Tensions rise at City Council discussion of charter-school funding

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 8, 2015.

A large crowd of charter advocates convened at City Hall last night wearing orange T-shirts that read #SAVE THE CHARTERS BMORE. The City Council was discussing a resolution to withdraw a charter funding proposal that had already been withdrawn. The district’s proposal, introduced on Sept. 8, was scrapped on Sept. 22. Councilman Bill Henry, vice chair of the council’s education committee, introduced the resolution on Sept. 21.

Henry’s resolution called upon the school district to “reconsider its inequitable proposed public charter funding formula to ensure that adequate funds are allocated to all Baltimore students in accordance with state law.”

“All members of the Baltimore City Council co-sponsored this resolution,” said Henry at Wednesday’s meeting. “If we all sign onto it, it can’t be that controversial.” He went on to say that he recognized the proposal was already withdrawn, so “in a very basic but important way we already won.” His hope was to use the meeting as an opportunity “to step back” and think these issues through.

Earlier in the afternoon, before the City Council meeting began, Gregory Thorton, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, sent a letter out to families and staff with a district update on the charter-school funding situation. While Thorton expressed a commitment to working with the charter coalition, he said that when the district had originally withdrawn its proposal, it did so under the impression that the charter operators would withdraw their lawsuits too. The district believed this would allow “discussions between us, to be facilitated by former Mayor Kurt Schmoke . . . held publicly, in a spirit of collaboration, and with open dialogue not constrained by pending legal action.”

However, Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore Inc., an organization that governs charters, challenged the district’s assertion in his testimony last night, saying that none of the charter litigants ever suggested they would drop their lawsuit. “It feels dishonest to have to hear that,” he said.

Councilman Brandon Scott asked the district what evidence they had to suggest that charter operators ever intended to drop their lawsuit. As Dawana Sterrette, the district’s legislative liaison, tried to formulate an answer, parents from the audience tittered. “Honesty is the best policy!” one hollered. “Transparency!” shouted another.

Finally, Sterrette answered that there was “an intermediary” between the school system and the charter representatives, who informed them that the charters would drop their lawsuit if the proposal were scrapped. Sterrette did not name names or provide more concrete details, which was unsatisfying to the crowd.

When I spoke with Bobbi MacDonald, the executive director of City Neighbors Foundation, a few days ago, she told me the litigants had no intention of dropping the lawsuits, but would possibly consider putting their cases on hold.

Kate Primm, the founding principal of the Green School of Baltimore, testified at Wednesday’s meeting, reiterating that the nine operators involved in the litigation had no plans to drop their cases.

The audience was packed with people, mostly charter supporters, but just a few signed up to speak. Several-charter school parents gave speeches, as did a Patterson Park Public Charter School fourth-grader. Kim Truehart, a longtime citizen activist, also offered testimony, pushing the crowd to think more seriously about equity for all of Baltimore’s children.

When I approached Truehart after the meeting, she said she felt the whole evening was just “a publicity stunt” because the mayor, not the council, holds the real power over these issues. Truehart said it “shocked the heck out of her” when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake decided to intervene in the charter dispute given how hands-off she’s been with education issues generally.

It’s not clear where this all will lead, but several takeaways were evident. One is that the charter advocates aimed to send a message that they believe North Avenue is mismanaging money, which hurts both charter students and traditional students. While everyone acknowledged the need for more state funding, the charter leaders suggested there was more district officials could be doing to efficiently manage their money and get more funds down to the classroom level.

The mediation, led by Kurt Schmoke, will not be binding, but Alison Perkins-Cohen, speaking for the district, said they want it to be a public process, in a public setting, given the funding formula’s impact on the broader community.

It’s not yet clear what the terms of the mediation will be. It was not clear, based on last night’s testimony, whether public mediated talks are a major priority for the charter operators. It is also not clear how having litigation open at the same time as the mediation will impact the parties’ ability to be transparent.

“I don’t understand how Baltimore City Public Schools can be expected to negotiate in good faith with this lawsuit hanging over our heads any more than I can see how Baltimore charter schools can call themselves public schools without paying their fair share of public school costs,” said Ben Dalbey, a city schools parent.

Given that the charter funding formula impacts all district students, and considering that the charter operators are calling for a greater culture of accountability and transparency, finding a way to ensure that the mediation is open to parents, community stakeholders, and reporters seems to be a wise condition for any future effort.

Challenges to John King’s Integration Pilot

Originally published in The American Prospects Tapped blog on October 7, 2015

In August I wrote about the Obama administration’s record on school integration, and while it’s been mostly disappointing, there have been some encouraging recent developments. Specifically, the administration has moved to include diversity as a funding priority in more of its smaller grant programs. At the end of 2014, New York’s education commissioner, John King, spearheaded the first socioeconomic integration pilot of its kind, using newly available federal dollars.

Soon after, King moved to the Department of Education, where he served as Arne Duncan’s senior adviser. Last week, Duncan announced that he would be stepping down, and King would assume the role of secretary of education.

Journalists quickly published a bunch of “Here’s What You Need to Know About John King” pieces. A few mentioned his support for school integration (see MSNBC and The 74) but not all ( Vox, The Washington Post).

I had the opportunity to hear John King speak at the National Coalition of School Diversity’s conference last month, just a week before he took over for Arne Duncan. It was at the same time that Pope Francis was traveling up the East Coast, and King pointed this fact out to the audience. This is a moment, he said, “where we as a country ask ourselves what kind of country do we want to be?” King then went on to declare that “schools that are integrated better reflect our values” and that he “sees our diversity not as a challenge or a problem but as a strength.” While some other conference speakers noted their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s record on school diversity, attendees seemed to generally embrace King’s speech.

Today ChalkbeatNY published an important article that looks more closely at how King’s pilot program is faring in New York. The reporter, Patrick Wall, finds that, “it’s far from certain that the initiative will spur much integration” in the nine local districts participating. (A 2014 study found that New York has the nation’s most segregated schools.)

Wall points to several factors. The noncompetitive grants were relatively small, and came with restrictions. Districts also had a very short amount of time to apply for them, which can impact how they’re implemented. There are also questions about how comprehensive these plans are across participating districts.

Wall interviews several experts excited by the pilot, because they feel that regardless of how it fares, the pilot creates space for more far-reaching policy down the line. He talks to Susan Eaton, an academic who studies school integration, who says that the pilot could have a greater impact with more political support and increased funding. She notes, however, that the initial grant proposals, and the effort put forth by the administration, “fell short.”

Jeanne Beattie, a spokesperson for New York’s Education Department said many districts set “initially modest” integration goals, but they could be increased in the future, especially if the federal government starts to earmark funds specifically for integration. (I’ve written before about why there’s still a significant role for the federal government to play when it comes to these issues.)

