Roots & Branches charter will remain open, but public school closures loom large

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on February 3rd, 2016.
—-

Last night the Baltimore City school board voted to renew Roots & Branches charter school for another three years. It was a victory for the parents and teachersworking to save their progressive elementary, though many other local schools were not so lucky. In early January the school board voted to close four schools—Westside Elementary School, Baltimore Community High School, Maritime Industries Academy High School, and the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences, a charter school. These four, plus Roots & Branches School, another charter, were recommended for closure in early November.

“Every time you hit adversity you learn something, and I think we’re going to look at some of how we teach math across the board,” says Anne Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, which de-emphasizes testing in favor of an arts-infused curriculum. “I think we want to do some professional development, our math scores were not as good as our reading, but I am really optimistic that we are going to be able to show the district improved scores.”

The school closings come on the heels of a tumultuous year, both within the public school community and Baltimore City more broadly. Westside Elementary is located in Penn North, where the bulk of the Freddie Gray protests took place, and many felt shuttering a civic institution was the very last thing the beleaguered community needed.

“I will plead to you one more time please save Westside Elementary School,” state Del. Antonio Hayes asked the school board in November. “There [are] two major institutions in the Penn North community, that’s Westside Elementary School and a very thriving drug treatment center.” Students who would have enrolled at Westside will merge with students at another renovated school.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of New Initiatives for Baltimore City Public Schools, says that when making decisions about school closures, the district thinks about which communities could most benefit from better facilities. “With Westside, I know the community was concerned about divestment, but for me it’s the opposite,” she says. “We’re really investing. Westside is closing because they’re getting a new school—we intentionally prioritized neighborhoods with challenges, so they are getting new buildings first.”

Nearly half of the city’s school buildings were built in the 1960s or earlier, and almost all require extensive repair, renovation, or replacement. According to industry standards, approximately 70 percent of the district’s buildings are considered to be in “poor” condition. And they were constructed at a time when the number of public school students enrolled in the district was much greater—upward of 200,000. Today, with roughly 85,000 public school students, there’s a lot of excess space. (Fewer students also means decreased funding, and the district has had some close calls with misreporting how many students are enrolled in the past.)

In 2010, the ACLU of Maryland published a report outlining the miserable state of Baltimore schools, citing things like damaged windows that don’t open, facility doors that don’t close, and badly lit hallways. “Depending on the season, teachers often struggle to engage drowsy children due to the excessive heat, and faulty boiler systems compel some children to wear coats during class in the winter,” the report stated. “Old lead plumbing has forced City Schools to restrict the use of water fountains and instead provide bottled water.” Decades of social science research has shown how unsafe and inadequate school facilities can negatively affect students’ academic performance—particularly when a school has poor temperature control, poor indoor air quality, and poor lighting.

Though advocates have been paying attention to the deteriorating school facilities for some time, inequitable state policy has made it difficult for leaders to take action. In 2004, the state reported that Baltimore had the greatest need among all Maryland school districts to bring its facilities up to acceptable levels of condition—yet legislators failed to target funding accordingly. Baltimore’s lack of wealth also inhibits it from borrowing money, while suburban districts can incur debt to fund capital improvement projects. So Baltimore not only has the greatest need, but also faces the most difficulty raising money. According to the ACLU, Baltimore’s capital budget “pales in comparison” to other large counties.

Following the report’s release, advocates who had been mobilizing for increased school funding—under the banner of the Baltimore Education Coalition—began to shift gears and focus more specifically on school facilities. The ACLU called for $2.8 billion to fund all the needed repairs and capital improvements. (It later revised this figure to $2.4 billion.) By spring 2011, the Baltimore Education Coalition formally joined the ACLU’s “Transform Baltimore: Build Schools, Build Neighborhoods” campaign, and together they pressured the city and state to pay for school improvements.

Baltimore, which is more dependent on state aid than any other district in Maryland, simply cannot fund enough capital improvements on its own. But state legislators worry about wasteful spending, and are loathe to invest in schools with too few students inside them.

“There is a statewide rule that says that any school building that is less than 60 percent occupied cannot receive state school renovation funds,” says Frank Patinella, an advocate with the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “Some buildings might have broken boilers and inconsistent heat, but the state does not give money, no matter how poor the condition, if it is an underutilized building.” (“Underutilized” is the controversial term used to describe buildings that are deemed too large for the number of students enrolled. According to the district, Baltimore currently has a 79 percent school utilization rate—and its goal is to ultimately reach 86 percent, through school closures.)

“The state feels particularly strongly about the high number of Baltimore school buildings compared to student population and puts ongoing pressure on City Schools to close more and more buildings,” says Bebe Verdery, the director of the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “I’ve never been to a hearing in Annapolis in which particular legislators did not rail against Baltimore City schools and the state agencies to require more closures faster.”

Perkins-Cohen says that in order to get state funding, the district had to develop a cohesive plan that indicated which schools would close, which would be renovated, and in what order.

Their efforts succeeded, and by 2013 the legislature passed the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act, which allows the state to leverage $1.1 billion in construction costs. This funding enables Baltimore to make headway on its “21st Century Plan“—a commitment to fully renovate or build roughly 50 schools, and to close 26 schools. The state, city, and school district have to each contribute $20 million annually over the next 30 years, though equity advocates say the state should be paying a greater share of these costs.

Many community members have raised concerns with the 21st Century Plan, and question the way it’s being implemented.

According to Jessica Shiller, an urban education professor at Towson University, some communities—like Penn North, Edmonson Village, and Hollins Market—will lose more than 40 percent of their classroom seats from the school closures. These communities all have poverty rates that exceed the citywide average.

“There needs to be an outcry, I take every opportunity I can in school board meetings to tell them they’re doing the wrong thing with these closures,” says Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers Democracy Project, a local group that engages teachers in public policy issues and social justice.

“One of the main things we find is that mobility is just bad for kids,” says Shiller, who has been doing independent research on school closures. “Moving kids around too much has a negative effect on their academic achievement, and closing a school exacerbates mobility, especially for poor kids.”

Another problem, Shiller notes, is that students often wind up in schools that are worse than the ones they left. Though the 21st Century Plan promises that all kids will attend superior, renovated schools eventually, observers note that children who used to attend the high-performing Langston Hughes Elementary School now attend worse schools, and the displaced students will be shuffled to yet another struggling school during the 2017-2018 school year. In addition, Shiller says kids frequently encounter bullying and violence at their new schools, and teachers are often ill-prepared to handle an influx of new students.

Perkins-Cohen says the district’s long-term plan is to provide professional development to teachers working in merger schools, and to focus on “creating cultures and climates” to help students transition more smoothly.

School closures have become a flashpoint in education reform debates across the country, evoking particularly heated opposition in cities like Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Last year, parents in Chicago led a 34-day hunger strike to save a local high school that was slated for closure. Parents and community organizations have also filed federal civil rights complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that school closures in various cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on poor, black students. In December, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools to help those who may have been negatively impacted by Newark’s closures.

But school closings in Baltimore have not garnered the same kind of mobilized opposition.

Perkins-Cohen says she thinks the politics have played out differently in Baltimore because the district has worked really hard to engage the communities in a thoughtful way. The district’s comprehensive strategy, she says, involves publicizing the 21st Century Plan, making annual school closure announcements several months before the school board votes, organizing robocalls to parents, sending letters home, running ads in newspapers, holding meetings with both teachers and the community, and speaking at school board meetings.

Shiller says her research suggests the public is nowhere near as informed as the district thinks. “While the city did do public forums, they really glossed over this closure information. They said you know we’ll get you wireless internet and air conditioning, and we have to make sure that every school is fully utilized. But the way it was told was to really de-emphasize the closures,” she says. “When I did research it was very clear that it wasn’t communicated very well.”

As of now, it’s unclear what will become of the school buildings that get shut down.

When the district closes down a school, the buildings then return to the city, which owns them. Perkins-Cohen says the city is already thinking about uses for the buildings, in part by asking various city agencies if they might have an interest in the facilities. Sometimes charter operators try to use the newly vacant buildings for their charter schools.

“If you think about it as just a school, then yes it does make sense to close them. Maintaining buildings is hugely expensive, and a city like Baltimore doesn’t have the money to support expenses that are unnecessary,” says Shiller. “But if you think about it from an urban planning perspective, and ask what a school is to a neighborhood, then it’s a very different conversation.” She points out that for many students, schools are where students access food, counseling, after-school programming, and even health care.

Education advocates worry the community won’t have a say in what ultimately happens to these buildings. There are fears that the process will lack transparency, and that buildings may even be left vacant, if nobody wants them. Shiller thinks that right now is a real chance for individuals to speak up with ideas on how to repurpose the buildings, and maybe even figure out new strategies to turn them into hubs of social services.

“The new mayor will be the one really central to making those decisions, and so this leadership change is a really excellent opportunity” for people to get involved in shaping the future, she says. Although some community members tried to save Langston Hughes Elementary School last year, Shiller believes their lack of political capital ultimately crippled the effort. “There were some very inspiring marches, and it got good coverage, but they lacked that political support,” she says. “To stop school closures there really may need to be more aggressive direct action.”

Some wonder whether political capital played a role in helping Roots & Branches to stay open this year. “While I can’t speak to the details of the Roots & Branches case, the fact that it was allowed to stay open adds to the impression that many parents have that charters are treated not just differently, but better,” says Edit Barry, a parent involved inPeople for Public Schools, a new grassroots advocacy group in Baltimore.

Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, says the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools did not help them fight their closure recommendation. “I think the charter coalition was understandably cautious and did not throw any weight behind us,” she says. “I don’t know if they didn’t want to show favoritism for us over another charter, or if it’s the [closure] process they wanted to be cautious about protecting, but I will tell you they weren’t part of this effort to save our school.”

Opening up more charters within buildings of closed traditional schools may exacerbate existing tensions between charter advocates and traditional public school parents. Some claim that these closures might even be pretenses for charter school expansions; Atkinson notes that multiple charter operators have been trying to open up schools in communities targeted with school closures, some even angling for the Langston Hughes Elementary School building before it shut down.

“I think people in Baltimore just feel like they will get screwed,” says Shiller. “That’s their go-to feeling—that it’s probably going to be bad—but maybe we can make it a little less bad.”

School Desegregation Lawsuit Threatens Charters

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 26, 2015.
—-

Alex Cruz-Guzman, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, lives in a poor, minority neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Determined to provide his five children with a quality education, he and his wife were able to send their two oldest daughters—who are now in college—to desegregated St. Paul schools. But it’s become more difficult to find such schools in St. Paul today, and the Cruz-Guzmans were told they would likely be unable to send their three younger children to integrated institutions, even when they offered to transport their kids themselves.

So Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit—one that may shape the future of American education. Filed against the state of Minnesota by two veteran civil rights attorneys, Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, the suit accuses the state of allowing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students to proliferate. A 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis found that elementary school students in the Twin Cities attend more racially segregated schools than they have in a generation. Children who attend such schools, the lawyers argue, achieve far less than their peers in integrated institutions. The lawyers also say that the growth of charter schools, which are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools, have exacerbated these trends.

