Oprah Is Not Your Friend: A Q&A With Nicole Aschoff

Originally published in Dissent on August 18, 2015.
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Nicole Aschoff, the Managing Editor at Jacobin magazine, is author of The New Prophets of Capital, a book that examines the modern mythmaking central to twenty-first century capitalism. It’s a short and agitating book that aims to critically examine some of the rhetoric espoused by “new prophets” like Oprah Winfrey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that capitalism has always needed, and will always need stories for people to grasp on to, to “get us out of bed in the morning and remind us where we are going.” Why is this? Does socialism have its own prophets?

Nicole Aschoff: Stories, as a vehicle for norms, ideas, and morals, are important to all societies, and capitalist societies are no exception. In capitalist societies there is a disjuncture between the things we value highly—family, community, fulfillment, education, culture—and the architecture of our economy, which prioritizes profit. Stories about “creative capitalism” and positive thinking told by people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey matter because they smooth over this disjuncture. They help to convince people that capitalism is the best, or only possible, way to organize society.

Just as there have always been people whose stories bolster capitalism—from Ben Franklin to John Mackey—there have also always been voices that challenge capitalism and the existing hierarchy of power. In the United States we can think about the stories told by people like Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Rachel Carson, to name a few. However, if we look at the history of the labor, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements, the importance of collective actions and voices, rather than a few powerful prophets or hierarchical leadership structures, is striking. Successful social movements are made up of empowered, critical, ordinary people, and I think this is something to strive for.

Cohen: You explore the popularity of Whole Foods and discuss the rise of “lifestyle politics” whereby people conflate consumer choices with politics and citizenship. You acknowledge that for so many individuals, given that social change often feels incredibly elusive, there’s an aspect of empowerment that comes with modifying one’s consumer choices—like buying organic produce or going vegan. What, in your view, is wrong with this idea and what might be a better way to think about consumer action and social change?

Aschoff: It depends on what you want to get out of lifestyle politics. If your goal is to eat healthier, or simplify your life by reducing your possessions, then buying better things—if you have the money—can be quite empowering. But if your goal is to impact bigger processes, like environmental degradation or global poverty, lifestyle politics is not the answer. Companies that produce nice things like organic food or sustainable furniture are like all other companies, and must constantly expand and produce more to generate profits.

This does not mean that making better choices is useless or that we shouldn’t challenge the way things are being produced. It is simply a call for different kinds of projects. The environmental crisis is ultimately a social and political crisis that can only be solved by collective action.

Cohen: One chapter looks at the rise of “philanthrocapitalists” like the Gateses, Waltons, Broads, and Buffetts. In an era of scarce resources and shrinking government budgets, why should we be concerned about the growing influence of philanthropists?

Aschoff: Periods of increasing activity by philanthropic foundations, or these days “philanthrocapitalists,” are historically a symptom of social crisis associated with rising inequality. On the surface this might seem positive. But we can’t expect big foundations to solve inequality, or poverty, or any number of other social ills.

Foundations distract from how wealth creation works, by making it appear that philanthropists are doing people a favor out of the goodness of their hearts. This hides the fact that the wealth they have amassed was not simply the result of their own cunning or ability—it was made possible by all the people who worked for them, not to mention the public infrastructure made possible by taxpayers. By presenting themselves as do-gooders or charitable institutions, foundations erase the last four decades of aggressive lobbying for financial deregulation and tax-cuts and the concerted attacks on working people and unions by businesses and elites.

Unlike taxes, when foundations make philanthropic donations, they are choosing which projects they want to fund. These projects often have some progressive effects—poor children get vaccines when they wouldn’t otherwise. But they also often contain conservative goals—for example, the Gateses favor commoditizing health care rather than supporting universal health care, and many foundations support privatizing public education and reducing the voice of parents and teachers in how schools are run.

Whether we like foundation projects or not makes little difference because people like Bill and Melinda Gates are incredibly powerful and essentially unaccountable. We have no say over how foundation money is used, even when it impacts people’s lives profoundly.

Cohen: You note that challenging these stories about capitalism “require a fundamental rethinking of our current way of life, a prospect that evokes fears of violence and disorder, and a deeper apprehension that in the process of transforming our society, we might lose ourselves and the essence of who we are.” How do we overcome these fears?

