Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won’t Fix Poverty

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 30th, 2015.
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet.

A month earlier, Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), published its own report on the Walton Family Foundation’s impact, and found that although they have achieved meaningful results through their environmental philanthropy, “an overreliance on specific market-based vehicles” hinders their ability to create “sustainable and equitable” improvements in education. Philamplify also criticized the Walton Family Foundation for “insulating itself among like-minded peers rather than connecting with the broader field.”

While the Walton Family Foundation did not return my request for comment, Education Week reported that their spokesperson, Daphne Moore, defended their commitment to high-quality schools. Education Week also cites Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation—who argued that the foundation has long demonstrated a commitment to accountability and transparency.

This discussion is sure to continue over the coming months, but what was particularly striking was something in the Walton Family Foundation’s response to the Philamplify report—a statement that has been reiterated by the foundation many times over the past several years. Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.”

The notion that education is needed to break the cycle of poverty is a popular mantra of the education reform movement. The problem is, it is simply not true at all. The most direct way to break the cycle of poverty is actually to give poor people more money, something that high-quality educations, even college degrees, do not in any way guarantee. So when it comes to the question of redistribution—an integral component to any comprehensive anti-poverty program—the political work of the Walton family deserves far greater scrutiny.

Waltons, Walmart, and Politics

The Walton family heirs own a majority of public shares in Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, which easily makes them some of the richest people on earth. Today, the Walton family has more wealth than 49 million American families combined. The six Walton heirs together have a net worth of at least $148.8 billion.

The Walton family engages in quite a bit of political work outside of its environmental and education philanthropy—much of it to advance conservative legislative goals. In the 2014 electoral cycle, Walmart spent $2.4 million through its PAC and individual donations, and $12.5 million through lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Walmart was far and away the biggest big-box retail spender in the election cycle, and has been ranked among the top 100 political donors since 1989. Demos looked at the Walton family’s political contributions between 2000 and 2014 and found that their $7.3 million in campaign contributions heavily favored Republican candidates over Democrats.

Outside of political campaigns, Walmart employs an array of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advocate on issues like labor, taxes, and trade. Up until May 2012, Walmart was a longtime member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to promote an ideologically conservative agenda around the country. Moreover Walmart has given millions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and other organizations that push right-wing policies.

Their animus towards union and labor is no secret, and Walmart has fought strengthening labor law in Washington, D.C., as well as supporting efforts to expand right-to-work laws in state legislatures. In addition, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported for The Atlantic this month, Walmart “maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores”—much of which is patently false.

Beyond their efforts to elect conservative candidates and promote right-wing causes, the Waltons also fight against efforts to promote a greater redistribution of wealth through taxation. According to Treasury Department estimates, closing just two estate tax loopholes that the Waltons use would raise more than $2 billion annually over the next decade—but they have long lobbied against any effort to do so. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state organizations that seeks to promote progressive tax reform, found that Walmart and the Walton family benefit from an estimated $7.8 billion in annual tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies—much of which stems from the fact that so many of Walmart employees earn meager wages and are forced to rely on public assistance.

After years of worker organizing and public pressure, Walmart recently announced that it would raise its hourly wages to $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. While encouraging, such measures alone are unlikely to mitigate the economic hardship most Americans face—especially when, at this point, many cities are pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Economic Inequality and Public Education

The evidence that shows impoverished kids are disadvantaged in school is well-documented—and yet many education reformers insist that despite this, we can still provide every child with a high-quality education so that everyone succeeds. We shouldn’t use poverty as “an excuse,” they say.

The idea that we can redesign education to be excellent and equitable without reducing poverty and economic inequality certainly sounds politically pleasant, but we know it’s just not true. That’s why the education agenda of the Walton Family Foundation has so many internal contradictions. The Waltons say they want to create more high-quality schools to help kids in poverty, but they back candidates who support eroding the already crumbling social safety net and fight against paying their fair share of taxes. And while the Waltons continue to advocate aggressively against unions, the Economic Policy Institute has found that the decline in unionization has mirrored the rise in inequality “to a remarkable extent.”

Not only does poverty hurt one’s chance for success in school, but growing levels of economic inequality also further exacerbate these issues—problems that the Walton heirs do not seem interested in addressing. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago—though the academic performance of poor students has not declined during this time. He also found that before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students when it came to academic performance, but “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” In other words, growing economic inequality has contributed to disparities in academic achievement across the board, even for those not living in poverty. Other researchers have found that the rich now have much greater access to extracurricular opportunities than the poor. In districts across the country, enrichment programs like art, music, journalism, and athletics are being cut—creating even greater divides between the haves and the have-nots in education.

If we want to reduce poverty and economic inequality—things we know hurt student achievement and life outcomes—then we have to address how the education aims of the Walton Family Foundation are incongruous with their political agenda elsewhere. Closing the achievement gap, as Demos analyst Matt Bruenig points out, will not even reduce poverty; it would merely change the distribution of it. In the education-reform world, unfortunately, grantees are unlikely to criticize foundations because they fear they will be blacklisted or de-funded. This makes sense, as there are incredible power imbalances in the philanthropic sector and money is scarce.

The Walton Family Foundation talks a lot about creating high-quality schools. If Walmart, with its billions of dollars in profits, created high-quality jobs with living wages and benefits, children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty and would perform far better in school. Relatedly, if the Waltons backed candidates who supported a more equitable distribution of wealth and stronger social-welfare policies, then children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty, and perform far better in school. It’s certainly true that every child deserves a high-quality education. How to get there, however, is not rocket science.

When Charters Go Union

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of  The American Prospect
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The April sun had not yet risen in Los Angeles when teachers from the city’s largest charter network—the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools—gathered outside for a press conference to discuss their new union drive. Joined by local labor leaders, politicians, student alumni, and parents, the importance of the educators’ effort was not lost on the crowd. If teachers were to prevail in winning collective bargaining rights at Alliance’s 26 schools, the audience recognized, then L.A.’s education reform landscape would fundamentally change. For years, after all, many of the most powerful charter backers had proclaimed that the key to helping students succeed was union-free schools.

One month earlier, nearly 70 Alliance teachers and counselors had sent a letter to the administration announcing their intent to join United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the local teachers union that represents the 35,000 educators who work in L.A.’s public schools. The letter asked Alliance for a “fair and neutral process”—one that would allow teachers to organize without fear of retaliation. The administration offered no such reassurance. Indeed, April’s press conference was called to highlight a newly discovered internal memo circulating among Alliance administrators that offered tips on how to best discourage staff from forming a union. It also made clear that Alliance would oppose any union, not just UTLA. “To continue providing what is best for our schools and our students, the goal is no unionization, not which union,” the memo said.

The labor struggle happening in Los Angeles mirrors a growing number of efforts taking place at charter schools around the country, where most teachers work with no job security on year-to-year contracts. For teachers, unions, and charter school advocates, the moment is fraught with challenges. Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.

Though 68 percent of K-12 public school teachers are unionized, just 7 percent of charter school teachers are, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Education Reform. (And of those, half are unionized only because state law stipulates that they follow their district’s collective bargaining agreement.) However, the momentum both to open new charter schools and to organize charter staff is growing fast.

IRONICALLY, THE FIRST MAJOR PROPOSAL to establish charter schools came from the nation’s most famous teacher union leader. At the National Press Club in 1988, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech outlining a “new type of school.” Shanker envisioned publicly funded but independently managed schools, which would be given the space to try out new educational approaches and would continue to receive public dollars so long as their approaches proved to be effective. These schools would act as educational laboratories, testing grounds of new and better practices that could then be adopted by traditional public schools. A few months after his speech, Shanker dubbed his idea “charter schools,” in a reference to explorers who received charters to seek new land and resources. Later that year, the 3,000 delegates at the national AFT convention endorsed Shanker’s charter idea.

At its conception, then, unions were integral to the charter movement. The thinking was that without job security and elevated teacher voice, which unions help ensure, how else would charter teachers feel comfortable enough to take educational risks in their classrooms? In Shanker’s original vision, as Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter trace in their book A Smarter Charter, not only were charter teachers to be unionized, but union representatives were to sit on charter authorizing boards—the entities tasked with overseeing charter accountability—and all charter school proposals were to include “a plan for faculty decision-making.” In return, certain union regulations would be relaxed in order to facilitate greater experimentation.

The charter movement has grown from a single Minnesota school, which opened in 1992, to more than 6,700 schools spread across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Today, charters educate more than 2.5 million children—more than 5 percent of all public school students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), charter enrollment has increased by 70 percent over the past five years. Public support is growing, too: A 2014 PDK/Gallup survey revealed that 70 percent of Americans support charter schools, up from 42 percent in 2000.

Somewhere along the way, however, charter proponents—conservative and liberal alike—decided that having no unions was an important ingredient for charter school success. By making it easier for principals to hire and fire staff, the proponents argued, schools could better ensure that only high-quality teachers would be working in the classrooms. The blame for the widening achievement gap between black and white students, the proponents believed, rested with underperforming teachers and the unions that defended them. Over time, advocates came to see charters not as institutions designed for collaboration with public schools, but as institutions that could compete against them, perhaps even replacing public schools entirely.