The Shulmans are seeking a metro-wide integration plan to satisfy what they argue is the state’s constitutional obligation to prevent segregated schooling. They cite the state constitution’s education clause, equal protection clause, due process clause, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act to make their case.

Not everyone agrees that this kind of integration is legally necessary or the best way to meet children’s needs. Some see the suit as a threat to parents’ right to choose the schools that would best serve their children. This is particularly true for parents of color, who sometimes send their children to charters in the hopes of avoiding what they see as hostile traditional schools.

John Cairns, one of the most experienced charter school attorneys in the nation, is working against the lawsuit. “If the state is going to do anything, then they’d have to attack parental choice,” says Cairns. “While the plaintiffs are inexplicit about what their remedy would be, in our view, they’re explicit that their remedy would address charter school enrollments. The only way they could do that is to have some conclusion that parental choice is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Shulman sees in this argument an echo of Plessy v. Ferguson. He thinks charter school advocates are arguing, in effect, that separate schools can be equal. “We don’t think that’s true or the law. If they follow the law, they’ll say separate is not equal, and not equal is inadequate,” he says. “All the data will support that … test scores, graduation
rates. School segregation is a national tragedy and disgrace.”


It’s fitting that this fight would take
 place in Minnesota
, which is both the birthplace of the charter school movement, and a longtime champion of civil rights.

Minneapolis enacted the nation’s first fair housing and fair employment ordinances, and Minnesota passed one of the first state laws banning housing discrimination. In 1948, it was an impassioned speech to the Democratic National Convention by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey that led the Democratic Party to pass its first civil rights platform plank. In the early 1970s, under a court order, Minneapolis moved to integrate its public schools. This prompted the state to issue desegregation rules applicable to schools across the state. By the early 1990s, Minneapolis and St. Paul had not a single racially segregated school, and the Twin Cities metropolitan area was one of the most desegregated regions in the United States.

“We had no segregated schools because we had strong civil rights laws and we enforced them,” says Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of its Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

Today, the educational landscape looks quite different. While the number of people of color living in the Twin Cities metropolitan region—defined as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs—has increased considerably over the past two decades, integration advocates say that demographic shifts alone are insufficient to explain the growth of segregated schooling in Minnesota.

And grown it has. Since 2000, the number of elementary schools in St. Paul educating more than 90 percent students of color grew from 2 to 18, while the overall percentage of students of color in the district rose only 11 percent. Similar shifts occurred in Minneapolis. In 1995, the Minneapolis School District was 63 percent nonwhite, but had only two elementary schools that were 90 percent segregated. Today the district has 13 such elementary schools, and 26 percent of district students attend schools with over 90 percent students of color.

MPS SPPS demograpic change chart FIXED.png

The demographics of the 164 charter schools in Minnesota—which roughly 50,000 students attend—have also impelled the state to argue, for the first time, that charters should no longer be exempt from state integration laws. (An administrative judge will rule on this separate dispute in late February.)

The resegregation of the region’s schools, critics say, was the product not just of demographic change but also of conservative pressure in the 1990s to weaken desegregation mandates, coupled with the rise of a charter sector that targeted specific races and ethnicities, thereby accelerating the isolation of poor and minority students. The growth of charter schools, they add, also created new opportunities for white children to congregate in separate schools. Charters attended by predominately white students grew by 40 percent between the 2007-08 school year and the 2012-13 one. Researchers found that more than half of these white charters are located in attendance zones with racially diverse traditional schools.

Opponents of the state’s proposal, and of the Shulmans’ lawsuit, argue that their proponents—state officials, Myron Orfield, and his allies—misapply the label of  “segregation” when talking about charter schools. “I find it offensive and insulting to compare parents of color making choices to send their kids to schools that are better addressing the academic needs of their kids with segregation, a system that was set up by white supremacists decades ago to force students of color to inferior schools,” testified Alberto Monserrate, the first Latino ever elected to the Minneapolis School Board, in early January.

Whether or not one thinks these schools should be considered segregated, the rise of schools with high concentrations of racial minorities—both in traditional schools and in charters—means an increase in the number of schools serving high concentrations of poor students. Researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity find the poverty rate at Twin Cities minority-segregated schools to be two-and-a-half times greater than the poverty rate at integrated schools, and five times greater than the poverty rate at predominantly white schools. They also find that math and reading test scores for black students at highly segregated schools are lower than test scores for black students at less segregated schools. Suspension rates, too, are substantially higher in racially segregated elementary schools than in less segregated ones.

IMO.png

“Yes, there’s a difference between segregation that’s imposed by the state versus segregation that is through choice, the first is worse than the second,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a longtime researcher of school integration. “However, the negative effects of concentrated poverty obtain even when concentrated poverty is a matter of constrained choice.”

 

This is not Daniel Shulman’s first time filing a school segregation lawsuit against the state. In 1995, Shulman sued Minnesota, arguing that segregated schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area violated both the state and federal constitutions. The case settled five years later, and as part of the settlement, Minnesota established a voluntary integration program between Minneapolis and ten neighboring suburban districts. Most participants were poor minority students who enrolled in predominately white suburban schools.

“But the segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul is worse today than when I started the first case 20 years ago,” says Shulman. “That’s why I brought the case again, and I’m sorry I waited this long to do it.”

Shulman’s legal strategy rests on a theory that, at this point, is still very much untested. In the past few decades, it’s become increasingly difficult for civil rights advocates to win federal school desegregation lawsuits. Following the 1978 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, courts began to draw sharper distinctions between de jure and de facto segregation; the Supreme Court said unless it could be shown that a district deliberately sought to discriminate against students by race, it could not be held responsible for school segregation.

“Federal desegregation rulings are about racial discrimination, which looks at intent to discriminate,” says Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who studies education law and policy. “Since the 1980s and 1990s, it’s become more and more difficult to prove intent, which means more and more districts have been released from their desegregation obligations.”

By suing the state, rather than the federal government, the Shulmans aim to bypass all those sticky questions about intent. “What they’re saying is that the actual existence of segregated schools creates an educational harm, and the state ought to correct that harm, regardless of why it came about,” explains Black.

Their strategy has been tried once before, in a 1989 Connecticut lawsuit known as Sheff v. O’Neill. The plaintiffs argued their constitutional rights were violated because the concentration of African-American students in a particular district was a violation of the state’s right to equal education.

The case made its way up to the state Supreme Court, and in 1996, the justices ruled that Connecticut had an affirmative obligation to provide its students with equal educational opportunity. This constitutional right, they concluded, necessitated providing students with integrated educations, and so the state moved to establish an array of voluntary integration options.

Though Sheff is not controlling law in Minnesota, it is expected that Minnesota judges would consider it if they adjudicate the Shulmans’ suit. “I think the more courts that say an idea is a good one, the more likely it is that courts that follow after them will agree,” says Black, pointing to school funding lawsuits as an example. However, Sheff was notably litigated before the rise of charter schools.

In 1993, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that all students are guaranteed a fundamental right to an adequate education. In their new suit, the Shulmans seek to argue that no education could possibly satisfy the state’s adequacy requirement given the highly segregated environments.

Lawsuit opponents argue that “adequacy” should be measured not by the composition of student bodies, but by demonstrated achievement. “What we’re saying is the first thing to look at is whether kids are learning, not who is sitting in the classroom,” says Cairns, the attorney representing the charters. “And once you establish that kids are learning, then that’s the measure of an effective and adequate education.”

Derek Black says most states do consider achievement “outputs” when determining whether students are receiving adequate educations. Such outputs could be scores on standardized tests, graduation rates, or college readiness measures. Though variance exists from state to state, Black says most courts would look at both outputs and inputs. “The question would be whether the failure to provide certain inputs is the cause of an inadequate education, as measured by various outputs,” he says. If Minnesota’s judiciary takes up this groundbreaking case, they will have to decide whether racially and economically integrated schools are necessary inputs.

“I think there’s an increasing recognition that equal education is the constitutional responsibility of state governments, and therefore [states] have to promote policies to avoid racial and economic segregation,” says Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and a leader in the National Coalition on School Diversity. Tegeler hopes lawyers in other states will follow the Shulmans’ lead. “We really need to see more creative, affirmative litigation,” he says.

“This is huge, you could potentially have 50 state lawsuits on this issue,” says Kahlenberg.

Opponents of the lawsuit, and of the state’s plan to include charters under statewide integration rules, say that there’s been a fundamental misinterpretation of what segregation is. They deny that charter schools targeting specific races or ethnicities are illegal or unjust. Rather, they say, these schools provide students with “culturally affirming” environments in which to learn.

Bill Wilson founded one such “culturally affirming” charter in St. Paul—known as Higher Ground Academy. Though Higher Ground’s student body is more than 90 percent East African immigrant and low-income, it’s one of the highest performing schools in the region. Advocates say the school’s success is due to its unique, and culturally sensitive education strategies. “I know people who brought this lawsuit against the state use the word ‘desegregation’ but let’s find the intentional action,” Wilson says. “I won’t call this segregation, I won’t call it racial isolation, because it’s not true.”

“It’s a false analysis that’s being applied to culturally specific charter schools, that tends to consider those schools to be segregated,” testified Nakima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. “That flies in the face of civil rights history and also the fact that we have historically black colleges and universities around the country that are specifically designed to affirm, enrich, and enhance the educational experiences of African-Americans who we know have faced historical discrimination throughout our time in this country.”

Darrick Hamilton, an urban policy professor at The New School, says his research suggests there certainly could be instances where predominately black schools may be better learning environments for black students. Quoting W.E.B. Du Bois, he says, “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.”

Even among those in the Twin Cities who advocate for integration, the civil rights community remains torn over how to think about charter schools.While the St. Paul NAACP welcomes the Shulmans’ new lawsuit, for example, its leaders have not taken a position on their charter school argument, or on whether charters should be exempt from statewide integration laws.

“It’s hard enough to get a broad coalition of people to say we want to integrate the schools, and when you add the charter school issue, the politics just become much more challenging,” says one Twin Cities civil rights leader. “There are definitely some advocates who say we should focus on desegregating the traditional schools, and if the districts can get their act together then demand for charters will [naturally] go down, because parents will trust that traditional schools can take care of their kids.”

But researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity say that segregated charter schools perform even worse than segregated traditional schools. With the exception of a few high performing networks—including Bill Wilson’s Higher Ground Academy—they find that most charter schools that serve high concentrations of impoverished racial minorities produce poorer academic results than traditional schools, even after controlling for variables like poverty and race. The Minnesota Star Tribune also found that slightly more than half of all students in Minnesota charter schools were proficient in reading, compared to 72 percent in traditional public schools.

Defenders of “culturally-affirming” institutions don’t spend much time talking about white charter schools. Yet white charters are on the rise.