Aschoff: Capitalism is a stressful system. People use up most of their energy just keeping their head above water, so telling them to imagine a different kind of society might seem silly or off-putting. But when we look back at U.S. history—at slavery, child labor, the oppression of women, Jim Crow, homophobia—these things didn’t get better by themselves. People fought and died to make them better, and they continue that struggle today. Capitalism is a historical development; there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about it. As renowned author Ursula Le Guin said recently: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Reminding ourselves how change has happened in the past is important if we want to think seriously about creating a different kind of society.

Cohen: One chapter of your book explores Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s particular brand of feminism. Your argument, which I’ve also seen made by writers like Sarah JaffeElizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sarah Leonard, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, suggests that Sandberg’s approach of encouraging women to “lean in” may help a small slice of elite women access power, but ultimately won’t help women at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why does it have to be an either/or discussion?

Aschoff: Nearly everyone is dependent upon wages to pay for all the things they need to survive, but those wages come directly out of the profits of the businesses they work for. The job of a head of a company—whether male or female—is to maximize profits, and one way they can do this is by paying as little as possible in wages and taxes. This means the goals of women leaders are often at odds with the needs of working-class women. Having women at the top may help in the fight against sexism and smooth the way for other women to step into leadership positions, but the idea that women leaders will implement better conditions for women more broadly has little historical precedent.

Sandberg’s manifesto aligns perfectly with the needs of capital by encouraging women to map their dreams onto the growth trajectories of corporate America. Sure, seeing women in leadership positions can be aspirational, but turning this into the mechanism for achieving feminism hides the structural barriers preventing most women from achieving security and success, while simultaneously burnishing the meritocratic façade of big business. Real feminism—the idea that everyone, regardless of gender, should get decent pay and a voice in their workplace, dignity, respect, quality healthcare and childcare, the right to higher education and housing, and a robust support network for old age, illness, or disability—is incompatible with scaling the corporate jungle gym.

Cohen: When we hear about an anti-union company announcing they will raise their minimum wage, or give more flexible commuting options, or expand their paid maternity leave, how should we be thinking about these employers and business models? In an era where everything can seem bad and getting worse, how should we be thinking about these bouts of “conscious capitalism” in the marketplace?

Aschoff: Capitalism’s overwhelming power often inspires a feeling of helplessness or despair, so it is understandable to feel hopeful when businesses make small decisions that improve people’s lives, like raising wages or improving working conditions. At the end of the day, the goal of any political movement should always be about making people’s lives better. But there is a difference between gains granted by “conscious” companies and gains that are won through struggle.

Take for example the Fight for 15. Winning $15 an hour won’t change the fact these companies exist to make a profit—they can absorb higher wage costs and continue going about their business essentially unchanged—but that certainly doesn’t mean that $15 isn’t worth fighting for. It would represent a huge change for people living in poverty. Victories like the recent one in NY are exciting, and show that not only can workers win when they fight together, but also the potential of their struggles to build solidarity and confidence that can be channeled into a much broader, democratic movement for change.

Unionized Charter Teachers in Chicago Reject Merit Pay

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on August 17, 2015.
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Last week, unionized teachers at three schools operated by Civitas—a subsidiary of the Chicago International Charter School network—negotiated a new contract that no longer has merit pay in it. This means 31 out of 32 unionized Chicago charter schools have now rejected merit pay. And the one unionized charter that still has it—Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy—is currently negotiating a new contract and teachers hope to remove it there as well.

Merit pay, a policy that ties teacher salaries and bonuses to student standardized test scores and evaluations, is one of the most controversial tenets of the education reform movement. The idea has been tossed around for decades, but has never really gained steam. Most teacher salaries are tied to their level of education and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for Washington, D.C., schools, says merit pay is needed to create the kind of culture “where excellence is rewarded.” Proponents believe that this kind of policy would incentivize high-quality teachers to enter the profession. The Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program encouraged states to implement merit pay systems within their schools.

While teacher salaries are notoriously low, many teachers have generally opposed merit pay because they do not think the system in which they’d be evaluated could ever really be objective or fair. They also worry that it could have unintended consequences, like incentivizing cheating or teaching to the test.

Brian Harris, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, said that when his school unionized in 2009, they first tried to improve their “really awful” merit pay scheme by negotiating more objective metrics into their evaluation system. Teachers aimed to reform merit pay, not remove it.

Over time, according to Harris, teachers began to feel increasingly frustrated with even their new-and-improved merit pay system. When I spoke to Harris in April as I was reporting my When Charters Go Union piece, he had told me, “the opposition to merit pay at my school has grown insane.” Four months later, it’s now gone.