Yet there are risks associated with failure, too. Wall quotes Michael Hilton, from the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (which co-sponsored the school diversity conference), who says that while he’s hopeful, he worries that if goals are too modest or poorly implemented, the political momentum around tackling school segregation could diminish.

At the conference, King pledged his commitment to working more concertedly on these issues. He’s now in an even greater position of power than he was when he spoke those words. Advocates will be playing close attention to where this all leads.

An Uber Union?

Originally published on the American Prospect’s Tapped blog, on October 6th 2015

Last Friday, the Seattle City Council finance committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would allow drivers for companies like Lyft and Uber to form a union. The final vote has yet to be scheduled, but if the proposed legislation were to become law, it would be the first of its kind in the country.

Some taxi drivers—like those in Washington, D.C.—have affiliated with unions, but given their independent contractor status, they lack the power to negotiate directly with taxi companies. Their approach has mainly been to push for more favorable regulations around rates and working conditions. According to The Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis, this has worked out fairly well for the most part, but given that Uber and Lyft are not regulated very much, such a strategy is limited for them.

Hence the proposed bill, spearheaded by Seattle City Councilman, Mike O’Brien. If the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover independent contractors, could local governments still pass laws that would? It’s not without precedent: Some states have allowed farmworkers to join unions and O’Brien has been working with Teamsters Local 117 to find a concrete strategy for Seattle. While his bill focuses specifically on drivers, it may also set a precedent for workers’ rights for other industries that rely on independent contract labor.

If the bill were to pass, it would no doubt face fierce legal challenge. Opponents would likely argue that the statute violates federal law. But according to the Seattle Times, Mike O’Brien feels confident that his bill would be upheld in court.

“I’m always concerned (about the city losing a lawsuit),” he said. “That’s something we balance when we’re passing legislation that hasn’t been done before. There’s a trade-off between that risk and the benefit we would get for workers. I believe the upside on this is worth more than the downside.”

At the same time, Uber currently faces a big class-action lawsuit from as many as 160,000 current and former California drivers who argue they have been misclassified as independent contractors. And this past summer, FedEx settled a class-action lawsuit with more than 2,000 drivers found to be misclassified as independent contractors. The Department of Labor also recently published a new guidance on employee misclassification, which suggests it will be paying more attention to the issue going forward.

As Harold Meyerson has documented extensively for The American Prospect,Seattle has earned a national reputation for passing innovative worker protection laws. It raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, mandated paid sick leave, and criminalized wage theft. If Seattle also becomes the first city to allow Uber drivers to unionize, that would be another major feather in its cap.

Some questions for the stakeholders in the charter-school funding dispute

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 2, 2015.
After speaking with charter operators and education advocates, examining the issues, and reading the complaints outlined in the new lawsuit, here are some initial questions I have for the district, charter operators, and traditional schools. There are other important questions out there. People should continue to write them up, and reporters, parents, and community stakeholders should work together to press for some clear answers.

Questions for the District:

1. The charter operators allege that the district has not provided them with information on the methodology behind the charter per-pupil formula. They say that each year, the district presents them with “take-it-or-leave-it charter school per-pupil figures derived using varying (or no) calculation methodology, inflated estimates of overall System enrollment, and unsupported and dubious financial and budgetary figures.”

Given these claims, what is the district’s methodology behind the calculations, how has it changed over the years, and what steps has the district taken to be transparent? What steps, if any, will the district take to be more transparent going forward?

2. The charter operators say the method by which the district calculates per-pupil funding changes from year to year. How can the district ensure a formula that will be annually consistent, which is important to ensure its long-term viability? What factors, if any, would impede such a goal?

3. How has the per-pupil funding changed year to year for traditional district students? How, if at all, are those changes different from those seen in the charter sector?

4. Has the amount taken off the top for charter students grown over the years? If so, why and where does that money go?

5. The operators say they sent the district letters outlining their grievances, but that you did not respond to them directly. Do you feel that you were sufficiently transparent with them throughout this process? If not, why was information concealed?

6. The school funding formula proposed earlier this month would have made the possibility of maintaining, or expanding, integrated schools much more difficult. Are integrated schools a priority for the district when thinking about equity?

7. Maryland school systems receive substantial additional funding for low-income children. Because charters receive the same amount for every child, does some of the funding for low-income children currently go toward educational services for middle-class students?

Questions for Charter Operators Involved in the Lawsuit: 1. Part of your lawsuit is a demand for 98 percent of per-pupil spending with 2 percent taken off the top for the district. You also supported Gov. Hogan’s legislation this past spring that would have explicitly carved this formula into state law.

Many in the community have spoken out that such a formula would bankrupt the district and harm other students, because the real cost for administrative services is greater than 2 percent per charter student. Currently, the state is commissioning a study to determine what an appropriate figure would be, which will be due by the end of October 2016. Given the ongoing study, what motivates you to pursue litigation before it’s finished?

2. Do you believe that charters should bear proportional costs for special-education students who are more expensive to educate, or should those costs be borne primarily by traditional schools?

3. On the Marc Steiner show, Bobbi MacDonald, the executive director of The City Neighbors Foundation, noted that the majority of Baltimore charter schools are grassroots, mom-and-pop, integrated schools. She said, “That’s a vision for what the public school system could go towards.”

Unlike in other cities, Baltimore charters work closely with the district, have unionized schoolteachers, and are mostly run by former local educators or parents. Yet the charter operators involved in the lawsuit also backed Hogan’s bill, which carried the potential to greatly alter those dynamics.

What is the charter operators’ ideal vision for the future? Are you looking for a way to improve and sustain the existing system, or would you like to see Baltimore’s charter sector more closely resemble other urban districts? Are the operators planning to push for another bill that resembles the one introduced last spring?

4. You’ve alleged that not enough money goes to the classrooms because it’s getting sucked up in bureaucracy at North Avenue. You’ve also said that the district has failed to be sufficiently transparent about where its money goes. You seem to be saying both that the district is wasting money, and that you’re not sure where the money is going. Are there specific areas you believe the district is allocating too much money to, and if so, what are they?

5. There’s been a lot of rhetoric around about increased autonomy. What specific freedoms would you like from the district that you don’t currently have? Laying out those demands more concretely would help to advance a more productive public conversation, especially since some may be more controversial than others.

Questions for Traditional Schools:

1. What, if any, freedoms would you like to have that you currently lack? Are there any central services that you’d wish to opt out from, in exchange for cash, like charter schools?

2. What is your perspective on the relationship between North Avenue and school funding? What are you most concerned about in these debates?