“One of the problems with allowing culturally-focused schools to become single-race enclaves is that, once you create a legal justification for these schools, it becomes very difficult to prevent white parents from adopting the same language to create white segregation,” says Will Stancil, an attorney with the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. “Integration isn’t about exposing kids to some magic aura of whiteness, it’s about the importance of universal inclusion in education: providing all children full access to the teaching, resources, and networks that the most privileged kids currently have.”

IMO Charters.png

Those who do support including charters in the lawsuit and under statewide integration rules point to a “Dear Colleague” letter that former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent around in 2014. Duncan’s federal guidance said charters must be included in court-mandated or state-administered desegregation plans.

“You just can’t exempt charter schools from the basic civil rights laws of the state, they’re supposed to be publicly funded public schools, and they should be subject to the same civil rights requirements as other public schools,” says Phil Tegeler. Myron Orfield says Minnesota is the only state that he knows of that explicitly exempts charters from its civil rights laws.

The rhetoric surrounding these legal battles will likely grow even more charged in the coming weeks and months. By the end of February an administrative law judge should make her final decision on whether charters will be exempt from statewide integration rules. However, if the Shulmans ultimately win their lawsuit, some say this could render any charter school exemptions moot.

“I think ultimately the lawsuit could trump the rule,” says Derek Black. “It could require the state to do a whole variety of things.

Daniel Shulman isn’t worried about what the judge will decide with regards to charters and the state rule. “It would be nice if there were a rule that effectively desegregated Minnesota’s schools—that’s one way the state could begin to remedy the result of its past constitutional violations,” he says. “But this rule is not going to effect the lawsuit.”

The state of Minnesota has filed to dismiss Shulman’s lawsuit, and a judge will consider this motion in a hearing in April. (A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education told The American Prospect that they cannot comment on the case, but is “committed to helping every student achieve academic success.”) If the case is not thrown out—and it can be appealed, if it is—then the trial will likely be scheduled for late 2017.

“I know for a lot of leaders it’s convenient to not do anything or to not talk about these issues, but for the children who are kept separate, it’s wrong,” says Cruz-Guzman. “We feel we’re doing the right thing by bringing the lawsuit.”

Minnesota is not the first state to wrestle with the challenges of balancing school choice and desegregation. And it surely won’t be the last. Cairns, who serves on a litigation panel for the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys, says that he and his colleagues recognize the “wide-ranging implications” of this case. Though it’s not a federal suit, Cairns believes its outcome will be “hugely important to provide direction” to the rest of the country.

Charged with Firing Teachers for Organizing, a Chicago Charter Network Settles

Originally published in the American Prospect on January 12, 2016.
—-

The National Labor Relations Board finalized a settlement agreement this week between Urban Prep Academies, an all-male charter network in Chicago, and more than a dozen Urban Prep teachers who were fired abruptly back in June. The firings came less than a month after a majority of teachers at Urban Prep voted to unionize with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS). Urban Prep will pay over $250,000 in back wages and severance to 13 fired teachers, and two of the fired teachers were able to return to work on Monday. The others, who already had taken new jobs elsewhere, waived their right to reinstatement and settled for back pay.

Back in June, the union responded to the firings by filing two unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. One alleged that Urban Prep fired three teachers for their union activism; the second charged Urban Prep with failing to bargain with the union over all the teachers’ terminations. Educators, parents, and community members organized protests, urging Urban Prep to rehire the teachers.

Urban Prep’s COO, Evan Lewis, said earlier this summer that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

However, the NLRB launched an investigation into the situation, and on November 20, the board issued a complaint, finding that one teacher was fired for union activity and that Urban Prep failed to meet their legal obligations by not bargaining over the teachers’ firings. The NLRB scheduled a hearing for January 13, which has now been cancelled since Urban Prep decided to settle.

“We’re glad we were able to settle the charges rather than having to continue a long legal fight, because if Urban Prep had lost at the hearing they could have appealed,” says Carlos Fernandez, an organizer with ChiACTS. “These kinds of charges can take years to settle, so [resolving this] in just a little over six months is pretty good.”

The teachers at Urban Prep have been meeting regularly with their employer since September to work out the terms of their first contract; the union says they’ve made “significant progress.”There are currently 29 other unionized charter schools in Chicago, and a growing number nationwide.

The total amount that Urban Prep has agreed to pay—$261,346—marks the largest unfair labor practice settlement for charter teachers to date. Back in June, the I Can charter network, based in Ohio, had to rehire four teachers and give seven teachers back pay for firing them during their 2013-2014 union drive. That settlement totaled $69,000.

“It’s unfortunate that these publicly funded schools often react so poorly when their teachers choose a union, and it’s even worse when they’re able to waste so much time and money union busting, something well outside the scope of the work the people of Chicago pay them to do,” says Brian Harris, a special education teacher in Chicago and the president of ChiACTS. “We often hear from charter operator groups that they’re ‘not anti-union but pro-teacher.’ One would assume that the ‘pro-teacher’ part would kick in after a mass illegal firing. Nonetheless, we’re very happy that we can move forward and finally begin to work on what is most important: making Urban Prep a better place to teach and to learn through empowering teachers.”

 

Hawaii’s Long Term Health Care Bill Could Serve as a National Model

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 12, 2016.
—-

Hawaii may soon become the first state in the union to offer universal long-term care for seniors, as state legislators prepare to roll out a bill that would tackle the nation’s elder care crisis head-on.

Slated for introduction in the 2016 legislative session, Hawaii’s innovative bill could become a national model for states looking for ways to help families afford the high costs of elder care. Across the country, as millions of baby boomers hit retirement age, they are beginning to feel the strain of paying for health care. A full 10,000 Americans have turned 65 every single day since 2011, and will continue to do so until 2030—a trend that is dramatically altering the demographic landscape of the United States.

“There’s an important role for government to play,” says Kevin Simowitz, the political director for Caring Across Generations, a national organization that aims to help people age with dignity and independence. “Most people simply don’t have the individual means to pay for the care they need.”

These population trends have been particularly marked in Hawaii. While the number of seniors aged 75 and older increased by 47 percent nationally between 1990 and 2012, Hawaii saw a 116 percent increase in that age cohort during this same period.

A coalition of retiree groups, labor unions, and religious organizations in Hawaii has been leading the public campaign for Hawaii’s new health care program.

“I think if we have enough push from the public we can make it happen because the will of the people, I would hope, will supersede all potential barriers,” says Clementina Ceria-Ulep, the chair of the Nursing Department at University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a leader with Faith Action for Community Equity, a faith-based community organization.

Aloha State residents boast a distinct cultural tradition of caring for and cherishing their “kapuna”—a Hawaiian word that refers to the elderly. Indeed, Hawaiian leaders have been reckoning with the challenges of elderly care for far longer than most states on the U.S. mainland.

Now, after decades of debates, state audits, and legislative campaigns, Hawaii residents and lawmakers say the time is right for action on the proposed universal care benefit. Supporters of the bill argue that it would not only help ease the financial burden on families caring for seniors, but also create more high-quality home care jobs for the mostly women and immigrant workers who tend to shoulder these responsibilities.

“Hawaii has a tradition of being at the forefront of health care policy,” says Simowitz, of Caring Across Generations. “Long before the Affordable Care Act, Hawaiians had a plan to make sure that workers had quality affordable health care. This would not be the first time they’ve done something a little bit provocative and groundbreaking.”

Simowitz says that the idea of a universal long-term care program could spread to other states, in the same way that grassroots movements to promote paid sick leave and increase the minimum wage have taken off.

“It is a breakthrough to have legislators move this conversation from kitchen tables in peoples’ houses to conference tables at the legislature,” he says. “We need this to be a public policy conversation.”

Hawaii’s program would work like this: Every person who files a Hawaii state income tax for ten years would be eligible to receive $70 a day, for a total of 365 days. The benefit would be underwritten by a slight increase in the state’s General Excise Tax, a tax on all businesses’ gross income. Hawaii’s thriving tourist industry would help boost the fund. That’s because tourists, who also pay the General Excise Tax, would fund roughly 35 percent of the long-term care program but would never claim the benefit themselves.

“Our target was to look at what it would cost to help someone get four hours of home or community care,” explains Dr. Lawrence Nitz, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, who conducted research on long-term care financing for the state. “Seventy dollars means you could plan to go to work, you could take time to meet your child’s teacher. It’s enough to help people avoid losing their jobs, while still balancing care responsibilities.”

Most people need some form of long-term care as they get older. Long-term care refers to assistance with activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating, using the toilet, and getting dressed. It also includes help with tasks like shopping, cooking, and cleaning.Despite a common misconception, Medicare does not cover the cost of long-term care services, meaning that the majority of Americans must pay out of pocket.

Hawaii’s proposed social insurance program would not cover the cost of nursing homes or assisted living facilities, which can easily reach $100,000 per year. However, it would offer more money and flexibility to families that are already providing long-term care.

In 2011, the AARP’s Public Policy Institute found that the average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works outside the home and spends nearly 20 hours per week providing unpaid care to a parent over nearly five years. The report found that two-thirds of family caregivers are women, and that the total economic value for all this unpaid work was an estimated $450 billion annually.

Hawaii State Senator Roslyn Baker plans to introduce the long-term care bill in the upcoming legislative session. It’s not the first time that Baker, who has been active in elderly care issues since the 1990s, has introduced long term care legislation. But now, due to growing political support and a string of research studies supporting the program’s the feasibility, Baker predicts that the bill has a good chance of passing.

“We think the timing is right, even though it’s an election year,” Baker told The American Prospect. “We’re going to work to help people understand exactly what the funding mechanism is, how small a tax burden it is, and just how it will help lots and lots of people afford the care they need.”

New Education Law Sparks Civil Rights Concerns

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 8th, 2016.
—-

The sweeping new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has drawn praise from educators and lawmakers who had become increasingly frustrated with No Child Left Behind, the controversial federal education law on the books since 2002.

But one group has voiced reservations about the new law: civil rights advocates. Civil rights leaders have praised the law as an improvement over the No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding with school performance. But they have voiced concerns that ESSA, which largely leaves accountability goals up to the states, could leave marginalized students even further behind.

Their big fear is that under the new law, states may not hold schools truly accountable for poor performance, making it harder to close the “achievement gap” for disadvantaged students. Despite all of the No Child Left Behind Act’s flaws, education researchers found that it led to small but substantial gains in student achievement, particularly for black, Hispanic, and low-income students.

The new law has placed two key progressive constituencies—unions and civil rights groups—at odds. Unions are celebrating the return of power to states and local districts, and an end to continuous testing mandates. But a broad coalition of civil rights groups that includes the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, has cautioned that the Every Student Succeeds Act must not let states off the hook for failing to educate the nation’s most vulnerable students.

Civil rights have long been at the heart of American federal education policy. ESSA reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a civil rights law originally passed in 1965 that was designed to raise the academic achievement of marginalized student groups, including the poor, the disabled, racial and ethnic minorities, and non-native English speakers.