I asked Harris if anyone in his union wanted to keep merit pay and he said he has no idea. “Nobody has been brave enough to tell me to my face that they like merit pay.” He did note that some who like the idea of paying teachers who work really hard more money, acknowledge that it is really difficult to do so fairly. “Even a lot of people who were evaluating us acknowledged that this stuff was unfair,” Harris said.

About eight months ago, their union released a document with guiding principles for contract negotiations. Beyond killing merit pay, other contract goals include advocating for smaller class sizes, increasing teacher voice, and securing protected time during the workday to grade, plan, and collaborate.

It will be interesting to see if the momentum that unionized charter school teachers have created in Chicago motivates other non-unionized charter teachers who are dissatisfied with merit pay to consider unions of their own. It will also be interesting to see if this creates any pushback from the public—a majority of public school parents say they support the idea of merit pay.

The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium                   

NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on August 5th, 2015.
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In another interesting development for the movement to unionize charter schools, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Teach for America corps members should have been allowed to vote in a Detroit charter union election earlier this year.

Detroit 90/90, a charter management organization for the University Prep charter network, said that Teach for America teachers shouldn’t be permitted to vote because they are not professional employees. Instead, they argued, TFA members should be viewed as long-term substitute teachers.

Patrick Sheehan, a Detroit TFA-er told MLive that he and his fellow corps members are really pleased with the NLRB’s decision. “U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn’t respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

Shaun Richman, the AFT’s deputy director of organizing told The Prospect that University Prep’s argument was an insult to all TFA corps members and alumni around the country. “Nobody would have dared to say that TFA corps members are not really teachers even a year ago,” said Richman. “But now that they want a union, suddenly those kinds of insults are apparently on the table.”

While Teach for America does not officially take a stance on unionization efforts, Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, praised the NLRB’s decision. “We’re pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership,” she said. “As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.”

There are roughly 11,000 current TFA teachers and more than 37,000 alumni around the country. About 60 percent of Detroit Teach for America corps members work in charter schools. Nate Walker, AFT-Michigan’s K-12 organizer and policy analyst, was a former Detroit TFA-er himself.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more union campaigns launched at charter schools, and more Teach for America members among them. Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters. According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones.

A New Course: Larry Hogan wants to change Maryland’s unique charter school laws and bring in more charters, but will kids suffer?

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on August 5th, 2015.
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Baltimore City Paper cover

Baltimore City Paper cover story

At the end of 2014, just weeks after Larry Hogan won a surprise victory in the gubernatorial race, the governor-elect announced that he would push to expand Maryland charter schools once in office.

“We shouldn’t be last in the nation in charter schools,” Hogan declared—referring to Maryland’s spot in the state ranking system designed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), an advocacy organization that promotes charter schools around the country. According to NAPCS, Maryland has the nation’s “worst” charter law. The Baltimore Sun editorial board, echoing NAPCS, has said Maryland boasts one of the “weakest” charter laws in the United States.

In late February and early March, legislators in Annapolis listened to testimony related to charter reform bills that Gov. Hogan introduced in the House and Senate. Supported by the Hogan administration, a coalition of charter school operators, and national education-reform advocates, the bills met fervent opposition from teachers, principals, and community members.

“I don’t care what the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a lobbying group out of Washington, D.C., has to say about the charter school law in Maryland or where they rank Maryland relative to their own biased standards. Neither should you,” testified Megan Miskowski, a speech language pathologist at Patterson Park Public Charter School. It’s Maryland’s strong law, she argued, that explains why Maryland charters have never wrought the level of fraud and abuse so prevalent in places such as Minnesota and Louisiana—states that receive high marks from NAPCS. “Who are they to define what is best for Maryland children?” Miskowski asked. “We do not answer to them.”

The Maryland Charter School Act passed in 2003 and the first state charter schools opened their doors in 2005. A decade later roughly 18,000 students attend 47 Maryland charters—34 of them concentrated in Baltimore City. A version of the Public Charter School Improvement Act eventually passed, but it was substantially watered down from Hogan’s original proposal, and many believe he’ll push a stronger law again next year. The heart of the debate centers on competing visions for the future of public education, and whether one believes Maryland has the best charter law in the country or the worst.

