- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 9

Trump team should heed Minnesota’s efforts to fight terror

President-elect Donald Trump’s visit to Ohio State University last week is to be commended. He won’t just be commander-in-chief. Inherent in the president’s responsibilities is the need to play comforter-in-chief when the nation needs healing. His meeting with the victims of the knife-wielding OSU attacker suggests that Trump understands his new office’s “soft power” to unite the nation at difficult times.

That same appreciation for soft power is critical for one of Trump’s newest Cabinet appointees: Marine Gen. John Kelly. The Trump transition team announced Wednesday that Kelly will head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the massive agency created after 9/11 to thwart attacks within our borders.

Trump’s Ohio visit underscored one of the most serious threats Kelly’s agency must contend with: the brazen online recruitment of young people by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other terrorist groups. The OSU attacker was a Somali refugee who “self-radicalized,” according to authorities. The recent sentencing of nine Minnesota Somali-Americans who fell prey to recruiters further illustrates the power of this online propaganda.

Combating recruiting requires multiple strategies. As Kelly takes over, he should reach out swiftly to Minnesotans in law enforcement, private nonprofits, religious leadership, and local and state government who are ramping up efforts to build a Somali-American community here resilient enough to withstand recruiters’ dangerous calls.

The state is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Somali-Americans. What leaders here will tell Kelly is that interdiction, such as stopping recruits at the airport, isn’t enough. A preventive approach must be part of this mix. Young people who have a bright future and feel connected to their new home are less likely to fall prey to recruiters.

Under the Obama administration, DHS had begun the arduous work of implementing what’s known in policy circles as “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE. This soft-power approach, which Kelly should support and strengthen, seeks to build a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, local government and law enforcement to aid at-risk communities. A recent report from a DHS advisory panel confirms what a Star Tribune editorial series has argued this year: that these partnerships are a critical part of the nation’s anti-terror strategy and that progress in building them is lagging.

DHS doesn’t even catalog the various CVE efforts under way across the country to identify what is working and where there are gaps. Nor is there a central office to coordinate offers by businesses that want to share expertise. The report confirms another key point in the series: These efforts are shockingly underfunded. The council recommended $100 million annually. So far, Congress has approved just $10 million for 2016.

Kelly ought to consider another important recommendation in the report. The advisory council, which included a retired Marine General and a National Football League executive, said tone matters. “We must speak with honor and respect about all communities within the United States,” the committee said. This is not a matter of being “politically correct” - a criticism recently lobbed at current policies by U.S. House Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas. It’s about making sure that semantic noise doesn’t drown out anti-jihad messages in at-risk communities.

Kelly, McCaul and other congressional leaders in key security posts should consider this editorial a standing invitation to visit Minnesota. The state has two Somali-Americans in high-profile public offices. A local nonprofit, Ka Joog, is pioneering after-school educational activities. Private philanthropy and employers are helping launch a new jobs center. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and U.S. Attorney Andy Luger have won accolades for their outreach. Minnesotans are already hard at work on this national-security challenge. Their CVE expertise ought to be heard and heeded.


St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 8

Aim early-education scholarships at greatest needs

As those we elect formulate plans to address Minnesota early-education needs, one word should guide their thinking: prioritize.

The clear priority for targeted investment should be the estimated 40,000 low-income children identified as “left behind” for lack of access to high-quality early-education programs.

The payoff of prioritizing - in terms of human potential, subsequent learning and avoided costs - is high.

The early-learning scholarships that would help set those children on a productive path have been tested, proven and expanded. But more scholarships are needed to serve the children identified in an analysis released last month by the local nonprofit advocacy group Close Gaps By 5.

Rather than the inefficient “blanket” approach of universal pre-K for all Minnesota 4-year-olds - one that comes with a daunting ongoing spending commitment - the prioritizing approach emphasizes:

Targeting to serve the children most at-risk, with $63 million per year for scholarships for additional low-income 3- and 4-year-olds and $42 million per year for low-income children from birth to age 2 who are homeless, abused, in foster care or who have an older sibling with a scholarship.

Starting early. Waiting for universal pre-K at age 4 is too late. Far better to affect the most-at-risk children sooner. With research showing that achievement gaps start as early as age 1, explains Art Rolnick - an economist, longtime early-eduation champion and a Close Gaps By 5 board member - the low-income children who are most at-risk need multiple years in a high-quality early-leaning program to catch up and be prepared for kindergarten.