It took years for Congress to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, and throughout the process civil rights groups worked hard to ensure that their concerns were being heard. While ESSA expands on important reporting requirements first imposed by No Child Left Behind, the new law does not require states to respond to inequities if data reveal that they exist.

“Data is always an important first step, but what we wanted was a requirement that when there are disparities, the schools, districts, and states have to take action,” explains Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. (The law also does not require states to disaggregate Asian American and Pacific Islander data by ethnicity, which civil rights advocates worry will obscure important differences.)

Most importantly, civil rights organizers voice serious concerns that states will now essentially hold themselves accountable. Under No Child Left Behind it was the federal government, not the states, that had the last word on school performance.

“The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of underserved students,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Capitol Hill last year. While the law includes some measures that will help advocates push states and districts to ensure that disadvantaged students don’t slip through the cracks, some experts say it will be harder for the federal government to intervene in the event that states fail to act.

One specific equity measure that civil rights groups tried and failed to win during ESSA negotiations was the closing of the so-called “comparability loophole.” In order for states to access Title I funds, which are federal dollars that go to high-poverty districts, they have to demonstrate that they’re providing “comparable” levels of services to both Title I schools and more affluent schools. The new law, like the old law, allows states and districts to exclude real teacher salary costs from expenditure calculations. That means that a district could be considered “comparable” if it has a bunch of novice, inexpensive teachers in one school, and many highly paid veteran teachers in another.

According to a 2015 report issued by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, 4.5 million students attend inequitably funded Title I schools—receiving about $1,200 less per student on average than wealthier schools in their districts. (Closing the loophole would only address intra-district disparities, but advocates say that it’s an important step for educational equity nonetheless.)

Historically, teachers unions have been wary of efforts to close the loophole, fearing that districts might respond by making veteran teachers transfer involuntarily to more disadvantaged schools. In recent years, however, unions have softened their stance, recognizing that districts could respond to inequities not through forced transfers, but by investing in disadvantaged schools in other ways. Still, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers did not push as hard to close the loophole during ESSA negotiations as civil rights groups did.

Nevertheless, civil rights groups did win some of their key demands.

Although Congress did not close the “comparability loophole,” districts will now be required to report actual expenditure data at the school level, something civil rights leaders say is a huge improvement over No Child Left Behind. (Other data reporting requirements have also been expanded.) Civil rights advocates hope that this new level of transparency will go a long way towards highlighting funding inequities, and pave the way for further reforms.

States will now also have to do more to help students become proficient in English, and there are more accountability measures in place to ensure schools are making progress toward that goal.

“This was a very important goal for us; research suggests the longer you’re identified as an English-language learner, the less likely you are to graduate high school,” says Brenda Calderon, ‎the Education Policy Analyst at National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.

In addition, no more than 1 percent of students with disabilities may now be given so-called alternative assessments, a form of test less rigorous than what the general student population takes. This was a key priority for disability rights advocates, who said too many students with special needs were being separated from their peers without good reason. Taking alternative assessments can have negative consequences, like preventing disabled students from graduating with a regular high school diploma.

The law also offers some additional protections for homeless children and children in foster care, expands opportunities for children in the juvenile justice system, and includes measures to help schools deal with emotional trauma.

The big challenge for civil rights groups during negotiations was that Republicans control both the House and Senate. For years, conservatives have been seeking to reduce the federal government’s role in education policy, and to a large extent, they succeeded. It didn’t help the civil rights coalition that teacher unions largely agreed with the GOP on the need to shift power back to the states.

Over the next two years, legislators and advocates on the state and federal levels will work through a regulatory process to flesh out what the requirements of the new education law actually mean.

“What we’re hoping for is some real state and federal leadership, because it doesn’t serve anyone well if we wait until things aren’t working,” says King, of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We want to make sure there are affirmative steps to ensure there is equity. We’re planning to help influence the regulatory process, to shape what the terms in the law actually mean, and to inform guidance about how to comply with the law.”

Civil rights groups are bracing for what they say will be a lot of challenging fights in all 50 states. The Every Student Succeeds Act will require parents and advocates to continually pressure states and districts to make sure disadvantaged students get the same education as their more-privileged peers. It’s an uphill battle, civil rights advocates acknowledge.

Yet along with conservatives and teachers unions, civil rights organizers have praised the new law’s expanded data reporting requirements, the continuation of annual student testing in third through eighth grades, and the reduction of harsh, test-linked penalties. Everyone, for now at least, agrees that the new law is an improvement over No Child Left Behind.

Can Baltimore Recover from Its 2015 Murder Wave?

Originally published in VICE on January 6, 2016.
—-

For criminal justice activists, 2015 was an exhausting year. After high-profile police brutality incidents captured the public imagination at the tail-end of 2014, America had a new national conversation about racism to contend with. Protesters took to the streets across the country, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!”; fresh instances of death and pain inflicted by police officers on (mostly) black civilians spread across social media every week; newspapers compiled databases of the number of people killed by cops; presidential candidates were asked to distinguish between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” on nationally-televised debates.

One of the responses to these protests from the law-and-order crowd was to ask if all this campaigning against police brutality was contributing to an increase in crime. This is the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” a theory suggesting that anti-cop rhetoric was creating a climate in which police could no longer effectively do their jobs. It remains a theory—the statistical evidence supporting a rise in crime rates is thin; last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute affiliated with New York University, published a report finding crime was roughly the same last year as it had been in 2014 in America’s largest cities.

That report, however, was scant comfort to Baltimore, a city where mistrust between the cops and the people they serve may have created some serious challenges. Charm City saw a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, the highest total since 1993, when the city had 100,000 more people living in it, as the Baltimore Sun reported this month. In April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking weeks of Baltimore protests and unrest. In five of the eight months following Gray’s death, homicides surpassed 30 or 40 a month. Before the unrest, according to the paper, Baltimore had not witnessed 30 or more homicides in one month since June 2007.

All told, there were some 900 shootings in Baltimore last year, up some 75 percent from 2014—a violent crime spike unparalleled among the 30 largest cities in America, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis. Though Baltimore’s police and political leadership insist they are determined to make last year’s crime statistics an aberration, whether they’re planning to do so through tougher policing in 2016 remains to be seen. And with high-stakes local elections coming up, along with a legislative season where police reform will most certainly be on the table and months of trials left for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents are not expecting closure to the unrest any time soon.

Speaking to the Sun, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently said he plans to pressure the state legislature to make possession of illegal firearms a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and for police to hunt down gun traffickers. He also said he’s ramping up recruitment efforts for 200 vacancies in the police force, and trying to coax retired cops to come back to the department. Davis wants to increase street patrols, focus more on residential burglaries, and partner with other city agencies to prevent and solve crime. These priorities reflect some ugly statistics: The BPD’s homicide clearance rate dropped sharply in 2015; police solved only about 30 percent of all cases, and according to theSun, their 2015 clearance rate was less than half the 2014 national average—as well as some 15 percentage points below the BPD’s own average in recent years. Experts suspect that the lack of trust between the police and the community is a major contributing factor behind the low clearance rate. (The Baltimore Police Department did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.)

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks that until the cops on trial for Freddie Gray’s death are acquitted, the BPD is not going to be able to do its job effectively. “It isn’t that these officers did something bad and got caught. It’s that they did exactly what they were told to do and are being prosecuted for it,” he says. “As long as cops feel like they can get criminally prosecuted for doing their job, you shouldn’t expect cops to be proactively policing.” He adds that winter offers a sort of natural reset button for communities, since crime tends to go down when the temperature drops. “It gives them an opportunity to feel like, OK, we’re starting over,” he says. “But the department is still understaffed and morale is in the tank.”

Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Programs at Baltimore’s Open Society Institute (OSI), says her organization has been working closely with Commissioner Davis and Baltimore’s police to help them identify and reduce discriminatory practices within their department. This would hopefully help to restore some trust between the police and Baltimore residents. OSI will also be providing seed funding for a policing pilot program this year where officers will send people who appear to be suffering from an underlying drug addiction into a community-based treatment center rather than arresting them. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, (LEAD) was first developed in Seattle, and it helped to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system while also getting them the aid they needed.

When asked whether she thinks the city has responded in a serious enough way to the unrest and its aftermath, Huffman acknowledged that there’s “a lot of talking” going on, including dialogue between people who don’t normally speak to each other. “There is room for progressive ideas and solutions that wouldn’t have gotten the same audience eight months ago,” she told me. “But we’re not seeing the fruit yet. I think we still have a ways to go until we see the fruit.”

The question of whether the city and state will be willing to make serious investments in poor Baltimore communities, a critical factor for reducing gun violence long-term, remains an open one. Just last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal complaint over the cancellation of a long-planned transit project in Baltimore, which would have primarily benefitted low-income blacks who lack quality transportation options. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cancelled the project and diverted money to roads and highways elsewhere in the state. The city also massively underfunded its Operation Ceasefire program, a violence-reduction initiative that proved highly successful (if also controversial) in cities like New York. Baltimore’s Operation Ceasefire director resigned last spring in protest, citing insufficient resources and support. In addition, following the Freddie Gray protests, Governor Hogan cut Baltimore City’s public education funding by 3.3 percent.

Yet on Tuesday the governor traveled to West Baltimore to announce a nearly $700 million plan to tear down vacant buildings throughout the city and bring in new development over the next four years.

“I don’t see us policing ourselves out of this crisis. That has never worked before,” says Alex Elkins, a visiting historian at the University of Michigan who studies the police. “We need sustained engagement with hard-hit communities in order to establish a different pipeline, toward civic inclusion rather than banishment to jail and prison. To achieve that, a policy that attacks root causes is essential, ethically and strategically.”

“People are generally angry about a variety of things, and we have a community that makes promises but no real substantive investments,” adds Dayvon Love, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore. “This year we’re gonna see a lot more of what we saw in 2015. It won’t be an anomaly. We’ll continue to see a lot of the same.”

City residents are not expecting an end to the unrest any time soon. The six officers on trial for Freddie Gray’s death will take the stand over the next several months; the first officer’s first trial, which ended in a hung jury, has already been rescheduled for June. The pretrial hearing for the second officer, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., began Wednesday. Goodson faces a number of charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder, a crime carrying a maximum 30-year sentence.

On top of the trials, 2016 is set to be an intense year for state and local politics. The state legislative session kicks off in Annapolis next week, and activist leaders will be pressuring legislators to pass police reform measures, like body cameras and changes to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights—or a list of ways cops can evade scrutiny. On top of that, a new Baltimore mayor and City Council will be elected in November; Huffman thinks the current City Council could turn over more than 50 percent in the next cycle.

Love says he and other activists will continue to pressure leaders to invest directly in the people living in the beleaguered communities—a more effective and sustainable way, he argues, to create safe and thriving neighborhoods.