The publicly funded but independently managed schools known as charters have grown significantly since the first one opened in Minnesota 23 years ago. Today more than 6,700 charters exist in 42 states and Washington, D.C. and their numbers are climbing. Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first proposed the charter school idea in 1988; the influential union leader imagined a new kind of school that could serve as a laboratory for innovative and experimental education practices. The hope was not only to serve kids within charters who might benefit from alternative educational models, but also to carry newly discovered best practices back into traditional schools for all students to enjoy. In Shanker’s vision, charter teachers would still be unionized district employees, but certain labor regulations would be relaxed to promote greater innovation.

Maryland’s charter culture sets it apart from most other states in several ways. First, under the law all Maryland charter teachers are considered public school employees and represented under their district-wide collective bargaining unit. While this actually most closely resembles what Shanker had imagined, few states today adopt this particular model. According to the Center for Education Reform (CER), just 7 percent of all charter school teachers nationwide are unionized.

Another distinctive characteristic of Maryland charters has been a general commitment to innovate within the district, as opposed to outside of it. In other states, the law may allow for multiple charter authorizers, such as churches, universities, or nonprofits. In Maryland, however, only the local school board can authorize charter schools. “I’d say the strong desire [of Maryland charters] to work within the school district is fairly unique,” says Joceyln Kehl of the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a newly formed coalition of charter operators around the state. “Maryland is hugely pro-union and Democratic, so that’s just our context,” she adds.

Additionally, Maryland charters must comply with a greater number of state and local regulations than charter schools in other states. While detractors of Maryland’s law argue that this creates an inflexible environment for the independent schools to operate in, supporters point out that Maryland has not had any of the kinds of problems related to fraud, abuse, and mismanagement that charter schools in states with decreased regulation have had. “It is true that Maryland charter school law provides more oversight than many other states,” testified Deborah Apple, a charter school teacher at the Baltimore-based Wolfe Street Academy. “It is also true, however, that our charter school system is more effective than most.”

A stronger level of oversight, a close relationship with the school district, and unionized charter teachers illustrate the uniqueness of Old Line State charters. The vast majority of schools are considered “mom and pop” charters, meaning parents or former local educators founded them, as opposed to some of the larger national charter management organizations (CMOs) that have developed presences in other cities. According to an Abell Foundation report released this year, many high-performing CMOs have expressed reticence or disinterest in coming to Maryland given the conditions in which they’d have to operate. While the Maryland charter law has facilitated the growth of strong schools with little to no fiscal and academic issues, the question is whether such growth is sufficient, and whether the state’s law should change in order to entice more CMOs to expand into Maryland.

Baltimore’s 34 charter schools educate 13,000 of the district’s 84,000 students. Bobbi Macdonald, co- founder of the City Neighbors Charter School, is one of Charm City’s veteran operators. City Neighbors was one of the first charters to open up in 2005, and since then Macdonald has opened two more schools. Reflecting on the evolving dynamics between Baltimore charter operators and the district, Macdonald describes years of intentional relationship building. “I don’t believe that school systems are made out of steel, they’re made out of people,” she says.

In 2004, after the charter law passed and before the first schools opened, Baltimore’s new charter operators formed a coalition to organize and advocate for their collective interests. This coalition grew increasingly formalized as the years went on. “The work of the coalition became really focused on defending our autonomy and the rights of children in charter schools,” says Macdonald, who served as the coalition’s co-chair for the first six years.

Many charter operators spoke favorably, even nostalgically, of Dr. Andrés Alonso’s six-year tenure as city superintendent, which ended at the end of 2012-2013 academic year. “Dr. Alonso had a clear vision of wanting to provide a portfolio of school options for families, and to create opportunities for innovation and then replicate those practices,” says Allison Shecter, the founder of the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, one of the city’s most popular charters. “I think when Dr. Alonso was here we had a really strong relationship and participated in a lot of ways on many different levels,” says Macdonald.

Since Alonso’s departure, the relationship between charter operators and the district has grown more strained. “I’d say it’s a challenging relationship. It’s not a partnership unfortunately,” Shecter says. “We’d like it to be a partnership but in order for it to be a partnership there needs to be consistent and ongoing communication back and forth around policies that may impact charters.” Many operators say they feel the district is neither accountable nor transparent, which fuels growing levels of distrust.

One issue charter operators repeatedly raise is that they believe the district short-changes them when it comes to per-pupil funding. Under state law, the district must provide “commensurate” funding between traditional schools and charters. Currently, the district allocates $7,300 per traditional school student, and $9,400 per charter student—which is supposed to take into account that Maryland charters have to pay for the cost of their facilities, programming, salaries, and other school-level costs, which the district pays for in traditional schools. However, the formula that the district uses to come up with these amounts is unclear, and operators are convinced that what they’re getting is too low. Charter operators believe that they should be getting closer to $14,000 per pupil. Debates around these dollar amounts grow very charged.

