy a full, rich life of opportunity.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Gender Inequalities  Workers' Rights 

New USDA Program Improves School Nutrition

From a nutrition perspective, 2014 has been a good year for low-income Minnesota students. Earlier this year the Legislature passed a bill mandating the state to pay for school meals for students who qualified for “reduced-price” meals. (Previously, families paid a partial fee to cover what the USDA doesn’t pay.) This change guarantees that more low-income children will always have access to free meals at school.

The new school year will see another positive step forward through the USDA’s community eligibility program. This program, which launched in a few states in 2011, is available nationwide for the first time this fall. Community eligibility targets high-poverty schools where many students already participate in free/reduced school meals or other financial assistance programs. Through community eligibility, all students in those schools may receive free breakfast and lunch, without each individual student needing to enroll. The USDA reimburses schools based on how many students qualify as low-income based on their participation in several other income support programs. Families no longer need to complete an additional round of forms to enroll their children in free meals and schools no longer need to process these forms. This improves student access to the meals they need to succeed in school while reducing the paperwork burden for families and schools.

Over 350 Minnesota schools are now eligible to enroll in this program, which offers great promise for schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Pilot schools in other states have reported increased breakfast and lunch participation, improved academic performance, and reduced administrative costs. In some schools, these improvements have actually boosted their nutrition programs’ revenues.

Community eligibility also opens the door to improve meal programs in other ways because there’s no need for a cafeteria checkout line to ring up each individual student. For instance, some schools have struggled to get students through a breakfast line in the harried time between their arrival and the start of class. Now schools can simplify by offering food right as students enter the building or by delivering breakfast directly to the classroom. Every student can count on breakfast every day as part of their routine.

Minnesota schools will no doubt invent some creative ways to improve student health and achievement through community eligibility. We can look forward to seeing the fruits (pun intended) of this new program as students return to school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Nutrition  Children's Health 

On Higher Education, Where Do We Stack Up?

In adults ages 16-29, the United States ranks 16th in numerical proficiency and 11th in literacy proficiency, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This new metric, entitled the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, assesses knowledge retention and use in professional settings.

Kevin Carey of the New York Times' Upshot Blog suggests that, due to the newly released OECD study, those who lament the status of our K-12 education system should also be concerned about the status of American colleges and universities. The main problem is that the reality of America’s collegiate mediocrity does not match the rhetorical arguments made by our nation’s leaders.

While it is true that the United States houses 19 of the world’s top 25 universities, academic strength should be judged by the average achievement of those surveyed. For example, great works of literature are still coming from the United States; however, our 11th place in literacy proves that, on average, the United States has significant work to do.

How can we work together to make the United States the best country for higher education?
The answer is two-fold. Surveys have shown that public universities educate up to 75 percent of American college students; however, public funds have decreased by an average of $2,394 per student (27 percent) between 2008 and 2012 alone.

Tuition has, therefore, become more prevalent in supporting school expenses and has led to some families being “priced out” of their education. Increased public funds for large universities would also keep large universities accountable to the public, not just big private donors.

As for changing practice, more colleges and universities should increase their emphasis on critical thinking and creative problem solving in every education setting. Knowledge retention is enhanced greatly by these different practices, and they don’t just belong in a liberal arts education setting.

Engineering or high-level mathematics classes benefit just as much from these learning practices as do creative writing or sociology. It is a fallacy to state that cohort learning or experiential development is only beneficial in one, not the other.

By enacting these two changes, the United States can put its colleges and universities on track to become more competitive. It won’t happen next month or next year, but we owe it to our students to ensure their success and effectiveness in the world.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

The Broken-Down Empire Builder

James J. Hill, the 19th century St. Paul businessman who built the St. Paul Cathedral and a great railroad to the Pacific Northwest, must be spinning in his grave. The once-proud train that bears his sobriquet, the Empire Builder, has become a slow-motion blot on his legacy.

"Eighty-five years after its debut as the Great Northern Railway's premier passenger service to the west, the Empire Builder is broken," the Flathead Beacon of Kalispell, Mont., sadly reported. "Five years after the Empire Builder had some of Amtrak's best on-time performance rates, even outpacing Amtrak's high-speed Acela train between Boston and Washington, delays of three to five hours are now commonplace."

This is Minnesota's only intercity passenger train, once the most popular of Amtrak's long-distance routes but now bleeding ridership with each botched timetable performance. It's not a public-sector failure for the quasi-governmental rail agency, but one of the private-sector BNSF Railway whose tracks it leases the use of. 

As passenger rail improvements—some publicly financed, some private enterprises—are blossoming across the rest of America, the Empire Builder's woes will only drive down support for such advances around here.

