Building Trades Union Imposes Vaccine Mandate on Itself

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 25, 2021.
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As the country continues to wrestle with efforts to increase vaccination rates, an international building trades union took the rare step on Wednesday of stating clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), which represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, issued a statement urging the labor movement to “lead by example.” It goes further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.

“We’re not looking for anything at the bargaining table, and we’re not looking at our support in return for something else,” said incoming IUPAT General President Jim Williams Jr. “We feel COVID is a true health and safety risk on the job site, and if the employers mandate it, we want to be supportive. There’s a ton of mandates that employers already put out for health and safety.”

Williams said his union lost 65 members to COVID-19 last year. “What we in unionized construction pride ourselves in is being the safest workforce in the industry,” he told the Prospect. “We’d be crazy to think that we’re promoting health and safety by not having our workforce vaccinated at this point.”

The IUPAT’s new stance will take shape in three ways. Beginning October 15, the international union will require all of its own non–bargaining unit office and field employees to show proof of vaccination. Given this new policy, their statement reads, “it is only reasonable that they apply the same approach to the interpretation of their national collective bargaining agreements.” In practice, this means that for the roughly 150 employers across the country who have agreements with the IUPAT, the international union is declaring that any employer vaccine mandate will be considered “consistent” with their contracts as currently written, and no grievances will be filed to contest such a requirement.

Lastly, the IUPAT is providing guidance to its local affiliates (known as “district councils”), which likely have the right to demand bargaining over vaccine mandates. “The IUPAT expects that each District Council facing this issue will consider the facts on the ground in their jurisdiction—trends in infection rates as well as local or state restrictions—and choose a course of action that best protects our members’ health and work opportunities,” the statement reads. “The General Executive Board is seeking to lead by example.”

The IUPAT’s position is nuanced. The union is encouraging immediate support for employer vaccine mandates, while also encouraging local affiliates to put support for the mandates directly into their contracts, to stave off the duty to file member grievances over the issue.

But negotiating the latter need not come before the former, as other unions have called for.

ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, KEY OFFICIALS in the IUPAT met together in Las Vegas and discussed vaccinations. The rise of the delta variant helped motivate union leaders to take a firmer stance. “There’s still a continued pandemic, and when people take their eyes off the ball, especially in the workplace, that’s when things get bad,” Williams said.

There’s broad support among the American public for vaccine mandates. The COVID States Project, a polling group out of Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern, and Northwestern Universities, found earlier this summer that 64 percent of Americans backed the government requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, including 45 percent of Republicans. Morning Consult separately found even 38 percent of Republicans backed employer-mandated vaccine mandates.

In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said federal laws don’t preclude employers from requiring vaccination against COVID-19, though businesses may be required to provide workers accommodations for religious reasons and disabilities. Several unions have struck deals with employers on vaccine mandates, most recently the Walt Disney Co. with 40,000 workers at Disney World in Florida, who are represented by the Services Trades Council Union.

But for now, most international unions, even those actively encouraging vaccinations, have not gone as far as the IUPAT. Earlier this month, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), issued a statement saying that, with the delta variant spreading, vaccination is “more essential than ever.” But he stopped short of expressing support for employer mandates. “As employers establish vaccination policies, AFSCME will address the impact on workers through bargaining to ensure that the front-line heroes of this pandemic are treated fairly,” Saunders said.

Likewise, when Tyson Foods issued a vaccination requirement for its U.S. workforce earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 24,000 Tyson meatpackers, issued a critical statement, saying employers should negotiate such policies with their workers first. “While we support and encourage workers getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and have actively encouraged our members to do so, it is concerning that Tysons is implementing this mandate before the FDA has fully approved the vaccine,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone had said. “This vaccine mandate must be negotiated so that these workers have a voice in the new policy.” (The UFCW separately supports a national mask mandate, and Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, Comirnaty, was approved by the FDA on Monday.)

SEIU, which is strongly encouraging vaccination for its members, also warns on its website that “employers may commit an unfair labor practice if they fail to bargain with the union before implementing a mandatory vaccination program.” Last week, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new vaccine mandate for all health care workers, nursing home workers, and public-school employees, the local SEIU affiliate president released a statement noting, “When it comes to the vaccine mandate, there is no consensus among our membership. People strongly support the mandate and people strongly oppose the mandate. But I think we can all agree that having a say in how this new policy impacts our lives is a good thing.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, said in late July that any new vaccine policy must be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is currently negotiating a vaccine mandate with AT&T, and attempting to find solutions like permanent at-home work for workers who oppose the mandate.

Some unions, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the American Postal Workers Union, have come out against vaccination mandates writ large. Others, like the American Foreign Service Association and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, have expressed support for vaccine requirements. “We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot,” said IFPTE president Paul Shearon.

For his part, Richard Trumka, the recently deceased leader of the AFL-CIO, expressed his support for vaccination mandates just before his death. “If you are coming back into the workplace,” Trumka had said, “you have to know what’s around you.”

Leaders at Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS Hesitated to Tell Families About Staff COVID-19 Cases and HVAC Systems In Repair

Originally published in Washington City Paper on August 23, 2021.


Three staff members at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to work in-person on Aug. 11, a fact the school did not share with families until the evening of Friday, Aug. 20, after City Paper asked why parents had not been informed. Students are set to return for in-person classes on Wednesday, Aug. 25. Sundai Riggins, the head of school, says they notify “those who [are] in close contact and those present in the building” when there are positive cases and “no students or families are currently in the building.” 

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 19, school leadership sent an email to parents informing them that their previously scheduled in-person “Meet Your Teacher” day planned for Friday, Aug. 20, would now be held virtually to reduce risk ahead of students returning to school next week.  

That same day, unbeknownst to parents, District Urgent Care staff was on site providing rapid and PCR tests to school employees; DC Health recommends that any close contact, even those who are fully vaccinated, get tested 3 to 5 days after an exposure. While no rapid tests were positive, the results of the PCR tests were still pending as of Friday night.

Friday morning, hours before the virtual parent meetings, school leadership shared staff on a document with talking points to use in their forthcoming discussions, which directed teachers to keep the positive cases to themselves.  

Among other things, if a parent or guardian asked their child’s teacher if someone at the school had gotten COVID—which happened in three confirmed instances in the past week—staff were instructed to say, “ITDS, like almost all other communities, has experienced positive cases of COVID since the pandemic began in March 2020.” The talking points continue to say, “ITDS is dedicated to the balance of transparency with our community while respecting the private health information of students, staff, and families.”

“I felt like we were being asked to lie,” one employee told City Paper.

Teachers and staff returned to the school building on Aug. 11, where roughly 80 employees have been gathering in a large multipurpose room for training and activities. Employees generally wear masks, though face coverings are removed occasionally for snacking and drinking. More than 90 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, according to the school. All staff members, except those with a medical or religious exemption, are required to be fully vaccinated.

The following Monday, Aug. 16, all staff were notified in an email from school COO Kate Keplinger that a fellow employee who had been with them on Wednesday and Thursday the week prior had tested positive. The email said all non-fully-vaccinated people had been notified, and fully vaccinated people should monitor themselves for symptoms for the next 14 days but need not quarantine.

That same day, two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19, a fact school leadership learned about Monday evening, but did not tell staff about until the following morning, when they all gathered together again in-person for training. At 12:27 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, Keplinger reiterated in an email to staff that two more employees had tested positive, and that they had last been inside the school building the day before. She informed staff that District Urgent Care would be available on Thursday to test any staff who was interested. DC Health’s guidance states fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine but should get tested 3 to 5 days after exposure.

City Paper asked if all staff involved in the trainings got the provided PCR and rapid testing. Riggins said “the majority of staff” took a rapid test and did not respond about PCR testing. When asked why the tests were optional rather than required for exposed staff, Riggins said, “Optional testing is in compliance with ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” 

But requiring COVID-19 testing if local public health authorities recommend it, which they currently do, is permitted under both statutes. 

“It is not a violation of the ADA or the Civil Rights Act to mandate testing,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, told City Paper. “If the staff member refuses to be tested, DC Health should order them to be quarantined for 10 to 14 days. Health and safety must always be the highest priority in schools. That means either getting tested or being quarantined. There are no other safe or reasonable options.” 

Riggins did not return multiple requests for additional comment.

One Inspired Teaching employee, worried about the in-person event with parents still on the books for Friday, and about other issues with COVID-19 mitigation at their school, reached out Wednesday afternoon to the Office of the D.C. Auditor. ODCA told the employee they would be treated as a whistleblower, according to the employee, who later reached out to City Paper.

City Paper contacted D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson on Saturday to ask what her office did with the information provided to them by the concerned staff member, and if they could share any correspondence they may have sent to other agencies or Inspired Teaching.

Patterson confirmed an employee reached out, and said they consider the employee “a whistleblower because the individual did not want their name used in any way from concern about possible reprisal.” Patterson said ODCA shared the information they learned from the employee with DC Health in case it could provide additional information beyond what the agency had already learned through the city’s contact tracing program.

Patterson—acknowledging that D.C. government emails are public information unless explicitly exempted under FOIA—shared the following from the email her office sent to DC Health.

Our office received a whistleblower alert from a staff member at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School about an outbreak. I’m sharing it with you as it seemed concerning, especially since an in-person back to school night is scheduled for Friday:

The whistleblower shared that at least 3 symptomatic staff at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School have tested positive for COVID via rapid tests after participating in a staff training conducted inside at the school. Other staff were not informed of these positive cases, and the school leader continued to organize additional days of the in-person training. Staff were also not instructed to quarantine. The school is hosting a large in-person “meet your teacher” event this Friday. The whistleblower is concerned that Friday’s event if it continues could infect more people. Additionally, half of the school does not have a functioning HVAC system nor the ability to open windows. Families have not been informed about the cases nor the lack of ventilation. The whistleblower has communicated with DC Health contact tracers who have been helpful.