As the charter movement developed a more adversarial bent—one that no longer spoke of productive partnerships with public schools, and one that championed union-free workplaces—traditional teachers unions grew understandably defensive. The AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s two largest teachers unions, moved to openly oppose charter schools. Only in the past few years has their stance toward charters begun to soften. Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the AFT set up a national charter-organizing division, and today has organizers in seven cities: L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia. Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing, says that as more charter teachers began approaching her union, the NEA started to see them as educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else. Both unions also recognized that such new national initiatives as the Common Core standards and President Obama’s Race for the Top meant that teachers at charter and traditional public schools faced similar challenges that the unions could help them address.

But organizing charter school teachers while opposing the establishment of more charter schools is no simple balancing act. “How could I support a union that for the last ten years spent a good portion of their time attacking our right to exist?” asks Craig Winchell, an Alliance high school teacher who turned out in opposition to April’s press conference. “They’ve spent the last ten years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do.” Especially when opening a new charter is paired with closing down a traditional school, unions are typically found rallying in protest. Critics argue that unions’ newfound interest in charter teachers, then, is just a ploy to collect more membership dues.

Having abandoned their outright opposition to charters, many of the AFT and NEA’s recent efforts have been focused on shutting down low-performing charter schools, especially within rapidly expanding for-profit chains, and pushing for a set of national charter accountability standards. While the thought of national guidelines for charter school makes many charter advocates squirm, the public overwhelmingly supports the idea. According to a survey conducted this year by In The Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, 89 percent of Americans favor requiring charter management organizations to hold open board meetings with the public, as well as requiring all teachers who work in charter schools to meet the same level of training and qualifications as those in traditional public schools. Eighty-six percent favor requiring greater transparency over charters’ annual taxpayer-funded contracts and budgets, and 88 percent favor requiring state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a report that documented a host of charter school problems, ranging from uneven academic performance to funding schemes that destabilized neighboring schools. The report laid out national policy recommendations designed to promote increased accountability, transparency, and equity.

The AFT and NEA came out strongly in support of the Annenberg standards, and have been working to promote them to state legislatures and school boards around the country. Leaders in the charter world, however, were less than pleased. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), an organization that seeks to influence the policies and practices of state authorizers, called the standards “incomplete, judgmental, and not based on research or data.” Michael Brickman, then the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, said the Annenberg standards would stifle charters’ innovation by “bludgeoning them with regulation.” He accused the authors of “standing in the way of progress” with their “overzealous statutory recommendations.” (The president and CEO of NAPCS, Nina Rees, told me she actually likes the Annenberg standards, but doesn’t know if they should be adopted across the board.)

IN 2007, BRIAN HARRIS started working as a special education teacher at the Chicago International Charter School’s Northtown Academy. “I’d just got out of grad school and was happy to have a job,” Harris says. “It didn’t bother me that it was non-union because it wasn’t something I paid attention to.” In May of 2008, the company’s CEO announced that in the following school years, teachers would have to teach a sixth class in lieu of supervising an academic lab (which is similar to study hall). Teachers were surprised and upset at what amounted to significant change in working conditions. Those who didn’t like the new arrangement, the administration told them, could find some place else to work.

It was an eye-opening moment for Harris, and he realized that this is what it meant to have a workplace without an organized staff. “We didn’t know [this CEO], we didn’t have a lot of connections with management, and people were unsure what the line of authority was,” Harris says. So with the help of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), a union connected to the AFT and its Illinois affiliate, Harris and his colleagues launched a 13-month organizing drive. Yet even when presented with union affiliation cards from 75 percent of the faculty, administrators refused to recognize their union; they insisted that the teachers would have to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election. The teachers did just that, won the election, and Northtown became the first unionized charter school in Chicago.

Today, Harris serves as president for Chicago ACTS, which has grown to represent 32 charter schools and nearly 1,000 teachers. Chicago ACTS’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an AFT local known for its militant opposition to school privatization and charter school expansion, has also evolved substantially over the years.

CTU was initially ambivalent, even suspicious, of these new unionized charter teachers. But Chris Baehrend, an English teacher at Chicago’s Latino Youth High School and vice president of Chicago ACTS, says this wariness was not reciprocated—indeed, ACTS was inspired by CTU and looked to it as a model. In the spring of 2012, as CTU was gearing up for its successful, eight-day strike against Chicago’s school district, ACTS teachers began to discuss how they could best offer CTU support. They decided to put forth a strongly worded resolution at the AFT’s national convention that summer. In it, the charter teachers called for a moratorium on new charter schools and an end to school closings and turnarounds “until their system-wide impact on educational outcomes can be properly assessed.” Baehrend and Harris worked with CTU leaders to finalize the resolution’s language, which was approved, though not adopted as official AFT policy.

The resolution was the first joint action that Chicago ACTS took with CTU. Since then, the two unions have convened for joint delegate trainings, workshops, and even parties. “We’re making conscious efforts to make connections and to encourage charter and traditional public school teachers to be joined in solidarity,” says Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of CTU. Sharkey himself turned out to a press conference in February to publicly support two Chicago charters in the midst of organizing.

ON APRIL 30, EDUCATORS AT North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted to form a union. The vote came after a long three-year battle with their employer, ASPIRA. With a final tally of 104–38 in favor of unionization, Olney became one of the largest unionized charter schools on the East Coast.

When the Olney campaign first went public, as Jake Blumgart reported for The American Prospect back in 2013, teachers went to deliver their union petition, signed by 65 percent of the staff. “[The principal] not only refused to accept it, but chased them down the hallway to give it back,” Blumgart wrote. That was just the start of a full-bore, anti-union campaign: Administrators held closed-door, one-on-one meetings with teachers and staff, threatened teachers with layoffs and benefit cuts, put anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, required teachers to attend mandatory meetings with anti-union consultants, and announced that teachers could be fired or disciplined for remarks they made about ASPIRA on social media.

When I asked Sarah Apt, an ESL teacher at Olney, if she ever tried to talk to management about workplace issues before going the union route, she laughed. “We’ve had a million committees and conversations,” Apt says. “You can have a conversation with them now! But without your coworkers standing behind you, the [outcome of] the conversation depends entirely on the whims of the administration.”

Apt says she and her coworkers want to build a union that will agitate for themselves and their students, in collaboration with parents and the community. “Chicago [where striking teachers won high levels of community and parental support] has set a new standard for what can be done with a teachers union in the United States,” she says. Parents have been standing behind the Olney organizing effort, from showing up to support teachers at school board meetings to making calls to the administration on their behalf. More than 40 local businesses also signed a petition backing the teachers’ campaign.

Though regional characteristics and local politics shape each charter school’s distinct organizing drive, the general hopes, challenges, and frustrations expressed by charter teachers I spoke with were strikingly similar.

Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, the top-performing charter school in Louisiana, echoes Apt’s frustrations about the power dynamics that can inhibit teachers from effecting change in a non-unionized school. (New Orleans has the highest charter density in the country, claiming roughly 90 percent of the city’s public school students.) Before Ben Franklin High’s teachers decided to unionize, Swanson says, they tried different ways to increase teacher voice, such as forming a committee to advocate for teacher and student issues, including better teacher course loads, increased curriculum coordination, and more academic supports for incoming students. “When we brought [our ideas] to the attention of the administration, we were just told that they can deal with some things and not others,” Swanson recalls. “Without the pressure of the union, [our voices are] not heard in the same way.”

In March, after 85 percent of his Ben Franklin colleagues backed a petition in support of unionization, Swanson and his coworkers signed the first collective bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina. Teachers not only won greater pay-scale transparency in their contract but also the right to have department chairs elected by their colleagues rather than appointed by their CEO. They won increased time within the school day to prepare lesson plans, greater job security, and a fairer teacher evaluation system.

Ben Franklin has long been regarded as an educational leader in Louisiana, and Swanson’s team understood that their organizing had consequence for the broader political landscape. “We were looking to improve things in our school, but we were also very much aware of the larger implications of this for New Orleans, which is the testing ground for going full-charter,” said Swanson. With this in mind, they worked to develop a contract that they hope can become a model for charter teachers across the city. Teachers at another local charter, Morris Jeff Community School, followed their lead, and are currently negotiating their own contract.

Many New Orleans charter advocates are wary of the turn toward unionization, but some leaders are urging the community to stay calm. Andre Perry, an education policy expert, wrote in The Hechinger Report that New Orleans reformers should be open to unions given the Crescent City’s high rate of teacher turnover. Ten years after Katrina, he wrote, “we’re not going to fire our way to educational success.

EVERY YEAR, THE NATIONAL Alliance of Public Charter Schools publishes a rating system that evaluates each state’s charter law. While charters with collective bargaining agreements are still considered welcome within the charter school family, state laws receive a higher NAPCS score when they allow administrators to hire and fire teachers free from the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement. Nina Rees, the NAPCS president, says her organization places a premium on this because charters should have the freedom not only to hire and fire, but also to expand the school day and workload “without having to constantly negotiate with a centralized bureaucracy.”

Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, thinks that while “teacher voice” is a necessary component to any functioning organization, teachers unions use their power in ways that are not in the best interests of students. Moe and Rees both take the position that in the modern world, unions are not necessary in charter schools, either because there are already sufficient employee protections in place in our legal system, or just because the incentives within the charter world are such that there’s not really all that much to worry about.

“I’m in a nonprofit space,” Rees says. “Why is it that teachers need to have the right [to be in a union]? Why is it that teachers need these protections immediately when they enter the organization?” If one wants some of the protections and benefits that unions offer, she points out, there are other resources available to teachers. The Association of American Educators (AAE), for instance, is a non-unionized professional educators’ organization that offers a “modern approach to teacher representation and educational advocacy.” Membership in AAE can bring you things like liability insurance, supplementary insurance, legal protection, and employment rights coverage. It cannot, however, bring you leverage with your employer.

In A Smarter Charter, Potter and Kahlenberg recommend giving teachers an opportunity to vote on whether or not to form a union when a charter school first opens, rather than having non-union environments be the default option. Where a school has no union, they suggest reserving seats for teachers on charter school boards. But Rees is no fan of these ideas either. “If you start off with the premise that management is against the employee before you even start the enterprise,” she says, “I think it sets the wrong tone.”

The generally small size of charters, Moe adds, also obviates the need for unions. “In small schools, where everyone knows one another and they can talk about their issues …  you’re really not likely to get the same dissatisfaction that would drive people to unionize in the great number of charter schools,” he says.

Leading charter advocates echo Moe and Rees’s sentiments. Chester Finn, a conservative policy analyst, declared, “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Geoffrey Canada, a charter founder hailed as a pioneer by Obama, said that union contracts, “kill innovation; it stops anything from changing.”

Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of NACSA, doesn’t buy the argument that unions are structurally incompatible with charters. “There are people who politically don’t want unions or don’t want charters to be unionized, but [allowing workers to choose] is the law of the land.” The key question, he argues, is whether unionization ends up helping or hurting student achievement—a question that will be resolved empirically. “If teachers want to organize and negotiate for certain things, go ahead,” he says, because in the end, the charter school has to work for students or else its charter will be revoked.

So are unions compatible with fulfilling the promise of charter schools?

I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT. Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved “without a union?” he asks. “Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.” The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools.

Though Salgado was explicit that he disapproved of the way the union conducted its first organizing campaign—the organizers caricatured him as an evil boss, he says, solely to advance their strategy—he still feels the resulting unions, full of organized, passionate people, are no hindrance to excellence. “Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,” he says. “Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers. And they demand transparency, and transparency is important. It’s a value that we should all have.”

To date, the best existing research suggests that charter unionization has very little impact on student achievement. Labor economist Aaron Sojourner and education policy researcher Cassandra Hart looked at California charters several years before unionization and then several years after; they found no significant difference in student performance over time, though there was a temporary dip during the initial unionization year, which tends to be a more disruptive period.

Moreover, as Potter and Kahlenberg document in A Smarter Charter, other research on unions and traditional public school performance suggests that unionization either has small positive effects or no measurable effects at all on the achievement of most students. “The research does not paint a picture of unions as an enemy to student achievement,” Kahlenberg and Potter conclude.

That said, there are other ways to think about the way a union might impact a school. Higher teacher salaries, more transparent pay scales, and greater control over working conditions may help attract more qualified candidates to teach. Research does show that increased teacher voice helps decrease teacher turnover, and it also shows that high teacher turnover costs schools millions of dollars, disrupts student learning, and weakens institutional capacity. Many objectives that teachers hope to achieve through unionization are grounded in a desire for greater stability. “We want to stick around, we want to see our freshman graduate, we want to see their siblings and cousins come, we want to make this our home,” says Apt, whose Olney Charter High School has had high teacher turnover from year to year.

IN RECENT YEARS, as growing numbers of charter school teachers have sought to unionize, both the AFT and the NEA have stepped up their efforts to organize them. Since 2009, the AFT has been flying teacher activists from across the country to meet one another, share stories, and strategize national campaigns. The most recent gathering—they usually last three days—took place in Washington, D.C., in April, and Swanson, Apt, and Baehrend were among the 40 teachers in attendance. “The fights are very similar, so what we see one employer do in Detroit, we wind up seeing in other parts of the country too,” says Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing. “Teachers get the opportunity to support each other, and to learn how to deal with circumstances that may arise at their schools later.”

Also in April, for the first time ever, the California Teachers Association (CTA), an NEA state affiliate, convened 65 charter educators from across the state. One California teacher in attendance was Jen Shilen, who teaches U.S. history, economics, and government at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), a network of 11 virtual charter schools for grades K–12. Shilen and others have been fighting for a CAVA union since December 2013. When their workload began to change rapidly and inexplicably, and their many attempts to raise concerns with management went nowhere, Shilen said, they reached out to CTA. CAVA declined to comment.

“Going to CTA’s conference was the first time I’ve gotten to meet other charter educators organizing and it was a major morale boost,” says Shilen, who rarely even sees her own coworkers, since virtual charter teachers work from home.

Teachers organizing at L.A.’s Alliance schools were also there, as were union members from Green Dot, another rapidly expanding charter chain in Los Angeles. Green Dot schools occupy a unique place in the charter world, since their original founder was interested in establishing a unionized workplace from the outset. In 2006, Green Dot management approached the United Teachers of Los Angeles about their teachers joining their union, but UTLA, then fully opposed to charter schools, rejected the offer. As a result, Green Dot educators unionized with CTA, and their union, the Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU), had a relatively unfriendly relationship with UTLA for the next several years.

This too is changing. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the UTLA president elected in April 2014, said that his union is now actively pursuing better relations with AMU. AMU in turn, has come out in strong public support not only for CAVA’s organizing drive (which would be with CTA) but also for Alliance’s. Salina Joiner, AMU’s president, says that her organization’s leadership is all “in support and we’ll do whatever we need to do,” adding that she would never work at a non-union charter school.

Real tensions remain surrounding AFT and NEA’s desire to both organize charter teachers and to politically rein in charter schools. Not all charter teachers who’d be interested in a union would support the Chicago ACTS resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. And not all would agree with teachers like Shilen, who lobbied this year at the State Capitol in Sacramento on behalf of California’s “Annenberg Package”—four bills to promote greater charter transparency and accountability.

Joiner feels that union political activity that attempts to limit charter schools’ funding or expansion is “disrespectful to our educators that teach at that school” and “an injustice to parents that want school choice.” Joiner attended the CTA’s gathering of California charter teachers in April, and said that at least the union is now starting to ask them for their input on charter legislation. To CTA’s credit, she thinks the conversation is “moving in a positive direction from what it was before,” but that charter union members “still have a lot to do around the NEA and AFT.”

As more charter schools continue to unionize, CTU Vice President Sharkey expects some charter enthusiasts will walk away. “At some point, charter school teachers will work with the same conditions and pay as all the other schools, and at that point it’s not clear that charters will be as exciting to the entrepreneurs and businessmen promoting them now,” he says.

Unionized charters are not a panacea. The UFT Charter School, which opened in Brooklyn in 2005, was a widely publicized K-12 charter experiment to be run by the New York City teachers union. The results of its elementary and middle schools were mostly abysmal, and they closed down in 2015. (The high school performed better and stayed open.) The Wall Street Journal editorial board triumphantly declared that this episode shows the failure of “union dominance” over American public education. However, they conspicuously made no mention of UFT’s other charter school, University Prep, which has been ranked among NYC’s best.

The Wall Street Journal would never write about University Prep because it “disrupts their narrative” about unions, says Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT. “Look, there is not one silver bullet but what unionization does is it gives teachers a choice and a voice.”

Asharg Molla has been working at the Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School ever since she started as a Los Angeles Teach For America corps member in 2009. She likes working for a charter organization, and believes in its mission of creating a small collaborative community where teachers, board members, and parents can all work together. “But that’s just not what it’s been,” she says sadly. While she speaks highly of her school, colleagues, and principals, she joined in with the Alliance cohort organizing for a union because, she says, she recognizes there are limits to what even a good principal can do within a big, fast-growing organization. She knows too many Alliance teachers who are afraid to speak up, lest they rock the boat and lose their job.

The campaign in Los Angeles is gaining steam. Since Molla and her colleagues went public in March, the number of teachers who have pledged support has more than doubled—146 teachers (out of the roughly 600 who work at Alliance schools) have now signed the public petition. But Alliance administrators and their allies are doubling down on their efforts to thwart unionization. Beginning in late May, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in an effort to drum up opposition to a union.

I don’t want to work for a machine that just cares about the growth and expansion of the organization,” says Molla. “Although [fighting for a union] is not an easy process, and can be exhausting, it really just shows these large organizations that we are the ones who make up this organization and that there needs to be that balance of power.”

