The Journal of New Ulm, Feb. 19
Medical marijuana — How beneficial is it?
The latest Minnesota Poll conducted by the Star Tribune indicated that a bare majority — 51 percent — of Minnesotans favor the legalization of marijuana for medical uses.
We've always wondered — what exactly are the medical properties of marijuana? We have heard that it helps control pain and nausea for those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, that it does something for glaucoma sufferers, and that it calms some people suffering from mental disorders.
To listen to some proponents it is a golden elixir, a panacea that cures a number of ills. We never seem to hear about potential side effects. Most pharmaceutical ads include lengthy disclaimers about how the drug may cause this or that harmful condition. We would imagine smoking marijuana would have a large number of unhealthy side effects.
Part of the problem with medical marijuana is that suddenly all kinds of otherwise healthy people develop illnesses that need marijuana treatment, and there is no shortage of so-called doctors who are willing to write a prescription.
In matter like this, public preference polls should take a back seat to real research into the medical benefits and negative side effects of marijuana use.
St. Cloud Times, Feb. 18
More must be done on rail safety
Evidence — in the form of fiery and deadly accidents — is mounting that clearly shows more must be done across North America to prepare communities for responding to derailments of trains carrying crude oil.
The latest example: The Associated Press news report Tuesday that showed 10 oil-train derailments since 2008 spilled 3 million gallons of oil, including one accident in Quebec that killed 47 people. And as the AP noted, the number of such trains crisscrossing the continent will only grow in coming years. Minnesota already sees about 2,000 such trains annually.
Those numbers are why two Minnesota legislators last week proposed taxing oil shipped through the state and using those revenues to train communities along these rail lines on how to prepare for potential disasters.
Minneapolis DFLers Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, who chair their respective chambers' transportation committees, talked of a tax generating upward of $30 million annually. Those funds would go toward equipping and training local emergency responders on how to handle oil spills and derailments. Localized disaster planning also would receive help.
Certainly, this is an idea worth examination. But it must come with exacting details on everything from consistent training programs to why $30 million needs to be spent annually on such efforts.
Equally important, any state-level changes must be viewed in context with proposals in other states and at the federal level. After all, regulators here and in Canada are in agreement the oil extracted from the booming Bakken area is more volatile than conventional oils.
Just last month, the National Transportation Safety Board called for the Federal Railroad Administration to update its safety standards while also pushing the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to craft oil-spill response plans to address this boom in oil trains.
Those demands came on the same day the Transportation Safety Board of Canada made similar requests of its government.
While a few diehard anti-tax legislators immediately criticized Minnesota's idea last week, the reality seems to be that governments and even the rail industry know steps must be taken to improve the safety involved in shipping more oil throughout North America.
Spilling 3 million gallons of crude oil the past five years is bad enough for the environment. But when such spills also catch fire and cause deadly explosions, it's clear more must be done to protect everyone — and everything — living near these increasingly busy rail lines.
The Free Press of Mankato, Feb. 20
Measure the charter schools
The battery of exams that confront Minnesota students annually are known as "high-stakes tests" for a reason: Low scores have consequences both for students and for school districts.
A legislative proposal would turn up the consequences for Minnesota's charter schools. A bill offered by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, would require charter school authorizers — the sponsors — to offer a defense for those schools whose test scores consistently rank in the bottom quarter of the state rankings.
Bonoff's proposal would not force a low-ranking school to shut down, but she makes no bones about it: She thinks many of them should close.
Three charter schools in the Mankato area are among those who fall short on Bonoff's criteria: Lafayette Public Charter School, Minnesota New Country School in Henderson and RiverBend Academy in Mankato. Not surprisingly, those schools and their supporters disagree with the notion that they should get extra scrutiny based on test scores. "We were never opened to try and pass standardized tests," protests a teacher at Minnesota New Country in a recent Free Press story.
Reliance on standardized testing to measure academic achievement, be it by student or school, will always have detractors. But there is no reasonable dispute that, given the vast amounts of public resources expended on education, we need to know what we're getting for our money.
And yardsticks are particularly valuable with charter schools, which are liberated from many requirements that constrain the majority of public schools and are intended to be innovative. What's working? And, just as important, what isn't? Innovation itself is not the goal; improvement is, and innovations are not always improvements.
Standardized tests may not be the perfect measurement, but there is a political and practical consensus that they're the best tool we have for the task. Critics may complain about "teaching to the test," but if — and it's a big if — the test accurately measures what we expect students to have mastered, teaching to it is a laudable approach.
If the testing system isn't the best way to measure a particular school, that's an argument the school should be prepared to make.
Minnesota was the first state to approve charter schools, and the state continues to be regarded as the movement's leader, in no small part because it has actively sought to hold the schools and their authorizers responsible and accountable. Bonoff's proposal appears to be yet another step in that direction.