Please let us know if more details would be helpful to DC Health. I know you will have at least some of this information via contact tracing.

Also, moving forward, how should school staff report such concerns to DC Health?

Patterson did not say whether DC Health responded to her office’s note.

DC Health did not return requests for comment on this story. 

As noted in Patterson’s email, Inspired Teaching had also been dealing for weeks with ventilation issues, though parents were not informed until Friday night, following inquiries from City Paper. “[W]e are currently repairing parts of our HVAC system, which has caused some cooling units to not work in a few classrooms,” the school told parents that night. At a Back to School Zoom meeting held for parents the prior evening, Inspired Teaching’s presentation read:

Mary Pitts, a parent of two Inspired Teaching students, told City Paper she was comfortable with how the school responded to the positive cases and, given the timing of them, did not feel it was necessary for school leadership to alert parents of those cases or of the broken HVAC systems ahead of students arriving on Wednesday.

“As school is starting every year, people get sick or last minute changes happen, and I very much presume that we, as parents, don’t expect to have insight into all of that,” she said, noting it’s typically hectic for schools before the start of any school year. “I feel for the staff—trying to react in an environment that is changing a lot, but I think [the school] put their protocols in place and it sounds like they deployed them.” Pitts praised the administration for responding to parent feedback around making outdoor lunch an option when weather permits, and said she and other parents are looking forward to sending their children back for in-person learning.

In New York City, Retirees Brace for Switch to Privatized Health Care

Originally published in The Intercept on August 19, 2021. Co-authored with Sam Mellins.
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STARTING IN JANUARY 2022, over a quarter million former New York City government workers and their dependents are set to be shifted off Medicare and on to privatized health insurance. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Municipal Labor Committee, which represents retired New York City employees, announced the move in mid-July, following several months of scrambled protest from bewildered retirees.

The plan has been cast as a necessary measure to rein in mounting health care costs and reduce strain on the city’s budget. While public sector retirees in New York City are currently insured by Medicare, the federal government’s program for people over 65, the city reimburses them for outpatient care, as well as for a “Medigap” plan that offers additional services. City officials and union leaders have negotiated a deal that they claim will save upward of $600 million by switching to Medicare Advantage, the federally funded privatized health insurance program that launched ostensibly to give consumers more choice and reduce Medicare costs.

For months, union leaders have emphasized that despite distressing stories members may have heard about Medicare Advantage, the new plan will yield affordable care at the same level, if not better, for enrolled retirees and their dependents. But retirees who spoke with The Intercept and New York Focus expressed concerns that their health care will become less accessible over time, and health care experts say their fears are not unwarranted.

Retirees who do not want to switch to privatized insurance will have the option to remain in traditional Medicare, but they will need to pay a monthly premium, currently covered by the city, to access the same level of coverage they receive now. That rate is likely to be around $200 a month, estimates Stu Eber, president of the Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations, a group that advocates for retired city workers.

Eber predicts that this option will be infeasible for many older adults. “There are tens of thousands of people … whose pensions are less than $20,000 a year,” he said. “They can’t afford it; they have no choice. They’re going to be in this Medicare Advantage plan.” The new plan has been awarded to a coalition of Emblem Health and Blue Cross known as “The Alliance.”

Now that the plan has been approved, the city and labor committee are doubling down on their efforts to persuade the public that the switch is good policy and the coverage is nothing to be concerned about.

The city points to rising costs associated with traditional Medicare, which have increased nearly 50 percent over the past six years. To make up for the higher costs, co-pays for those who opt to stay in traditional Medicare will begin in January. A side-by-side comparison of the traditional Medicare option and the Medicare Advantage plan, released by the city, shows competitive rates and benefits between the two in the coming year. Some elements of the Medicare Advantage plan, such as annual maximum out-of-pocket costs and primary care physician visits, actually appear friendlier to beneficiaries.

benefit-comparison-1

“This new plan not only mirrors and improves on the GHI Senior Care Plan [the city’s traditional Medicare option], it also includes aggressive oversight to protect member benefits,” read one update from the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union. “Most importantly, under this plan, retirees will still have premium-free access to the same providers and hospitals they now use.”

One flyer from the Municipal Labor Committee says that savings will come from “subsidies” the federal government gives to Medicare Advantage programs because Medicare Advantage “relieve[s] it from much of the back-office tasks” associated with traditional Medicare.

But health insurance experts said that explanation doesn’t hold water. Under Medicare Advantage plans, the federal government pays private insurers, whereas under the current model, the federal government pays providers directly for care.

“It’s not that the federal government is paying for something they weren’t paying for before, it just changes the nature of how they pay,” said David Meyers, an assistant professor at the Brown University School of Public Health.

And indeed, when pressed for details, a de Blasio administration spokesperson acknowledged that “it’s a mischaracterization to call it a subsidy.”

In reviewing the cost-benefit comparison literature, Meyers told The Intercept and New York Focus that the proposed Medicare Advantage plan “appears to be somewhat generous as far as plans go.” He pointed to relatively low out-of-pocket maximum costs of $1,470 and supplemental benefits such as meal delivery on returning from a hospital stay. “It’s not obvious that this is a predatory sort of plan,” he said.

Another health policy expert agreed. “The outlook for the first year looks pretty good,” Tricia Neuman, executive director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program on Medicare Policy, told The Intercept and New York Focus.

But concerns remain for retirees trying to figure out if they’re getting a raw financial deal. Some local health advocates, meanwhile, believe that the shift will create new disparities among New York City retirees across race and gender.

The New York Metro chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program, a national group of health care professionals who support single-payer health insurance, warned that the city’s Medicare Advantage plan will create a bifurcated system: Higher-income, predominantly white retirees will stay on traditional Medicare because they can afford the supplemental Medigap insurance, while lower-income retirees, predominantly people of color, will accept the more restricted Medicare Advantage plan.

Physicians for a National Health Program – NY Metro statement3 pages

The chapter further cautioned that the move to Medicare Advantage could result in gender disparities already demonstrated in worker pay. Among current New York City municipal workers, 58 percent of men earn $70,000 or more, compared to just 36 percent of women. “This disparity in income among retirees is likely to be even greater, since they worked for the city before many of the current measures aimed at decreasing inequalities in the workforce were put in place,” noted Leonard Rodberg, the New York Metro chapter’s research director and a municipal retiree.

These inequities have played out nationally, according to Meyers. “Medigap plans can often be quite expensive, so many lower-income people, who are often minorities, tend to enroll in Medicare Advantage at high rates and Medigap at lower rates,” he said.

Another top concern is whether the costs imposed on retirees would remain similar to traditional Medicare over time or whether the plan might shift more costs on to older adults in years to come.

The present cost-sharing arrangement has been locked in through 2026, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration told The Intercept and New York Focus. But uncertainties surrounding federal funding of Medicare Advantage and less stringent pricing regulations than exist in traditional Medicare mean that the post-2026 future is less certain.

“This arrangement assumes that Medicare will continue to provide favorable payment to Medicare Advantage plans that enable them to provide extra benefits,” said Neuman. “That may continue into the future, but it may not.”

Many retirees are also concerned about the plan’s requirement that enrollees obtain permission from insurance companies before accessing certain recommended procedures. A significant portion of the savings achieved by most Medicare Advantage plans hinges on such preapprovals.

“Gatekeepers are never a good thing,” Eber said. “They stand between you and getting the medical assistance and tests that you need, when you need them.”

A spokesperson for the de Blasio administration said that services requiring such pre-authorization would include inpatient hospital admissions, skilled nursing facility admissions, rehabilitation services, complex radiology, prosthetics and orthotics, and transplants.

“To wait around for somebody to say, ‘Yes, you can have an MRI; yes, you can go to physical therapy; no, I don’t think you need this test or that test’ — I’m not interested,” said Jane Roeder, a retired city administrator.

Some retirees may even be receiving misinformation from their own union leadership regarding which services will require authorization under the new plan. A United Federation of Teachers spokesperson told The Intercept and New York Focus that the new Medicare Advantage plan “will have to adhere by the same ‘prior authorization’ requirements as [traditional] Medicare.”

But other than for “durable” medical equipment (such as walkers or oxygen tanks), prosthetics, and certain physician-administered drugs, traditional Medicare very rarely requires preapprovals.“

Diane Archer, president of Just Care, an informational site that offers health and financial tips to older people, said suggesting that retirees will get the same health care fundamentally obscures the differences between the two programs. “They may offer the same benefits, but the way Medicare Advantage plans ‘save money’ is by covering fewer services,” she said. “What few people understand is that ‘same benefits’ is very different from ‘same health care.’”

On top of pre-authorization, Medicare Advantage plans tend to come with more restrictive networks than traditional Medicare, which offers access to the vast majority of physicians nationally. “While the plan is PPO and claims to have a very large network, PPO plans can still guide you to specific providers,” said Meyers. “I can’t say if the plan will have a robust network in the NY area- if it does, it might be fine, but one of the largest benefits of [traditional Medicare] is that there are really no network restrictions.”

The city and union leadership argue that retirees need not worry. According to an FAQ published by the city’s Office of Labor Relations, 640,000 out of 850,000 Medicare providers nationally are contractually obligated to accept their new Medicare Advantage plan.

A de Blasio administration spokesperson dismissed concerns regarding whether the remaining 210,000 will accept the plan, noting that those providers will be compensated at the same rates that Medicare pays. In the case of recalcitrant providers, a call center will assist retirees in getting payments to relevant physicians, the spokesperson said.