Not everyone at charters agrees the district is shirking its funding responsibilities. “Charters still receive more per pupil, even after those extra costs are covered,” says Matthew Hornbeck, the principal at Hampstead Hill Academy, a charter located just south of Patterson Park. “Everyone, with the exception of some of the charter operators, knows that.” Hornbeck, who has served as his school’s principal for 12 years, has been outspoken about what he sees as a district funding formula that unfairly favors charters.

“I was a charter operator and I absolutely knew we were getting more than traditional public schools,” adds Helen Atkinson, the executive director of Teachers’ Democracy Project, a local organization that helps teachers engage in public policy and develop more social justice curricula.

Jon McGill, the director of academic affairs for the Baltimore Curriculum Project, the city’s largest charter operator, describes the relationship between charters and the school district headquarters on North Avenue as “overall harmonious” but says he does wish the district would be more transparent about how about how exactly it spends its slice of per-pupil funding. He thinks charters “lose the PR game” because the public sees them as always asking for more money. One reason the funding issues get so heated, McGill suggests, is because some operators have taken huge personal risks to open charter schools, and feel they need more reassurance that the district truly supports their efforts. “Some people have 30-year mortgages to worry about,” he says.

While for the past decade the story of Baltimore charters has mostly been an intra-district struggle, Gov. Hogan’s rise to power signified a turning point for the Maryland school-choice movement.

The legislation Hogan introduced would have dramatically changed the charter law passed in 2003. His proposals included provisions to exempt charter school employees from the district bargaining unit, as well as from many state and local requirements such as teacher certification. Hogan’s bill would have enabled charter schools to compete against traditional schools for state public construction money, and the bill would have required districts to explicitly define “commensurate funding” to mean that charters should get 98 percent of the per-pupil amount that traditional public school students receive, leaving 2 percent left over for district administrative expenditures.

“It did take us by surprise,” says Kehl. “As a charter sector, we were not expecting legislation this year, and we’re grateful that Governor Hogan finally wanted to cast an eye on the charter sector.” While charter operators around the state met with legislators and held school meetings to discuss why they supported Hogan’s bill, Kehl acknowledges that their advocacy “wasn’t as robust an effort had we been really prepared for it.”

Once news of Hogan’s charter bill went public, Maryland charter teachers began to organize together in new ways. In Baltimore, teachers convened and decided to form the Baltimore Charter School Teacher Coalition. Educators broke up into committees to strategize and implement an organized political response to the bill.

Corey Gaber, a sixth-grade literacy teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School who was active in the coalition, says part of the reason they formed their group was because they were dissatisfied with the pace and quality of the Baltimore Teachers Union’s (BTU) response. “We felt like we needed to reach out and inform teachers about what was going on and we didn’t feel like the union was doing it effectively,” he says. Gaber acknowledges that among Baltimore charter teachers there exists a “constant contradiction of feelings”—in some ways they are dissatisfied with the current union leadership, but on the other hand, teachers are proud to be being unionized district employees and deeply value their protections. With fellow charter teacher Kristine Sieloff, Gaber wrote an Op-Alt for City Paper (“The injustice of a two-tiered education system in Baltimore City,” March 31) and Gaber created and helped to circulate a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures from both charter and traditional public school teachers.

“The interests of traditional teachers in charters and public are exactly the same right now,” says McGill, who thinks the proposed bill would have created deep divisions between Baltimore educators.

The BTU helped circulate another petition for charter teachers and charter educational support personnel, roughly 740 people in total, and more than 90 percent of eligible petitioners signed. “I spoke with every teacher I know, teachers were universally against [the legislation],” Gaber says.

In addition to local educators who worried about losing their collective bargaining rights and allowing non-certified teachers to work with kids, other leaders pushed back against what they saw as a deeply inequitable funding structure embedded into Hogan’s legislation.

“Charter advocates rely on the premise that as money flows from a regular school to a charter school, the costs of the regular school go down proportionately. Sounds good; it’s just not true,” wrote David W. Hornbeck in a Baltimore Sun op-ed published in February. Hornbeck “recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools” while serving as Philadelphia’s superintendent of schools from 1994 to 2000, and he now believes he made a grave mistake. Hornbeck, who also served as superintendent of Maryland schools from 1976 to 1988 (and is the father of Hampstead Hill principal Matt Hornbeck), pointed out that Pennsylvania’s charter law is ranked much higher than Maryland’s and “yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.”