Elkins agrees. “Anything we try will be expensive—rather, anything that is worth trying ought to be expensive,” he says. “The spike after Gray’s death and the riots does seem anomalous at the same time that it is cause for concern. Yet we shouldn’t be distracted by the dispute over the Ferguson Effect—which essentially asks, who’s to blame? That’s a sideshow to the real issue of economic justice. Because of the way our criminal justice system favors the rich over the poor, we should be trying to empower the poor.”

OSI’s Huffman adds that it remains to be seen whether the powers that be are ready to do what the city needs.

“There’s definitely political will to stop the bleeding, but whether or not there’s a real recognition of what the underlying problems are, I’m not sure,” she says. “The city is still in transition, but we have a lot of opportunities right now to get this right.”

My favorite work from 2015

Baltimore City Paper cover

This year was a year of exploration for me. I was fortunate to have the space to research and write on a wide range of topics, from transportation policy, to domestic labor, to voting rights, to charter schools.

Here are the ten pieces I’m most proud of from 2015:

1. When Charters Go Union
My summer American Prospect print story looked at the growing movement to unionize charter school teachers, and the impact that’s having on the labor movement and education reform.

2. Teaching Character: Grit, Privilege, and American Education’s Obsession with Novelty
I wrote a web feature for The American Prospect on the rise of “grit” fervor in American classrooms.

3. Cecile Richards: Grace Under Fire
My cover story for The American Prospect’s winter 2016 issue on Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, and the tumultuous battle for reproductive rights.

4. Civil Rights Activists in Baltimore Want More Ex-Felons in the Voting Booth in 2016
I wrote several pieces for VICE this year about the Freddie Gray protests and their aftermath. This one looks at the oft-ignored connection between disenfranchisement, poverty, and brutality.

5. A New Course: Larry Hogan wants to change Maryland’s unique charter school laws and bring in more charters, but will kids suffer?
My cover story for Baltimore City Paper on Maryland charter school politics, and the governor’s ambitions to dramatically change education within the state.

6. Welcome to the Courtroom That is Every Renter’s Nightmare
I spent more than eight months working on this feature about Baltimore’s rent court, which was beautifully illustrated by Sky Kalfus in Next City. Earlier this month, a new report was published on rent court, and I wrote a short follow up.

7. Chris Christie and the Republican Default on Public Investment
When this story came out in January Chris Christie was looking much more promising as a presidential candidate. Nonetheless, this piece looks at how Christie killed one of the most important infrastructure projects on the East Coast for short-term, political gain.

8. We Can’t Talk About Housing Policy Without Talking About Racism
There’s been a renewed focus on the ways in which housing segregation limits opportunity and perpetuates inequality. I wrote about some of the new research that’s emerged in this field, and important caveats to keep in mind.

9. The Marriage Cure
I take on the persistent, yet frustratingly convoluted argument that marriage, and its decline, explain rising inequality.

10. School Choice and the Chaotic State of Racial Desegregation
I am fascinated by the relationship between the school choice movement and the movement to desegregate schools. I wrote four other pieces on school integration this year, and hope to explore these issues more in 2016.

Thanks, and happy New Year!

 

 

The Charter School Business

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 22, 2015.
—-

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker is a longtime expert on charter schools, which are in the crosshairs of a nationwide debate over school performance standards. Recently, Baker, and his colleague Gary Miron, authored a study about the ways in which individuals, companies, and organizations profit through laws and regulations governing the charter school sector. In an interview with The American Prospect, Baker discusses some of the most egregious policy problems, and steps that governments could take to fix them. What follows is an edited transcript.

Rachel Cohen: Your report explores what you call, “The Business of Charter Schooling.” Has this been studied much before?

Bruce Baker: I don’t think it’s been systematically studied because I don’t think there are many unified data sources for this information—it’s more like investigative reporting. I had been repeatedly asked to look into charter school real estate deals and things like that but getting good data just isn’t easy. This was really just a first cut at summarizing the business practices and financial transactions occurring in the charter sector, and what policy structures encourage or permit these things to happen.

RC: You say that current laws and policies governing charters are increasing the privatization of public schooling. What do you mean?

BB: I want to be careful on this issue of ‘privatization’ because I don’t think the intent of our report was to say that public policy is promoting privatization, or that privatization is necessarily bad or good. But there is a long line of case law that carefully parses under what circumstances, and in what settings, certain activities of charter schools are public or private. I’ve coauthored law review articles where we discuss extensively how the charter school industry claims it is “private” when dealing with questions of employee rights, student discipline policies, student handbooks, or contracts, and “public” in other respects.

The idea put forth in our report is that there are certain policy structures, and in some cases lack of policy controls, that are permitting more extensive degrees of privatization in some states. Sometimes it just makes business sense for charter operators, good or bad, or it affords them a way to do something more quickly or cheaply. But I think that some actors in the charter world such as Imagine Schools, White Hat, and Charter Schools USA, are taking advantage of these opportunities in ways that are self-enriching and not in the public interest.

RC: What are some examples?

BB: Sometimes charter providers take actions that are illogical and inefficient from a public policy standpoint, but it might simply be what they have to do to get by. For example, sometimes charter providers create third-party entities, and then pay rent for the school facilities to these new entities. Since charters can’t directly purchase land themselves, these third-party entities allow them to take advantage of tax incentives and to carry revenue-bond debt to purchase property. Unfortunately, because they’re doing this through revenue bonds, they’re getting a crappier interest rate than a district might get and they have to spend a greater part of their operating funds to get facilities. That’s one example of how policy basically backs a charter school into engaging in inefficient activities.

In other cases, charter providers may engage in ethically suspect, but perhaps not illegal, behavior. For example Imagine Schools runs its own property acquisition arm, Schoolhouse Finance. Similarly, Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company, runs Red Apple Inc., and acquires properties to lease them back to the charter school. And in some cases it does actually become illegal. In Kansas City a court ruled that Imagine Schools went over the line with self-dealing, because they overcharged themselves so much in lease payments. [These leases are being paid for with public dollars.]

RC: You note that many public school districts have privatized services for years. What makes what’s happening in the charter sector different?

BB: The modern era of privatized contracted school management started out in the 1990s, as traditional school districts would engage in contracts with private organizations to run schools. But in these cases, the contracted manager works for a local board of education, and is paid through a district budget. So at least at the top level of the organization, the district and the board of education know the details of that private contract.

Whereas if you look at some states, sometimes it may be private entities that actually authorize charter schools, and charters are established through boards of private citizens who then might contract a private company to run their school. The opportunities to shield disclosure, at multiple levels of the hybrid, publicly funded, privately managed and governed system, are dramatically increased in the charter sector.

RC: You note that school districts, many of them starving for cash, have been selling off their public assets—such as school facilities and land—to the charter sector. If one day, the public sours on charter schools, and wants to return to traditional public education—might this not be possible?

BB: Yes, the turnaround would just be too expensive. Maybe 15 years down the line it will be different, but as it stands now, the case for spending sufficiently on a system of public schooling is just not strong. Despite the economic turnaround, most states are still spending less and less on schools.

If you start thinking how much short-run expense would be required to even acquire new urban land to educate students, and then to develop suitable facilities—well, it’s very high. And in some cases, the land and buildings that are being used by charter operators are actually owned by for-profit real estate investment trusts. They’re certainly not going to sell land and buildings back to cities below market value just to support the public good.

I think we do need to be paying more attention to the capital available to educate the children we’re responsible for educating. If we sell it off, and change our minds about charters down the line, we are screwed.

RC: You recommend instating far greater financial reporting requirements. How would this help?

BB: Any entity, private or public, engaged in the delivery of school services should have to report their expenditures. Right now we have to go fishing through IRS 990 forms—if the manager is nonprofit—and it gets very messy. I’d like to see charter financial data reported into a publicly accessible system. Some states do a much better job of this, but you really have to fish for these little pieces of information here and there to try and pull it all together. There’s got to be better accounting for the overlapping financial relationships, so that people can understand how money is being passed between interested parties.

RC: People often talk about charter networks like KIPP, but it seems like there are far bigger networks that slip under the radar. Your research suggests that these networks come with more problems or ethical concerns.

BB: There are certain charter schools we hear about in the media—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academy. And I have my own concerns about the pedagogy and compliance with students’ rights issues at those schools, but when you start looking nationally, what we see is that the dominant players operating charter schools in many states are Imagine, which has found itself in court for self-dealing, White Hat, which was just involved in an Ohio Supreme Court case, National Heritage Academies, Mosaica, Charter Schools USA … and in many states, and nationally in the aggregate, these are much bigger than KIPP or Achievement First, etc.

These networks are not the names we hear about when we hear about the next big study to show how well charters are doing. These are not the networks we hear charter advocates saying we need to expand. Rather we see advocates saying that if we just remove caps and deregulate we’ll see a lot more networks like KIPP. That’s not the case. It hasn’t been the case. And it won’t be the case.

RC: School choice advocates often say that more money is able to “get down to the classroom level” in charter schools, because we do away with large district bureaucracies. This was a common theme in Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize. Is it true?

BB: It’s a complete mischaracterization. It’s one of those cases where the public rhetoric and the research that’s been done really over quite a long period of time are entirely at odds. There are numerous studies that have looked at the administrative overhead expenses of charters and found them to be very high. The vast majority of charters have relatively low total classroom instructional expenses, and studies have consistently found that the proportions spent on administration and other centralized expenses are much higher in charters.

My graduate student, Mark Weber, wrote about the misuse of data in Dale Russakoff’s book.

RC: What recommendations in your report do you expect to garner the most opposition?

I would expect to get significant pushback from the various types of private entities that have enjoyed their current opportunities to shield disclosure.

We also make the case for a centralized, publicly governed authority to manage facilities, or perhaps even all capital resources. Allocating public space to charter operators both reduces the potential for inefficient expense by charter operators and maintains the public’s interest in its public assets.

Some public school advocates, who are fairly anti-charter, have been opposed to the idea of “co-location” which is where a charter and a district school share space within the same building. It has led to some problems, but when I look at the big picture, it’s a hell of a lot better for the public to maintain the public facilities and allow charter operators to use them, rather than sell them off.

I fear this report is going to be seen as us saying all charters are evil, or bad, or money grabbing. What we’re saying is there are good charters but also bad ones, and the bad ones are bigger than you think. Charters represent a significant portion of our public school system system and we’ve got to figure out how to make them work better for the public interest.

Cecile Richards: Grace Under Fire at Planned Parenthood

This story originally appeared in the The American Prospect’2016 Winter issue.

Cover.png

On a warm Tuesday morning in late September, Cecile Richards, the 58-year-old president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, went before Congress to defend her organization. A few months earlier, the Center for Medical Progress, an undercover anti-abortion group, had released a series of doctored videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood illegally profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood denied the accusations, but outrage spiraled furiously among conservatives. Republican officials launched state and federal investigations, while presidential candidates and members of Congress called for defunding Planned Parenthood entirely, threatening to shut down the government if their demands were not met.