According to the FAQ, as a last resort, retirees can pay their providers and submit the claims to the health insurance companies for reimbursement.

Notably, the city is touting the fact that Hospital for Special Surgery and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — two top-tier local hospitals that typically do not accept Medicare Advantage — have agreed to participate in their plan. But there is no binding legal obligation yet, a de Blasio spokesperson confirmed, though the administration expects to finalize an agreement with the hospitals before January. “Both facilities have agreed to continue to see our Medicare Advantage members on an out-of-network basis while negotiations are underway,” the spokesperson added.

But to some retirees, the assumption seems risky.

“How many hospitals are there in this country that don’t accept any Medicare Advantage plan? Why all of a sudden will they accept this one plan?” asked Eber, who noted that he represents retirees living all over the country. “We don’t share the confidence that the city and the Municipal Labor Council have. We hope they’re right, but the proof will be in the pudding come January.”

A spokesperson from Memorial Sloan Kettering declined to comment. Tracy Hickenbottom, a spokesperson for Hospital for Special Surgery, said, “We work with patients, payers and community leaders to demonstrate value and best serve as many people as possible. This enables us to offer acceptance of most major insurance plans for Hospital services, including several Medicare Advantage plans.”

NEW YORK MUNICIPAL retirees are not alone in wondering what an increased push toward Medicare Advantage means for them. As of this year, 42 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, up from 24 percent a decade earlier. The Congressional Budget Office projects that share could hit 50 percent by 2026.

“Retiree health benefits have become a significant expense, and employers are looking for ways to meet their obligation and cut costs, which makes Medicare Advantage quite appealing at the moment,” said Neuman.

Despite so many people now on the privatized plans, researchers say they do not have a strong grasp of what kind of health care beneficiaries are actually receiving, especially those who are sickest or have the most complex needs.

This past spring, in an annual federally mandated analysis on Medicare, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission wrote that “the current state of quality reporting in [Medicare Advantage] is such that the Commission can no longer provide an accurate description of the quality of care.”

The plans are also taking a toll on federal coffers, due to overpayments and disenrollments in the final year of life, among other factors. “There is no question that Medicare Advantage is unsustainable in the long term,” said Archer. “It’s driving up Part B premiums, eroding the Medicare trust fund, and costing taxpayers tens of billions a year more than traditional Medicare.”

While support for Medicare Advantage in Congress has been strong and bipartisan for some time, Politico reported on August 3 that some lawmakers and outside groups are pushing “some form of cuts” to the program as a potential source of savings in the budget reconciliation bill. Politically, it may also be easier for the federal government to reduce reimbursements to health insurance companies than to the providers it pays directly through traditional Medicare.

If federal support for Medicare Advantage decreases, costs may rise for city-insured retirees like Josephine Malaysz, who worked for decades as a nurse in the city’s public and private hospitals. Malaysz, whose husband is also a city-insured retiree, views the shift to Medicare Advantage as a poor measure of gratitude for the couple’s long careers in public health.

“My husband worked over 30 years as a paramedic — sometimes he would work 80 hours a week. He loved his job,” she said. “And when I was in the city hospitals, I gave my all to my patients.”

“We gave ourselves to the city, and now you’re retired, and here we go,” she added. “It’s just not respectful.”

New School Year, Same Old Covid Chaos

Originally published in The New Republic on August 17, 2021.

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The dust had seemed to settle on questions of school reopenings—one of the most polarizing political debates of the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, as vaccine shots were administered into arms, and with Congress having authorized billions of new funds for K-12 budgets, it seemed that, for the first time, parents, teachers, and staff could breathe a bit easier. Hope was here, and safe in-person learning was in reach.

Yes, millions of students had opted to stay remote in the spring even when their schools reopened (many parents reported that their child was doing well with virtual school, that it was safer than in-person, or a combination of the two), but leaders were optimistic about autumn, where real normalcy was on the horizon. Some politicians, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, even came out early to proclaim there would be no virtual option in the fall—a decision some cheered for its confident signal that the end was near. 

Yet recent weeks have reintroduced uncertainty, with the delta coronavirus variant; conflicting guidelines on the local, state, and federal levels; and warring politics that seem to escalate by the day. For the millions of students who have already returned to school, and for those still waiting for the school year to start, signs unfortunately now point to continued chaos with quarantines, closures, and fast-changing rules. In other words, we’re looking at a new school year that could look a lot like last year. To make sense of all, here’s an accounting of where things stand, what we know, and what we have yet to learn.


By mid-May, the CDC announced new masking guidelines, emphasizing that fully vaccinated people no longer needed face coverings outdoors and in most indoor settings. The guidelines took many by surprise, and it wasn’t clear how institutions would determine who was vaccinated or not. But such details were largely waved aside. “We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a press conference. 

By early July, the CDC went further, releasing new guidance for schools that said while young children should wear masks, vaccinated teachers and students can learn safely in school buildings without them. The agency recommended three feet of distance where possible, but said if that was infeasible it need not stop a return to in-person learning.

At the time of the new schools guidance, Covid-19 cases were fairly low, and the majority of educators had been at least partially vaccinated. President Biden missed his goal of 70 percent of American adults having a shot in their arms by Independence Day, but his administration said not to worry, that there still had been amazing progress. Yet it was hard to ignore that vaccination rates had slowed nationally, and a new, more transmissible variant loomed.

Nearly three weeks later, the mood around the pandemic was far less sanguine, as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were spiking. Some companies began to push back their return-to-office start days out of an abundance of caution, but there was no similar move to delay school reopenings. Even as some business executives decided it was not yet safe for workers to return, political leaders continued to emphasize that returning to classrooms in August or September would be fine. They pointed to studies from earlier in the pandemic, while acknowledging that the delta variant may complicate those findings. Few were ready to consider any alternative.

On July 27, citing new research on delta, the CDC issued new school guidance, recommending that all students and staff—even if fully vaccinated—wear masks. Only 30 percent of young people ages 12–17 were then fully vaccinated, said Walensky, and the CDC’s data suggested even vaccinated individuals were spreading the virus. 

Still, the CDC’s new warnings came at a time when millions of Americans had lost confidence in the agency’s leadership, and many conservatives saw railing at the CDC as good politics to boot.

On July 29, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring local governments and school districts from requiring masks. Not to be outdone, the next day Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued his own executive order forbidding schools from requiring students to wear masks, going so far as to say it was a matter of “parent rights.” His order, which hinges on one study from Brown University, dismissed the larger body of research showing masks significantly reduce the risk of Covid spread. DeSantis also said Florida would deny funding to districts that defied him. 

Some school districts are indeed defying state bans on masks, and the Biden administration has said it will look to support superintendents who risk retribution. Still, according to data collected by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, currently about half of the nation’s 100 largest school districts are requiring students to wear masks this fall. As of Thursday, just seven were requiring regular testing of both students and staff.  

Vaccinations are adding yet another layer of complication to school reopenings. After months of encouraging voluntary inoculation, the federal government, private employers, and school districts are now moving slowly toward requiring all employees to be vaccinated. Last week, California became the first state to announce that all teachers, school staff, and even parent volunteers would need vaccination. Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district, announced Friday that all staff must be vaccinated—a move also endorsed by its local teachers union.

In late July it seemed unclear whether unions would stand in the way of more aggressive vaccination rules, given their reluctance to overriding collective bargaining agreements. When Biden announced on July 29 his new rule that federal workers be vaccinated or regularly tested, some unions, including the left-leaning American Postal Workers Union, expressed opposition to the top-down dictates.

But public opinion remains strong behind teacher vaccinations, and union leaders quickly came around. (Among parents with school-age children, 60 percent say they think all teachers should be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.) On August 8, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, came out in favor of Covid-19 vaccine requirements. “As a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates,” she said on Meet the Press. Four days later, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, came out in favor of vaccine mandates. Individual local unions have also started to pass resolutions in support.

But student uptake remains spotty among those eligible for the vaccine. As of August 11, in six states, over 60 percent of children ages 12–17 had received at least one dose, while in seven states, 30 percent or fewer had gotten their first shot. Yet many school districts have decided not to require students to inoculate themselves against Covid-19, despite long requiring student immunizations for other diseases. 

In Washington D.C., for example, just 14 percent of Black youth ages 12–15 had received one dose of the vaccine as of August 4, as compared with 51 percent of white students in the same age group. Among 16- and 17-year-olds in the district, just 21 percent of Black students had been vaccinated, while 47 percent of white students had. City leaders say they worry a new mandate for students could inspire backlash, and instead want to incentivize voluntary shots. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced the district would distribute up to 1,200 free AirPods to teens who got vaccinated, as well as award college scholarships to vaccinated students in a raffle. 

After months of stressing that children are not at risk of severe Covid-19 or death, and that the vaccines are good at preventing severe Covid-19 and death, leaders should not be too surprised that some families are hesitant to conclude that vaccinating their kids is worth it. Still, with low youth vaccination rates and the delta strain being more than twice as contagious as previous variants, pediatric cases and hospitalizations have been increasing, and more experts are warning about the risks to children of so-called long Covid.

New research about the potentially waning efficacy of the vaccines is throwing yet another wrench into school reopenings. Experts are seeing much more spread among vaccinated individuals, and one preprint study published last week by the Mayo Clinic suggested the mRNA vaccines may be significantly less effective in protecting against delta infection—as low as 42 percent effectiveness for those inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine.