What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2015.
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P
residential candidate Bernie Sanders has excited his base with some bold ideas surrounding higher education. He’s said college should be a right, that public universities should have free tuition, and that public universities should employ tenured or tenure-track faculty for at least 75 percent of instruction, as a way to reduce the growing dependence on cheap adjunct labor. But Sanders’ stances on K-12 issues—arguably more contentious topics for politicians to engage with compared to higher ed and universal pre-K—have garnered far less attention.

Here’s what we know so far:

1. He wants to roll back standardized testing, but still supports Common Core.

Sanders opposes the expansion of standardized testing we’ve seen through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); he argues that such tests narrow school curriculum and hurt student creativity and critical thinking. However, this past March he voted against an amendment that would have allowed states to opt-out of the Common Core standards without a federal penalty. The amendment also would have barred the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing, or coercing” states into adopting the standards.

2.  He supports expanding the school day and year.

Sanders is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and in 2011, he worked to raise support for expanding the school day and year. Citing research on “summer learning loss”—Sanders notes that low-income students stand to lose much of what they learn if they’re denied extra-curricular enrichment opportunities. He also secured more funding for after-school and summer learning opportunities in Vermont.

3. He wants to see teachers paid more, and is a defender of pensions.

Sanders believes all educators, from early childhood workers up to college instructors should be paid more. He said, “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” And while he believes the public pension crisis “must be addressed” he is more interested in reigning in Wall Street to solve it than reducing retiree payments.

4. He opposes Big Money in politics, but has not taken a clear position on the role of Big Money in education.

Sanders has come out strongly against oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and other special interests that pour money into politics. Citing these groups as a threat to true democracy—he wants to overturn Citizens United and push for publicly funded elections.

However, whether he will bring the same critical rhetoric to the foundations, consultants, and hedge fund managers shaping education policy remains to be seen. As Anthony Cody, the co-founder of Network for Public Ed pointed out recently, Sanders has yet to speak very clearly on these issues, but his opposition to Big Money elsewhere leads one to think that it’s at least a reasonable possibility.

5. He wants to strengthen who can be considered a “highly qualified” teacher.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education honored Sanders in 2012 for his “outstanding support” for educator preparation programs. In 2011 he introduced the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, which would aim to strengthen the definition of what a “highly qualified” teacher is considered to be, and work to reduce the number of unqualified teachers working in needy schools.

6. He has an unclear position on charter schools, but opposes vouchers.

He voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998, but has not engaged much in the polarized charter debate since. Vermont is one of the few states that do not permit charter schools, in part because the Vermont public education system already allows for “school choice” in other ways. However, Sanders is a strong supporter of teacher unions and collective bargaining, so if he does come to back charters, his support is unlikely to be paired with the type of anti-union rhetoric common in the charter advocacy world.

He also opposes private school vouchers, favoring an expanded federal investment in public schools instead.

So we have some insights, but questions remain. Ultimately if Bernie Sanders wants to win over progressive liberals and campaign as a left alternative to Hillary Clinton, he’ll have to start speaking more explicitly about K-12 education in the coming months.

Why Civic Tech Can’t Be Neutral

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 10th, 2015.
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Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Catherine Bracy speaking at Personal Democracy Forum. | photo by Rachel M. Cohen

Technology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power.

PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said.

“When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like making it easier to know when the next bus is coming or helping you file your benefits more quickly,” Sifry and Rasiej wrote in a packet given to each conference attendee. While these innovations are helpful and represent the present focus of civic tech, PDF’s co-founders insist that those innocuous steps cannot define its future—not when the barriers to political participation are so divided by class, race, and geography.

Eric Liu, the founder and CEO of Citizen University also argued that impartiality is unacceptable and called for the civic tech community to focus its efforts on giving real meaning to the concept of equal citizenship. Liu urged the participants to ask themselves, “Am I developing work, tools, power, and ideas that actually help those who do not have access get access, those who do not have voice, get voice?”

Other speakers offered a vision of social change through collaboration. “Imagine how we can reshape the future of work together in humane and kind ways,” said Palak Shah, the Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), who aims to improve labor conditions through market-based solutions. Shah tries to bring about “creative collisions” between “nannies and coders, activists and hackers” to build a mutually beneficial future for businesses and social movements.

One afternoon I attended a PDF breakout session called “Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Participation”—a panel of researchers and experts exploring how to engage more people in civic life. Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, discussed some of his organization’s new research findings on millennials and voting. According to this research, while young people overwhelmingly believe they can have a greater impact locally, they are far more likely to vote in national elections. Sotsky attributed the lower rate of voting to a lack of good voting information at the local level—a problem, he said, the Knight Foundation will be addressing through new projects aimed at creating more comprehensive repositories of civic information.

No doubt we should conduct more research and improve local civic information. Whether that will actually make a difference in voter turnout is another matter.

“Technology cannot solve the big stuff, even if sometimes we’d like to believe it can,” Sotsky said, in one of the conference’s more humble moments. Technology’s role in these situations, he suggested, could be to help foster attachment between residents and communities, deepen social networks, and support the value of voting.

But we’ve already seen what can happen when the tech world turns to politics, as it did in the conflicts over SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality. What if the same energy was directed towards removing voting restrictions?

There’s a lot about civic inequality that we already know. Some barriers to participation may be reduced through better-targeted education programs and redesigned civic forums. But political inequality is not something that will be solved by an app. There’s no Uber for voting. For the marginalized to have more power, others will have to relinquish some control, and we can’t escape or obfuscate that discussion.

The Uphill Battle of Unionizing a Philly Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 4th, 2015.
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O
n April 30th, faculty at North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted 104-38 in favor of forming a union, an NLRB election that Olney’s charter operator, ASPIRA, has since announced they’re challenging. Olney’s union campaign is only the latest in a small but rapidly growing wave of charter union drives nationwide. But few efforts have been as contentious, or as revealing, as this one. Ever since the campaign began three years ago, ASPIRA has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into an elaborate union-busting effort, even as the beleaguered district it’s funded by struggles with massive debt. Unionizing Olney also threatens to shine light on ASPIRA’s questionable finances, at a time when authorities at the state and district level have failed to act. More broadly, the union drive in Philadelphia reveals how charter management organizations can use lax regulation to dodge financial accountability.

ASPIRA took over Olney, along with John B. Stetson Middle School in 2011 through Philadelphia’s “renaissance” school turnaround project, whereby charter operators are given the opportunity to improve the academic performance of struggling district schools. As part of the renaissance conversion, remaining educators at Olney and Stetson lost their union membership.

It wasn’t easy for Olney staff to reach their April 30th election; for the past three years they have dealt with an administration intent on suppressing union organizing efforts. Tactics have included threatening teachers with layoffs and cuts to benefits, putting anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, and instating new discipline policies, which included barring employees from criticizing ASPIRA on social media. The NLRB sided with educators in three of the four unfair labor practice complaints they filed in response to these measures.

Other tactics that have garnered criticism, including from Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez—who once served as ASPIRA’s Executive Director—relate to services ASPIRA has employed, with public dollars, to fight the union effort. In August 2014, Philadelphia City Paper reported that ASPIRA paid a law firm with experience in fighting unionization efforts at least $72,163. This past April, the chair of the Olney school board signed a contract with consultants to lead self-described “union avoidance” meetings for Olney staff, as well as to help ASPIRA design and implement a campaign to fight unionization. The cost for these consultants was $25,000 and the contract stipulated that that figure “does not include any time that may be spent in responding or defending any charges filed by the union at the NLRB.”

Stetson educators recently launched their own organizing drive, and ASPIRA is sending consultants and lawyers there, too. Moreover, ASPIRA sent their consultants to lead a mandatory meeting at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, another one of ASPIRA’s five charters, to reportedly “pre-empt an organizing effort.”

The budget problems plaguing Philadelphia public schools have forced the district to close dozens of schools, to lay off thousands of workers, to reduce transportation services, and more. How then, do we get to a point where charters are able to spend such significant sums of public dollars to fight union efforts? Who, if anyone, gets to have a say?

Are Charter Employees Public or Private?

Charters, which have been around for a quarter century, are publicly funded but independently managed schools. In education circles there’s a fierce debate over whether these schools are truly “public”—charter proponents insist that they are, while others see charters as a means to privatize education.

Aside from whether charter schools are public or private, another question is whether charter school employees are public or private—important distinctions not only for union formation but also for labor rights more broadly. The courts have taken the position that there is no clear-cut answer for charter employees, and each situation must be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on individual state laws and regulations, as well as the composition of each charter organization. But in one significant case from 2012, the NLRB ruled that educators at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy Charter School (CMSA) were private employees mainly because no government entity has the authority to appoint or remove CMSA board members, and no board members are directly accountable to public officials. In 2013, citing the CMSA ruling, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board effectively disclaimed jurisdiction over charter labor disputes in the state, concluding that such matters should be dealt with at the NLRB.

Which brings us back to Olney and Stetson. Despite previously stating that it would respect the results of an NLRB election, ASPIRA now claims Olney teachers are in fact public employees, and thus not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Stetson educators also recently filed for their own union election and ASPIRA challenged them, too. While the NLRB held a regional hearing and determined that Stetson educators are in fact covered under the NLRB, no determination has yet been made for Olney educators. However, since the legal arguments are the same for both renaissance schools, one can assume that the NLRB will ultimately uphold jurisdiction.