A primer on the fight for Baltimore charter-school funding

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 2, 2015.

In August I published a feature for City Paper, which explored the rising tensions in the Baltimore charter-school sector. Some charter operators felt that unless the laws are changed to allow them greater freedom and flexibility, then the state charter sector will never truly thrive. Teachers and paraprofessionals worried about what loosening the laws would mean for the quality of public education, and for their rights as union members. Currently, Maryland has one of the most strict charter laws in the country; however, its charters have also not had the kind of fraud, abuse, and mismanagement seen in other states. I reported on the history of funding disputes in Baltimore, recent legislative fight in Annapolis, and shifting charter dynamics across the state.

Almost two months later, a few new developments have taken place.

On Sept. 8, the district proposed a controversial funding formula that would have allocated per-pupil dollars to schools based on their specific student populations. (All charter students currently receive the same amount.) The district proposed a base level of $5,210 per pupil, with an additional $4,605 for low-income students and $4,573 for English-language learners. The proposed formula would have dramatically reduced funding for some of Baltimore’s integrated charter schools and likely increased funding to those with a higher proportion of low-income and ESOL students.

District officials said they were “prepared to continue conversations with charter operators and other stakeholders and to receive alternative proposals for charter funding” between September and November.

On Sept. 10, a group of Baltimore charter operators filed a lawsuit, alleging that the district gives charters less money than they are lawfully entitled, and has failed to live up to its contractual obligations around budget transparency. The plaintiffs are seeking a monetary judgment of at least $75,000. The lawsuit was not a direct response to the district’s Sept. 8 proposal.

On Sept. 22, the district withdrew its funding proposal, and University of Baltimore President and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to help mediate between the charters and the district. Four days later, advocates organized a rally at Lake Montebello Park in support of charter schools. The lawsuit is still ongoing.

As I’ve been following the story, I’ve noticed some issues generally absent from, or misrepresented in, the public discussion. It’s important to go beyond the talking points of whether one is “pro or anti-charter” or “cares about kids and opportunity.” I’d venture that most would agree that Baltimore charters have offered something important and valuable to the local educational landscape, and now it’s a matter of figuring out how to best support them in a way that doesn’t hurt other students, as well as figuring out what kind of charter sector Baltimore envisions for its future.

Next Wednesday, Oct. 7, there is a City Council meeting scheduled to discuss charter-school funding. According to the announcement, discussions will focus on ensuring “that adequate funds are allocated to all Baltimore students in accordance with State law.”

It’s important to understand why there are disagreements over the law.

In 2003, Maryland passed its state charter law, which said districts must provide “commensurate funding” between traditional schools and charters. It did not include a specific formula for doing so. In 2005, the Maryland State Board of Education ruled that “commensurate funding” should mean that charters receive 98 percent of per-pupil funds, and 2 percent should remain with the district for central administrative responsibilities.

A Department of Legislative Services (DLS) survey later determined that administrative expenditures make up closer to 10-14 percent of per-pupil spending, not 2 percent. Critics argue that if 98 percent were given to charters, then traditional public school students would be the ones to lose money and programming. Critics also say that providing 98 percent of per-pupil funding to charters would not leave enough money to cover those with severe disabilities.

In 2007, an Appeals Court upheld the 2005 decision. Despite this, the Baltimore school district says it needs more than 2 percent per charter student to fulfill its responsibilities, and so it has given charters less than 98 percent per pupil each year, leading to annual disputes.

In the spring of 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan tried to pass a bill that would have explicitly defined “commensurate funding” to mean that 98 percent of per-pupil dollars go to charters, and 2 percent stays with the district. Many experts testified that such a formula would simply be untenable for district finances. The charter operators involved in the current lawsuit backed Hogan’s bill.

The Maryland state legislature did not pass Hogan’s proposed funding formula; instead, it authorized a Maryland State Department of Education/ DLS study to get a clearer picture of how much administrative services actually cost in each district. The law reads, “the study must include a review of school system and school level expenditures disaggregated by specified categories, as well as the value of services being provided to public schools, and the potential availability of innovative financing for public charter school facilities that would not directly affect the State budget. The study must also include an assessment of the need to collect, on an ongoing basis, central office and school level expenditure data.” The study is due to be complete by Oct. 31, 2016.

Why the Administration Needs a Bolder Plan on School Integration

(Originally published in The American Prospect on September 23, 2015.)

In late August I looked at the Obama administration’s record on school integration and found that, overall, Arne Duncan and his team at the Department of Education did not prioritize school diversity very much within its key initiatives, though they spoke often of its importance. Earlier this month, four education policy researchers published a new report assessing the impact of a little-known federal grant, the Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans (TASAP), which had been quietly earmarked in 2009 to promote school diversity. In light of a Supreme Court decision that significantly muddied the legal terrain around school integration, TASAP offered technical assistance to districts seeking to promote student diversity and combat segregation. But as the researchers find, the Obama administration’s failure to broadly promote integration on the federal level significantly impeded TASAP’s success. If the government is serious about integrated schooling, then concerted federal involvement is still very much needed.

Background on the Grant:

The impetus for TASAP followed the confusing 2007 Supreme Court decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, where the justices both rejected student assignment plans that relied explicitly on race, and affirmed the state’s role in reducing racial isolation and promoting diverse public schools. This paradoxical decision, coupled with guidance from the Bush administration that discouraged race-conscious student assignment plans, perplexed district officials around the country.

The Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), an organization representing large urban school districts, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) recognized that districts might need professional help if they hoped to maintain or promote diverse student assignment plans in the wake of Parents Involved. No district wants to risk an expensive lawsuit. According to the researchers, LDF and CGCS pushed for technical assistance funding within the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act for this reason.

But advocates wanted to avoid a top-down approach through bodies like the Equity Assistance Centers, entities funded by the Department of Education under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As the researchers put it, “In contrast to its history of forcing reluctant local officials to integrate their schools, and later of directly providing desegregation assistance, with TASAP the federal government endorsed the goal of diversity and financially supported technical assistance for district diversity efforts, without imposing a particular outcome or providing technical assistance itself.”

Twenty-one districts and one charter school applied for funding, and 11 districts were ultimately awarded TASAP grants. The grantees were diverse—most were relatively large districts, and all had engaged with racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic integration issues before—whether because they were formerly under a court-order, or because they had experimented with controlled choice programs like magnet schools, or both. Grantees included Boston, Portland, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Champaign, Illinois, among others.

Though funding was limited, and instructions were vague, advocates felt that promoting TASAP was better than nothing. TASAP also served as a symbolic statement by signaling to school districts that the federal government still backed school integration, even after Parents Involved. As researchers noted, TASAP “was a subtle sort of symbol, though. Rather than a high-profile act of Congress, it was an earmark to the Equity Assistance Center budget, authorized via a Joint Explanatory Statement.” This allowed the federal government to quietly support diversity, without angering political opponents.