On Friday, the FDA approved booster shots for certain immunocompromised individuals, a positive step, but many children live with adults who are immunocompromised and not yet eligible for third doses. While parents worry about the health and safety of their children, they’re also weighing the health and safety of their own parents, themselves, their siblings, their co-workers, and their neighbors. Some families will want to wait until their young children are eligible for the vaccines, or until more vulnerable groups are eligible for boosters. 

It’s not hard to see why. In Mississippi, nearly 1,000 children and 300 school staff tested positive for Covid between August 2 and 6, with roughly 5,000 quarantining from exposure. One Arkansas district had an outbreak of 43 cases, leading more than 800 students and staff to quarantine. In Florida, the Palm Beach County district superintendent reported that two days into the new school year, more than 400 students were in quarantine and the district had 134 confirmed cases, with 108 students and 26 staff members infected.

Given the uncertainty around the delta threat, a growing number of families have called for assurance that their children can learn virtually this fall. Even with experts warning that children risk falling behind academically if they continue to learn remotely, some families believe the harms do not outweigh the benefits in a pandemic, especially when many districts plan to be even more lax about testing and contact tracing than they were in 2020.

According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 80 percent of the nation’s 100 largest school districts will now be offering a virtual option; that share doubled in the first two weeks of August alone. However, New York City, the nation’s largest public school district, has not yet agreed to make remote learning available.

Getting kids back into the classroom and easing the burden on working families (especially mothers, who still shoulder most of the child-rearing duties) remain top policy goals, and leaders hope that the new vaccine mandates, the pressure to ramp up mitigation measures, and forthcoming FDA full approval for Covid-19 shots will help limit the spread of the highly contagious strain and ease lingering concerns.

But for those hoping we were finally at the end of the tunnel and could now enjoy calm and relaxed in-person school, the coronavirus has wrought yet another rude awakening.

Steven Holden is the Latest New York Democrat To Try Flipping A Coveted House Seat. Is He Up to The Task?

Originally published in The Intercept on August 11, 2021.
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FLIPPING THE HOUSE SEAT in New York’s 24th Congressional District — which includes all of Cayuga, Onondaga, and Wayne counties as well as the western part of Oswego County — should be a feasible task for Democrats, given that the district elected President Joe Biden in 2020 by 9 percentage points, Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 4 points, and President Barack Obama in 2012 by 16 points. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already designated the upstate New York district as one of its 21 “red-to-blue” targets for 2022.

Hoping to capitalize early on this for the Democratic Party is Steven Holden, a 48-year-old retired Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holden, the only primary candidate so far, served as a military finance officer and says he was part of the unit that helped finance the operation that led to Saddam Hussein’s capture in 2003.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

But Democrats have faced tough defeats in their past attempts to unseat Rep. John Katko, a former U.S. attorney who was elected in 2014. He’s earned a reputation as an independent thinker in a party increasingly drifting toward extremism. While Katko voted with President Donald Trump more than 90 percent of the time during the representative’s first term, that figure dipped to just over 50 percent during his second. Analysts say things could be different, though, now that Trump is out of office. In January, Katko also voted to impeach the president following the attack on the Capitol — a decision that cost him the backing of prominent local conservatives.

In other words, despite the grim national forecast Democrats face for the 2022 midterms, the party is still hoping that now might be a favorable time for a Democrat to flip the seat. The next question is whether Holden is the man for the job.

When Balter ran to unseat Katko in 2018 and 2020, she campaigned on issues like universal health care, legalizing marijuana, and a $15 minimum wage. In both races, she suffered great losses, losing by about 6 and 15 points, respectively. While her first run was hobbled by a lack of financial support from the party establishment, her 2020 run had the support of the DCCC, EMILY’s List, Obama, Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The 2020 contest was among the DCCC’s “red-to-blue” targets.

Moderates were quick to pin Balter’s losses on her progressive platform. In a blog post, the centrist group Third Way said her defeat showed that Democrats “must run with mainstream, moderate candidates and ideas central to the Party’s position.”

But 2020 was a tough year for nearly all “red-to-blue” candidates, as well as incumbent moderate Democrats like Abby Finkenauer in Iowa and Max Rose in New York. House Democrats lost a net of 11 seats and saw their majority drop to a slim 220-212 lead over Republicans.

Despite centrists’ warnings, Holden thus far is not looking to create much distance between him and Balter on matters of policy.

“I know there are some political actors who take the view that [Balter] lost because she ran too much as a progressive, but I don’t think that’s accurate,” Holden told The Intercept. “Just from what I know here, the biggest reason she lost is because of turnout, that’s honestly what this is.” (In fact, more than 340,000 voters cast ballots in the 24th District race in 2020, up from 260,00 in 2018 and 302,000 in 2016.)

Balter, who told The Intercept she is not considering running for office “at this time,” said she thinks that a Democratic candidate, whoever that is in 2022, could beat Katko. “President Biden and the Democrats in Congress are delivering for the people,” she said, pointing to pandemic relief checks, local government aid, and the expanded child tax credit. Katko, by contrast, “is failing central New Yorkers in a big way,” she said, and “spends his time stoking the fears of his extreme right-wing base and placating his corporate donors.”

Holden’s theory of change rests on increased turnout (a harder task during the midterms) and “hammering Katko from all sides” on policy. He chalks Balter’s loss up to some siphoned votes from traditional fusion voting. (Over 13,000 voters cast ballots for Steven Williams, a Working Families Party candidate, though Balter lost by almost 35,000 votes.)

He also thinks his background and experience as a veteran could help him win back some Democrats who voted for Katko as well as attract rural voters. “I know Dana tried, but I’m going to go in and talk about issues with Wayne County and the rural part of Cayuga County, and really getting rural and suburban voters to where they feel comfortable with me,” he said. Left unspoken is the question of whether a male military veteran will fare better in upstate New York than Balter, a female professor, did.

BUT HOLDEN’S STRENGTH as a candidate is unclear, particularly if he hopes to clear the progressive lane. For one, regional activists say that so far his campaign has involved little grassroots organizing.

“We don’t have a relationship with him and haven’t been contacted by him,” said Brian Escobar, co-chair of the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter.

“We don’t know anything about Holden, and he hasn’t reached out to us,” added Tom Heck, a member of the steering committee for Indivisible-24, a local chapter of a national progressive advocacy group.

Nearly two months into his campaign, Holden has no Twitter account, and his Facebook page, which he updates frequently with videos of him discussing issues, has roughly 110 followers.

The district is also set to be redrawn soon, and Heck thinks it’s too soon to say how competitive it will be. (Indivisible-24 backed Balter in 2018 and 2020, and Heck says the group is focused right now on both local issues and pushing nationally for voting rights reform.) That redistricting process hasn’t started yet, but the census data is set to be released later this month, and it will be the first time in the state’s history that district lines are drawn by an independent redistricting commission.

Meanwhile, Katko has his own intraparty conflicts to attend to before the election. While the local branch of the Conservative Party of New York announced in April that it will not endorse Katko, whether the incumbent faces a real primary threat will depend on if the Conservative Party actually chooses to get behind another candidate.

In a statement to The Intercept, Onondaga County Conservative Party Chair Bernard Ment said the local party’s decision about John Katko “will ultimately be decided by our state party with recommendations forthcoming from the counties in the Congressional District” and that they are waiting for the redistricting commission to issue its recommendation. “I will say that I have been approached by a number of candidates willing to take up the challenge to primary Mr. Katko for the Republican endorsement and we may be inclined to back a challenger if that individual shows bonafide Conservative credentials,” he said, adding that the decision will ultimately be up to Gerard Kassar, chair of the state Conservative Party, and the state executive committee.

For now, no other Democratic candidates have jumped into the race, but a source with knowledge of the local Democratic Party said they’re aware of other candidates being recruited and expect some additional people to announce bids soon.

“We are looking forward to reminding voters of Katko’s toxic record and sending him into retirement in 2022,” DCCC spokesperson Abel Iraola said in an email. “His craven flip-flop on pursuing the truth about the insurrection and his vote against the Child Tax Credit and relief for New York families and small businesses show he is more out of touch with his district than ever before, and make him one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.”

Despite Promises For Global Climate Justice, Biden Falls Short In Helping Reduce Poorer Countries’ Emissions

Originally published in The Intercept on August 3, 2021.
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AS CONGRESS INCHES closer to approving billions in new spending for climate resilience projects through the American Jobs Act, many environmental advocates are wondering: What about countries that can’t afford such investments?

Advocates had high hopes that Joe Biden, who campaigned on emphasizing both global climate leadership and environmental justice, would prioritize international climate finance — that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can effectively reduce their own carbon emissions — if elected president. Rich nations like the U.S. have historically emitted the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; poorer countries, which account for more than 60 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions now, are expected to contribute nearly 90 percent of emissions growth over the next two decades. Climate financing provides Biden with the chance to lead internationally as well as to restore trust in the U.S., which lost immense credibility under President Donald Trump.

Biden would contribute money primarily through the Green Climate Fund, a reserve established by the United Nations in 2009 to finance mitigation and adaptation projects in low-income countries. In 2014, 43 countries pledged to raise $10.3 billion for such projects, with the U.S. pledging $3 billion over four years.

Though the Obama administration got $1 billion out the door, Trump ended U.S. support for the effort. When Biden came into office, the hope was that he’d not only back pay the U.S.’s outstanding commitment but also join other rich nations in making new, more ambitious pledges. But so far, nothing has materialized.

That’s not for lack of pressure. This past February, a coalition of leading environmental, faith, and development groups sent a letter to the new Biden administration urging an immediate $8 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, both to pay the U.S.’s outstanding $2 billion from its 2014 pledge and to commit another $6 billion, bringing the U.S. in line with peer nations that doubled their initial pledges in 2019.