Many view ASPIRA’s NLRB challenge as a stalling tactic, but their action is not illegal. Wilma Liebman, a former chairman of the NLRB, told me that jurisdiction challenges are permitted at any stage of the election process. But considering that ASPIRA has not dropped their Olney challenge despite losing their Stetson one, many wonder how far ASPIRA will go before they agree to collectively bargain, and how expensive the legal bills are going to be.

In theory, if the regional NLRB rules in favor of Olney educators, ASPIRA could appeal to the national NLRB board in Washington, D.C. If ASPIRA loses all possible appeals, and they still refuse to bargain, then the NLRB will have to take them to District Court. Such cases are extremely expensive. “If they still refuse to bargain past a District Court ruling, then they’d be found in contempt,” said Liebman.

Other Questionable ASPIRA Expenditures

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances.

One reason ASPIRA so staunchly opposes unionization may be that the collective bargaining process could shed light on the organization’s suspicious finances. Over the past several years, evidence suggests that ASPIRA has engaged in other instances of questionable financial behavior. The Philadelphia Daily News found that ASPIRA has borrowed nearly $3.5 million from its charter schools, though the public doesn’t know where that money went. Journalists also found that school staff used debit cards without providing receipts, and that bank loans were signed where one charter school would guarantee the debt of another. Under the law, each charter is supposed to function as an independent entity.

Lauren Thum of the Philadelphia School District’s Charter Office told Newsworks that the district couldn’t confirm whether ASPIRA is spending its charter school dollars in the schools themselves, or whether money is being siphoned off for other things. Part of the complication stems from the fact that although each of ASPIRA’s five charters is organized as an independent nonprofit, they all share the same board of trustees through their parent organization, ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. And although the school district worries that ASPIRA charters may be improperly shuffling money around, they have thus far been denied access to the parent organization’s financial records. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entitles, and money flowing throughout them,” Thum said. In the meantime, ASPIRA continues to deny any financial wrongdoing. ASPIRA also declined to be interviewed and several school board members did not return requests for comment.

In 2010, the Philadelphia City Controller released a report criticizing a practice common amongst Philly charters whereby the schools use public funds to pay rent to parent organizations or subsidiaries; this is what ASPIRA does with ASPIRA, Inc. of Pennsylvania. “Properties that are being paid for with taxpayer funds are being either transferred [to] or controlled by nonprofits with no accountability to the school district or taxpayers,” the report concluded. However, five years later, the practice continues.

Under the law, unions are entitled to see the financial information that pertains to their bargaining unit. (This includes things like health insurance costs, salaries, etc.) And if during negotiations management shoots down a union’s proposal by claiming they have an inability to pay, then the union is legally entitled to access more financial information to verify management’s claim. “In my opinion, I think the real issue is ASPIRA doesn’t want a union poking around in their finances,” a Philadelphia School District official told me. “Having a union gives them the right to do that in order to bargain in good faith, and [ASPIRA] doesn’t want anyone looking at anything.”

And so far, no one really has. As millions of dollars move around between the charter schools, the parent organization, and ASPIRA’s two property-management entities, the school district’s ability to challenge ASPIRA’s financial behavior remains unclear. In January, the district sent a letter to ASPIRA outlining 17 conditions the nonprofit would need to meet if they want to have their Stetson charter renewed. Conditions include reorganizing Stetson’s school board so that the parent organization doesn’t directly control it and getting a treasurer with a background in finances and audits.

Since then, ASPIRA has complied with some of the district’s requests, and has challenged others. Notably, they have so far refused to provide access to relevant financial information of its parent organization, though conversations between ASPIRA and the district are still ongoing.

“Nobody has enough power or enough money to really stay on top of things, so it becomes really easy for things to end up in a big mess,” said Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple University Law School professor who studies Pennsylvania charter law. “I frankly don’t think the state legislature thought ahead about the financial ramifications in any serious way. It’s [as] if everyone thought ‘oh this is a great idea, oh there will be cool new schools.’”

A Need for Greater Oversight

ASPIRA’s accountability problem is similar at the district level. “We just don’t have time right now to oversee [all that] we’re supposed to oversee,” the Philadelphia district official told me, who added that they need far more resources and manpower to do comprehensive charter investigations. And, as the situation with ASPIRA suggests, perhaps school districts need to be granted explicitly clearer legal authority to track where charter dollars go. Though charters are premised on a model of increased accountability, the public, as it stands, is unable to hold these schools accountable.

Beyond tracking the unclear money, what about the costs that are clear, like the lawyers and consultants? When I asked David Lapp, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center whether the school district could protest ASPIRA spending public dollars to fight a union he said it would be unusual, though not necessarily illegal. “Generally speaking, the charter authorizer, which in Pennsylvania is the school district, has the general duty to oversee that charter schools are following the law,” he said. “I’ve never seen a school district give any sort of opinion to a charter school about labor law issues, but whether they could seems to be an open question.”

Regardless, as ASPIRA will find, there’s only so long that an employer can delay negotiating with a staff that’s committed to forming a union.

Our Auto Recall System is Broken. Here’s How Not to Fix It

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 28th, 2015.
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I
n October 2004, 24-year-old Raechel Houck rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Capitola, California, 75 miles south of San Francisco. Driving north along Highway 101 later that same day, Raechel and her sister Jacqueline were killed when the car hit an 18-wheeler and burst into flames. Unbeknownst to Raechel or her sister, 435,000 PT Cruisers, including the one they had just rented, had been recalled the previous month. The recall notice cited a leaky power steering hose, which could cause a fire.

A year later their parents, Cally and Charles Houck filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco. After a long legal battle, a jury awarded the Houcks $15 million in 2010 and got the nation’s largest rental car company to admit that their negligence “was the sole proximate cause of the fatal injuries.” Since then the Houcks have joined other safety advocates to push for federal legislation that would more tightly regulate the safety recall process. But with federal efforts stalled, a pair of state-level bills in California and New Jersey could actually make it harder for victims to hold manufacturers and dealers accountable for cars that have been recalled but not repaired.

The nation’s safety recall system is broken. Nearly 64 million vehicles were recalled in 2014—a new record—and Carfax, a company that provides vehicle history reports, estimated that 46 million cars with unfixed safety recalls were still on the road. While it has long been against federal law for new cars to be sold with safety recalls, there is no similar legislation to protect individuals who drive used or rental cars. Reformers want to change this, and make it illegal to sell or lease all recalled vehicles until they have been repaired.

However, despite some promising bills introduced in Congress, and despite the Obama administration coming out in support of recall reformers’ efforts—an unprecedented move from any White House administration—the federal legislation, opposed by auto dealers, has failed to gain traction. In the meantime, auto dealers have shifted their attention to state legislatures, where lawmakers in California and New Jersey are now considering bills that would require car dealers to disclose whether a used car has an open safety recall at the time of purchase. While car dealers insist this would mark a positive step forward, consumer groups, civil rights groups, and labor groups, are all fighting back—arguing that these bills would not only deter more substantial reforms in the future, but actually rollback existing consumer protections.

Testifying in Sacramento this past spring, Cally Houck said, “If this bill before you today had been in effect in 2004, it would not have saved my daughters.” She insisted that her girls, 20 and 24 years old, “with no engineering or mechanical experience, skills or knowledge, and no awareness of other fatalities associated with that defect” would not have been able to appropriately assess the risks involved. She called on elected officials to oppose the “terrible” legislation that serves the interest of car dealers, not consumers.

Better Than Nothing, or is it Actually Worse?

After the extraordinarily high number of recalls issued in 2014, many more people are recognizing the urgent need to get recalled cars off the road. Currently, no law requires that recalled vehicles must get repaired—a key challenge which I explore in the fall issue of The American Prospect.  Given this reality, would California and New Jersey’s recall disclosure bills actually be a productive step towards fixing unsafe cars? Or would they just shift the legal liability onto consumers who may not understand the risks?

Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), does not believe the state-level bills will help keep the most dangerous recalled cars off the road. California’s disclosure bill, for instance, would only bar dealers from selling recalled vehicles when manufacturers issue “Do Not Drive” warnings or when a recalled used car is the same make as the new car dealer’s franchise. According to Auto Alliance data submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 2000 and 2013, auto manufacturers issued “Do Not Drive” warnings for a mere 1 percent of all safety recalls, and those were not even for the most unsafe defects. The Chrysler PT Cruiser that killed the Houck sisters, for instance, had not been issued a “Do Not Drive” warning. 

Other consumer advocates worry that the New Jersey and California bills will make it harder to pass more serious reforms later on. “Our feeling is that a half-measure is worse than nothing,” Elisa Odabashian, the West Coast director of Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, told Automotive News. “It means you can’t go back and try to get a bill that tries to actually protect people. The legislators would say: ‘We already did that. We fixed it.'”