Bebe Verdery, the director of the Maryland ACLU Education Reform Project, also submitted testimony against the bill, arguing that the proposed funding formula would result in severe cuts to traditional schools. “Simply put, students without any special needs would get funding the state formula intended for others,” she said. Verdery also objected to a provision that would have allowed public capital repair funds to go toward private buildings that housed charter schools, saying, “this would further strain an already insufficient pool of state resources for addressing the state’s $15 billion school repair and construction backlog.”

Hogan’s legislation said “commensurate funding” should mean that charters get 98 percent of what traditional public schools receive because a 2005 State Board of Education ruling determined that districts needed only 2 percent of per-pupil funding to cover central administrative costs. But when the Department of Legislative Services (DLS) surveyed local school systems later on, it found that administrative expenditures make up closer to 10-14 percent of per-pupil spending. Critics argued that if 98 percent were legally guaranteed for charters, but necessary administrative work still had to be done, then money would be taken from traditional public school students, potentially leading to increased class sizes, special educators with enormous case loads, or cuts to after- school programming, gym, and art.

Local charter operators insisted that their goal was not to bankrupt the district, but simply to fight for parity. “We believe strongly that we can achieve this without harming funding for other schools,” testified Ed Rutkowski, the executive director of Patterson Park Public Charter School.

The watered-­down bill that Hogan ultimately signed was a grassroots victory for some, and a major disappointment for others. The Center for Education Reform, which hired several lobbyists to push for the bill’s passage, was so dismayed with the final result that it actually urged the governor to veto it, insisting that this would be a step back for Maryland school choice, not one forward.

The final bill ended up removing mostly all provisions that had generated controversy. It grants greater autonomy to charters that have demonstrated five years of success, and it provides for increased flexibility with student enrollment. The bill also authorizes the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the DLS to complete a study by the end of October 2016 to determine what a more appropriate figure should be for districts when it comes to commensurate funding.

“The law that passed was more subtle and more evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” said Hampstead Hill’s Hornbeck. “It did not trash a good law, like the governor’s proposal tried to do.”

Given that the governor still had support from MarylandCAN, a pro-charter advocacy organization that helped to craft the original legislation, Hogan went ahead and signed the bill into law. It’s an imperfect bill, but it creates “the pathway” to expand charters and it grants more flexibility to existing ones, said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Hogan’s special adviser on charter schools.

“As the state with the most restrictive charter law in the country, these small steps forward, while welcomed, are not enough,” said Jason Botel, the executive director of MarylandCAN, in a statement. “They must be the start, not the end, of our work to dramatically reform charter school policy in our state.”

Kara Kerwin, the president of CER, believes MarylandCAN is mistaken to think that they can just go back and improve on the new law later. She points out that the new law clarifies that only the local district board—not the Maryland State Board of Education—can authorize new charters, and that online charter schools are now explicitly prohibited from operating within Maryland.

In an interview, Kerwin describes online charters as “one of the biggest innovations right now that’s helping so many students who aren’t brick and mortar types.” However, several studies have found that online charter schools tend to provide a lower-quality education than traditional schools, and a 2011 New York Times investigation found that K12 Inc., one of the nation’s largest online charter school operators, “tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

Most people interviewed for this story do not believe the new law will lead to an expansion of Maryland charter schools, one of Hogan’s top policy priorities. “The final bill that passed was very limited in scope, it doesn’t have a whole lot of changes,” Macdonald says. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

So what does this all mean for the future of Maryland charters?

“I have no doubt that this was round one and [the operators] are going to try again as long as Hogan’s governor,” Gaber says. “We’re going to keep fighting. We started this teacher coalition knowing that this is a long-term fight and we need to be organized and ready before the next time comes.”

Kehl thinks that the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which just officially emerged as a statewide group in July, will focus on building a more unified policy voice and cultivating a stronger presence in Annapolis. “Our charter sector has matured,” she says. “If you believe that schools shouldn’t be one size all, then you have to create a system that supports that. I don’t see how you can make change if you keep everything the same.”