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This request was echoed in a letter signed by 40 members of Congress in late March, led by Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y. Like the nongovernmental organizations in February, the members also urged a new $6 billion commitment and called specifically for $4 billion in the president’s forthcoming fiscal year 2022 budget, to both pay off the outstanding $2 billion pledge and to include the first installment of the new $6 billion one. “We believe this funding is essential to our shared goals of mitigating and adapting to climate change,” the letter states. “Such investment will also have the welcome effect of putting the United States on a new, restored path of global leadership.”

Yet in April, the Biden administration’s budget request included just $1.25 billion for the Green Climate Fund, not even enough to fulfill the U.S.’s outstanding $2 billion pledge from 2014. And in its recently released guidance for its Justice40 Initiative — executive actions “to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad” — the White House does not even mention the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency tasked with international climate resilience and risk management work, despite referencing 20 other federal departments.

“The U.S. has a tendency to tout leadership, but from our perspective, the U.S. has not really been a leader on climate if you look at what they’re actually putting on the table,” said Niranjali Amerasinghe, executive director of ActionAid USA. While she acknowledged that political leaders have a poor track record on climate finance, she said climate justice advocates were hopeful that after four years of climate denial and all the success from the climate youth movement, the administration would embrace what “true leadership” could look like. “From our perspective, that would be not just rhetoric and calling other global leaders to the table but delivering on emission-reduction commitments that reflect its fair share and putting real money forward, and not just a few billions,” she said.

Typically, the White House puts forward more ambitious requests in its budget proposals, and then Congress negotiates from there — i.e., exactly what’s playing out with the ongoing infrastructure debate. But with climate finance, the House of Representatives actually declined to accept the administration’s low figure and approved $1.6 billion for the Green Climate Fund in fiscal year 2022. The Senate is still hammering out its budget.

“If the White House had made a bigger ask as an opening to negotiating, would that have given the climate hawks in Congress a bit more space to play with?” asked Joe Thwaites, a climate finance expert at the World Resources Institute. “You hear all the time that ‘the U.S is back’ and that ‘the U.S is a climate leader,’ but right now they’re taking a real à la carte approach to leadership.”

In addition to its Green Climate Fund commitments, the Biden administration pledged another $4.5 billion toward climate finance, an overall sum of $5.7 billion. To put in context the administration’s proposed climate finance commitments, at the recent G-7 Leaders’ Summit in June, Germany pledged to start contributing $7.2 billion per year by 2025, even with an economy one-fifth the size of the U.S. And as Thwaites has pointed out, the European Union, despite having a combined economy that’s three-fourths the size of the U.S., has already pledged more than four times as much in public climate finance, committing $24.5 billion in 2019.

A spokesperson for John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, referred questions about the Biden administration’s climate finance commitments to the U.S. Treasury, which is the lead agency on the Green Climate Fund.

In response to The Intercept’s inquiries, a Treasury spokesperson pointed to Secretary Janet Yellen’s creation of a so-called climate hub to coordinate policy and reiterated the Biden administration’s intention “to make good” on the $2 billion outstanding pledge from 2014. The spokesperson described the $1.25 billion request “as a first step” and reiterated Yellen’s support for the Green Climate Fund. “As laid out in the U.S International Climate Finance plan, we will strategically use a range of bilateral and multilateral channels to do this, with the aim of maximizing catalytic impact of each U.S. public dollar, including in terms of leveraging private investment,” they said in an email. “Secretary Yellen recognizes the urgency act and has positioned the Department of Treasury to act boldly.”

There’s debate over exactly how much is needed for the U.S. to contribute its fair share, but advocates have urged the administration to factor in the country’s historical emissions when making that decision. One analysis published in June by the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, estimated that given the U.S.’s historical emissions, its population, and its gross national income, it should contribute about $41 billion every year to climate finance projects. An analysis by the World Resources Institute said the U.S. should give 45 percent of contributions to the Green Climate Fund. A third estimate, put forward earlier this year by a number of nonprofit groups — including ActionAid USA, Oil Change International, Friends of the Earth U.S., and the Sunrise Movement — put the fair-share figure at $800 billion between 2021 and 2030. No matter the estimate, the broad consensus is that the $5.7 billion figure put forward by the Biden administration is far below what’s needed.

Some climate activists have been willing to give the Biden administration more of a grace period in its first year. Clarence Edwards, the Friends Committee on National Legislation director for energy and environmental policy, told The Intercept that he sees Biden’s climate finance commitments as “a great start” and added that “it’s only been six months and going in the right direction.”

Edwards noted the challenge in moving federal bureaucracies even on good days and said he thinks that the administration’s focus on the U.S.’s domestic climate agenda, including the infrastructure bill in negotiations, has to take precedence politically. “Glasgow” — referencing the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference, which will take place in the city in December — “will be interesting because by then, with the American Jobs Plan, the world will know where the U.S. stands domestically,” Edwards said. “But if our Covid response is a coming attraction to how Western, developed countries are going to handle the climate crisis, then that’s not good news.”

Lauren Stuart, a climate change policy adviser at Oxfam America, disagreed that the administration needs to wait to hash out its domestic policy first but echoed Edwards in calling the administration’s initial commitments “a good first step, a floor.” She said the biggest challenge is an uncooperative Congress, though when asked why the House exceeded the White House’s budget request, she said, “It’s just been a messy process this year, complicated with a new administration.”

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the ranking member of the House Appropriations state and foreign operations subcommittee, has been a vocal critic of climate finance, and in a May congressional hearing, he suggested that the proposed international climate spending was “irresponsible and misguided at best.”

Still, in Congress, other leaders are pushing for more — and pushing the Biden administration to be more ambitious. Espaillat reintroduced the Green Climate Fund Authorization Act in April, and Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Chris Van Hollen as well as Reps. David Cicilline and Ami Bera separately asked for $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund in fiscal year 2023.

“While I believe we need to provide much more support to the Green Climate Fund and have authored legislation to do just this, I believe Congress is demonstrating to the administration and our global partners that we take our commitments seriously and fully intend to start a new form of American leadership on the climate crisis,” Espaillat told The Intercept.

At the annual U.N. climate meeting this winter, as countries begin to negotiate new climate finance pledges, there will be more pressure for the Biden administration to up its commitments.

“The U.S. wants to be a climate leader, to project influence, and I think what they’ve been discovering — whether it’s G-20 or in the mini negotiations ahead of COP26 [the U.N. climate meeting] — is that they’re not negotiating from a position of strength,” Thwaites said. “There’s a profound lack of trust in the U.S, in part from the Trump legacy.”

In July, Kerry delivered a major policy speech in London on global climate action and was pressed immediately by members of the media about the U.S.’s climate finance commitments. Kerry affirmed that the U.S.’s pledge would be discussed at the G-20 meeting days later in Naples and said he had spoken to the president about it recently. “The U.S. plans to announce its contribution before the Glasgow conference or risk affecting the dynamic of that event,” he told the audience.

Now activists want to make sure that the Biden administration sticks to its word. “We hear a lot from the administration about environmental justice,” said Stuart of Oxfam America. “But it’s been really focused domestically. There’s a lot of opportunity to scale up that thinking internationally.”

To Counter “Critical Race Theory” Attacks, Advocacy Groups Dodge The Term

Originally published in The Intercept on July 27, 2021.
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“TRUST STUDENTS TO talk about what’s happening in the world around them,” instructs the Partnership for the Future of Learning, a national coalition of left-leaning think tanks, unions, foundations, and advocacy groups. The coalition is one of many that hopes to combat conservative outcry over “critical race theory” by promoting the idea of “teaching honesty” in education as a strategy to support teachers, school administrators, and school board members who find themselves under new attack for equity and anti-racism work. As its top message, the coalition recommends: “Truth in our classrooms propels young people toward a more united, inclusive and just future.”

In recent months, liberal and left-leaning groups have promoted similar messages, like the Zinn Education Project’s “Pledge to Teach the Truth.” Launched in late June, the pledge garnered thousands of signatures from educators endorsing Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has “a moral responsibility” to disobey unjust laws and promising to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.” Deborah Menkart, executive director of the national social justice group Teaching for Change, told The Intercept that her organization is also developing a #TeachTruthSyllabus “to shine a light on the kind[s] of lessons that the GOP is trying to ban.” The African American Policy Forum is leading a related #TruthBeTold campaign.

These iterations of teaching “truth” and “honesty” in education are responses in part to threats of censorship embedded in new anti-critical race theory bills, and they reflect liberal groups’ views that conservatives want to teach students a sanitized, false version of American history. Critical race theory, an academic framework developed decades ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other legal scholars, teaches how racism is systemically embedded in policies and systems.

The pressure to respond to attacks on critical race theory has grown more acute over the last three months, as eight states have passed laws restricting critical race theory instruction. Nearly 20 more are considering similar bills, and Republicans have made clear that they see attacking critical race theory as one of their best strategies for base mobilization ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.

But while there is growing consensus among left-wing groups around the idea of teaching “truth” and “accurate history,” there’s far less unity over what that actually means, let alone what students are capable of handling. To avoid having to parse out detailed curricula, most groups have landed on language that suggests leaving politicians out of the decision-making and trusting educators to figure it out. Some historians, meanwhile, worry that the new emphasis on “honesty” threatens to replace one dogmatic narrative with another.

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WHETHER RESPONDENTS UNDERSTAND the concept or not, the phrase “critical race theory” has polled poorly with the public. Rather than trying to burnish its reputation, some liberal groups have turned to messages that downplay the theoretical framework and redirect from the phrase itself. The Future of Learning’s guide encourages allies to remind people that “CRT is not an official part of the curriculum of most schools. However, if the actual issue is whether or not we should talk about racial equity in schools, the answer is yes.”