What the Researchers Found:

The four researchers, Elizabeth DeBray from the University of Georgia, Kathryn A. McDermott from the University of Massachusetts, Erica Frankenberg from Pennsylvania State University, and Ann Elizabeth Blankenship from the University of Southern Mississippi, analyzed TASAP’s design, the Department of Education’s involvement, and how grantees ultimately used the federal funds.

In their report they explain why they felt studying TASAP was so important, despite it being “just a small, relatively invisible technical assistance program.” For them, it offers an opportunity to better understand what factors are most likely to help promote, or inhibit, successful diversity initiatives.

Overall, TASAP’s results were mixed. Despite all districts articulating a commitment to promoting diversity when they applied for TASAP funding, a majority did not end up using the money in a way that emphasized diversity. Districts often spent the funds on other local priorities, like balancing the budget.

Researchers found that federal officials did not have much of a strategy, other than generally feeling as though districts were better positioned than they were to determine appropriate forms of technical assistance. The Department of Education was unwilling to clearly define what “diversity” should mean and provided minimal oversight throughout the program.

While deferring to local districts sounds reasonable, researchers found that, in practice, other issues tended to “crowd out” diversity from the political agenda. Many of the districts were struggling with shrinking school budgets and faced pressure to reduce transportation costs. The researchers found that, “districts with current or past commitments to diversity could not necessarily sustain those commitments in the face of public indifference to diversity as a goal and of other pressing priorities, such as boosting test scores, implementing budget austerity, and attempting to recruit or retain middle-class and white students.”

Implementing TASAP proved to be particularly difficult for districts that wanted to design new diverse student assignment plans, compared to those that just needed help improving or maintaining their existing diversity schemes. Only one district, Champaign, was able to change its student assignment plan to encourage more diversity; it used the TASAP funds to hire a consultant who helped them create a more diverse student assignment algorithm.

Lessons Learned:

Federal involvement can provide political cover for districts that want to promote diversity but feel pressure to prioritize other things; federal involvement helps ensure that integration will not be “crowded out” from the political agenda. The four researchers point out that one problem with the “something beats nothing” TASAP approach was that six districts did not end up actually using their funds to promote diversity.

The researchers ultimately conclude that local technical assistance for diversity initiatives will be most effective if it comes alongside a larger federal strategy. The Department of Education must both provide strong and consistent supports for local communities, while also including diversity incentives within its own federal programs. This can help challenge the perception that diversity is just some optional bonus at best, or a distraction from more important improvements, at worst. Without clear federal commitments—matched by deeds as well as words—local politics are likely to impede integration reforms. And since the groups most likely to benefit from diversity initiatives are those most excluded from local politics, the researchers conclude, “leaving the use or interpretation of such policies up to local governments is likely to limit the extent to which they have their intended effects.”

This week, the National Coalition on School Diversity will be holding its third annual conference in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of school integration efforts. (I’ll be reporting from the event.) While there exists a general feeling that the mandatory integration policies seen in the 20th century are unlikely to return any time soon, advocates also recognize that a strong role for the federal government is still clearly needed. This could mean increased federal support for controlled-choice programs like magnet schools or racially diverse charters, or withholding federal funds from states that permit discriminatory housing policies. As lessons from the TASAP program reveal, if policymakers are serious about promoting diverse local schools—something even the Supreme Court views as a compelling state interest—then tactical federal involvement is a must.

On New Philanthropy, Education Reform, and Eli Broad’s Big Plan for L.A. Schools

Originally published at The American Prospect on September 22, 2015.

The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document yesterday, which seems to confirm earlier reports that the Broad Foundation wants at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students educated in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, 16 percent of students in L.A. Unified attend charters, and according to the report, getting to 50 percent would require creating 260 new schools, for 130,000 students, at a cost of $490 million.

“Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation,” the report stated. “Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.”

Hmmm. That sounds familiar.

Earlier this month, veteran Washington Post journalist Dale Russakoff published a new book, The Prize, which explores education reform efforts in Newark from 2010-2015. Her book details the goals, mistakes, and challenges reformers encountered as they tried to “transform” Newark’s struggling school system—largely through expanding charters, closing “failing” schools, and implementing new teacher pay scales. The political drama and backroom dealings led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offers humbling lessons to all those working to improve public education, no matter where one comes down on the policy specifics.

Like Eli Broad’s vision for Los Angeles, a key goal for Newark education reformers was to make the city a model for the rest of urban America. Booker wanted Newark to be transformed into “a hemisphere of hope” and repeatedly told Zuckerberg that their goal was not just to fix local education, but to develop the “high impact programs and best practices” that could fix education in all major cities. Booker believed that if he could succeed within a difficult district like Newark, then he could succeed anywhere. He emphasized that Zuckerberg’s investment could help lead to the “blueprint for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform its youth.”

This month, HistPhil, a blog that explores the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, has been running an excellent series on philanthropic involvement in education. Their effort is well timed: As billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform, the need to understand what’s historically new, and what’s not, is more important than ever.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public Schools, contributed to the HistPhil series by looking specifically at Mark Zuckerberg’s experiment in Newark. Reckhow notes that there exists a “perennial drive” for philanthropists to create national reform models. She points to the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program in the 1960s, an effort that philanthropists had hoped could serve as a national model for urban policy. “The fallacy of the national replication model—at the expense of truly listening and understanding local circumstances—is a lesson that philanthropists must relearn time and again,” Reckhow says.

Other cities experimenting with education reform are similarly interested in “scaling” their efforts. Many point to the academic gains seen in New Orleans—the urban district with the highest percentage of charter schools in the country—as reason to implement their reforms elsewhere. “We don’t know if similar efforts can be replicated in other cities,” argued Neerav Kingsland, a prominent New Orleans reformer. “But we owe it to the children of this country to try and find out.” Tulane economist Doug Harris, who has conducted the most rigorous research on New Orleans reforms to date, says it’s questionable whether their model would work in other cities given the unique economic and political conditions present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

OK, so reformers and philanthropists are drawn to ideas that can scale—and apparently have been for a long time. Still, how should we be thinking about Eli Broad’s plan to “charterize” L.A.? Is there anything new about today’s crop of philanthropists? Several contributors to the HistPhil blog argue yes.