After delays of up to 12 hours on an already leisurely schedule plagued the train during the harsh winter, Amtrak modified its timetable in April. It didn't help much. "In June, the westbound Empire Builder, train No. 7, stayed on schedule 10 percent of the time," the Beacon noted. "The eastbound train, No. 8, has a zero percent on-time rate." By then, ridership was down 19 percent from June 2013, which was already off from the record 2012 year of 543,000 boardings.

Problems like this for Amtrak aren't confined to the Empire Builder as a surge in freight on share tracks, only partly caused by the U.S. crude oil boom, gums up the schedules. But the timing could hardly be worse as "Americans are getting more and more frustrated with air travel," according to Tanya Snyder at StreetsblogUSA.

Snyder cited a U.S. Travel Association survey that found significant percentages of respondents unhappy with the hassles of flying, some so much that they're traveling less than they used to or planned to. The Travel Association pegged the industry's losses from trips not taken at $27 billion. A 2011 Harris interactive poll found that a third of business travelers and two-thirds of leisure travelers would ride high-speed rail instead of jetliners, of the former existed.

In the face of such an opportunity, Amtrak has even taken a page from the airlines' playbook, getting rid of free amenities altogether or charging for them. "Amtrak is acting more like an airline every day," wrote Christopher Elliott in USA TODAY.  "And not in a good way."

Since late May, Empire Builder passengers have had to fork over $8 for a blanket, pillow, earplugs and eye shade. No more free glasses of wine, either. It's the kind of cost-cutting and revenue enhancement that might please congressional funders, but not passengers, especially when the train pulls in hours late.

James J. Hill might have had a smart solution when he ran both the passenger and freight ends of his railroad, and air and car travel weren't competing with him. Today's fragmented transportation market complicates matters. But trains—at their best efficient, comfortable and internet-friendly—deserve more respect than they're getting from practically any quarter these days.

Photo credit: John Mueller, creative commons

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Passenger Rail 

When Should the Public Pay for Purple Squirrels?

Go to college, get a job, make a decent wage. That’s how it’s supposed to work right? Only if everyone gets that decent wage at the end of it all.

Multiple pieces of research (summarized in part by The Atlantic) identify what employers are most looking for from job applicants who just graduated from college. High on the list, well above college GPA or the relevance of college coursework, are internships and work experience. Again, these are what employers are looking for from new graduates.

What, then, to make of the constant complaints that employers can’t find qualified workers? What of the much-discussed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) shortage? Well, as you may remember from past coverage, our problems in STEM aren’t really about the number of graduates in STEM fields.

This is a good reminder of the mismatch between an employer’s ideal candidate and what our schools, colleges, and universities can reasonably produce. In the parlance of job recruiters, they’re all hunting for purple squirrels: people with the perfect education and experience. This tends to imply a worker trained at someone else’s expense (where else is that work experience going to come from). And, of course, the ultimate purple squirrel is willing to work for free.

The role of public education should not be the production of purple squirrels. Even stepping back from the purple squirrel idea to the notion of simply preparing graduates to work for particular local employers, we can see problems.

Let’s say a local employer has five positions for a certain kind of job that it needs to fill every year. If a nearby college could produce five graduates each year who meet that employer’s criteria, it would still be better for the employer if the college produced ten. It would be even better for the employer if the college produced twenty. Flooding the market means the employer can drop wages, paying people less than their work.

Public education’s priorities are its students and the public at large. Employers’ needs are important only to the extent they support those two. Convincing thousands of students to take on additional debt only so they can fight for low wages in an oversaturated market is not —or at least should not be—the business of public schools, colleges, or universities. Helping Minnesota's students prepare for jobs is great, but we should recognize the difference between employers’ interests and those of students or the public in general.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Higher Education  Job Growth 

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Forward Together

Lean on me/When you’re not strong/I’ll be your friend/I’ll help you carry on…

This old Bill Withers song never sounded so good, ringing out from a not-nearly full enough Peavey Plaza on Saturday, August 16, where the Reverend William Barber, along with his traveling arts expert, Yara Allen, was getting ready to lead a march down the Nicollet Mall.

Reverend Barber and Yara Allen were in town at the request of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and in honor of Barber’s work as the leader of not only the North Carolina NAACP, but also the growing, grassroots Moral Monday movement.

I am so grateful that I got to meet Barber in person, to introduce my children to him, and to be astounded, amazed, floored, and inspired by not only his rhetorical skills, but also his grounded, strategic tips for how to build a unified movement of, by, and for the people.

Forward together, not one step back.”

A key tenet of Barber’s message is unity: Forward together—not one step back. While Barber was in Minneapolis at the invitation of the teacher’s union, he made it clear that tackling disparities and inequities in education is everybody’s problem. In a sea of acrimony, Reverend Barber’s message rings out like a clarion call, and he does not shy away from his belief that he is building and leading a moral movement.

You cannot care about education and not care about student hunger and homelessness, said Reverend Barber. You cannot trumpet the successes measured by test scores while ignoring the many who “fail” to perform. You cannot build a house from the roof on down, he said. You must build a house up, from the bottom to the top.