Whether new legislation will be introduced next year is an open question. Kerwin of CER thinks such an effort would be futile, even if they tried. Todd Reynolds, the political coordinator for Maryland’s American Federation of Teachers, says some legislators might decide it makes sense to wait until after the new MSDE/DLS study is completed.

While the emerging landscape appears fraught with tensions between the district and the charter sector, there still remains a possibility that Maryland charters will chart a different sort of future than that of other states.

Even though Macdonald of the City Neighbors Charter School supported Hogan’s legislation, she acknowledges that some parts made her feel ambivalent. While she feels strongly that Maryland charters need more autonomy and bureaucratic relief, she also wants to preserve collective bargaining rights for charter teachers. “I feel like Maryland is so unique in our stance,” she says. “I haven’t yet seen the bill I would really fight for.”

In a few months, on Oct. 22, the Teachers’ Democracy Project will be hosting a big meeting between teachers, charter operators, politicians, union officials, and school board members to try and figure out a way forward that doesn’t require another heated legislative fight. Atkinson believes the current law is good, but that Baltimore teachers—charter and non-charter alike—should be organizing for more money for all schools. “We’re going to try to hold an open conversation about what people’s concerns are,” said Atkinson. “The operators are reasonable, they’re not right-wing, they’re not trying to get charters to take over the world. Their main frustrations are with the union contract and some of the ways the district controls things.”

McGill thinks that a more collaborative push for charter reform from the district, teachers, and charter operators “would be the ideal” solution but worries things are growing too polarized for that to materialize. Gaber, however, says that the Baltimore Charter School Teacher Coalition has also discussed how they want to stand for something, and not just against reform. “I think it would be a good idea for us to be more proactive,” adds Reynolds of the AFT. “We should get back to what charters were intended to in terms of offering innovation that can then be brought into traditional schools.”

The question of whether some of the larger CMOs would be interested in setting up schools in Maryland remains uncertain. Kehl says it’s important to help facilitate more attractive operating conditions because “there’s a certain point where you tap out your local leadership” and if you “can’t attract national talent” into Maryland, then you’ve just closed the door on quality options for kids.

Others see luring CMOs as a less urgent priority, especially given how the state increasingly underfunds public education. In his latest budget, Hogan increased state education funding by 0.4 percent, but cut Baltimore City’s funding by 3.3 percent. Attracting those CMOs—which would likely be into Baltimore—might mean redirecting funds toward charter facility expenses or pushing harder to restrict collective bargaining. Maryland might also experience some of the financial strain that rapid charter growth in other states has placed on traditional schools.

Testifying last spring, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools Dr. Gregory E. Thorton said Hogan’s bill would work “to the benefit of large out-of-state charter organizations—to the detriment of Maryland’s most vulnerable student populations.”

While the Baltimore City School District might need to work harder to collaborate with its local charter sector, and the teacher unions may need to re-examine some provisions within their contracts, it’s not yet clear that Maryland’s unique charter culture is headed out the door.

State law currently allows charters to negotiate waivers and exemptions from certain aspects of the district-wide collective bargaining unit. That’s how Baltimore’s KIPP charter school was able to extend its school week; KIPP had to agree to pay its staff more money for the increased number of working hours. Theoretically charter operators could sit down with union leaders to discuss some of their most pressing concerns around staffing, innovation, and autonomy. “It’s not meant to be a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Reynolds. “You can sit down with the union and negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding. We have done that, and I think that’ll continue.”

“I think it would be amazing to sit down with the union and really roll up our sleeves,” says Macdonald. “I do think it’s really important for teachers to be unionized, to collectively bargain, and to get paid well, but I also think if we want to innovate and serve the children of Baltimore, we really have to allow [for] some more flexibility.”

Ohio Charter Teachers Fired for Organizing Will Be Reinstated

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on July 24, 2015.

Teachers at the Ohio-based I CAN charter network decided to organize a union during the 2013-2014 school year. Yet when the school year ended, the administration did not renew contracts for seven teachers leading the union drive—resulting in a cancellation of the scheduled union vote. While about 40 charter schools in Ohio are already unionized, those are mostly conversion schools, meaning teachers had already worked for the district before going to work for a school-district sponsored charter. These I CAN schools would have represented the first start-up charters to go union in the state.

After the firing, I CAN educators and the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a federal complaint, which accused I CAN of making teachers feel like they were under surveillance and for pressuring employees to reveal the identities of union leaders. The complaint also alleged that I CAN increased staff salary and benefits just before the scheduled vote in order to dissuade teachers from joining a union.

