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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

September 4, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 31

Add absentee voting to precinct caucuses in Minnesota

A nudge from national Democrats should get Minnesota parties moving.

Fifty years ago, unhappiness with a Democratic National Convention that nominated a presidential candidate who had not entered a single primary election — Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota — triggered a cascade of grass-roots-empowering changes in the way both of the nation’s major parties choose nominees.

The procedural changes enacted last month by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) might not be as sweeping as the overhaul of that era. But they deserve notice by both of Minnesota’s parties. Both parties’ state and congressional candidate selection processes could use more of the transparency and inclusivity that the latest DNC changes and recommendations would bring.

A move to limit the power of “superdelegates,” the party officials who are automatically seated as delegates to Democratic conventions, was the headliner among the revisions adopted by the party’s governing body. Its prime movers included Minnesota DFL chair Ken Martin, who chairs the Democratic state chairs association.

The change comes close to reversing a mid-1980s reform that was intended to give the party’s establishment more control over presidential picks. It would no longer allow superdelegates — who comprised about 15 percent of all national convention delegates in 2016 — to vote on the first ballot in a contested presidential race.

The move’s aim is to give rank-and-file participants in caucuses and primaries more clout. It springs from criticism that in 2016, superdelegates’ preference for Hillary Clinton stacked the deck for her against Bernie Sanders, who outpolled Clinton in Minnesota and in 22 other states.

The superdelegate change has little application to the Republican Party. But what the DNC had to say about primaries and caucuses does. Where possible, the new DNC policy says, states should employ government-run primaries to allocate their convention delegates’ presidential picks, taking advantage of the security, accessibility and transparency that government-run elections afford.

This state appears to have anticipated that change. Minnesota lawmakers have already made the switch from caucuses to a primary for presidential selection in 2020. Minnesota already allows for election-day registration, as the DNC recommends.

But barring more procedural revisions, this state’s major parties will still employ caucuses in 2020 at the start of their endorsement processes for other races, which that year will include one U.S. Senate seat, the U.S. House and the entire Legislature. And those caucuses would benefit from what the DNC recommended: Caucuses should allow for absentee voting. And they should require the use of standardized paper ballots to allow for a recount in the event of a close tally.

Those are sensible and overdue changes. They would address a serious flaw in Minnesota’s caucus system: It’s too exclusive. Many people cannot readily take part in a neighborhood meeting on a wintry Tuesday night — night-shift workers, students, the elderly, the disabled, caregivers of the young and old. The haphazard nature of some caucuses has also weakened confidence in their results. Reports of ballots being cast on Post-it notes were registered in 2008 and 2016.

Secretary of State Steve Simon told a State Fair audience at the Star Tribune booth last Thursday that he supports adding an absenteeballot option to balloting at precinct caucuses. But the authority to make that move does not lie with him or the Legislature, he noted.

Precinct caucuses are party-run affairs, Simon said. The nudge from one major party’s national governing body should spur both of Minnesota’s state parties to consider adding absentee ballots and more standardized voting procedures to the caucus experience in 2020.

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St. Cloud Times, Aug. 31

Politicians, help families: Let state’s new school assessments stand

Minnesota’s Department of Education released its new assessments of school and student performance known as the North Star system.

Designed to “create more equitable and well-rounded learning opportunities for all students across the state,” North Star takes a sharp turn away from about 20 years of ratings and assessments focused mostly on high-stakes test scores.

To be clear, that’s an important and much-needed change.

More importantly, though, is this point: Politicians, at both the state and federal levels, must stop moving the goal posts when it comes to assessing Minnesota schools and students.

For families to fairly and accurately assess performance, common sense dictates whatever system is created be left in place (and mostly unchanged) for several years or — gasp — even longer!

Not only will that show student and school performance measured the same way repeatedly, but it will allow Minnesotans to develop the context and perspective needed to decide for themselves how kids and educators are doing.

Such consistency the past 15 years has been as rare as an empty stomach at the state fair.

For example, the North Star system is the second rendition on ranking schools coming from Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration since he was elected in 2011. The first version used vague labels like “reward,” ″celebration,” ″focus” and “priority” for schools’ overall performance.

Those arose largely because the state got a waiver to opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Of course, it was NCLB that spurred predecessor Gov. Tim Pawlenty to create a five-star ranking system built on test scores and arguably more obsessed with tracking money than students.

In the wake of NCLB came Obama and not just waivers to NCLB but a Race To the Top and his Every Student Succeeds Act, which prompted Minnesota’s World’s Best Workforce law and ultimately the North Star system.

Up next? Donald Trump signed his Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act in late July. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, though, it’s worth repeating the North Star system is a better measure of overall performance for students and schools because it uses more variables than just high-stakes tests.

The system considers five key indicators: academic achievement based on MCA scores, progress to proficiency for English learners, academic progress from one year to the next, graduation rates over four or seven years, and consistent attendance.

While it does not have simple labels, North Star does determine prioritized support for schools based on how schools and entire districts perform on those five factors.

Now politicians just need to leave it in place long enough to allow it to measure student and school performance over an extended period of time.

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Mankato Free Press, Sept. 3

Parks: More people value our state parks

Why it matters: Minnesotans have shown their willingness to fund parks and trails and more and more of them are enjoying their beauty.

The small herd of bison don’t know it, but they’re superstars.

For most of its life, Minneopa State Park was widely unknown to anyone outside the Mankato area. Even many in the region only knew about the stunning waterfalls at the park but never ventured into separate, much larger part of the park north of Highway 68.

That all changed a few years ago when the Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the Minnesota Zoo, added a herd of bison to the north-side range of prairie.

Since then the park has seen visitor numbers increase by 66 percent, to 280,000 annually.

Those visitors have also been discovering the beautiful, shaded campground at the park, as well as trails and bluffs surrounding the waterfalls area.

The newfound interest has propelled Minneopa to one of the top 10 state parks in Minnesota. And Flandrau State Park in New Ulm, with its sand-bottom pool, riverside setting and impressive trail system, has also made the top 10 list this year.

In fact, the DNR reports that all parks are seeing more visitors, with attendance up 25 percent over the past 15 years. Minnesotans love their parks and the outdoors and they’ve shown a willingness to support them financially. The Legacy Amendment approved by voters in 2008 collects a percent tax that has paid for $2 billion dollars in projects that include millions in state park improvements.

Funding has also gone to the I Can! program that introduces people to camping, paddling and fishing.

Having more Minnesotans outdoors, whether it’s in a park, on a river or lake, or in the woods is the best way to raise awareness about the need to protect the valuable natural resources we have.

While it’s good to see more people at the parks, it also brings more wear-and-tear and the need for more staff and maintenance. Going forward, the Legislature needs to assure that funding keeps up.

At a time when more people report higher stress and have more of their lives consumed with activities, electronics and noise, it’s no wonder a drive through a bison range, sitting next to a dramatic waterfall or a hike on a trail is so precious.

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