A separate messaging guidance developed jointly by the progressive public relations groups ASO Communications and We Make the Future tells allies, “Don’t volunteer the term ‘critical race theory,’ an academic concept the right has co-opted as an all-purpose dog whistle.” If confronted with the phrase, the groups suggest defining it “on our terms as the honest, up-to-date education students deserve,” and emphasizing that critical race theory is “taught in law school and graduate school to adults” and not age-appropriate for grade school kids.

In place of the term critical race theory, the two messaging guides promote the softer-sounding idea of “culturally responsive education,” which they define as “rigorous, student-centered learning that connects curriculum and teaching to students’ experiences, perspectives, histories & cultures.”

“Say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for,” Tinselyn Simms, co-director of We Make the Future, told The Intercept. “This is a lesson the left has a lot of trouble with.” In Simms’s view, the left should then emphasize that conservatives are trying to distract from their efforts to defund education and “block every single thing that parents and kids need.”

A third messaging guide reviewed by The Intercept, developed by a progressive nonprofit known as the Swell Collective, emphasizes that “equity and truth in education are non-negotiable” and avoids what the group describes as an “adversarial” approach. 

“We thread the needle by talking about power and talking about this shift globally that’s happening around expectations of how the human species engage[s] power,” said Executive Director Emily Gonzalez in an interview. “We do ourselves a disservice if we take an adversarial stance in defense of critical race theory. If they’re against CRT, and we say we’re for it, well, I don’t think we need to waste our energy on that.”

The Swell Collective recently announced its intent to raise money for state-specific guides and host “a series of virtual convenings” for teachers, school administrators, school board members, parents, and students ages 11 and up. They aim to hire staff and initiate an 18-month program, beginning now and running until December 2022, to provide peer support, combat new anti-critical race theory legislation, and mobilize civic engagement headed into the midterms.

Both of the two national teachers unions are also attempting to walk a line between encouraging teaching about systemic racism while distancing themselves from critical race theory.

According to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the movement against critical race theory is a culture-war campaign led by Republicans and Fox News to muzzle truth, “limit learning, and stoke fears about our public schools.” While Weingarten pledged to defend educators from attacks — in July, the union added $2.5 million to its existing $10 million legal defense fund — she also insisted that critical race theory is not even taught in public schools. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists,” Weingarten said at the AFT conference earlier this month. “But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism, or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic.”

At the National Education Association’s recent annual conference, delegates approved a resolution opposing efforts to “ban critical race theory and/or The 1619 Project” and committing to promote clarifying information on what critical race theory is and how to combat rhetoric against it. But the union’s leadership, meanwhile, has sought space from the polarizing phrase. In a lengthy op-ed published in USA Today in late June, NEA president Becky Pringle wrote that children deserve “honesty and truth” and need to be taught about race and racism, but she avoided any mention of critical race theory.

Information about the recently approved resolution was also scrapped from the NEA’s website, a fact critiqued by right-wing media outlets. A representative for the union told The Intercept that was a routine action taken after every annual conference and that while the union plans to “use every legal advocacy tool” available to defend educators from specious attacks, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools because it’s not “age-appropriate and certain types of analytical thinking are too advanced.”

Speaking on background, the representative insisted that this position does not conflict with the union’s other stated positions on trusting students and teaching them about systemic racism. “I don’t think there’s tension at all,” they said. “We should make sure that educators are trusted in their own expertise in how to design lesson plans that are age-appropriate, honest, and reflect the truth.”

Other advocates warn that there has been too much prioritization of talking points and not enough attention to on-the-ground action.

“All these education groups are talking about listening and developing messaging guides and doing polling to counter the CRT attacks, but we feel like there needs to be a more visible response,” said Menkart. Her group, Teaching for Change, held the #TeachTruth Day of Action on June 12, mobilizing educators and allies across the country to protest the new laws restricting discussions of racism. The event “has sadly been to date one of the only public, organized national responses against these laws,” she told The Intercept, adding that they’re currently organizing additional public actions for August 27-29.

“Partly what we found after June 12 is that for weeks after, media organizations reached out to us asking for another photo they could use because all they can find to illustrate their articles [on the critical race theory debate] are these snapshots of white parents at school board meetings,” Menkart said. “And if that’s the only image they have, that’s what sticks with people.”

NOT ALL LIBERAL advocates are dodging critical race theory language.

The African American Policy Forum, a social justice-oriented think tank founded by Crenshaw, encourages a stronger defense of the concept when mobilizing responses to right-wing attacks. In August, the group will facilitate a five-day “summer school” workshop titled “‘Forbidden Knowledge’ Fights Back: Unleashing the Transformative Power of Critical Race Theory.”

Another messaging guide being developed by Kevin Kumashiro, an education policy expert and former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education, aims to provide talking points that situate teaching within a democratic society while addressing systemic injustice. That means not shying away from “CRT in particular, which some other messaging guides either explicitly or implicitly recommend,” Kumashiro told The Intercept. His guide is set to be released publicly in the next few days, at which point some 100-plus groups that have endorsed it will help push the framework out with teach-ins, toolkits, and other actions.

Legal organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law — are also exploring lawsuits to challenge anti-critical race theory bills. “We think that there are first amendment claims, potential vagueness claims, and potential equal protection claims – basically, racial discrimination claims – in some of these cases,” Emerson Sykes, an ACLU staff attorney, told The Guardian earlier this month. Sykes noted that there is precedent that K-12 students have First Amendment rights in receiving information through curricula.

Lambda Legal successfully challenged former President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued in September 2020, that made federal funding contingent on avoiding so-called divisive concepts including critical race theory, systemic racism, and intersectionality. President Joe Biden rescinded the order in January, but this past spring and summer, states introduced new bills embracing some of the Trump order’s language. Parallel legislation restricting curricula about LGBTQ+ people also cropped up this past spring, with Tennessee passing the first law in May, followed days later by Montana.

Stefan Lallinger, a fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation think tank, told The Intercept that while he “applauds” the “teach truth” approach for its resistance to the attempted repression of education, he hopes that response efforts recognize history’s complexity. “Folks who are historians spend a lot of time thinking about the ways the stories of the past are told and know that many parts can actually be fairly subjective,” Lallinger said.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Intercept that while U.S. history curriculum has always been contested, from both the left and the right, historically most of the changes sought in textbooks and curricula were “efforts to include formerly excluded groups into this broader patriotic story.” When Zimmerman published “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools” in 2005, he lamented that advocates were eliding tough questions about how including more groups in the traditional American melting pot story may challenge the story itself.

To Zimmerman, this moment feels different, like a real historical “inflection point.” His worry, though, is that rather than teach students competing narratives — say, the 1619 Project alongside a more traditional version of U.S. history — he fears that “we’re just going to replace one narrative with another. And we’ll just have fights over which narrative is correct.”

While Zimmerman is inherently suspicious of slogans like “teaching truth,” he does think that the way forward involves trusting students and teachers to form their own opinions. “We should have the courage to let kids in on that little secret that we don’t all agree on what the correct historical narrative is,” he said. “It’s depressing but not surprising that we don’t trust our teachers and students to make up their own minds about this.”

Teachers and Staff at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School Call for Removal of CEO

Originally published in Washington City Paper on July 20, 2021.
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Teachers and staff at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, a top-tier school serving D.C.’s adult immigrant population, have recently pressed their board of trustees to remove the school’s CEO, Allison Kokkoros.

In a letter sent to the board earlier this month, unnamed employees writing collectively under the banner of “CR Strong” said that under Kokkoros’ leadership, “school growth and innovation has stalled. The culture is steeped in toxicity and pain.” The workers, who identify as a mix of “many” who have worked there for more than two decades as well as some who’ve been at the school for less than a year, warned that despite the school’s strong local and international support, “the mission and continued success of the school is in imminent danger.”

The letter cites Washington City Paper and this reporter by name, noting that past and current employees have contacted Rachel Cohen with concerns, and references her past reporting on Kokkoros’ executive compensation, which well exceeded that of any other charter administrator in D.C. The letter also lists other grievances, including what staff cite as “between $125,000 and $150,000 in legal fees” generated while investigating Kokkoros for “discrimination, retaliation, harassment, exclusion, favoritism, creating and maintaining a hostile and toxic work environment and creating culture of fear.” The letter says there were more than 30 complainants and witnesses involved in the “multiple investigations,” as well as “multiple cases of student abuse by teachers” that leaders at the school allegedly failed to investigate.

City Paper spoke with one former employee, who left Carlos Rosario in May after 13 years and filed a complaint alleging retaliation, harassment, and trans discrimination. That investigation is pending. City Paper also reviewed documents related to another complaint alleging racial discrimination. That investigation concluded in June 2020. “Even though there was no finding of unlawful conduct, your complaint highlights the importance of issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, now more than ever,” Patricia Sosa, the chair of the Board of Trustees, wrote in the complaint closure letter.

The CR Strong letter also blasts high turnover at the school, listing 14 departures in 2021. The most recent departures include Karen Rivas, a principal, and Gerardo Luna, the chief financial officer. “Most have publicly stated that their reason for leaving the school is abuse by Allison Kokkoros and/or the toxic environment that she has created and continues to foster,” the letter states. Luna did not respond to a request for comment. Rivas told City Paper she is moving on from Carlos Rosario “due to a growth opportunity for me, as an elementary school principal.” She added that she has “not witnessed abuse or a toxic climate created by Allison” and sees Kokkoros’ “strong leadership as a guiding light.”


