Star Tribune, Feb. 12
Don't humiliate kids over lunch policies
Reasonable people would agree that growing schoolchildren should have enough to eat during the day. Research shows that having a good breakfast and midday meal aids academic achievement.
But who is responsible for providing those meals — parents or schools —became a hot discussion topic this week in Minnesota after a local advocacy group released the results of a survey on lunchroom policies and practices in the state.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which advocates on behalf of low-income children, surveyed about 94 percent of the 350 school districts statewide and found that 46 have policies or practices in place that call for schools to immediately or eventually refuse hot lunches to students who are unable to pay.
According to Mid-Minnesota, most of those districts allow students to receive a small number of lunches on credit, or provide them with alternative meals, before refusing to feed them. Some of the 46 districts enforce their policies on all students, while others only turn away middle- or high-school students. Some say they do not strictly enforce their policies.
In what appear to be relatively rare cases, some schools take food away from students whose accounts aren't paid up, sometimes dumping that food in front of the students and their classmates. And although most districts go to great lengths to try to contact parents discreetly when accounts are running low or are tapped out, several have said they have stamped reminders such as "LUNCH" or "MONEY" on children's hands.
Mid-America found that 53 percent of districts offer "less nutritious" meals to students rather than turning them away, and that 32 percent always provide a hot lunch to low-income students even if the child is unable to pay.
Most troubling are those seemingly extreme incidents in which students are denied lunch in front of their classmates or stamped with pay-up messages meant for their parents. No child in Minnesota should be publicly shamed because of a delinquent lunch account.
The most recent figures available from the state Department of Education show that 263,041 of Minnesota's 845,177 students were eligible for free hot lunch, while another 60,703 received reduced-price lunches for 40 cents each, with the public picking up the rest of the cost.
In the wake of the survey's release, Gov. Mark Dayton said he would include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget request to make sure that low-income students are not denied hot lunches. Dayton's proposal would expand the free-lunch program to cover all of the children who now receive reduced-price meals. Legislators also pledged to make lunch funding a priority in the upcoming session.
No doubt some parents in these situations can afford to pay 40 cents per lunch, or about $70 for a full school year, to cover their kids. Those parents — not their hungry kids — are failing to meet what most Minnesotans consider to be a basic test of personal responsibility.
Other families now enrolled in the reduced-price program may have fallen on harder times and may be unable to pay, and could be eligible for the existing free-lunch program without realizing it. Districts should continue to reach out to those families to provide eligibility information.
Lost in the discussion this week is the fact that some districts struggle to collect past-due lunch money from students who are not eligible for subsidized lunches but who simply run up deficits in their accounts before the schools catch up with them.
In all of these cases, school districts are in a difficult position. They establish budgets and are accountable to taxpayers, so it should be expected that officials would try to collect money that is rightly owed under current programs. But not at the risk of shaming students.
The Mid-Minnesota survey has prompted a valuable discussion in Minnesota — one that should continue during the 2014 legislative session. And Dayton's plan to add $3.5 million in his supplemental budget is welcome.
In the meantime, officials in those districts that have humiliated students who were unable to pay for lunches need to do some soul-searching.
The Journal of New Ulm, Feb. 12
Keep public notices public, noticeable
Minnesota legislators will be convening soon, and one of the first proposals they will be considering is a bill to allow local governments to put public notices on their own websites and abandon the requirement to pay newspapers to print them.
We strongly disagree with this proposal. Yes, it would remove a source of revenue for newspapers. But we oppose it as well because the public will not be well served by removing newspapers as the main source for legal notices.
The public notice requirement was provide important information to the public about their government in a place where the public is most likely to see it. People already look to us for news reports about local government, so it only makes sense that they will look to us for public notices as well. Public notices allow citizens to make informed decisions and be active participants in their government. They lead to transparency in government.
Would public notices be as widespread if they were only available on government web sites? It may seem like everyone is online these days, but there are many people who don't have computers, or internet access. The impoverished may not be able to afford computers or internet service. Many senior citizens are computer literate, but many are not. But they do read newspapers.
Newspapers, contrary to popular belief, are not moribund, are not obsolete. Readership remains high, especially among those eager to find the local community news they don't find on TV news, or on internet web sites clogged with the latest doings of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. Newspapers' websites are also the first place people go online to find reliable news of local happenings.
Newspapers have supported common sense changes in legal notice regulations, including the law passed 10 years ago requiring newspapers that public legal notices in their pages to also place them on their web sites at no charge.
Yes, newspapers make money from publishing legal notices. The Minnesota Newspaper Association estimates most newspapers earn from 1 percent to 5 percent of their revenue from public notices. This is money that helps pay local taxes and provide jobs for local people.
But more than that, newspapers in America have always served as part of the checks and balances in a community, one that keeps citizens informed and government on its toes. Part of that job includes publishing legal notices. Taking that away, and putting it in the hands of government alone, would weaken those checks and balances.
We hope our local legislators will reject this change in the way local government has done business for many, many years.
St. Cloud Times, Feb. 11
Primary system is worth the thought
Here's an idea that red and blue party loyalists will find as welcome as yet-another wind chill warning: Minnesota's political parties should move from a caucus system to a mandatory primary system.
Of course, if your color is purple — because of your desire for political moderation, not exposure to wind — you should find that suggestion appealing.
It's one that this board finds worth making in the wake of the traditional party caucuses held Feb. 4. In this non-presidential year, statewide turnout appears to have been light. Unofficial results point to less than 1 percent of the state's 3.17 million registered voters participating.
Yet as the caucus system allows, that small segment of diehard party activists typically charts a path to Election Day that puts political party first and political candidate second.
Noting that both parties these days are inclined to stake out the far ends of the political spectrum and avoid having two candidates face each other in primaries, is that really what's best for politically moderate Minnesotans? Or might a mandatory primary system be a better model to yield candidates more willing to compromise?
Seeing the political bickering and gridlock at state and federal levels, those are fair questions to ask.
Political scientists generally agree a primary system is beneficial if you support more people getting to cast ballots to determine which candidate should represent a party in the general election against candidates who won primary elections in their parties. Caucuses tend to concentrate power in the hands of fewer people.
According to the nonpartisan OnTheIssues.org, in the 2012 president race, in the Iowa caucus, 122,000 people voted. But in the New Hampshire primary, 248,000 people voted. Iowa is a larger state than New Hampshire — 3.1 million people versus 1.3 million. In percentages, that means Iowa had 4 percent participation, while New Hampshire had 19 percent.
Another significant difference is primaries allow for voters to keep their political choices private. After following campaigns, you go to a polling place and vote. Caucuses involve small-group meetings at which participants are identified and allegiances made clear.
To be sure, caucus systems reward those who show up and are willing to speak out. Yet in this era of extremist choices, does that really best serve democracy and governance in Minnesota?
Ask that of the leaders of your political party. After all, it's their decision whether to stick with a caucus system or go to primaries.