D.C. Charter Teachers Seek to Unionize

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 22, 2017.
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This morning, teachers at Paul Public Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Washington, D.C., publicly announced their intent to unionize—a first for charter schoolteachers in the nation’s capital. As in other cities where charter teachers have formed unions, the Paul educators are forming their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which will be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. 75 percent of Paul’s teaching staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked administrators to voluntarily recognize their union.

The Center for Education Reform estimates that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized nationally, up from seven percent in 2012. As more and more charter teachers have launched organizing efforts, the absence of charter unions in Washington, D.C., has been notable—particularly given the city’s high density of charter schools. There are 118 charters—run by 65 nonprofits—within D.C., educating 44 percent of the city’s public school students.

Patricia Sanabria, a high school English and special education teacher at Paul, is excited about unionizing with her colleagues. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Sanabria is a product of D.C. public schools, and spent two years teaching at Ballou High School, a traditional public school in one of the poorest parts of the city, before coming to her charter.

When she first started working at Paul—which educates about 700 students from grades 6-12—Sanabria felt very supported by the staff, which was much smaller than Ballou’s. “It felt more like a family, I felt a lot more at home,” she says. But over the past three years, that feeling has waned, and this year has been especially frustrating.

“When I first got here, the teacher in the classroom next to mine told me that charter schools are ‘teacher factories’, and it’s very true,” Sanabria says. “They keep giving us things to do, and they don’t take into account how much time that adds to our work day. I would say I’m pretty routinely here for 10 hours or more a day, and that’s just not something you see in other professions, and certainly if you do see it, people are compensated for it.”

Sanabria thinks the working conditions negatively impact her school’s special education program, and she hopes a union can help improve it. “Part of that is linked to teacher retention and the hiring of teachers,” she explains. “I think [Paul] is not a very attractive one for special educators, who often have multiple degrees, because we don’t offer competitive salaries. If I had stayed working for DCPS I would be making more than $10,000 a year more than I am now as a fifth-year teacher.”

Two things happened last year which helped precipitate the union effort.

The first is that administrators brought in a consultant at the start of the 2015-16 school year to launch a committee with teachers dedicated to discussing school improvements. After a series of meetings, teachers submitted a list of proposals to their administration, including such recommendations as more transparent staff evaluations, caps on class sizes, and increased time for teacher planning. But the suggestions went nowhere.

“Soft diplomacy has been tried,” says Dave Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul, and the first person at his charter to reach out to the AFT.

“Nothing really came out of the consultant committee, nothing substantial, no major changes,” adds Katrina Foster, a special education coordinator who has been working at Paul for seven years. “So the union was just kind of the next step, [we] organically moved into starting this movement.”

Paul teachers also grew frustrated at the end of last year when the high school’s popular principal did not have her contract renewed. Educators say they were given no clear explanation for her firing, and the teachers rallied together for the principal’s reinstatement. Their efforts, too,  went nowhere. For teachers like Koenig, that was the last straw.

“In my time here I’ve seen people who are really good, dedicated teachers shown the door because they have personality conflicts with someone above them. I’ve also seen really good people leave on their own because they feel underappreciated or overworked to the point of developing [a] nervous breakdown,” says Koenig. “I don’t want that to continue to happen. I want the staff to be stable and happy, and I think a union is part of how we get there.”

“I don’t think the union is for any one particular thing, but mainly to support staff, to give teachers a voice, and recourse,” says Foster.

Representatives from Paul Public Charter were not available for immediate comment.

Two key factors have inhibited charter organizing in Washington, D.C.

Charter teachers in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans—where successful charter unions have taken root—have had the benefit of receiving help from their state teachers union. When charter teachers have just begun trying to launch a brand new local off the ground, state affiliates have provided them with valuable transitional support and bargaining staff. No such intermediate body exists for the District of Columbia.

The Washington Teachers Union, D.C.’s traditional public school teachers union, has also been particularly embattled in recent years. In 2007, the city hired a controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who was empowered to make decisions largely without school board or city council approval. As charter schools expanded throughout the city, Rhee proceeded to fire hundreds of teachers from traditional public schools, and regularly engaged in high-profile fights with the WTU.

Rhee left in 2010, but the union has since struggled to find its footing and regain power. Its current president, Elizabeth Davis, was elected in 2013, and has spent the majority of her tenure trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Teachers have been working under a contract that expired back in 2012, and haven’t had a base-level salary increase since then.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Davis says she’s always been interested in helping to support charter school organizing, and that her members are interested in it, too. “The first three years of my presidency just ended up being far more than I anticipated,” she says, in reference to the contract negotiations that have commanded the union’s attention and resources.

“But our union is going to support charter teachers organizing in any way we can,” Davis said. “We want teachers, irrespective of what schools they teach in, public or charter, to have a union.”

Paul charter teachers say they’re looking forward to forming DC ACTS, rather than joining the 4,000-member WTU, because it will allow them to build something from the ground up. “I think being in our own local, and such a small unit, is going to allow us the freedom to be creative and innovative in terms of what we negotiate for,” says Koenig.

Paul’s educators plan to organize under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. Last summer, the NLRB issued a pair of decisions which said that charter school teachers are private employees who fall under the federal labor board’s purview. Even before the NLRB ruling, D.C.’s public employees’ labor board, which covers teachers and other staff in traditional public schools, had excluded charters from its purview.