Riding this whirlwind of righteous anger, Republicans eagerly anticipated their confrontation with Richards. Yet when she came before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republicans suddenly found Richards grilling them, not the other way around. “Mr. Chairman, you and I do disagree about whether women should have access to safe and legal abortion,” she said, staring into the eyes of Jason Chaffetz, the Republican from Utah who chaired the hearing. “At Planned Parenthood, we believe that women should be able to make their own decision about their pregnancies and their futures—and the majority of Americans agree. We trust women to make these decisions in consultation with their families, their doctors, and their faith, and not by Congress.”

A week later, Chaffetz admitted that after formally investigating Planned Parenthood, he and his colleagues had been unable to find any evidence of financial wrongdoing. Eight states that launched their own investigations have also failed to produce any smoking guns. The absence of evidence, however, hasn’t deterred GOP-controlled state governments from attempting to cut funds for Planned Parenthood, or moderated Republicans’ demonization of the organization.

These attacks, though, have only inspired Planned Parenthood’s supporters to rally to its defense. Three days before Richards testified, a progressive coalition delivered a petition in support of Planned Parenthood to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Senator Elizabeth Warren; it had more than 1.2 million signatures. On the day of Richards’s testimony, hundreds of thousands of advocates across the country organized rallies and Internet campaigns to demonstrate solidarity, in what would be Planned Parenthood’s first ever “National Pink Out Day.”

In 2016, the battle over reproductive rights will almost surely grow more intense. The Supreme Court is set to rule on two major cases: one concerning contraception coverage, and the other on abortion access. The latter, both sides agree, may be the most consequential case for abortion rights since 1992, when the high court ruled that states could not impose an “undue burden” on women who wish to end a pregnancy. State legislatures, which enacted 288 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2015, will no doubt continue to test the limits of what such “undue burdens” really mean.

2016 also marks the centennial anniversary of Planned Parenthood, an organization that has become the target of an anti-abortion movement that steadily grows more aggressive and violent. The FBI reported an increase in the number of arson attacks and vandalism incidents at abortion clinics in the wake of the Center for Medical Progress videos, and the president of the National Abortion Federation said abortion providers have seen “an unprecedented increase in hate speech and threats” since the videos were released. In late November, a man opened fire in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, injuring nine people, and killing three. After the shooting, the suspected gunman invoked the doctored videos, telling local authorities, “no more baby parts.”

Richards, who has spent a decade at Planned Parenthood’s helm, toils at ground zero of the culture wars being fought across the country. Every day she is flooded with hundreds of hateful messages on social media, calling her evil, a Nazi, a monster, a murderer. In 2006, Jim Sedlak, the vice president of American Life League and one of the nation’s most ardent Planned Parenthood critics, predicted she would never last more than a year or so as Planned Parenthood’s leader. (A mere “place holder” president, he dubbed her.)

Yet ten years later, Richards remains self-assured in her post, guiding the nation’s largest reproductive-rights organization through the most politically fraught period it’s ever faced. She comes well-suited for the challenge. Richards brings to her role decades of experience in political organizing, and a career as a premier coalition builder across liberal America. She brings as well a strategic and moral vision that has impelled her to push Planned Parenthood beyond where it’s been, to lead more forcefully in the broader cultural and economic battles for women’s autonomy and equality.

IN 2006, JUST THREE WEEKS after Richards started her new job as Planned Parenthood’s president, South Dakota’s governor signed a bill outlawing abortion, the nation’s first state-legislated ban. (It was soon struck down in federal court.) “Listen, the reason I took this job is, I feel like we need to go into the 21st century,” she told The Washington Post that year. “Clearly, with some folks in the country, we’re going to get there kicking and screaming.”

Hiring Richards, in many ways, signified a new moment for Planned Parenthood. The abortion issue had been growing increasingly more politicized and polarized since the mid-1980s. (In the 1970s, the share of pro-life Democrats actually exceeded that of Republicans.) The partisan polarization of recent decades first became evident in 1984, and by the 1990s, political scientists were noticing a new and statistically significant relationship between voters’ abortion attitudes and whom they cast their ballot for in elections.

The three presidents who preceded Richards came in with backgrounds in health care, nursing, and Planned Parenthood itself. Richards’s resume, on the other hand, listed years of experience in organizing, campaigning, and electoral politics. While Planned Parenthood had been inching toward political advocacy in the 15 years before Richards arrived, she came in prepared to steer Planned Parenthood to the front lines.

In practice, this meant investing more in strategic communications and developing a new generation of youth leadership; it also meant engaging more forcefully in political campaigns. In 2008, Planned Parenthood endorsed Barack Obama for president—its second presidential endorsement ever—and Richards spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. That same year, the organization launched the One Million Strong Campaign—a massive effort to mobilize pro-choice voters. Partnering with Catalist, a progressive voting database, Planned Parenthood worked to build the first national voter model designed to specifically target pro-choice women.

Planned Parenthood’s political spending has also increased throughout Richards’s tenure. While the organization’s overall election spending has grown, its direct campaign expenditures have also come to represent a larger piece of the pie. Today, with Richards shaping its political programs, the organization not only spends more money in elections, but it also takes greater control over how its money is spent.

For its critics, these efforts serve as incriminatory proof that Planned Parenthood falsely bills itself a woman’s health-care network. Richards does not buy these accusations, but she can’t readily ignore them either. As both the CEO of one of the biggest national health-care organizations, which relies substantially on government reimbursements, and as the leader of a massive nonpartisan political outfit, engaged in one of the most polarized fights in the United States, Richards must always remain extra careful to keep the organization’s two halves legally separated, particularly when Republicans control both Congress and a majority of state governments. Forty percent of Planned Parenthood’s $1.3 billion in annual revenue comes from Medicaid and Title X, a federal family-planning program.

“Cecile had to grow into her [role] as CEO of a major health-care provider, that was something she had to learn,” says her husband, Kirk Adams, who served as vice president of the Service Employees International Union and is now executive director of the Healthcare Education Project in New York. “But on the other hand, she has always been first and foremost an organizer, and she continues to do that at Planned Parenthood at a very high level. It’s just fundamentally how she approaches a problem.”

As an organizer, Richards looks at the numbers—one in five women in the U.S. have relied on Planned Parenthood at some point in their life for health care. Learning how to motivate those patients to become advocates, volunteers, and pro-choice voters is what makes Planned Parenthood a “movement” in a way that your local hospital is not.

This strategy carries certain risks, but if you ask Richards how the politics and the direct health services fit together, her eyes light up. “We’re a better health-care provider because we’re a movement that advocates and pushes forward, and we’re a better movement because we have real experience every day with folks coming in and asking for care,” she says, grinning. This symbiosis, she’s convinced, only makes the organization stronger.

THE REALPOLITIK INHERENT in Richards’s vision of Planned Parenthood has at times created tensions with other parts of the reproductive-rights movement. This was evident during the 2009 health-care reform debates, when the entire law seemed to hinge on whether Congress could find a political compromise around abortion. Richards and Planned Parenthood were at the center of the debate, fighting fiercely for the law’s passage. Richards took great pains to emphasize that covering contraception and women’s general health services—or 97 percent of what Planned Parenthood does—were the organization’s primary priorities. In effect, she accepted that abortion would not be treated like all other health-care services during those very heated, public fights.

In the end, to the frustration of many reproductive-rights advocates, legislators passed the historic health care law with a provision that permitted states to ban abortion coverage in private plans in their state insurance markets. Today, 25 states have done just that.

Pro-choice members of Congress shared Richards’s sense of what was politically possible. “It appeared questionable that the Affordable Care Act would pass, up until literally the last hours, because of the issue of abortion,” recalls Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House Pro-Choice Caucus. “I think the ACA is as good as it can be; I think we did what we had to do if we had any hopes of passing the bill. I do not think we compromised too greatly or too soon: This was down to the wire on the day that the legislation passed.”

Erin Matson, the co-founder of Reproaction, a reproductive-rights activist group, disagrees. The health-care reform debate, she says, is a perfect case study in why reproductive-rights advocates lose. “The whole strategy from pro-choice leaders [during the ACA debates] was ‘Let’s just be reasonable.’ Give me a break! When has that ever stopped the right?” Matson believes the women’s movement has been too co-opted by the Democratic Party, and that Planned Parenthood’s strategy of stressing that “just 3 percent” of their services were abortion-related “was a classic example of accepting that abortion is shameful.”

Nonetheless, the Affordable Care Act has brought about tremendous advances for women’s health. Insurance companies can no longer consider pregnancies “pre-existing conditions,” and more preventative services are now covered under health insurance. In 2011, the White House issued a new regulation adding birth control to the list of mandatory services an employer’s group health plan must offer, providing a major economic lifeline to millions of women.

AT A TIME WHEN the reproductive wars have become a key driver of the country’s political divisions, Richards’s background and experience leave her supremely well-positioned to lead Planned Parenthood. Born in Waco, Texas, in 1957, Richards lived most of her early childhood in Dallas until her parents relocated their family—Cecile, then 11, and her three younger siblings—to Austin. While her mother, Ann Richards, Texas’s one-term governor in the early 1990s, was a heroic figure to liberals across America, her father, David, was also somewhat of a state icon. An unapologetic labor and civil-rights lawyer, David litigated many social justice cases, including a voting-rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Richards likes to say her house was just like any other, except the dining table was used for stuffing envelopes and sorting precinct lists, rather than eating. (This isn’t quite true: The Richards family often threw big dinner parties, perhaps one reason why Cecile loves to cook and bake.) But it is true that she was politicized at a young age. Her first dance, at age 12, was a fundraiser for the United Farm Workers. By the time she was in middle school, administrators were reprimanding her for wearing a black armband in protest against the Vietnam War.

In 1972, Sarah Weddington, a young feminist lawyer based in Austin, decided to run for state legislature. Weddington asked Ann Richards, who worked as a housewife, to help manage her campaign. Cecile, then 14, worked with her siblings and mom to help get Weddington into office. (Not long after her victory, Weddington would go on to present the oral argument in Roe v. Wadebefore the Supreme Court, the momentous suit that legalized abortion in the United States.)

As an undergrad at Brown University, Richards continued to direct her energies toward activism. On campus, she protested apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear power plants in New Hampshire. “It’s not like college got in the way of her organizing,” her brother Dan once quipped.

After graduation, Richards went to work in the labor movement. She spent the next decade organizing janitors, garment workers, hotel housekeepers, and nursing home staffers in Louisiana, California, and Texas. That experience, she says, provided her with “really the biggest education I ever had.” Those low-wage workers, she notes, are very much the same women who rely on Planned Parenthood for health care.

The values Richards learned in the labor movement are the same ones that inform her vision of Planned Parenthood. “It’s not only about direct services, which is incredibly important, but it’s also about empowering the folks who are turning to [us] for health care,” she says. “When you think of how many people have been to Planned Parenthood in this country, from every walk of life, if those patients were empowered to participate in our democracy, a lot of the conversations that are happening in Congress right now would not be happening.” Richards wants to provide women not only with STD screenings, abortions, and pap smears—she also wants to help those patients find their political voice.