Even though it’s been difficult to pass legislation in Congress, Shahan says they’re still committed to sticking with a Congressional approach, because having clear and consistent federal regulations, like those that exist for new cars, is better than a patchwork of state laws that could leave some consumers at great risk.

On the other hand, Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association (CNCDA), believes the disclosure bill would be better than the status quo. (CNCDA is sponsoring California’s bill). “I think everyone would prefer to see more recalled cars repaired; the question is understanding where the law is [now],” Maas told me. “There is no regulation of recalled used cars today, there’s no obligation to tell consumers about anything, so how do we incrementally make it better tomorrow than it is today?”

When I asked Maas how he feels about the fact that all other consumer advocates working on recalls oppose his bill, he noted that the federal government is unlikely to move forward on this issue in the near future. And since CNCDA thinks it’s unreasonable to ground all recalled vehicles until they’re repaired, Maas said they’re trying to “forge a path in the middle. Stop some of the most serious recalls, and use disclosures for everything else.”

Though Maas says no laws currently exist to protect consumers who buy recalled used vehicles, some attorneys and activists emphatically dispute this fact.

Bernard Brown, a founding member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a consumer attorney organization that opposes New Jersey and California’s bills, feels it is misleading to argue that these disclosure bills are better than the status quo. “The reason for these bills is to effectively make it legal to sell recalled cars,” Brown said. While there may not be a specific statute around the sale of recalled used vehicles, Brown continued, there is anti-fraud, misrepresentation, negligence, or other laws in every state that consumers can sue under if a dealer knowingly sells a car with an undisclosed and unperformed safety recall defect that causes injury or death. “These [disclosure] bills would greatly undermine existing protections. On its face it may seem like they’re better, but they’re not,” said Brown. “They’re decidedly worse.”

“These laws are effectively ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cars for dealers,” concurred Taras Rudnitsky, a former car safety engineer who now works as a lawyer for victims of vehicle defects. Under current negligence law, dealers have to demonstrate that they have acted in a reasonable and prudent way—which victims can argue includes selling safe vehicles to consumers. Introducing disclosure notices, Rudnitsky believes, could become the new legal burden a prudent dealer must meet in court.

Had Enterprise Rent-A-Car of San Francisco issued Raechel and Jacqueline a disclosure form, Cally and Charles Houck might not have been able to get Enterprise to admit they were negligent. I asked Brian Maas how the Houck parents could have received $15 million in damages if there were no existing laws to protect consumers. He responded:

I haven’t read the lawsuit, but my understanding is that the Houck family was able to prevail because Enterprise knew it had a recalled vehicle, it owned the car, had the opportunity to repair it, and put it in commerce. They got a civil recovery for engaging in behavior the jury felt was inappropriate, that doesn’t mean it’s illegal.

“Brian Maas may as well have said it’s ‘not illegal’ for a pilot to fly his passenger-carrying airliner into a mountain,” Brown said in an email, about Maas’ explanation. “Well, in a very stretched sense he could squirm around and disingenuously say it’s ‘not illegal’ because there presumably isn’t any statute specifically saying a pilot can’t fly his plane into a mountain. But you can rest assured it’s very ‘illegal’, as in violation of a number of more general laws and legally-enforceable duties.”

Business Concerns and Real Information Gaps

Aside from liability questions in the courtroom, the recall disclosure bills would certainly help car dealers and rental car companies stay in business in the event of unexpected recall announcements. Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty, a primary sponsor of New Jersey’s disclosure bill, told The Record that he had originally planned to prohibit the sale of used cars with open recalls, but he changed his mind after realizing that used car dealers could lose a lot of money. “Theoretically, you could wake up one morning and have half of your inventory unsalable,” he said. “If they’ve got 100 cars that need to be fixed by Honda, how fast do you think the Honda dealer is going to take care of those cars when [Honda has its] own customers to take care of?”

“What good is a used car if you can’t sell it?” Alex Fitzgerald, the founder of Fitzgerald Auto Malls, which sells used and new cars at nine locations, asked me.

Brown acknowledges that banning the sale of recalled cars could be economically catastrophic for some businesses. “I hope that as more and more information comes out, at some point we’ll get to a place where manufacturers will have far fewer recalls, and society will have much better legal provisions,” Brown says. “But right now there is a great big transitional problem with massive consequences.”

For Fitzgerald, focusing on car dealerships ignores the larger problems related to manufacturer malpractice. And he’s right when he says that reforming manufacturer behavior is a necessary component in any comprehensive plan to address our recalled-but-not-repaired crisis. That means figuring out how to force manufacturers to come clean about safety defects far earlier than they do now.

Under federal law, a manufacturer must pay the full recall repair cost for vehicles that are less than ten years old on the date the defect is determined. (Reformers are trying to get rid of this 10-year limit, which they deem arbitrary, especially since the average car is on the road for 11.4 years.) Research has shown that the newer a vehicle is when a recall is announced, the more likely a driver is to take it in to get repaired. This system can incentivize a manufacturer to put off making recall announcements for years, in order to keep down repair costs.

The government has recently started to crack down on manufacturers that wait around to announce recalls. In March 2014, the Department of Justice fined Toyota $1.2 billion for hiding known safety defects from the public—the largest criminal penalty ever imposed on a carmaker. In January 2015, NHTSA fined Honda $70 million for failing to report death and injury data in a timely way—the largest civil penalty ever levied against an carmaker—and the Justice Department may also launch a criminal investigation into Honda’s behavior. And just last week, the New York Times reported that the Justice Department has identified criminal wrongdoing in General Motors’ failure to disclose information about its failed ignition switch and will impose a penalty that is expected to be even higher than the $1.2 billion Toyota paid. This comes on top of billions of dollars already paid by GM related to their recall scandal. Whether these hefty penalties will impact manufacturers’ future behavior remains to be seen.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Fitzgerald, in reference to manufacturers not promptly reporting safety issues to NHTSA. “I really believed they were taking care of the issues, but in reality, they weren’t doing that at all.”

It will be several months before the outcome of either New Jersey or California’s recall disclosure bill is final. “We’re in full battle mode,” Shahan told me. Needless to say, if the legislation passes, other states are likely to follow suit and introduce similar bills. “Pretty soon you could have millions and millions of consumers with little defense against negligent dealers,” Rudnitsky warned. And as these fights rage on, the federal bills remain stuck in Congress, without a vote.

 

In Hot Water: Volunteers reach out to people whose water has been shut off

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on May 26th, 2015
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Flyers left at residents’ door | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

On March 26, the Department of Public Works (DPW) announced that 25,000 customers with unpaid water bills would have their water service turned off. But it wasn’t until mid-May that there was a list of which residential addresses would be or had already been targeted. On May 16, volunteers with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a local human rights organization, canvassed homes on the list.

On May 17, the second day of canvassing, a group of 10 volunteers met up at RTHA’s headquarters on Holliday Street, near Fallsway under I-83. It was a humid, hot day, the kind where you don’t head outside without bringing water—which, for the volunteers, drove home the importance of access to water.

Though nearly 90 percent of the shutoffs have been in Baltimore County, RHTA is focusing, for now, on the 170 homes on the list in Baltimore City. After Saturday and Sunday, canvassers had reached just over 50 homes.

Jessica Lewis, a lead organizer with RTHA, went over some canvassing basics before the volunteers hit the streets in small groups. If someone answers the door, Lewis instructed, make sure to ask if this address has had a water shutoff.

“We’re not going out to ask if they themselves did anything wrong, make your question passive,” she said. Ultimately, the volunteers’ main “ask” would be to invite residents to come to RTHA’s Tuesday night meeting, where individuals impacted by water shutoffs can brainstorm collectively on a potential response. “Don’t be afraid to agitate them a little,” said Lewis. “You can ask them if they think having their water shutoff is fair.”

The Baltimore Sun reported that businesses, government offices, and nonprofits owe $15 million in outstanding water bills, more than one third of the total $40 million that DPW seeks to collect. Yet six weeks into the water shutoffs, no delinquent commercial properties have been targeted by DPW. By contrast, more than 1,600 residents have lost service.

Half of Baltimore City residents rent their homes, and the water shutoff situation is particularly worrisome for tenants. According to Matt Hill and Zafar Shah, attorneys with the Public Justice Center, low-income tenants cannot get their own water accounts, and DPW does not allow them to challenge inaccurate bills because the water accounts are not listed in their name. “Public Works’ new policy is short-sighted and downright inhumane to low-income renters who are often caught in between the water company and their landlords,” Shah and Hill wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed. “At the very least . . . the city should allow renters to open accounts in their own names and permit them to challenge inaccurate billings and leaks.”

The RTHA volunteers split up into small canvassing groups. One group, including Molly Amster, the director of the Baltimore Jews United for Justice, and Sara McClean, a dietician with Moveable Feast, spent most of the day in Edmondson Village, though no one answered most of the doors they knocked on. At one house on Culver Street, a woman opened the door, closed it quickly, and then had her son come out to talk. He seemed ambivalent about discussing his water situation, but he took the resources offered back inside.