One of the fired teachers, Kathryn Brown, told The Plain Dealer that she wants a union because teachers don’t feel valued. “The I CAN network believes that administration and a teaching template are all you need for education,” said Brown. “That’s the big flaw and why I got involved in unionization. A school is not just administration.”

This past October, the NLRB regional director sided with the teachers and accused I CAN of “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees.” The founders of the charter network, Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, denied the allegations, insisting that nobody was fired specifically for union organizing. (They pointed out that most involved in the union effort did have their contract renewed.) But Emerson and Stragand also made it clear they want to keep their schools union-free. “It would really cripple our principals and administrative staff. It could dramatically change the model. It could drastically change what we do,” said Emerson.

While the I CAN schools would have been the first Ohio start-up charters to organize, other charters in the Buckeye State have since moved ahead with their own successful campaigns. This past March teachers at the Columbus-based Franklinton Preparatory Academy voted to join a union. Since then three more charter schools in Youngstown have also voted to unionize.

As for I CAN, this week the NLRB finally reached a settlement with the charter network and imposed penalties for interference. I CAN will have to re-hire four of the fired teachers and give all seven teachers back pay. School officials will also have to post a statement in their school buildings that says they cannot interfere with union organizing efforts. However, the NLRB settlement did not include any finding of wrongdoing and I CAN only needs to pay $69,000 to be split among the seven teachers.

David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union told The Plain Dealer that he and other Ohio Federation of Teacher leaders feel vindicated by the NLRB settlement, calling it “one of the strongest we’ve seen in our years of helping to organize our fellow teachers at charter schools.”

I CAN teachers are reportedly planning to schedule a union vote this coming fall. They will join a growing number of charter teachers around the country who are also organizing their own union drives.

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 22, 2015.
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In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 21, 2015.
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Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I’ve written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That’s why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don’t see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it’s important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that “pivoting” to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism.

Why Don’t Settlements Over Brutality Come Out of Police Budgets?

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 16, 2015.
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On July 17, 2014, New York City police officers choked Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island, to death. This week, nearly one year later, the city announced that it would pay the Garner family $5.9 million to settle their wrongful-death claim.

“Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure,” said the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer to The New York Times.

Families of police brutality victims deserve to be compensated, no doubt. A different question, however, is should police departments be required to pay for their misconduct too?

As I’ve written previously, these steep police brutality payments rarely come from the police department budgets. Rather, cities pay for them through their general coffers or their city insurance plan.

The NYPD has a budget of over $4 billion. Even if the police department wasn’t expected to bear 100 percent of the liability, what if they were asked to pay a share—say 25 percent—of the settlement costs? Having a cut to their budget for misbehavior could motivate senior police officials to be more responsive to police misconduct and lead departmental reforms.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues, told me in September. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

The $5.9 million for Eric Garner’s family will come from a general New York City fund made up of local taxes, fees, fines, and tickets. (No state and federal money will be used.) Taxpayer dollars also finance the NYPD—so either way the taxpayer will be footing the bill—but still, as it stands, the NYPD’s budget is left untouched.

According to data from the New York City Comptroller’s Bureau of Law and Adjustment (BLA), in fiscal year 2012, New York City paid out $485.9 million personal injury and property damage tort settlements and judgments. The largest portion of that came from claims filed against the NYPD—$151.9 million in total. According to their report, “tort claims against the NYPD include, but are not limited to, allegations of police misconduct, civil rights violations, and personal injury and/or property damage arising out of motor vehicle accidents involving police vehicles.”

The question of “who pays” matters particularly as the number of tort claims has trended upward between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, the proportion of new NYPD tort claims rose from 25 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012.

As Doug Turetsky, the Chief of Staff at the New York City Independent Budget Office pointed out, the police department’s budget has also grown significantly since the 1980s.

“It’s a strange sociological story,” muses Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans. “On the one hand we allow the police to beat up victims and on the other hand we pay the victims large sums of money. There are no other occupations I can think of where people would not get punished. If I as a professor cost Columbia University $100,000—maybe even $50,000—they would have fired me. How expensive do police mistakes have to be?”

Though the public may likely protest any huge cutback in police funding, the city council and mayor could always decide to restore funding, if necessary. This would at least help to create a better system of incentives. If police departments felt they had something to lose, then maybe fewer Eric Garners would die needlessly.

NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

Originally published on the American Prospect Tapped blog on July 9, 2015.
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At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results.