In 1982, she met Kirk Adams, a fellow union organizer. She became his boss, and three years later, his wife. In 1990, Richards and Adams worked on Ann Richards’s gubernatorial campaign, and stayed in Austin throughout Ann’s time in office. After one term in the statehouse, George W. Bush beat her in a landslide in 1994.

Her mother’s loss was painful, but Richards didn’t rest for long. She founded a new grassroots organization in 1995, the Texas Freedom Network, which aimed to curb the growing influence of the Texas religious right, particularly those activists seeking control of the school boards. “She always put herself in the line of fire, fighting for the most progressive values, in tough places, and in tough times,” says Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL-CIO political director. It was no easy fight, and Richards received heaps of vitriol from well-funded conservative opponents, foreshadowing her time at Planned Parenthood. Undeterred, she traveled all over Texas, rallying like-minded supporters who opposed teaching Bible stories in science class, expanding abstinence education in schools, and using public vouchers to send children to private schools. The Texas Freedom Network “started as a file box of names in Cecile’s kitchen and grew to many thousands of people,” her successor told the Texas Monthly in 2004.

Later on, Richards, Adams, and their three kids moved to Washington, D.C., so Adams could take a national position with the AFL-CIO. In 2002, Richards took a job working as deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi, who was named Democratic whip in the House. Richards held that position for 18 months, though she says the experience helped her realize she was better suited to effect change from outside Congress, rather than within.

WHEN RICHARDS LEFT Capitol Hill in 2003, she took a job leading a new organization, America Votes—a coalition of progressive organizations that would work together to turn out voters for the 2004 presidential election. There had always been big, active progressive organizations, but their leaders mostly operated in silos, and did not talk to, or even know, one another. I asked Steve Rosenthal, one of America Votes’s founders, why they picked Richards to head this unprecedented $250 million effort.

“We thought we needed someone who was politically astute, who had the ability to work with people at a very basic level, who could get the trust of the organizations and mobilize them all into a new organization,” he says, explaining there was “really nobody else” they could have imagined fitting the bill.

At America Votes, Richards continued to do what she did best: organize. Specifically, she coordinated an electoral strategy among the nation’s largest and most influential unions and progressive groups—ranging from the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP, to the Sierra Club and NARAL. She sought to help leaders understand how their efforts were, and really always have been, interconnected. She helped delineate which demographic and geographic groups each organization would target, and which would be most effective in delivering a message to a particular set of voters and getting them to the polls. It was a level of coordination hitherto unknown among the nation’s progressive organizations, and putting it together required diplomatic skills of the highest order.

Another innovation progressives introduced in the 2004 campaign was an effort to specifically target single women. The organization Women’s Voices Women Vote had recently formed, and aimed to draw attention to unmarried women, a growing political constituency largely ignored by progressives in previous cycles. Page Gardner, the group’s founder, pointed to the 22 million single women eligible to vote in 2000 who did not cast ballots. Single women, Gardner found, more strongly identify as “pro-choice” than married women. This mattered, as reproductive rights were already a major issue in the 2004 campaign, with critical judicial appointments on the line.

Despite these novel efforts, however, George W. Bush was re-elected, and the future of America Votes hung in the balance. Some of the biggest funders and backers wanted to scrap the project, and start with something fresh for 2008. Richards, who recognized how important this type of initiative was for the progressive movement, began appealing to all the major donors and partners, to convince them that this was not a project to abandon. “Just to be totally blunt, Cecile is the reason the organization still exists,” says Rosenthal. Greg Speed, the current president of America Votes, agrees. “I thought it was going to end after 2004,” he admits. “Cecile didn’t let that happen.”

I asked Richards why she felt it was so important to keep the organization alive after John Kerry lost. “How could we go back to a day where everybody goes, ‘Oh we’ll just do our own thing and see how it works out?’” she answers. “[2004] was really the first time that a lot of these big progressive groups had ever sat at the table together, and thought, ‘OK, how can we do our work in a smarter way, use our resources better, learn from each other?’ It was fascinating because not only did people build relationships that they perhaps did not have before, but there were even heads of progressive groups that had never door-knocked before that election!” Richards thinks one of the most important legacies of that campaign was building a common understanding of what grassroots advocacy and mobilization is really about.

When America Votes first formed, Planned Parenthood was only just beginning to dip its toe into politics. Though its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a radical birth-control activist in the early 20th century, Planned Parenthood itself eventually grew to be seen as a responsible, noncontroversial organization; family planning was considered bipartisan, sensible policy after World War II. Indeed, for many years Planned Parenthood garnered strong support from elite members of the Republican Party: Barry Goldwater’s wife was a founding member of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Arizona.

These political dynamics began to change after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, and the religious right, a strongly anti-abortion faction within the Republican Party, increased its power over the course of the 1980s. In response, Planned Parenthood established a political arm in 1989, and a political action committee in the late 1990s. In 2000, Planned Parenthood started to experiment with ads in battleground states, and by 2004, it made its first-ever presidential endorsement.

In deepening the organization’s political activities and solidifying its place in the progressive universe, Richards has drawn on her experience at America Votes. “To see how much [Planned Parenthood] has changed, even in the past ten years … I’m not saying that’s all a result of America Votes, but it certainly opened my eyes to what the opportunities were, partnering with a lot of these organizations,” she says. “In some ways, that was probably part of the reason I came to Planned Parenthood.”

IN 2010, THE TEA PARTY soared to power, running on promises to dismantle the new health-care law, cut taxes, and ban abortions. In 2011, as the new crop of conservatives took power in statehouse after statehouse, those lawmakers introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, of which 135 were enacted in 36 states by the year’s end. Ninety-two of the new provisions restricted access to abortion, shattering the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions adopted in 2005. In Congress, the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, and threatened to shut down the government entirely if a rider to defund the organization was not included in the federal budget deal. Congressional Republicans have been trying to defund Planned Parenthood ever since.

Republicans also started pushing for “religious freedom” exemptions for businesses and insurance companies, so that they would not have to offer birth control under their plans. As Katha Pollitt notes in her 2014 book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, despite the fact that reliable contraception remains the most effective way to prevent abortion, “not one major anti-abortion organization supports making birth control more available, much less educating young people in its use.” In 2014, after a series of legal challenges, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations could be exempt from providing employees with contraceptive coverage. This summer, the Supreme Court will decide if the government can even require nonprofits simply to fill out a form if they object to the birth-control mandate on religious grounds. “We’ve always known that the right wing has been anti-abortion but some people thought, well, that doesn’t extend to contraception,” says Schakowsky. “We know better now. … That was made clear for the world after the Affordable Care Act.”

In early 2012, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, under pressure from conservative activists and with a new anti-abortion senior vice president, announced that it would no longer fund breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. The backlash was swift and unprecedented—Planned Parenthood raised $3 million in three days, and a deeply embarrassed Komen reversed its decision within the week. A whole new generation of supporters moved to social media to defend Planned Parenthood and express their outrage.

While Planned Parenthood and its allies pushed back against attacks on women’s health, other activists were growing worried about the tone and direction of the public conversation. They recognized that the reproductive-rights movement needed a new and bolder strategy—one that aimed to change cultural attitudes around abortion, not just laws and regulations.

Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, an organization that focuses on young people’s sexual and reproductive health, says that in late 2010 and early 2011, as the Tea Party swept into power, her group heard from frustrated youth leaders who wanted to respond in some way to the incessant political attacks on abortion. They noticed that while many were worried about the future of reproductive health care, very few people were actually talking about abortions as such. The escalation of the right’s anti-choice rhetoric, says Hauser, was making any such discussion more difficult. “Honestly, the fear-based strategies and the vehemence makes it very, very difficult for people,” she says. “I think all of us have internalized some fear and shame [about abortion] that can be so immobilizing.” She and her team understood that this stigma, which limits the societal conversation, ultimately impacts how legislators think about abortion, too. New laws requiring women to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds and mandatory waiting periods, so they could “think more carefully” about their decisions, were little more than efforts to shame those who didn’t want to carry to term.

Advocates for Youth began to lay the groundwork for a public storytelling campaign, in which people could share their abortion experiences if they felt it was safe to do so. The effort was named the “1-in-3 Campaign”, because the Guttmacher Institute found that a third of all U.S. women will have had an abortion during the course of their lives. “If you tell one abortion story, people tend to shut it down. They say, ‘Oh well she could have done this, or she should have done that,’” says Hauser, who researched how storytelling has impacted other social movements. “But when you start to hear multiple stories at once, it becomes much harder to dismiss.”

Hauser admits that, initially, some mainstream reproductive-rights groups quietly pushed back on this de-stigmatizing campaign. But by 2013 and 2014, the groups started to embrace the strategy, and even more diverse efforts began to take shape. A new anti-stigma organization, Sea Change, formed in 2014 to conduct social science research on reproductive stigmas, with the goal of ultimately reducing them. Another organization, SHIFT, formed in 2015 to amplify the voice of abortion providers—those who understand the complicated ways in which women relate to abortion as both a medical and a cultural experience. These efforts began to effect a real change in the zeitgeist—new film narratives and TV plots started to emerge, featuring women who ended their pregnancies in relatively nontraumatic ways.

And all of this activism has created the space for more women to come forward with their own stories. In 2014, in an essay entitled, “Ending the Silence That Fuels Abortion Stigma,” Richards described her own abortion experience in Elle magazine. She was already raising three kids at the time—Lily, and twins Hannah and Daniel—and felt an abortion “was the right decision” for her and her husband. She said it “wasn’t a difficult decision.”

“Rarely do you see a leader of an organization putting her own skin in the game like that,” says Steph Herold, the managing director of Sea Change.

I asked Richards why, after leading Planned Parenthood for eight years, she had felt the time was right to share her own story. Though she had never hidden the fact that she had an abortion, she said she never really thought to share it so publicly, in a major women’s magazine, in part because her abortion was never a defining part of her life. And it still isn’t.

But she’s glad she spoke out. “Women now come up and tell me their stories about having an abortion—and boy, if this makes them more comfortable about sharing that story with me, or with anyone else, and helps them lift whatever burden is on them, hallelujah!”

Richards’s decision to tell her own story is part of a new effort within Planned Parenthood to take on abortion stigma. “I think the biggest change that I’ve seen in Planned Parenthood is that instead of emphasizing that abortion is only a small percentage of their services, they’re saying that they’re proud to provide abortion care,” says Herold. “They’re moving to a point where they say, ‘Yes we provide all kinds of health care, and abortion is just one service in the spectrum of all health-care services we provide.’” Indeed, this past October, Richards published a piece in Cosmopolitan, articulating that message in a way Planned Parenthood has generally avoided in the past. “If we want women to have fulfilling careers and economic stability, we have to give them full access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion,” she wrote. “Of course abortion services are health care.”