Sociologist Robin Rogers says that the ideas held by modern philanthropists reflect those commonly seen in the venture capital world. She cites an influential article from 1997 in The Harvard Business Review that encouraged philanthropists to pursue social change using tactics commonly employed in the business sector. “Considered to be more muscular than traditional approaches to philanthropy, the new philanthropy appeals to many men who made money in tech or finance sectors,” Rogers writes. “These (primarily) men have great faith in the tools and techniques that they used to disrupt the old economy and usher in the new one.”

While modern philanthropists share some similarities with their rich predecessors, Rogers argues that today’s bunch are far more likely to focus on “institutional pressure points” rather than provide support for a diverse set of projects. (She points to the Gates Foundation’s involvement in promoting the Common Core standards as an example, as well as dogged support for expanding charter schools).

Jeffrey W. Snyder, a postdoctoral research fellow in education, philanthropy, and advocacy at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, also wrote a HistPhil post exploring differences between “old” and “new” philanthropy—specifically in terms of their priorities and philanthropic methods. For one thing, Snyder finds that “new foundation granting in recent years far surpasses the total given by old foundations.”

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

Source: Jeffrey W. Snyder, HistPhil blog

He also says that newer foundations do indeed have different priorities compared to older ones. The latter tends to give substantially to university-based programs and research that aims to improve existing educational systems, while newer foundations donate heavily to charter schools and other organizations that push for more radical change.

We don’t yet know what’s going to happen with Eli Broad’s plan to “reach 50 percent charter market share” within Los Angeles public schools. And it wouldn’t be fair to assume he’ll behave just as Mark Zuckerberg did in Newark, or as other billionaires have elsewhere. Still, paying attention to historical precedent is important, and there seems to be sufficient reason to be wary. As The Washington Post’s art critic Philip Kennicott wrote just days ago, Eli Broad “is a self-made man…who has also built and burned bridges all across [Los Angeles]. Ask around, and no one seems to like him, though many call him effective…They admire his brilliance, covet his money, fear his power and lament his character, which is described as imperious, egomaniacal and relentless.”

School Choice and the Chaotic State of Racial Desegregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 15th, 2015.

In 2013, a group of white parents in northeast Arkansas tried to transfer their children out of the predominately black Blytheville School District. Like many low-income, majority-black districts, Blytheville’s schools are struggling: state officials recently labeled two of its schools as “academically distressed.”

That same year, the Arkansas state legislature passed a law allowing students to transfer between school districts, unless their local district still had a federal order to desegregate. Blytheville said it was indeed still under federal mandate, and thus the white parents could not transfer their children out. The parents sued, arguing that Blytheville’s desegregation order had ended decades ago, and that they had a constitutional right to switch districts. In 2014, a district court dismissed the case,and on August 31st, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee public school choice. On September 11th, the plaintiffs filed a petition for rehearing.

Whether or not the parents prevail, the Blytheville legal battle reveals a lot about the confused state of school desegregation six decades after Brown v. Board. While the appellate judges focused on whether the plaintiffs’ claims were matters of constitutional import, they sidestepped on whether Blytheville is, or isn’t, still under federal desegregation. That question will surely be litigated in the future, but as it turns out, it’s a surprisingly difficult one to answer, and not just for Blytheville.

In hundreds of cities nationwide, parents, school officials, and even legal experts have struggled to figure out exactly where districts once under federal desegregation now stand. Decades of bad record keeping and lax federal oversight have significantly undercut the power of court-ordered desegregation, and a growing movement around school choice has made the policy discussions around structural racism even that much more complex.

IN 1989, ARKANSAS passed a school choice law that permitted students to transfer to neighboring districts, depending on their race. “No student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student’s race exceeds the percentage in the student’s resident district,” the law stated. It was an attempt to both promote school choice while also prevent the resegregation of Arkansas public schools. But in 2012, a federal court ruled the statute unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Public School Choice Act of 2013, passed to replace the 1989 law, allowed students to transfer between districts regardless of race, but placed several new restrictions on transfers. Legislators said that transfers could not result in a net enrollment change of more than 3 percent for each district, and that districts still under federal desegregation can be exempted from the law.

During the 2013-2014 school year, 23 districts, among them Blytheville, claimed exemption from the new Public School Choice Act, out of a total of 232. To claim exemption, districts just had to notify the Arkansas Department of Education that it planned to do so. “There appears to be no process in place for validation of these exemptions, theoretically allowing any district, regardless of history of desegregation, to claim an exemption,” University of Arkansas researchers wrote in a 2013 report. They found that six of the 23 exempted districts did not even cite a specific court case when they notified the state Department of Education. And some cases that districts did cite raised questions of legitimacy or relevancy. Attorneys representing the Blytheville parents, for example, argue that the school district inappropriately cites Brown v. Board of Education, a local desegregation order that was dismissed in 1978, and a voting rights case from 1996.

“State officials, reluctant to tread on the ground of federal litigation, refuse to challenge these claims,” wrote the attorneys in their petition for rehearing filed last week. “Thus, using old federal cases, districts falsely claim unfinished desegregation obligations to nullify state education policy and rights. Citizens cannot intervene in those closed cases to stop this farce.”

I was surprised to hear that Arkansas state officials could not validate districts’ requests for exemption by referring to a comprehensive list of schools still under federal desegregation. Surely this all must be tracked somewhere? But upon further investigation, I learned that determining which districts are still under federal order turns out to be a far messier and legally murky process than I initially understood.

A report published in 2007 by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that as of May 2007, the United States remained party to 266 lawsuits with active court-ordered desegregation mandates. “There are, of course, many more such cases to which the United States is not a party, but no comprehensive list of these cases currently exists,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, many cases were initiated in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the original players have either moved on or in some cases passed away. In such instances, not even the school districts understand the scope of the court orders that bind them and little reliable information exists that can provide a complete picture as to the nature of ongoing court-ordered desegregation.”

I reached out to Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist who has been tracking the impacts of school districts released from court-ordered desegregation, to learn more about why people can’t seem to agree on whether districts are still under federal mandate.

He said that when researching whether districts were still, or had ever been, under federal desegregation, he and his colleagues learned it was a harder question to answer than they had originally expected. “We’d call up people at school districts and sometimes we’d talk to them, and we’d talk to the lawyer, or the central office administrator, or the secretary, whoever would answer questions, and sometimes even the legal office didn’t seem to really know the answer,” he said. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist, cited similar issues in a 2014 ProPublica investigation, finding that, “officials in scores of school districts do not know the status of their desegregation orders, have never read them, or erroneously believe that orders have been ended.”

With the passage of time, poor record keeping, and a lack of consistent court oversight, many districts had nobody left who really remembered, or cared, what their legal obligations were. “Districts seemed unable to tell us if they were under a court order more often than you would think, or different people would say different things,” Reardon said.