In an emailed response sent on the morning of Wednesday, July 14, the Board of Trustees told school staff that they take their oversight responsibilities very seriously and are “working with the senior management to assesses the situation and take actions, as appropriate, to ensure transparency and build trust” within the school community. The board pledged to implement an action plan and share next steps with faculty and staff within the next 45 days.

In response to interview requests from City Paper, Kokkoros and Patricia Sosa, the chair of the board, sent a joint emailed response. “We are running the School, preparing for welcoming students back to our buildings, and assessing how best to provide quality of life and support for our students and employees,” they write. “Covid 19 hit the community we serve hard, and presented an immense challenge to management and staff, issues not unusual for educational institutions. In addition, DEI discussions raised difficult challenges for a school as diverse as ours … The Board has joined senior staff to address concerns and support the adoption of management practices in line with our long history of serving the DC immigrant community in a safe and caring environment. As soon as our plan is finalized within the next 45 days, we will gladly share it with you.”

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On June 4, 2020, in the wake of the racial justice protests that swept D.C. and the nation, Carlos Rosario staff sent a petition to school leadership urging them to more forcefully embrace anti-racism policies. Among other things, the signatories called for the creation of a racial equity advisory group, hiring a racial equity consultant, hiring more culturally responsive staff and teachers of color, implementing more trauma-informed practices and mental health supports, and providing anti-racist trainings for staff, leaders, and students. 

One concrete change to come from the petition was the hiring of diversity consultants who launched an investigation into the practices at the school. An executive summary of their work was released in late March, though to date employees have not been able to review the full findings. The consultants did not return City Paper’s request for comment or to review the full report.

In the 16-page executive summary, the consultants write that Carlos Rosario “is at a pivotal point in its [Diversity-Equity-Inclusion-and-Belonging] efforts” and that the charter’s organizational culture “predicates favoritism and inequity, both deriving from exclusionary dynamics across leadership, staff, faculty, and student relationships.” The consultants said stakeholders “continuously referred to the racial hierarchies and stratification of roles within the organization” and to fear related to the HR department. The consultants wrote that the current school climate “lends itself to microaggressions” and listed 10 recommendations for the school to adopt, including “cultivate a culture of ownership, not simply buy-in, for DEIB.”

On June 7, a staff member emailed all school employees to raise concerns with the DEI trainings at the school. The staffer, using an anonymous ProtonMail account, critiqued the workshops for “brand[ing] Carlos Rosario as a racist institution.” They cited research showing DEI sessions are ineffective, argued that the trainings “undermine friendship and community,” and are “condescending and racist to Black people.” The staffer urged alternatives to pursuing diversity and inclusion.

In an emailed response to all staff reviewed by City Paper, Kokkoros wrote that the June 7 email “is in no way a representation of leadership or our Board of Trustees.” She reiterated the school’s intention to continue with their DEI work, and emphasized that “it is uncomfortable, but we know it is for the betterment of our organization and the way we interact with one another.”

Toni Lewis, a former outreach and recruitment manager who left the school in March, says Carlos Rosario’s lack of regard for staff feedback, lack of understanding of racial inequality, and lack of commitment to structural and policy changes, drove her decision to move to another adult charter school in D.C.

“I did and still care about the mission of the Carlos Rosario School, I still have a lot of respect for my colleagues there, but that is why I and a great number of other people have left,” she tells City Paper. “I minced no words about this in my exit interview. “

Schumer Amendment Shorts $5 Billion in Covid-19 Relief Funding

Originally published in The Intercept on June 30, 2021.
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BURIED IN THE $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March is a little-known amendment, proposed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and backed by 13 of his colleagues in the Democratic caucus, that rerouted billions of dollars meant for economic recovery for small towns. The obscure change altered five words and could strip more than a quarter of the recovery funding from 23 states, including Schumer’s New York.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included $19.53 billion to distribute to local governments serving small cities and towns of populations of about 50,000 or less, known in government jargon as “non-entitlement units,” or NEUs. In the House’s version of the bill, every NEU in every state would have received the same amount per resident, about $178 per person. 

But the Senate version doesn’t allocate aid based on NEU populations. Instead, it instructs the Treasury Department to allocate funding based on states’ “non-metro populations” — a designation that overlaps with NEUs but is not synonymous. First identified by the data consulting firm Civilytics, the change in terminology established a new aid formula that shifted $5 billion, or 25 percent  of the total program, creating sharp disparities depending on how states classify their communities. 

According to Civilytics researchers Jared Knowles and Hannah Miller, in states that have large populations living in unincorporated areas — places outside the bounds of local or municipal jurisdiction, governed only at the county, state, and federal levels — local governments will now receive much higher per capita funding than those in states without them. 

In states like California, Maryland, Georgia, and Virginia, where there are large unincorporated populations, residents in small towns stand to get hundreds of dollars more per person. But in the unincorporated areas themselves, with no local governments to allocate funding, residents are effectively barred from receiving federal aid.

ROUGHLY A QUARTER of the U.S. population lives in unincorporated areas that would be disqualified from the funding, according to Civilytics’s analysis of Census data. That’s not just in tiny rural towns; over 1 million residents live in unincorporated parts of Miami-Dade County, for example, and more than 65 percent of Los Angeles County is unincorporated.  

In Nevada, the 1,327,951 residents in unincorporated areas quadrupled the amount of federal aid the state will receive under the new formula. Nevada’s small towns could get over $1,300 per resident now — but unincorporated populations will get none.

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Many states will receive far less. 

Seven states — including New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — have virtually no residents living in unincorporated areas. In another nine — including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the proportion is 1 percent or less. Small-town residents within all these states are now set to receive about $104 per person in American Rescue Plan aid.

Had the federal government kept the House’s funding formula, Pennsylvania would have received almost $689 million more in aid, and New York and Ohio would have also received over $500 million more. Sixteen states in total would have gotten about 70 percent more federal aid for their small-town economic recoveries under the House version. By contrast, Nevada, Maryland, and Virginia are getting more than four times as much thanks to the Senate amendment.

A DEMOCRATIC AIDE familiar with the amendment’s crafting said the senators worked with the Biden administration to draft the change. According to the aide, it was driven by desires to get federal funds out more quickly, as well as to reflect the different ways states classify small towns and cities and how their populations may overlap. 

“Our goal was to get the money out directly to these small communities in as efficient a way as possible,” the aide said. “Treasury, states, and local communities are working together to make sure that state and local governments are getting their fair share.” The Treasury Department is accepting public comment on the distribution of state and local stimulus funding until July 16.

Knowles and Miller told The Intercept that they don’t think many jurisdictions realize that they’re being shortchanged. Many local governments have less research capacity to crunch the numbers than larger metropolitan cities, and they believe that the Treasury Department published its information in nontransparent and obfuscatory ways. 

The Intercept reached out to all 14 senators who sponsored the amendment, asking them if they were aware that the legislative change would have this effect and if they believed that the Senate’s formula was better than the House’s version. Democratic Sens. Schumer; Tom Carper of Delaware; Brian Schatz of Hawaii; Ben Cardin of Maryland; Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; Jon Tester of Montana; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Ron Wyden of Oregon; and Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington as well as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont all did not return requests for comment.

Robert Julien, a spokesperson for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., declined to comment. Jay Tilton, a spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, referred questions to the Senate Finance Committee. Tilton did not answer questions regarding Leahy’s role in the amendment that carries his name. 

A Democratic aide on the Senate Finance Committee suggested that their changes from the House version “were largely reflective of the interests of senators in representing whole states, including smaller and more rural states, versus districts.” But the Senate amendment for small-town aid doesn’t benefit states more than districts; it just alters which states benefit more than others. The aide did not answer follow-up questions.

Given the rush to pass the stimulus bill, it is possible that no one analyzed the numbers to see how the language would impact individual states. Indeed, Schumer’s amendment deprives his own state of $541 million in federal aid, a reduction of over 40 percent from the House’s version. The senators from Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio who sponsored the amendment also shifted hundreds of millions in funding away from their states.

Senate sources said the change came at the behest of officials at the Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The thinking, they said, was that the shift to “non-metro” populations could provide a more expedient way to distribute funds than using NEUs, because the former is used in other programs like HUD’s Community Development Block Grant. But that doesn’t explain why the Treasury Department then published guidance restricting which NEUs could receive funds, taking flexibility away from states that could otherwise have directed some money to unincorporated areas.

A spokesperson for the Treasury Department defended its allocations, saying in an email that the agency distributed funds “according to the plain meaning of the specific requirements” set forth in the American Rescue Plan. The spokesperson did not acknowledge the agency’s role in helping craft the amendment.

“It is clear under the statute that the local governments referred to as non-entitlement units of local government (NEUs) do not include all unincorporated areas,” the spokesperson said. “Treasury worked with the Census Bureau to provide guidance to states as to the universe of eligible NEUs. Of course, each state and county may assist unincorporated areas within its borders using its share of the $195.3 billion and $65.1 billion provided to states and counties, respectively.”

IN MARYLAND, WHERE NEUs will now receive close to $1,000 per resident, the Senate amendment resulted in an additional $433 million in aid, a 450 percent increase compared to the allocation under the House version.

“It’s great for [Maryland small towns], they’re going to get a lot of money,” said Marc Nicole, deputy secretary at the Maryland Department of Budget and Management. “I’m going to say some of them are going to do a great job [with the funding] and will have really good ideas, and for some of them, it’s going to overwhelm them. We have one municipality that has a population of 15. They’re going to get like $14,000. I don’t know that I’d have a problem spending $14,000, but they may not know what to do.”

Like all states, Maryland recently received the first half of its allotted funds and will have 30 days to distribute the dollars to local governments. The second installment comes next year.