Engaging parents. The scholarship approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, includes a component of many of the best education programs: parents who are involved. It gives them the choice of the high-quality program that best meets their child’s needs, and theirs.

Using our child care “infrastructure.” The Parent Aware rating system helps parents find the best early-learning programs. The result is a market-based approach driven by parents’ choices, Rolnick emphasized in a conversation with the editorial board last week. With the ratings guiding families to existing quality programs in schools, centers, religious organizations, homes and nonprofits, there is no need to build new programs, as we would with universal pre-K. “The market works,” he told us.

We asked about numbers in Ramsey Country, where scholarships were awarded to 1,253 children in state fiscal year 2016, according to Ericca Maas, executive director of Close Gaps By 5. The county also had 224 children on a waiting list as of June 30. Maas notes, however, that the number does not reflect demand for scholarships because there are “intentional efforts to not recruit other children once scholarships are in use.”

Maas also cites a 2009 survey by Wilder Research that provides additional perspective on the scope of the state’s child care need: In Minnesota, known for a high workforce participation rate, 82 percent of all children ages 3 to 5 and 69 percent of children ages birth to 2 were reported to be in child care regularly. Sixty percent of low-income families without child care subsidies reported that unlicensed care from family, friends or neighbors was their primary arrangement. Thirty-five percent of parents with low incomes reported having to “take whatever child care they can get.”

Rolnick is known for co-authoring research about the taxpayer return on investment in early education while at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. It showed that the highest returns - up to $16 in benefits for every $1 invested - are realized when investments are targeted to help the most-at-risk children access high-quality programs, according to Close Gaps By 5.

Scholarships are an effort to “focus on what we know works,” Rolnick told us. The initiative to meet the needs of more children amounts, he said, to “the state making the commitment long term that every child born into poverty has access to early education.”

“These kids don’t lobby,” Rolnick told us. “Their families don’t lobby.”

But Minnesotans are speaking up on their behalf. Among them is one of the east metro’s most prominent business leaders, Ecolab CEO Doug Baker. He calls closing the achievement gap “both a moral and economic imperative.”

In a statement, Baker, Close Gaps By 5 co-chair, said the gap is “detrimental to our society and to Minnesota’s ability to compete in the global economy long term, so we need to act now and use targeted early education.”

Targeted scholarships have proven effective and received bipartisan support in the past, he said, expressing the hope that “the two parties will seize the middle-ground approach to address this urgent need.”

The best path for Minnesota is clear. State lawmakers should make early-education scholarships for more low-income Minnesota children a priority at the Capitol.


Post-Bulletin, Dec. 12

UMR’s first decade fuels positive change

While University of Minnesota Rochester officials offered no timelines and few details on plans for future campus construction, they did inspire thoughts of the future as they celebrated the university’s 10-year milestone last week.

Founded in 2006, the move toward a Rochester campus actually dates back to the 1950s, when local advocates began lobbying for an increased University of Minnesota presence in the city. Programs slowly began to be offered in southeast Minnesota, but it took more than five decades to create what is now UMR.

It shows that change can be slow.

However, once change starts, things can happen in the seeming blink of an eye. Since UMR set up shop in what was formerly known as the Galleria Mall, the downtown mall has remained a shopping destination, but it also has become a hub for students. Visitors with shopping bags easily move through the space with students carrying backpacks, and both sets can be spotted stopping for a bite to eat midday, along with throngs of downtown employees.

The approximate 650 UMR students provide an active presence in downtown Rochester, but so does the campus as a whole. Community programs, such as UMR Connects, offer an array of ways for area residents to engage with the unique campus.

It’s all part of the unique partnership the university was founded on. In the past decade, UMR has become a vital part of the city and a significant player in the region’s future growth.

While enrollment has slipped in the past, student numbers continue to indicate the campus has a solid future in the city, especially as speculation for future growth continues. More space is already needed for student housing and wet labs, and the recent concern about skyway access to new classrooms in the former Paine Furniture building simply shows how precious the existing space is for the campus.

With that, eyes routinely look southward to the plan for something that might look like a more traditional campus, with outdoor walkways and green space for students to gather and lounge. Officials note, however, appearances could be deceiving. The campus isn’t expected to fit the traditional mold. Instead it will be a private-public partnership, perhaps similar to what has been growing from its roots at University Square.

That partnership has served Rochester and the surrounding community well for the past decade, and we’re excited to anticipate the new growth that it creates, hopefully helping bridge the activity in today’s downtown with new life to the south.

As UMR’s second decade starts, we can only imagine how the city and university will grow together in the next 10 years.

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