- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

Star Tribune, Dec. 6

Finally, Congress is set to adopt replacement for No Child Left Behind

By year’s end, the controversial No Child Left Behind federal education law likely will be history. Last week, the U.S. House approved an NCLB replacement, and the Senate is expected to pass the companion bill this week. President Obama is expected to sign the measure soon after.

Two Minnesota lawmakers, Republican Rep. John Kline and Democratic Sen. Al Franken, deserve credit for working out details of the long-awaited rewrite in conference committee. As committee chairman, Kline led the negotiations on the finishing touches, building on the bipartisan work of other lawmakers. The compromise attempts to strike a balance between the Democrats’ emphasis on the academic issues of poor and minority students, and the Republican focus on less federal and more state control of public schools.

It rightly ends some of the most onerous features of NCLB, such as labeling and sanctioning schools based on narrow test criteria and setting unrealistic academic goals. But it also leaves open the possibility that without those requirements, some states might neglect efforts to improve learning for struggling students. One positive feature of NCLB has been the attention it focused on America’s significant learning gaps between white students and students of color.

The new bill wisely maintains required annual proficiency tests in math and reading, but it would allow states to decide which tests to administer and how they would use results to hold schools and teachers accountable. States still would be required to take action with low-performing schools, but the federal government could not decide what steps would be taken.

The new rules would consolidate nearly 50 federal programs and allow states and schools more control over how they spend federal money. The bill also encourages states to limit testing and would end federal efforts to tie test scores to teacher evaluations.

Approved by Congress and then-President George W. Bush in 2002, NCLB was an iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 during the Johnson administration. Congress was supposed to reauthorize the law in 2007. Yet despite nearly universal public backlash and calls for change, NCLB remained in place and became caught in a broader debate over the federal role in public education.

Following the House vote last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that the vote was “good news for our nation’s schools,” citing administration priorities such as a new early-childhood program that made it into the bill.

Franken admitted that it is not a “perfect” bill, but he said he was pleased that it includes more resources for student mental health needs, better training for principals, increased science and technology instruction, and the flexibility to use tests that more accurately measure skills

In several areas, the new law brings welcome, long-overdue changes to federal education oversight. At the same time, Minnesota and other states must remain committed to narrowing learning disparities - even after some of the federal requirements are no longer in place.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Dec. 5

Medical marijuana approval to treat pain the correct choice

The decision was a relief not only for chronic pain sufferers, but to their loved ones who helplessly watch their struggle.

Last week Minnesota health officials announced the state would allow chronic pain sufferers access to medical marijuana beginning this summer. Other conditions had qualified for its use since last summer, but not pain.

The decision to include severe and chronic pain was not made lightly, and rightfully so, but it also wasn’t overly bold. Only five of the 24 states that allow medical marijuana don’t include severe, chronic or intractable pain as a qualifying condition, according to The Associated Press.

Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger in his announcement described the decision as the “compassionate choice,” even going against the recommendation of the panel he had assembled.

Critics of the move should take comfort in knowing that Minnesota’s medical marijuana program is one of the country’s most restrictive. As the program exists today, patients need a doctor or other caregiver to certify they have one of nine serious conditions, such as cancer, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy or Crohn’s disease. Cannabis is sold only in pill or liquid form.

Concerns about potential abuse of what has had a longtime history of being a recreational drug are not unwarranted. But many drugs, including prescription pain killers, include the potential for abuse. Research shows that states that allow medical marijuana for severe and chronic pain have lower rates of fatal prescription drug overdoses, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Although lawmakers could vote to reverse the commissioner’s decision this spring, it doesn’t appear that will be likely or that the support would exist to pass such a measure.

If pain sufferers find medical marijuana to be effective in managing pain, then by all means they should have access to it and the use of the drug should be monitored by their medical provider just like every prescribed drug should be.

Far too many people have had to think about ways to get the drug illegally or elsewhere to help ease their suffering or that of a loved one. Making medical marijuana accessible to pain sufferers is the ethical choice.

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Post-Bulletin, Dec. 7

Fix our infrastructure before cutting taxes

With a projected $1.87 billion surplus in the state treasury and all 201 Minnesota legislative seats up for election in 2016, a tax cut seems all but inevitable.

Yes, putting more money in the pockets of Minnesota citizens would be a politically popular move, especially in an election year, but would it be fiscally prudent while our state’s transportation system continues to fall behind with needed maintenance and upgrades?

We don’t think so.

One of the broken promises of the last legislative session was to dedicate more funding into roads, bridges and transit infrastructure. Lawmakers began the 2015 session with a nearly identical $1.86 billion surplus with both parties declaring transportation a top priority, yet they couldn’t agree on how to get it done.

Most DFLers have proposed raising the gasoline tax as part of the solution. Republicans have declared the gasoline tax a nonstarter and instead proposed shifting taxes from auto parts, car rentals and motor vehicle leases from the general fund to an account dedicated to roads and bridges. Democrats have opposed the GOP plan because it would divert money from education and health care.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation forecasts the state will face a $7 billion funding shortfall during the next 10 years. And the needs extend far beyond the next decade. The Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan projects a $16.3 billion shortfall through 2033.

Legislators have had the last year - no, make that several years, as the neglect has been mounting for a long time - to reconsider how they will come to an agreement on a transportation bill. We can’t wait any longer.

The grand bargain should go beyond using some of the surplus for roads, bridges and transit. The gasoline tax, which is constitutionally dedicated to transportation, is a diminishing funding source because of inflation and the advent of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles. Legislators have to determine other funding solutions to supplement the gas tax. One idea to consider is user fee based on miles driven that some states have tested with pilot programs.

We also suggest the surplus be used to restore funding to Local Government Aid, which helps smaller cities that have infrastructure needs greater than what they could reasonably cover in property taxes. That way smaller communities could dedicate part of their LGA allocation to transportation needs not met by state funding.

This isn’t just about smoother rides. Transportation is the public foundation that allows the private sector to thrive. There’s no way that Minnesota - with the sixth-lowest unemployment rate and the 17th-largest state economy in the United States - can continue to compete with crumbling infrastructure. Roads are the arteries of a circulatory system that nourish businesses and schools throughout the state. Not taking care of our transportation needs now is a disservice to the next generation.

Minnesota has the fifth-largest highway system in the United States, with nearly 143,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges. Half of our road pavement is at least 50 years old, and 35 percent of our bridges are half a century old, according to MnDOT.

We have the cash. We know the wear and tear on our roads is accelerating. Putting off repairs will be even more expensive in the future.

What are we waiting for?

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