Michael Wallace, the legislative director at the advocacy group National League of Cities, described the American Rescue Plan as a “major victory” for local governments of all sizes and a “critical lifeline” for small cities. But “there is still more work to be done,” he told The Intercept. “NLC will continue to work to ensure that fair and tested funding formulas are included in future economic recovery legislation so that small municipalities everywhere can receive the funding they need to rebuild and support their residents.”

Virginia Department of Planning and Budget Director Dan Timberlake said he could not offer any comment on alternative funding proposals or on any outside organization’s analysis. “I don’t recall ever seeing any allocations other than the final ones,” he said. Virginia’s funding for small towns and cities increased 482.6 percent because of the amendment. 

“I think what happened is cities and towns probably lobbied Congress and said, ‘Hey we’re having problems too, and you haven’t given us our fair share,’ and I assume Congress then allocated more to municipal governments, which is good for them,” Nicole said. He acknowledged that his state — whose senior senator, Cardin, sponsored the amendment — “did better” than others given their large number of residents in unincorporated areas.

With the Treasury Department’s public comment period open until July 16, the Civilytics researchers believe that there still may be ways to rectify the funding formula for a more equitable distribution of aid to small towns.

The remedy could either come from Congress changing the formula for the second aid payment to adjust for the first, or Treasury could soften the issue by allowing states the flexibility to distribute funds to unincorporated populations in their borders as well,” said Knowles, the researcher.

To do so, though, some lawmakers may have to consider whether they consciously or unwittingly excluded 78 million Americans from the pot of recovery aid. 

School Privatization Lobby Places Fake News on Local Stations

Originally published in The Intercept on June 16.
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ON A WEEKLY basis over the last three years, an arm of the national school privatization lobbying group the American Federation for Children has been producing fake news segments and distributing them to local news stations. The stations often air the segments just as they receive them, allowing anchors to recite accompanying scripts word for word. The aired content includes no disclosure that it was produced by the education advocacy group.

The little-known project, known as “Ed Newsfeed,” has “distributed hundreds of stories in dozens of states,” said Walter Blanks Jr., a press secretary for the American Federation for Children, in response to questions from The Intercept. The Ed Newsfeed staff sends out a weekly email to producers nationwide with their new video content, including recommended scripts, available to them free of charge, and where “courtesy is optional.” The news producers can also access a full library of current and previous stories by creating an account on the nondescript site EdNewsfeed.com.

Founded in 1999 as the American Education Reform Council, and long funded by billionaire and top Republican Party donor Betsy DeVos, the since-renamed American Federation for Children pursues policies that redirect public education funding to parents to spend how they see fit. “We believe choice, innovation and entrepreneurism will revolutionize an antiquated K-12 system into a 21st century mode,” states the website for the lobby’s 501(c)(3) partner, the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, which sponsors the videos. DeVos was the group’s chair when she was tapped in 2016 to serve as secretary of education under President Donald Trump.

The news broadcasts are mostly cheerful and positive, focused on students who overcome long odds, transformative educators, and “inspiring schools.” Ed Newsfeed segments have featured organizations, apps, schools, and services that have political and/or financial connections to both the American Federation for Children and the DeVos family. Such relationships are not disclosed in the videos, which are marketed as straight news clips.

Multiple stories produced over the last year feature officials from K12 Inc., a publicly traded company founded in 2000 and the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charter schools. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick were early investors in K12 Inc., and the company has sponsored the American Federation for Children’s annual policy conferences. One segment, produced in late November 2020, touts the growth in student enrollment at K12 schools during the pandemic. The video features Kevin Chavous, who the producers identify as the president of academics, policy, and schools at K12 Inc.

“Covid has been, I think, in many ways an opportunity to excite what is possible in education,” Chavous says. “But it’s also been a challenge because for a lot of families who have really trusted the public school system to educate their children, they now have to be more involved, and we try to take that load off with the way we offer our educational support.” The clip makes no mention that Chavous also sits on the American Federation for Children’s board. In its recommended script, Ed Newsfeed encourages stations to tell viewers how to learn more about K12 Inc.’s offerings. Another segment produced in late January, titled “How Covid has Changed U.S. Education,” features Jeanna Pignatiello, K12 Inc.’s senior vice president and chief academic officer.

Emily Riordan, a spokesperson for the company (which renamed itself “Stride” in November but is retaining the K12 brand) told The Intercept that “we have responded to [Ed Newsfeed’s] inquiries for stories about Stride K12-powered schools and online learning as we do for any other news organization or outlet, connecting them with enrolled families, teachers and school leaders, and Stride executives for interviews as appropriate.”

Ed Newsfeed stories also featured Connections Academy, another for-profit virtual charter school that has donated to the American Federation for Children. “Ed Newsfeed takes a closer look at the world of online learning and why it is successfully allowing students to be in charge of when and how they learn,” says the group’s fake anchor in one such 2019 segment, highlighting a student named Tyler enrolled in a virtual Connections Academy school. “And while there isn’t a brick-and-mortar building for Tyler to go to, online schools offer plenty of support. … Online instructors also say teaching kids virtually does away with the distractions that come with a typical classroom setting.”

Many segments are seemingly apolitical and feel-good, spotlighting things like successful tutoring programs, new research on early autism, or a local barber who gives back-to-school haircuts. But many more clips feature schools, programs, and leaders affiliated with the school choice movement. In October 2019, Ed Newsfeed produced a two-part program on homeschooling, an advocacy priority of the national lobbying group. “Homeschooling puts the curriculum completely in the parents hands,” reads the suggested script. “Find out why some say they’ve chosen homeschooling, how these clever and creative parents approach it, and the rewards.”

The Intercept reached out to several television stations that it could identify as having run Ed Newsfeed stories, including KPVM and KLAS-TV in Nevada, KTVK in Arizona, and Fox34 (KJTV) in Texas. No representative returned request for comment.

Blanks Jr. confirmed that “there are no requirements for TV news stations as far as attributing the content to Ed Newsfeed” and described the program as a “free service, run by a network of seasoned broadcast professionals, [and] offered to stations to be able to use video and interviews in any manner they see fit.” Pointing to budget cuts in the struggling news industry, he added: “The majority of news stations do not have an education reporter, so the goal is to help them bring innovative education stories, as well as heart-warming people stories, tied to education topics to their viewers.”

CORPORATIONS AND EVEN U.S. government entities have been producing deceptive audiovisual content designed to look like real news broadcasts since at least the early 1990s. In 1992, a TV Guide cover story titled “Fake News” admonished the media and PR industry’s practice of using so-called video news releases, or VNRs. The journalist, David Lieberman, warned that media outlets risked ruining their credibility with viewers if they did not label the footage clearly as the public relations content it is.

front-page New York Times exposé in 2005 detailed the George W. Bush administration’s penchant for producing hundreds of fake news segments for television stations. At least 20 federal agencies, including the State Department, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Defense Department, produced pre-packaged content ready to air, narrated by “reporters” who were actually former journalists now working full time in public relations. While companies and government agencies told news stations they were free to edit or choose which parts of the segment or script they’d like to use, the stations often aired the footage and script in their original form.

Jon Stauber, the founder of the progressive watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, told Democracy Now! that the New York Times’s 2005 report marked the first mainstream media exposé of the “billion dollar sub-industry of the P.R. industry” that he had been tracking for over a decade.

“First of all, we’re talking about fake news,” Stauber said in the interview, years before the term would become a household slogan popularized by Trump. “And what this is, actually, is propaganda, because these are not news stories. They look like news stories, but they have a bias in favor of a political program or an ideology or a product. And the networks and stations that air these, and we’re talking about thousands of these produced a year, are engaging simply in plagiarism and fraud, fraud perpetrated on their viewers.”

Allison Perlman, a historian of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, told The Intercept that prior to the 1980s, broadcast stations had much greater concern about providing reputable news coverage to their communities. “There were public interest obligations when you were up for [broadcast] license renewal, and there was also a sense at the national level that high-quality journalism was good branding for stations and networks,” Perlman said. That started to change when the Federal Communications Commission began deregulating broadcasting in 1981 and as major broadcast networks were bought out by companies less committed to producing original journalism.

“The local stations still typically air local news in the evenings, but it’s really expensive to produce that content, and I’d imagine many would welcome some free stories,” Perlman said. “The FCC does have news distortion rules, but those have not been enforced.”

The Ed Newsfeed project works to obfuscate its ties to the school privatization lobbying group, perhaps to make laundering content easier. The vast majority of news segments are narrated by a “reporter” named Kim Martinez, a former TV news anchor who is now a spokesperson for the American Federation for Children’s Arizona chapter. Nowhere on the script segments or website does Ed Newsfeed identify Martinez as a spokesperson. Neither Martinez nor Margaret Beardsley, an executive producer for Ed Newsfeed who is also an Emmy Award-winning former TV news producer, returned The Intercept’s requests for comment.

Blanks Jr., of the American Federation for Children, told The Intercept that Ed Newsfeed was launched in response to the overall dearth of education coverage. “So our team had the vision of providing a service to the industry given AFC Growth Fund’s network of relationships in K-12 education across the country,” he said in an email. Asked about conflicts of interest and financial disclosures, Blanks Jr. said, “Ed Newsfeed is not paid for our coverage by any of the schools, programs, or educators featured in the pieces so there are no sponsorship attributions.” He declined to provide details on the number of stations that have aired their video press releases.

The group’s goal, Blanks Jr. said, is for coverage “to be timely, positive, and helpful” and to produce stories covering “all types of intriguing and uplifting K-12 schools and individuals … with no bias — a good education story is a good education story.”