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Canvassing | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Lewis told volunteers that many of these homes may turn out to be abandoned, and indeed many addresses that volunteers visited appeared to be vacant properties. Volunteers took notes after each visit, documenting, among other things, the building type, whether or not they had a conversation with a tenant, and whether the property looked occupied or vacant. Volunteers left blue RTHA flyers outside most of the doors they visited that listed information on how to get support and more involved in organizing.

Another small group of canvassers met a man on Edgewood Street who described the hurdles he had to jump through to keep water on in his house, a particularly stressful situation because he has asthmatic children. He told the canvassers that he paid almost $400, including payments for water bills and jugs and bottles of water for his family.

Earlier in April, RTHA launched an online MoveOn petition calling for a moratorium on the water shutoffs. As reported in The Baltimore Brew, Tony Simmons, an organizer with RTHA, said that they will be organizing and petitioning City Council until there is more clear information about what’s going on; many residents are skeptical that their bills are even correct. The Rawlings-Blake administration says the shutoffs are necessary to pay for infrastructure improvements around the city. By Sunday night, RTHA had collected more than 2,000 petition signatures, and announced that it will be organizing more canvassers at its offices every evening that week. As of press time, they have collected more than 3,000 signatures.

What’s Behind the Recent Plague of Shootings in Baltimore?

Originally published in VICE on May 20th, 2015.
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While the national film crews have packed up and left Baltimore, losing interest in the place now that there are no more burning pharmacies and vandalized cop cars, Charm City residents are left to reckon with one of the most violent months they’ve seen in years. As the Baltimore Sun reports, homicides are up nearly 40 percent compared with this time last year, and nonfatal shootings are up 60 percent. From mid April to mid May, 31 people were killed, the Washington Post reports, with 39 more wounded by gunfire. The Sun adds that, as of late Tuesday, there had been 170 nonfatal shootings so far this year.

To put all this in perspective, the last time Baltimore saw 30 homicides in one month was in June 2007.

The spike in violence has received less attention outside of Baltimore than Freddie Gray’s death, but within the city, leaders, police, and community members are struggling to figure out what exactly is going on.

One theory floating around is that the weeks of unrest after Gray’s demise in police custody have daunted cops, leaving them unable or unwilling to control violent crime. The police union and some legal experts are upset at the criminal charges that the city’s top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, has leveled at six members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD)—among them murder and manslaughter. This, coupled with a formal Justice Department investigation launched in cooperation with local officials to examine police practices, has left the BPD in a state of agitation.

Lieutenant Kenneth Butler, a longtime BPD veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers, told the Washington Post that rank-and-file cops feel alienated, vilified, and afraid to do their job. “In 29 years, I’ve gone through some bad times, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” Butler added in comments to the Baltimore Sun, referring, in part, to officers who feel as though Mosby “will hang them out to dry.”

While beat cop reticence could be a factor, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points out that homicides and shootings in West Baltimore were on the rise before the Freddie Gray unrest, though the pace has since accelerated. Webster thinks that among other things, the protests just strained the cops’ capacity.

“The police have been less active in proactive policing, less likely to engage individuals on the street,” Webster says, adding that resources were diverted to addressing the riots and in turn disrupted patrol and detective work. Leads from residents that detectives use to make arrests—though already quite difficult to come by—were further reduced during this time, he said, citing conversations with officers. Moreover, Operation Ceasefire, an anti-violence initiative begun by the city early last year, has been running without a program manager for the past several weeks. (The mayor’s office has indicated a new program manager will be hired soon.)

Webster believes another factor at play here may be that the Freddie Gray protests emboldened criminals. “We just had a huge display of lawlessness and disrespect for law and law enforcement,” he explains. “That mindset can spread easily and affect behavior.”

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, doesn’t buy the connection between the protests and violence—one he calls an “easy deflection” of systemic issues.

“This [surge in violent crime] is a natural outgrowth of the conditions in which shooting and violence occurs,” Love says. Scapegoating the protests and the Mosby charges, Dove thinks, is particularly convenient for those unenthused with critiques of law enforcement and institutional racism. And it’s true that high rates of poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction all consistently correlate with high homicide rates. Love also argued that Baltimore’s had all kinds of violence for a long time—including sexual abuse and discriminatory housing policies—though it’s only when guns are fired that leaders start to panic.

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the increase in shootings is just that it’s getting hotter outside. Baltimore Bloc, another local grassroots organization, say that they don’t think the protests had anything to do with the recent violence, and that in their experience, violence always surges in the city as summer approaches. Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, agrees that homicides usually rise and fall significantly with the seasons, with the fewest occurring during the winter. “It’s no coincidence that homicides are spiking right now when the weather is getting warmer,” Spence says.

The violence that occurs when competing gangs fight over turf to operate their drug operations also generally escalates in the warmer weather. “People are suggesting that the spike we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks represents something new, but summer is just starting,” Spence adds. “It might be a blip or it might continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Baltimore PD Spokeswoman Sarah Connolly told VICE in an email, “We are investigating each incident as a singular incident while examining any trends and patterns to ensure that we are deploying our officers and resources effectively while being proactive and engaging the community. While we have developed investigative leads in a number of cases, we continue to ask the community’s assistance in calling with any information they may have.”

Meanwhile, some Baltimore community groups are taking the opportunity to organize anti-violence demonstrations. Coinciding with the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, the NAACP held a “Stop the Violence ‘By Any Means Necessary'” rally Tuesday night at their office in the Sandtown neighborhood. Another group committed to decreasing gun violence in Baltimore, the 300 Men March, is holding an “Occupy Our Corners” anti-violence rally on Thursday evening to honor the recent homicide victims.

“We the PEOPLE, are not blaming anyone but ourselves for failing to create a safe environment within our city,” their rally flyer reads. “Recognizing this, WE STAND, as a community of all people, regardless of RACE, RELIGION, SEX, CULTURE OR BACKGROUND.” According to the Sun, Munir Bahar, one of the group’s founders, is calling for 30 men in ten Baltimore neighborhoods to become block leaders in the fight against crime.

Love doesn’t expect the organizing work that LBS, Baltimore Bloc, and other grassroots groups are doing will change much in light of the increased violence. “Because doing that,” Love explains, “would take away from the larger objective, which is ultimately about systemic change.”

We Can’t Talk About Housing Policy Without Talking About Racism

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 20th, 2015.
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Over the past year, unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson has inspired a nationwide debate on how to best combat systemic inequality and injustice. In the wake of high-profile police violence cases in these cities and elsewhere, this conversation has contributed to a renewed understanding of how federal and local housing policies helped create the inequality and racial injustice urban America confronts today. Yet lost in this discussion has been the complicated record of more recent desegregation efforts and what they can teach us about undoing generations of systemic racism and persistent segregation.

A case-in-point is HUD’s Clinton-era Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, the subject of a new study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. Focusing on MTO’s long-term economic impacts, the study sheds more positive light on a program long considered to be a failure.

Running from 1994-1998, MTO was a housing experiment that involved moving individuals out of high-poverty neighborhoods with vouchers and into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty to see if this would improve their life outcomes. The results were mixed. While critics of the program have dubbed it a failure for not significantly improving children’s school performance or the financial situation of their parents, there was a lot about it that proved successful. MTO yielded significant gains in mental health for adults, for instance, including decreased stress levels and lower rates of depression. It also greatly lowered obesity rates and improved the psychological well being of young girls.

The new Harvard study further bucks the notion that MTO failed. Instead of looking at MTO’s economic impact on parents, it looks at the adult earnings of their children. Such an analysis simply wasn’t possible to do a decade ago, given that the kids were still too young. Researchers now find that poor children who moved into better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more in the workforce than similar adults who never moved. The researchers also ranked which cities were “the worst” in terms of facilitating upward mobility. Out of the nation’s 100 largest counties, the authors found, Baltimore came in dead last.

Many writers were quick to make the connection between Baltimore’s low chances for social mobility and the recent bouts of unrest surrounding the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. However, few seemed interested in connecting the new Harvard study with the politics of why we have segregated communities and concentrated poverty in the first place.

Emily Badger’s Washington Post write-up of the study framed the ills people face in Baltimore as a city failure, rather than a state or federal one. She discusses the “downward drag that Baltimore exerts on poor kids” and says that Baltimore “itself appears to be acting on poor children, constraining their opportunity, molding them over time into the kind of adults who will likely remain poor.” Badger acknowledges that maybe this has to do with struggling schools and less social capital. “Change where these children live, though,” she writes, “and you might well change their outcomes.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. looks at the new Harvard study and concludes, “Neighborhoods themselves are clearly transmitters of poverty. The problem for residents isn’t racism: it’s where they live.”

Such narrow portrayals of Baltimore and its residents are only possible if we exclude decades of state and federal policy from our frame of analysis. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute wrote something I suggest reading in its entirety. But to quote:

In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie traces not only how efforts to segregate Baltimore succeeded, but also how there’s never been a sustained attempt to undo them.

The simple fact is that major progress in Baltimore—and other, similar cities—requires major investment and major reform from state and federal government. It requires patience, investment, and a national commitment to ending scourges of generational poverty—not just ameliorating them.