Poor record keeping helps explain some confusion, perhaps even for many of the 23 Arkansas districts that claimed exemption, but it didn’t quite clarify what’s going on with Blytheville—where attorneys do point to a specific case, Franklin v. Board of Directors of Blytheville School Dist. No. 5, as evidence that the district is no longer under federal desegregation. A district judge dismissed Blytheville’s court order in 1978, without appeal. So what exactly is there to debate here?

“There’s also a fuzziness about what it means to be ‘released’,” said Reardon, largely thanks to judicial developments in the early ‘90s. In its Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision, reached in 1991, the Supreme Court created the concept of “unitary status”—a designation that could be applied to districts found to have complied with desegregation orders “in good faith.” Unitary status meant districts could be released once and for all from court oversight, even if resegregation was likely. And one year later, the justices ruled in Freeman v. Pittsthat districts could be released from desegregation in phases, rather than all at once.

“I’ve never gotten a clear understanding of what it means to be ‘unitary.’ I think it’s a slippery concept, it’s harder to nail down,” said Reardon. “I can imagine, based on the people I’ve talked to in different districts that there could be cases where people think they’d been released and some people think they weren’t because they were relying on different criteria and different definitions.”

Blytheville was released from desegregation before the concept of unitary status came about, and this seems to be at the crux of the contemporary legal dispute. In December 2014, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker found Blytheville to still be under desegregation and wrote, “The Court acknowledges plaintiffs’ argument that, for many years after 1978, the BSD did not operate as if it were under a desegregation order or agency mandate. The Court views this as irrelevant to the issue of whether the district court declared, explicitly or implicitly, that the BSD achieved unitary status, and the Court views the district court’s lack of a finding of unitary status as controlling.” In other words, the judge said that without a unitary status designation, Blytheville can’t consider itself released from its desegregation mandate.

BLYTHEVILLE-SPECIFIC QUESTIONS aside, Arkansas legislators are still left trying to craft fair and equitable school choice policies. The 2013 law was updated this year, and the new version requires school districts that seek exemptions to “submit proof from a federal court” that they are entitled to one.

But issues still remain. “Districts must show documentation in the new law, but it’s not actually that effective because no one sorted out what it means to have documentation,” said Gary Ritter, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. “People are still citing Brown v. Board.”

Open-enrollment advocates argue that school choice increases healthy competition between districts, and creates more equitable opportunities for disadvantaged students. They also believe that school choice allows more families to access schools that fit their particular needs.

Critics worry that school choice policies will disproportionately hurt low-income students and racial minorities, since the more advantaged students with the means and ability to leave struggling districts are more likely to do so. Social science researchers have found that segregation and school choice policies are often closely linked. When Minnesota instituted an open-enrollment program in 1988, researchers found that it led to increased segregation, as more white students left racially diverse districts to attend predominately white ones

So far, this has not been a major issue in Arkansas. A University of Arkansas policy brief published in February found there to be “very little change in the percent white enrollment due to school choice” since the 2013 law was enacted.

Open-enrollment advocates also note that however well-intentioned, the current law effectively denies choice to students who attend some of the lowest-performing schools in the state—those who might benefit the most from leaving. Exempted districts have a higher proportion of ethnic and racial minorities, have more students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and have lower student achievement and graduation rates, on average, than non-exempt districts.

However, Arkansas does not guarantee free transportation for all students traveling between districts, which suggests that even if no districts were exempt, low-income students whose parents could not afford to transport them to and from school each day would still be less likely to benefit from interdistrict school choice.

Ritter thinks that the state will have to ultimately be clearer about what qualifies as a meaningful reason for exemption. “We have lawyers at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). I get that there is some gray area about what exactly constitutes desegregation, but in my view, the ADE should come up with a set of rules, apply those set of rules, and generate a list. And maybe it needs to go to a court and the judges need to figure out if that’s a reasonable set of rules, but I imagine that would be better than go through all this ambiguity.”

The political and legal questions that Arkansas is wrestling with mirror the broad tensions that school districts throughout the country face: how to promote school choice without fostering racial segregation—admirable, but often incongruous goals.

Welcome to the Courtroom That Is Every Renter’s Nightmare

Originally published in Next City (with illustrations by Sky Kalfus!) on September 14th, 2015.
Deborah Jennings lives in a house in East Baltimore with her daughter and granddaughter. When she first moved in nearly five years ago, she was working as a nursing support technician, helping to draw blood. Hours were long, but she was able to pay her bills. That changed two years ago, when she became disabled and had to stop working. Without a steady paycheck, 57-year-old Jennings has struggled to pay her rent, and each month, that means a trip to rent court.

Each courtroom visit, the same complaints are made, the same issues described, and the same ultimatum given: Jennings must pay her rent or risk eviction. Although the conditions of her house are poor — the basement sink had water running for two months straight, paint hangs from her roof and water has settled in the ceilings — Jennings is in no position to negotiate. “You can start talking, but then the judges say, ‘I understand, but we’re here in reference to this rent, do you owe this rent?’ They don’t want to hear whether or not you have any issues,” Jennings says. “They don’t want none of that.”

“I’m not expecting to live here free,” she adds. “I said bear with me, you’re going to get your rent.”

Each year, Baltimore landlords file roughly 150,000 cases in rent court, which is housed in the District Court of Maryland. The city has 125,000 occupied rental units. Many tenants, like Jennings, are taken multiple times per year.

Despite its undeniable public impact, rent court remains one of city’s least transparent institutions. Any public records are hard to come by and in an era of metrics and open data, analysis of courtroom verdicts appears to be nonexistent.

“People know about it, but there’s no interest to understand why this keeps happening year after year,” says Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. “The whole system just does not function as it should.”

In the neighborhood of Oliver, where Jennings lives, nearly a third of families live below the poverty line, many of them on blighted blocks checkered with vacancy. Yet Oliver, along with other sections of Baltimore, is slowly beginning to see population trends reverse and new investment trickle in. With new residents and development come higher rents and more pressure for tenants like Jennings to pay up or get out.

“There is a lot of development in Oliver, a lot of new homeowners, but there are still a lot of people without a lot of money here,” says Darryl Dunaway, office manager and community organizer with the Oliver Community Association. “We hear about rent court all day. From 9 a.m. to 12, I am sending people down to 501 East Fayette Street for eviction prevention. I sent someone there this morning.”

Dunaway says that the community association and others like it around the city help as many people as they can each month, but there is only so much that can be done. “If you can’t pay one month, there is help. You come back next month and you are on your own,” he says.

Originally created to provide a nationwide model of justice for landlords and tenants, Baltimore’s housing court today serves as little more than a state-run rent collection agency, financed by taxpayers and the beleaguered renters themselves who pay court fees for each judgment ruled against them.