Several weeks after the Cosmopolitan piece came out, I asked Richards for her thoughts on the “only 3 percent” talking point, and if she worried it unwittingly contributed to abortion stigma. Planned Parenthood is an unabashed, unashamed provider of safe and legal abortion, she says, and she’s “incredibly proud” of that fact. “It’s just super-important to me that people understand that women have a whole range of health-care services that they need and being able to make decisions about reproduction is pretty fundamental,” she adds.

THE EFFORT TO FIGHT stigma coincides with another development in the reproductive-rights movement: a shift away from rhetoric about “choice” and “rights” to broader themes of justice, access, and security.

After the 2012 election, the Democratic Party started to really grasp what Page Gardner had been trying to communicate for the past decade. Single women, a growing portion of the electorate, proved to be game-changers in Obama’s re-election campaign; he won their vote by a margin of 36 points, despite losing married women to Mitt Romney. In 2013, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected governor of Virginia, in large part because he won single women by 42 points. (He lost married women to the Republican candidate.) Campaign research conducted the following year revealed that women’s health and economic security were issues that strongly motivated both the progressive base and swing voters. Researchers also found that drop-off voters (those less likely to vote in midterms) were more motivated to cast a ballot if they felt they were going to be voting against a candidate who would endanger women’s health.

The New York Times ran a story in 2014 detailing how mainstream reproductive-rights groups were in the midst of reframing their advocacy to connect with more voters. The article—“Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message”—explored how Planned Parenthood had taken the lead in conducting public opinion polling after 2011, in order to find talking points, like “women’s health” and “economic security,” that resonated with more people. In 2013, Planned Parenthood released a video, “Moving Beyond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice Labels.”

Gretchen Borchelt, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, says that policy-makers have long separated economic issues from reproductive rights, which has meant that reproductive-rights groups generally worked apart from other progressive organizations. “But separating these issues doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t speak to the reality of people’s lives,” she says. “There has been growing recognition of this in the last few years, making it a pivotal moment to push forward policy solutions that place reproductive rights alongside the other policies that help women and their families thrive.”

Still, the struggle to push the reproductive-rights movement in new directions has not been without challenges. Even as the Democratic Party and mainstream groups like Planned Parenthood have been linking their advocacy more with other progressive issues—either because they recognize its inherent value, its strategic worth, or both—some smaller organizations that have been making these arguments for years have, at times, felt sidelined. After the Times story ran in 2014, Monica Raye Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice group led by and focused on women of color, published an open letter calling out mainstream groups for failing to acknowledge their decades-long work making connections between reproductive choice and women’s health and economic prospects.

“We appreciate that you push us to do this more, and to do it better,” Richards wrote back in response. “And we hear you when you say that we are not doing enough.” A few months later Richards and Simpson met in person, and published a joint statement pledging to build a stronger partnership.

I asked Simpson how things have played out in the year and a half since that meeting. “We’ve really seen mainstream organizations reaching into the women-of-color-led organizations to get our expertise, and actually have us at the table and shape the conversation,” she says. While Simpson acknowledges there’s still a long way to go in terms of truly making the reproductive-rights movement “intersectional” (a social justice concept that means reckoning with different forms of oppression and how they impact, and compound, one another), she does feel Planned Parenthood “is starting to show up more” for them.

One way that Planned Parenthood is “showing up” for a broader range of constituencies is through its membership in the All Above All coalition, a growing political effort to overturn the Hyde Amendment—the 40-year-old law that prohibits federal spending on abortions. Women of color and low-income communities most affected by Hyde have been leading the campaign.

During Cecile Richards’s testimony this past September, she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that in her opinion, the Hyde Amendment “discriminates against low-income women.” Erin Matson, who has been frustrated by some of the rhetorical timidity of the reproductive-rights community, was surprised and encouraged by Richards’s comments. “That’s not how Planned Parenthood talked about Hyde in the past,” she says.

A WEEK BEFORE THANKSGIVING, Planned Parenthood’s political arm launched its 2016 election effort, pledging to spend at least $20 million defending reproductive rights. “We will organize and mobilize to elect lawmakers who are in our corner,” Richards announced in a video ad.

Most public opinion analysts suspect that the conservative strategy of targeting anti-choice voters in Republican primaries may backfire in the general election. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in August found that Planned Parenthood has a significantly higher favorability rating than any other group or individual tested—including the Supreme Court, President Obama, both political parties, and key Republicans running for president. Handfuls of other recent polls and surveys have reported nationwide majorities opposed to defunding the organization.

Even on abortion, despite the high-profile attacks, public opinion hasn’t substantially changed. The percentage of Americans who believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances, in some circumstances, or under no circumstances has stayed relatively constant since Gallup first started asking the question in 1975. In 2015, Gallup found that 29 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal under all circumstances, 51 percent believe it should be legal under some circumstances, and 19 percent believe it should be legal under no circumstances. While Republican candidates are staking out positions to appeal to those who oppose abortion under all circumstances, it turns out that not even all those voters are on board with the GOP attacks. A recent YouGov poll found that more than a third of Americans who support strict abortion restrictions nonetheless hold a favorable opinion of Planned Parenthood.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who compared supporting a woman’s right to choose to supporting slavery, has made clear that he’d like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, along with laws that permit women to terminate pregnancies in cases of rape or incest. Marco Rubio, a candidate favored among GOP elites, also wants abortion to be made illegal with no exceptions for rape or incest. But in a CNN/ORC national poll taken just before the 2012 presidential election, 83 percent of all voters—and 76 percent of Republicans—said they favored allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. “The RNC is not happy about this Republican primary,” says Anna Greenberg, one of the nation’s top Democratic pollsters. “This is not a strategy [for them], it’s a disaster.”

The anti-abortion rhetoric stands not only to motivate the progressive base, but also to agitate independent voters. Independent women in particular tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative, and Greenberg notes that a lot of the misogynistic and anti–reproductive rights rhetoric has actually helped Democrats more effectively communicate with this swath of the electorate.

“While backing Republicans into a corner might gin up some primary votes, [these positions are] wildly, wildly unpopular with the general public,” says Erica Sackin, Planned Parenthood’s director of political communications. “When Romney said the first thing he’d do as president is defund Planned Parenthood, he lost the 2012 election by the largest gender gap in history.”

Planned Parenthood wants to help elected officials understand that being forthright in their support for abortion and reproductive rights is both better policy and smart politics. In effect, the organization, along with other women’s groups, is now engaged in its own anti-stigma work on the electoral level, pushing leaders away from the “safe, legal, and rare” abortion mantra that pro-choice Democrats used, starting with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The Democratic Party officially removed the phrase from its platform in 2012, and advocates are now urging politicians to think of abortion more along the lines of “safe, legal, and where we live.”

Richards believes the country has arrived at a real inflection point. “It’s just abundantly clear,” she says, that the assaults on Planned Parenthood are not about the organization as a health-care provider, but about “folks who resent that women actually have the legal right to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. That’s what they’re mad about, and they’re really mad.”

The stakes are high, but Richards is looking forward to the challenge. “I’m just grateful we’re getting to what is actually the real fight,” she says. “I believe this country is not going to go backwards. It has been incredibly inspiring to see young people, who I do think live their lives in a more public way, who really do want to throw off judgment and shame about so many things, including abortion. To me, that is a bright new day, and I hope, I think, it’s all going to come together in one place.”

Baltimore Can’t Rely on ‘Judge Judy’ to Protect Renters

Originally published in Next City on December 9, 2015.
—-
Every year, more than 6,000 Baltimore renters and their families are evicted. Across the U.S., only Detroit has a higher percentage of residents facing that same fate. While it’s been all too easy for Baltimore officials to chalk this grim reality up to the wretched effects of poverty, a new report tells a more complete story.

“Justice Diverted,” issued by the Public Justice Center (in collaboration with the Right to Housing Alliance and scholars from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore) is based on a study of Baltimore tenants called to rent court. Housed in the District Court of Maryland, the court is where landlords take renters who are late on their monthly payments. Through examining hundreds of surveys, in-depth interviews, court records and city data, the researchers discovered that the court systematically “prioritizes efficiencies which privilege the landlord’s bottom line.”

While activists and legal experts previously suspected that rent court had a disproportionate impact on black families in Baltimore, advocates are now armed with concrete data to make a political case for reform. The study found that most people who are called to rent court — and ultimately evicted — are black women living near the federal poverty line and raising at least one child. Though black women make up 34 percent of Baltimore’s population, they comprised 79 percent of those surveyed in the rent court study.

Although rodent infestations, plumbing leaks and peeling paint could all be grounds for withheld rent, most tenants summoned to court were unfamiliar with their legal rights. Some tried to prepare by searching the Internet and watching movies and “Judge Judy,” but 73 percent of those surveyed did not know they could raise a defense if their house or apartment had serious defects. Indeed, nearly 80 percent reported at least one housing health or safety threat when they showed up to court. Nearly 60 percent cited insect or rodent problems, 37 percent cited plumbing leaks, and 41 percent cited lead poisoning anxieties due to chipping paint.

Unlike Baltimore’s foreclosure crisis — which elicited a sense of public emergency and outcry — the eviction crisis has largely been ignored. But in 2009, in the midst of the housing market crash, Baltimore’s eviction rate actually exceeded the rate of ratified mortgage foreclosures; by 2013, Baltimore’s eviction rate exceeded that of foreclosure filings.

One reason for the lack of attention: There’s no system to track data about who is being evicted, and when and why. “It is essential that the city direct funds to creating and disseminating data on rent eviction so that homelessness prevention strategies and housing policies reflect the real indicators of city renters’ hardship,” the report concluded.

The report makes more recommendations for reforming rent court and ameliorating the city’s eviction crisis. To reduce the number of eviction cases filed annually (currently 150,000), the city could instate a mandatory pre-filing period, like those that exist in the vast majority of states. Requiring pre-filing notices enables most rental disputes to be resolved without resorting to litigation.

The court could also more closely investigate whether landlords who file claims are properly licensed and compliant with lead paint laws. The researchers found that a majority of landlords presented the court with incorrect or incomplete registration and licensing information — but were not caught or held to account. Baltimore could also expand its licensing and property inspection requirements, because the current legal protections fail to cover the full range of rental units that tenants reside in.

Other recommendations were focused on leveling the playing field for tenants inside the courtroom and helping families avoid the traumatic hardship of losing their homes overall in the city. The authors call for increasing tenant legal representation, court assistance and funding for eviction prevention programs.

Judge John P. Morrissey, the chief judge of the Maryland District Court, told the Baltimore Sun that many of the recommendations outlined in the report would require a legislative response from lawmakers in Annapolis. Which is why the report was timed to coincide with the launch of the 7,000 Families Campaign — a political effort to stop the “housed-to-homeless” pipeline for poor Baltimore families and push for local reforms.

“We can correct some of this through legislative fixes at the state and city level, but that’s going to take some muscle,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with the Right to Housing Alliance. “It’s going to take a unified renter-led movement, and growing our collective power. More than half of the population of Baltimore City are renters, and it’s time that the eviction crisis, and the role that rent court plays in it, is taken seriously.”