Expanding housing choice vouchers is a good thing. We should have subsidies available to ensure that everyone has similar opportunities for mobility. That said, moving millions of impoverished families out of high-poverty areas would be nothing short of a logistical nightmare. In effect, mass relocation efforts would require low-poverty communities to relinquish some of their gatekeeping discretion—no small political fight. MTO tracked 4,600 families in five U.S. cities. As Reihan Salam put it, “It’s not at all clear that an MTO-style approach would work if we scaled it up to, say, 40,000 families in one city.” Nothing is impossible, but we cannot have a serious discussion about housing mobility as a broad anti-poverty strategy without frankly discussing the politics of racism and segregation. 

Investing In Better Mobility Vouchers

So what does a more effective mobility strategy look like? A look to MTO’s own weaknesses may provide some clues. Indeed, for sociologists Stefanie DeLuca and Peter Rosenblatt, one problem with MTO was that it simply didn’t go far enough. Ina 2010 paper, they argue that while some students undoubtedly benefited from moving to wealthier communities, a lack of social capital, support, and resources, combined with housing vouchers that did not cover the cost of living in low-poverty communities, kept many students out of the highest-performing schools. At the same time, many families found that the obstacles created by poverty—like health problems and the chaotic nature of low-wage work—tended to follow them even as they left impoverished communities, and in turn contributed to poor student performance.

For DeLuca and Rosenblatt, there’s plenty that MTO did right but confronting endemic poverty and segregation requires a more systematic approach. That is, something perhaps more akin to the Baltimore Mobility Program (BMP), through which 2,400 Baltimore families have relocated since 2003. Whereas MTO offered housing search counseling to program participants, BMP provided that plus post-move counseling, second move counseling if necessary, and financial literacy and credit repair training. In another study released last year, DeLuca followed 110 BMP participants for nearly a decade, and found that over two-thirds of these families were still living in their integrated, low-poverty communities one to eight years after moving.

If MTO were to be a truly successful intervention, then expanding the program’s available services—including educational assistance, housing counseling, job support, and transportation help—would be important. We can’t know how the MTO participants would have fared if they had been given increased support, but we do know that additional services helped to make the transitions more surmountable and lasting for BMP families.

From “Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program,” a report by The Century Foundation.

This chart by The Century Foundation shows how the MTO and BMP compare with Section 8 vouchers and the Gautreaux Project, a desegregation experiment that ended in 1990 and helped inspire MTO.

Needless to say, high-quality BMP vouchers are more costly than MTO and traditional Section 8 vouchers. Excellent mobility programs will require a real financial investment. As it is, there are long Section 8 waiting lists around the country, and local housing authorities currently receive fixed amounts from HUD to support voucher participants. Unless we significantly scale up funding, moving more people to affluent neighborhoods would mean moving fewer people overall through vouchers.

The findings from the new Harvard study are useful. They allow us to ask new kinds of questions. But in terms of policy, we must be wary of those who now suggest that simply uprooting families and planting them into new communities is the responsible thing to do—especially if we’re not ready to provide the supports that research has shown makes these types of moves more successful.

For example, in The National Review Jonah Goldberg writes, “Consider Baltimore. If you’re poor, it is a very bad idea to raise your kids there if you can avoid it.” He implicitly suggests that if you’re a good parent, if you care about your kid’s future, then you will leave Baltimore, or Detroit, or Philadelphia if you can. Let us hope that this policy conversation does veer into an ugly, parent-blaming one. Housing mobility vouchers are good options, but our best anti-poverty interventions shouldn’t have to demand that people abandon their social networks, churches, and communities if they want to stay. We should make high-quality vouchers available, but we should vigorously invest in the communities where poor people already live.

As Daniel Kay Hertz, a senior fellow at City Observatory pointed out to me, the Harvard study provides some new ammunition against those who have long doubted the effectiveness of a housing policy that puts integration front and center. Now there is some pretty strong empirical evidence that shows that children’s life chances were significantly affected by growing up within integrated environments. Additionally, these findings come on the heels of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which traces the growing opportunity gaps between wealthy and poor children around the country. In light of these new high-profile studies, perhaps policymakers will more readily accept the idea that your access to the American Dream has everything to do with your race, class, and geographic location.

At the end of the day, Baltimore ranks last in the Harvard mobility study not because poor, black people live there, but because leaders in power made choice after choice, year after year, to ensure that poor blacks’ opportunities would be overwhelmingly constricted. We can and must make new choices now.

Baltimore Jews join Freddie Gray protests – but it’s complicated

Originally published in Haaretz on May 5th, 2015
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After a tumultuous couple of weeks in Baltimore, in which protests, marches and riots raged through Charm City following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray — the Jewish community moved to raise funds, organize volunteers and engage in interfaith outreach. But in Baltimore, which has a complicated, and often fraught, history of Jewish-black relations, there is both a commitment to fight inequality and a reluctance to ruffle long-established relationships with city officials and the police.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which represents about 55 local congregations and institutions, issued a statement that called for Jews to “stand beside our African American partners to combat racism and economic inequality.” Arthur Abramson, BJC’s executive director for the past 25 years, says his organization “has not hesitated for one moment” to stand up for injustice.

But he was frank about the challenges that remain for Jews seeking to combat racism. “Look, Maryland is a southern state. It was a slave state. In general, it’s not what I would describe as a place where African Americans and Jews sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” he said.

Throughout the decades there have been plenty of instances of Jewish racism and black anti-Semitism in the city. Still, Abramson feels proud of the improved relations the BJC has helped to build over the past 25 years, which he attributes to concerted engagement, dialogue and programs involving the two communities.

Rabbi Etan Mintz, who leads Baltimore’s oldest and continually active synagogue, B’nai Israel, spent much of last week – as protests spread in the city and elsewhere following the death of Gray, for which six police officers have been charged – working with other local clergy.

“It’s a very powerful experience just to listen to people, to pray with people, and to be a presence face-to-face with one another,” Mintz said. He noted what he called the “outrageous reality” of poverty, inequality and mass incarcerations, but also stressed that the majority of police officers in the city are “peace-loving individuals who are trying to protect us on a daily basis.” He is concerned about a phenomenon of “guilt by association” — linking the broader police force to a few bad officers who acted inhumanely.

Mintz’s synagogue, which is Orthodox, is located downtown near the Inner Harbor, the former epicenter of Baltimore Jewish life. Now B’nai Israel, which is the last of what were once 20 synagogues in this area, is sometimes nicknamed “the Masada of East Baltimore.”

Jews began moving out toward the suburb of Pikesville in the 1950s and ’60s, and Mintz says the real “nail in the coffin” of inner-city presence was the 1968 riots, where many Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed. The latest disturbances, he adds, have sparked difficult memories for some of his congregants.

Solidarity events

Another organization, Jews United for Justice, (JUFJ) has taken a more demonstrably public role in supporting African-American protestors. The group was formed in late 2014 to provide an outlet for Jews, mostly in their twenties and thirties, to engage in social justice work. Many of these activists turned out for Ferguson solidarity events earlier in the year, so it was not surprising to see 30 JUFJ members marching on April 25th in Baltimore with black-and-white picket signs that called for #JusticeForFreddie.

Last Friday, the day Baltimore’s State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six policemen would face criminal charges, the number of JUFJ members who turned out to march rose to 100.

“I think this reflects the growing interest,” says JUFJ member Owen Silverman Andrews. “[We have] created a space where people can plug in within their own communities in a way that is still connected to the larger struggle.”

Marc Terrill, the president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, says he is pleased with the fast response the Jewish community took, and continues to take, in showing solidarity with the Freddie Gray protests. He says that ultimately there needs to be an agenda, both with short-term and long-term goals.

In the short term, the Associated has helped to organize volunteers and raise funds for food, toys and other supplies in order “to rebuild the communities torn asunder by wide-spread looting and vandalism,” according to its website. In the long term, Terrill mentions the need to promote greater access for city residents to health care, job training, education, counseling and mentoring programs, and to contribute to an overall greater push for societal integration.

“Our relationship with the African-American community is collaborative,” Terrill says. “Not everything is good, but we have the will and desire to work at it.”

While the Jewish community is presenting a relatively united front for now, the question of how and if its members will come together around the issue of police reform remains unclear. This community is one of the more politically conservative Jewish communities in the United States. And the established relationships Jewish leaders have cultivated with city and state officials — which have helped ensure enhanced security and support for Jewish groups and institutions — are very important.

The BJC did not come out strongly for any of the police reform bills that were being considered in Annapolis this past legislative season, despite months of organizing and campaigning by local activists. By contrast, members from JUJF, including Rabbi Daniel Burg, who leads an egalitarian synagogue in Reservoir Hill, offered testimony in support of legislation that would alter the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Jewish communal leaders have all expressed a commitment to tackle the “deeper issues” provoked by the Freddie Gray protests – specifically with regards to economic inequality and poverty. However, whether they will be able to do so without inserting tension into some of their long-standing political relationships remains to be seen.