“The court system is not for the tenant,” says Jennings wearily. “It just becomes a money thing. It’s no longer about human beings.”

A Court Designed for Tenants

In 1936, the Baltimore Sun published a series of articles that illustrated some of the horrific conditions of Baltimore slums — where 40 percent of the city then lived. With the highest proportion of substandard housing among America’s big cities, local Baltimore officials moved to take action. But by 1941, unsatisfied with the city’s slow progress, some individuals formed the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to apply more pressure. What emerged in Baltimore — a campaign for new building and sanitation codes, and stronger mechanisms for enforcement — would eventually influence the wave of urban renewal across the country, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Housing Act of 1954.

The Baltimore Plan, as it came to be known, was based on a model of setting — and vigorously enforcing — minimum housing standards. The hope was to one day clean up all of Baltimore’s slums; if some delinquent properties had to be removed, so be it. Besides beefing up the number of housing inspections, reformers also wanted to create a special housing court designed to enforce the new standards. Even in the 1950s, regular courts were fairly overwhelmed, and disputes like rental issues were simply low-priority cases. The idea was to create a new space where both landlords and tenants could come in and expect a fair and thorough hearing. The courts would hold landlords accountable to health and sanitation standards, while landlords could expect the backing of the court if tenants were damaging their property or failing to pay rent. Baltimore’s rental housing court would become the first of its kind in the country. Today, most cities have similar systems in place.

“It was supposed to be about fundamentally changing the way property relations work,” says Daniel Pasciuti, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies Baltimore’s rent court.

By the late 1960s and ’70s, widespread tenants’ rights changes were taking place all over the United States. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act became law, barring housing discrimination. Six years later, the federal government launched the Section 8 program, offering rental vouchers so eligible low-income tenants could live in private buildings, and in turn, requiring landlords to afford federally subsidized tenants a new set of rights. Perhaps the most notable reform, however, came from a federal ruling in 1970, Javins v. First National Realty Corp., where the D.C. Circuit ruled that if a living situation is deemed uninhabitable, the tenant is freed from his obligation to pay rent. This establishment of “the implied warrant of habitability” was widely seen as a revolution in landlord-tenant relations; it set the precedent for treating leases as contracts between landlords and tenants, a change considered to be more modern and fair. Tenants would now have the right to introduce evidence of housing code violations if they were sued for late rent, and if the living situation were found unacceptable, the tenant would not have to pay.

But in recent years, housing courts look less like the guardian against slum conditions imagined by New Deal-era advocates and far more like other municipal courts that target low-level offenders and focus disproportionately on the poor.

After visiting rent court in the 1990s, University of Maryland law professor Barbara Bezdek concluded that, beneath “the veneer of due process,” litigants “who are members of socially subordinated groups” are systematically excluded. Though rent court was originally meant to be an accessible space where tenants and landlords could speak directly to a judge without a lawyer, the reality is that the arrangement favors the landlords. Bezdek found that differences in speech, the effects of poverty and the unduly high hurdles tenants were asked to overcome to even raise a defense prevented them from being truly heard. All in all, Bezdek described the legal dynamics as “a charade.” In the two decades since, not much has changed.

A Judicial “Charade”

On a typical day in rent court, the average number of scheduled cases ranges from 800 to 1,000. Shah says the court’s “dirty little secret” is that it depends on the overwhelming majority of summoned tenants to not show up — meaning default wins for the landlord — because there’s no way judges could ever hear as many cases as they schedule. Mark Scurti, associate judge at Baltimore City’s District Court, agrees they would not be able to handle as many cases as they schedule if all tenants were to appear. “It would put a tremendous strain on our current staffing and judges,” he says.

For tenants who do show up to court, it’s not much better. “The court really operates like a giant black box. I have a friggin’ Ph.D. and I’m sitting there like, if this were me and I was actually there [for a case], I would have no idea what’s going on,” says Pasciuti. “There’s no direction, there’s nobody there to explain anything to you.” While some legal aid groups try to offer assistance, their availability is minimal, and most tenants go in without professional help. On days with full dockets, a case can easily receive less than 30 seconds of judicial review.

Rent court is one of the few courts in Maryland’s judiciary system for which no digitized records are available. Whereas all other court cases are filed online, no similar computer system has ever existed for these housing disputes; everything must be manually processed and gets filed away into a vault. Relatedly, no court records are available to determine things like the number of judgments ruled in the landlords’ favor, or how many times an individual tenant is brought to court annually. “I think those are critical numbers to know, and I’m all about watching statistics and watching trends,” says Scurti, who hopes the court will be included in a statewide electronic court filing initiative that is being rolled out over the next couple years. “Why we’ve never been electronic before, I don’t know,” he says. “I suspect it has to do with funding.”

Obtaining data on the number of evictions is similarly difficult. While the sheriff’s office tallies monthly eviction stats for rent court stakeholders to review, it does not make the data easily accessible to the public. It took several weeks for the city to agree to share with me that they had a total of 6,309 evictions in 2014. Housing advocates say the number has hovered around 7,000 evictions annually for the last 10 years. An Abell Foundation report published in 2003 found that the chances of eviction are greater if one rents in Baltimore than in comparable cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Rent court is easily one of the state’s speediest judicial proceedings. Landlords can file for trial a mere one day after rent is late, no matter what the reason. In other states, like New York, landlords must serve tenants with a “rent demand” that gives them three or five days to pay overdue rent before an eviction case is started. New York tenants who do not receive these notices can raise that as a defense in court, says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. There is no similar pre-filing period required in Baltimore, leading to, what Shah describes as, “an enormous amount of unnecessary litigation.”

Such a rapid system also gives tenants little time to prepare their defenses, but from the landlord’s perspective, the process has to be quick. “On a large commercial scale [court speed] is not such an importance because they have an ability to withstand not getting rent, but when you’re not a commercial landlord and you have maybe just three, four units, or just one unit, plus a mortgage on the property, [not getting] your rent is a big deal,” says Dennis Hodge, a lawyer who has been representing landlords in the Baltimore area since the mid 1980s. “Most landlords do not want to do evictions, they prefer just to get their money,” he adds.

But when tenants are unable or unwilling to pass over that money, the courtroom’s speed comes into play again. With hundreds of cases to hear in a day, the judges have little time to hear the details of a tenant’s situation. And without professional legal assistance, tenants are generally unable to defend themselves against common chicanery like landlords tacking on additional charges veiled as rent.