With a new school year upon us, we must admit that no one of us, acting alone, has all of the answers for anyone else—and especially not for our most struggling communities and the children who live in them. To carry Reverend Barber’s message forward, we must find a way to come together, bury our egos, and find common ground.

In North Carolina, Reverend Barber has found that it is working to lead with heart, with honesty, and with an insistence on the immorality of, among other things, resegregated schools, draconian austerity measures, and the further privatization of our public institutions.

He has brought people together, and forward, in North Carolina. Will we now follow his lead in Minnesota?

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Education Reform 

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Minnesota Informed

If the conversation on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis is politically charged this week, there’s good reason. Gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center are several hundred elected representatives from around the nation and the world. All week I have had the opportunity to marinade in the lively presence of attendees at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)—elected representatives and staff of the fifty states’ very diverse governmental entities as well as an impressive contingent of international visitors.

Though members of the Minnesota Legislature are everywhere, the local press seems to me to be conspicuous by their absence. They and their readers are missing a great story–some highlights:

Most notable, perhaps, is the fact that the gathering is remarkably civil. Elected officials with diametrically opposed political views are managing somehow to respect each others’ opinions, to listen, and to discuss with marked civility. I’ve observed discussions of everything from voter registration to health care to humane treatment of farm animals and found attendees willing, if not eager, to hear our their colleagues’ perspective.

One good example of collegiality happened on Tuesday when the members of NCSL conveyed special honors on former Congressman Martin Olav Sabo, recognized as a founding father of NCSL. Particular mention was made of the Congresman’s work on government transparency, specifically Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. It was a privilege to hear Mr. Sabo accept the recognition and to commend and further inspire the collaborative approach of NCSL.

Minnesotans starred again on Wednesday when Senator Amy Klobuchar joined Cindy McCain (yes, wife of John McCain) to lay out the facts of sex trafficking in this nation. Mincing no words, they outlined the steps these elected officials might make in their own states, as legislators and as community leaders. Their frank and practical approach was clearly an eye-opener for many attendees.

Minnesota leaders, including Governor Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor Besty Hodges as well as a number of legislators are involved as speakers and panelists throughout the conference. Senator President Sandy Pappas and Speaker Paul Thissen headed up the cadre of Minnesota legislators who master-minded event planning. It was the legislators who arranged the feature of the conference that stands out in my mind as the crowning glory of the Summit – to wit:

Staffers of the Minnesota Legislature are the omnipresent guides that are making the Summit stress-free. Clad in bright blue shirts, volunteers are everywhere. They are smart, smiling, ready to go the extra mile to guide a lost legislator who may be reluctant to admit that she’s overwhelmed by the cavernous Convention Center. The guides don’t just answer but anticipate the visitor’s question. This congenial, informed squadron of local experts sets a high standard not just for Minnesota Nice but for Minnesota Informed.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Government Policy 

Friday Reads from the MN2020 Staff

Following is our weekly round-up of links and stories that our staff are enjoying this week. 

From Michael:
The Hugo Awards! (Geek Feminism) — At last weekend's World Science Fiction Convention in London, one big question was how a misogynistic, racist, and otherwise bigoted sub-group of nominees would fare at the Hugo Awards, the top fan-voted honors in science fiction and fantasy. Geek Feminism summarizes the results, with links to many great stories.

From Nick:
Hobbit beers are coming to a shire near you (A.V. Club) — This makes me very "hoppy" that I can combine my love of Tolkein and beer steins.

From Jeff:
Prisoners Dilemma (America) -- Human Rights Watch, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the National Academy of Sciences, and Pope Francis have all decried the nation's growing incarceration rate. "Our country must transform the prison from a trash can where we dump offenders to an instrument for the public good."

From Conrad:
Is a street an asset? (Strong Towns) — Charles Marohn Jr., Minnesota's smartest conservative thinker about city streets, sprawl and highways, digs deep into the real balance sheets of municipal infrastructure in his Strong Towns blog. The comment string is enlightening, too.

From Elliot:
King County Metro Announces $1.50 Low Fare For People Making $23,000 and Under (Seattle Weekly)

From Lucas:
Judge won't block union vote by 27,000 Minnesota home health care workers (StarTribune) — Collectively bargained contracts for home health care providers will likely lead to substantial improvements in their wages and working conditions, which is good not only for the workers themselves but for the overall vitality of our economy.

From John:
Colorado peaches. Just arrived in Minnesota. Get 'em while they're fresh. It's a short season. 

From Deb:
Chris Kluwe and the Vikings reached a settlement. He told ABC news, "You have a children's game, and you have basic human rights. And there's one of those I'm always going to value more than the other." Nice job, Chris.

Posted in News & Notes | Related Topics: Friday Reads 

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 "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 

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