Readers Write: Education, tuition increases, climate, autonomous lawn mowers

Opinion editor’s note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes letters from readers online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.

I am in full agreement with the recent push to ban cellphones in schools (“From a recent high school grad: Cellphones in the classroom are disastrous,” Opinion Exchange, June 19). I speak as an educator of 50-plus years and as a current school board member. I have personally witnessed what any distraction in the learning environment can have on student learning. It’s interesting, however, how this is just becoming an issue when it has been one for years. One issue that is absent in this dialogue is the role of parents. Schools can ban cellphone use during the time students are in school. The significant question is, how are parents modeling appropriate use of cellphones and social media? How often are you in a restaurant where sitting at the table next to you is a family whose members are all on their cellphones, including the parents? Shouldn’t parents take the lead and ban cellphones during family time — which is also learning time? We adults need to model what we expect from our kids! This is becoming even more critical as we enter the environment of artificial intelligence.

The opinion section has offered several opinions on education lately, and I have mine (“100,000 Twin Cities lives ruined by segregation,” June 4, “Minnesota is an education leader in racial inequality,” June 16, and “A nuanced view of what will reduce educational inequities,” June 18).

Research the most important factor in classroom education, and you will find that the classroom teacher is the most important. When the teacher is usually the only adult in the room, how can it be anything else? Minnesota is dropping again in national rankings using Casey Foundation and NAEP rankings. Education leaders, unions and dominant DFL control refuse to fund the Q Comp system, started by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, which measures the effectiveness of teachers. I believe this refusal is a major reason why Minnesota students score so poorly nationally and are heading lower. We deserve better.

Reading Prof. David Schultz’s recent commentary, “Minnesota is an education leader in racial inequality,” I found myself as a former St. Paul educator wondering exactly which races seem to be doing so very poorly and why. The implication of the commentary is that the issue is blatant racism within school systems. However, there would seem to be some noticeable variations in academic success if groups are disaggregated. For example, the Hmong, along with other Southeast Asian refugees, flooded in during the late 1970s and early ’80s. They came knowing virtually no English, in families with virtually no educational background and few economic advantages. This should have been a recipe for educational disaster, yet they have been notably successful in St. Paul schools. When I was a teacher, a quick look at the honor rolls in most St. Paul secondary schools found them filled with (if not dominated by) Hmong and other Southeast Asian names. And we began to see significant educational progress within the more newly arrived Somali and Karen populations.

So, if there are really differences in these minority groups with some doing worse, our researchers should be asking which ones and why, rather than lumping all of them together with the unspoken suggestion that the “system” or teachers don’t care for these groups. While the answers may turn out to be uncomfortable, researchers must delve into the reasons for poor academic success within these different racial groups — for clearly, at least for Southeast Asians, the schools must be doing something right. We really should stop the negative branding of the schools.

The Star Tribune reports that Twin Cities undergraduate student tuition at the University of Minnesota next year will be $15,148 (“U students can expect largest tuition hike in more than a decade,” June 14). The 4.5% increase is the largest in more than 10 years, and the article cites the need to offset the costs for Minnesota students in most need — a free tuition program for families with incomes less than $80,000 per year (including undocumented immigrants).

Tuition is only one metric to gauge the university’s response to the higher education marketplace environment. Other metrics’ assessments need to be conducted on comparative basis. For example, U.S. News & World Report’s 2024 Public Colleges and Universities Rankings shows the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus ranked 53rd (tied) for national universities, 147th for best value and 23rd (tied) among top public schools.

At the lower end of the public-school tuition spectrum are the University of Florida and Florida State University. Their respective ratings for the corresponding criteria are 28th (tied), 83rd and sixth (tied) for the University of Florida and 53rd (tied), 60th and 23rd (tied) for Florida State University. These rankings compare favorably to the University of Minnesota. In-state tuition and fees are substantially less: $6,381 at the University of Florida and $6,517 at Florida State University.

Progressive, left-of-center Democrats are simultaneously driving the total cost of higher education upward and transferring the systems’ total cost to higher-income families who now already pay the overwhelming share of taxes and, in the future, higher tuition. How great should the gap be between ever-rising costs and performance? Is there a risk of lesser economic diversity on Minnesota public college campuses? Should Minnesotans care, and do they?

Look at where the insurance industry is betting its money on climate change. You better believe that it does its due diligence to ensure profitability. After all, this industry exists to make money and return profits for its investors. It is interesting, then, that many companies are pulling back in several states because they see the writing on the wall — climate change is real, happening and eating their profits.

In a March 1 article in Newsweek, it was reported that American National Group “plans to cease its homeowners insurance business in nine states,” including Minnesota, because “several years of increased frequency and severity of weather events have caused an increased lack of profitability in this line of business.”

This follows State Farm and Allstate, which are pulling their coverage out of fire- and flood-prone areas like California, as reported by CNBC on Feb. 5: “In its announcement, State Farm said too many buildings are being destroyed by climate catastrophes, inflation is making it too expensive to rebuild, and it can’t protect its investments any longer.”

The article quotes Jeremy Porter of nonprofit research organization First Street Foundation: “They know the risk is just too high to be actuarially sound for their business.”

In the meantime, American homeowners are experiencing massive premium increases while simultaneously having fewer insurance options.

My advice: if you question if climate change is real, just follow the money.

The writer is a member of the Winona chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.

Toro has developed an autonomous (smart) lawn mower that can do a better job of mowing golf fairways than a human operating a riding lawn mower (“Toro looks to the future,” June 19). One of the proposed benefits of using these unmanned machines is that they “allow for more productivity from workers, who can do other tasks while the mowers are running.”