Judges often ask tenants why they don’t just move if a rental is uninhabitable or too expensive. “People can’t afford to just pick up and move!” exclaims Detrese Dowridge, a 30-year-old single mother who has gone to rent court three time since May 2013. Dowridge’s Northwest Baltimore home had cracked walls and windows, scurrying mice and roaches, and a leaky ceiling. “And even if they can move,” she says, “then the person who comes in after them will still be stuck with the [same] landlord getting away with whatever.”

“There’s a lot of blaming and shaming the poor in the courtroom,” explains Shah. “I think the spirit with which the court operates is that you have to deserve your housing.”

Reforming Rent Court

Without a jury or many headline-making cases, civil courtroom proceedings have typically flown under the public’s radar. That is beginning to change. A Department of Justice report issued in the wake of police officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson singled out the Missouri municipal court for “constitutionally deficient” procedures that “undermine the court’s role as a fair and impartial judicial body.”

Now attorneys at the Public Justice Center have teamed up with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a Baltimore-based human rights organization, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a local activist group, to try and change the frustrating realities of rent court. With $280,000 in grant funding from the Abell Foundation, they hope to lead a court reform initiative and promote greater awareness about housing evictions around the city.

“The bare minimum allowable for any human dignity in the rental housing system is for this court to be fixed,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with RTHA.

“Our members that go through rent court are just defeated,” she adds. “They feel there is no dignity. It’s just really, really dehumanizing for them.”

Pasciuti, with a team of Johns Hopkins students, has been helping the three organizations conduct surveys and analyze their quantitative data. The goal is to collect meaningful information about what actually happens in rent court. “Our theory is if the public narrative about low-income renters was articulated, presented with numbers, substantiated in a really sound way, and we got it out to the right people, then we can get to a point where there is the political will, and even maybe the business interest to fix this system,” says Shah. The groups hope to go public with a completed dataset of over 300 tenant surveys, augmented by information from the court proceedings and regulatory agencies, later this fall.

In addition to bringing tenant voices into the public discussion, the Public Justice Center also aims to launch a legal strategy, in order to get sufficient clarity about what “rent” means in a residential lease context. Shah says they are considering either a class-action lawsuit or litigating through the appeals process to investigate tricky lease clauses that landlords often use to get more money or to evict tenants.

The activists’ timing might be just right. Scurti, the Baltimore judge frustrated by the lack of good data collection in his court, says he also wants to move toward a formal evaluation of docket patterns to see how the court can operate better. “I want to understand the process and to reevaluate it,” he says. He is particularly interested in figuring out how technology might help the court function more smoothly.

Ultimately, all sides agree that the court today is a flawed and inefficient operation. “You’re not going to encounter a judge, or a landlord, or an advocate for tenants who will tell you things are going well,” says Shah. The problem, however, is that improvement means different things for everyone involved. Despite the relative speed at which these cases move, Baltimore landlords, for instance, still feel the whole legal process should be adjudicated much more quickly and with less bureaucracy. Tenant advocates, on the other hand, want increased procedural accessibility and due process.

A promising place to look may be Massachusetts, which has one of the best housing court models in the country. First established in the 1970s, housing court officials in Massachusetts have prioritized creating a system that is accessible to both landlords and tenants.

In addition to a robust legal services community, Massachusetts employs court staff to serve as mediators between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes without going directly before a judge. According to Paul J. Burke, deputy court administrator, the majority of rental disputes are settled this way. The typical length of a mediation session is around 30 minutes, which can provide a greater sense of dignity than Baltimore’s hasty proceedings. In some cases, mediations can even last for several hours.

Ultimately it comes down to fairness. “From day one back in the early ’70s, it was anticipated that many people would be self-represented, would perhaps be lower-income, and perhaps not have the highest level of educational training,” says Burke. “The policies, the processes and the forms in our courts have always been set up with that in mind.”

Outsourcing Substitute Teachers in Philadelphia Gets Off to a Bad Start

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 11, 2015.
Last spring, officials from the Philadelphia School District announced plans to contract out substitute-teaching services, saying they could not effectively manage the responsibilities in-house. At the time, approximately 60 percent of substitute teaching jobs were filled daily, and officials said a private vendor would be able to fill more open positions. Naomi Wyatt, the chief talent officer for Philly public schools, said they paid more than $18.6 million annually for substitute teaching expenses, including reimbursement costs for traditional teachers who fill in when subs cannot be found.

The announcement effectively meant that the district would seek to use non-unionized substitute teachers that they could pay at “market-rate.” It eventually hired Source4Teachers, a New Jersey-based company that provides schools with substitute teachers, substitute paraprofessionals, and substitute support staff. The company works in nearly 200 districts throughout the U.S. and dozens locally, but Philadelphia School District is its largest client.

Though the cash-strapped urban district denied they were contracting out to save costs, the pay differences for substitutes between last year and this year are substantial. Source4Teachers pays between $75 and $90 per day for uncertified substitutes, and $90 to $110 for credentialed ones. By contrast, the district had paid $126.76 for uncertified substitutes, and $160.10 for credentialed ones. The biggest difference is for retired substitutes: the district had paid retired subs up to $242 daily, depending on their educational degrees and college credits; under Source4Teachers, retired educators receive the same rate of pay as all other teachers.

“They assured the teachers that their pay would be ‘similar’, that was the word they used,” said retired teacher Kenneth Schamberg to The Philadelphia Inquirer in July. “Since when is a 61.9 percent pay cut similar?”

The new academic school year started this week, and The Inquirer reported today that Source4Teachers is off to an embarrassing start. On the first day of school, it had filled only 11 percent of open substitute teaching positions, which meant 477 city classrooms did not have teachers. The rate and number of vacancies were roughly the same on Wednesday and Thursday, too.

Owen Murphy, a spokesperson for Source4Teachers, said they hope their “learning curve will soon go away” and that they will produce more teachers fast. So far, the firm has just 300 workers credentialed and ready to take on substitute teaching jobs, but Murphy says hundreds more are currently in the midst of applying. He also said he expected far more substitutes who worked for the district last year to apply to work with Source4Teachers, but so far that hasn’t happened. They hope to eventually have a pool of 5,000 substitutes ready to call on for work.

Wyatt said that other big urban districts like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit also outsource substitute-teaching services.

The president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Jerry Jordan, suggested that district officials intentionally manufactured a substitute teaching shortage in order to outsource the jobs. He referenced a 2012 Boston Consulting Group report that recommended privatizing the positions. Jordan told The Notebook, a non-profit education news site in Philadelphia, that he knew of qualified substitute teachers who were not called in to work.

“It’s unclear how much money this move will save the School District. But we have no doubt that this will have a tremendous negative impact on educator morale, which is already at an all-time low in Philadelphia,” Jordan wrote. “These are the kinds of actions that, in the long run, will severely compromise the ability of our educators to create positive learning environments for our children.”