If Paul Public Charter School administrators do not voluntarily recognize their teachers’ union, and challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction should the staff then move for an election, the administration would effectively be saying that D.C. charter school teachers should have no formal rights under any labor board—public or private. Union opponents may see an opportunity to overturn the NLRB’s charter rulings in the Trump administration, given that Trump has named Philip Miscimarra as the board’s new acting chairman. Miscimarra was the sole dissenting voice in the 2016 charter school decisions, and argues that charter labor law should be left to state and local regulators.

Across the country, charter administrators and board members have generally fought union efforts, insisting that collective bargaining agreements would inhibit charter school success and flexibility. Gina Mahony, the former vice president for government relations for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a group that strongly discourages charter unionization, sits on the Paul Public Charter School’s board of trustees.

While Koenig says improving Paul is his top priority, he’s also hopeful that starting DC ACTS could spark broader change within D.C.’s charter school sector.

“This has always been partially political for me,” he says. “Problems we face at Paul are also problems in other charter and public schools. A really disturbing theme in education today is how teachers are treated so poorly, so that the good ones are pushed out, and automatons are brought in who are willing to simply teach skills for standardized tests. I think teachers unions are our only way to fight back against things like that, and unions in general are very important to fight back against a changing economy that crushes working people.”

An A.G. in Action

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 13, 2017.

 

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

 

Last week on the steps of Federal Hall, the Wall Street building where George Washington was inaugurated and the Bill of Rights was introduced, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled the New York Votes Act, a package of election reforms he hopes can transform his state into a national leader on voting rights.

About 100 people gathered for the press conference, where Schneiderman was joined by representatives from Common Cause, SEIU, and other progressive organizations. The attorney general’s omnibus bill—which includes reforms like automatic voter registration and early voting—would mark a significant step forward for the liberal state that has the third-worst voting participation rate in the country, and ranks as the fifth-worst state for voter registration.

The New York Votes Act comes at a time when the president of the United States falsely claims that anywhere from three million to five million votes were cast illegally in the 2016 election, and when the new U.S. Attorney General refers to the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive.” Schneiderman, by contrast, said his office received literally thousands of complaints last year regarding barriers to voting, and “not one verifiable claim” of voter fraud.

“I have a lot more confidence to move voting reforms than I ever have,” he declared.

The event was organized amid a flurry of ongoing legal battles involving Schneiderman and other Democratic state attorneys general who are challenging President Trump’s executive order banning citizens traveling from seven Muslim-majority countries, and suspending refugee entry into the United States. Schneiderman filed suit in New York federal court challenging the ban, and he joined 18 other Democratic AGs in filing an amicus brief to support Washington’s attorney general, who also sued.

Earlier that same morning, Schneiderman stopped by for a Bloomberg TV interview where he fielded questions on the legality of the Muslim ban, and his thoughts on defunding so-called sanctuary cities. Calmly pushing back on the idea that there’s legitimate national security rationale for the executive order, Schneiderman said Trump’s actions are clear efforts to discriminate. Immigrants comprise 23 percent of New York’s population, and barring travel, Schneiderman said, would hurt all the state’s residents, and every state institution and business.

Schneiderman has a long history of activism on behalf of New York’s disadvantaged. Bill Lipton, the New York State Director for the Working Families Party, first met him in the 1990s, when Schneiderman was leading a legal team against subway fare increases which would have disproportionately hurt low-income communities and people of color. “It was an innovative legal strategy, and foreshadows a lot of what we see today,” Lipton recalls. “At this point I think it’s safe to say that Eric is one of the most important Democrats in America, and going beyond that, he’s really a leader of the resistance against Donald Trump.

Schneiderman was suing Trump well before his fellow AGs got around to it. Sitting in his 25th-floor office in Lower Manhattan, he told me what he’d learned from fighting the president in prior litigation. In the summer of 2013, two years before Trump announced his candidacy, New York’s AG filed a lawsuit, alleging that Trump University was a scam that ripped off thousands.

“From our perspective, his response to our suit was really a preview of the scorched earth tactics he’d go on to use during the presidential election,” Schneiderman said. Trump created a website to attack Schneiderman, sued him for $100 million, and filed ethics claims against him—all of which went nowhere. The case ended this past November, with Trump agreeing to settle for $25 million.

“Look, Trump has had a successful career involving charming people or bullying people, and at this point in his life, we shouldn’t expect anything different from him,” Schneiderman said.

Keenly aware of the threats posed by the president, New York’s AG emphasizes the importance of states—especially progressive, liberal states—in checking federal power. He feels frustrated with the Democratic party over the past 30 years, which has focused too narrowly on federal elections and failed to invest in local politics. New York is a particular source of frustration for liberals: The Democrats control the governorship, the Assembly, and have a numerical majority in the state senate—but do not control it, since several Democratic senators caucus with Republicans.

“My approach is much more grassroots, and our problems need to be dealt with aggressively,” Schneiderman said. “Activists and donors have to be demanding of elected officials. If you give a good speech, that’s great, but if you’re not actually passing laws and enacting policies that make the lives of people better—then maybe you need to be replaced.” Back when Schneiderman was a state senator, he engineered successful campaigns to elect more progressive Democrats to New York’s senate.

The attorney general’s legal hero is Charles Hamilton Houston, the attorney behind the NAACP’s legal campaign to end racial segregation. Schneiderman calls him a role model—a “strategic, activist lawyer” who consciously used the law for social change. Though Houston died four years before the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, it was his protégé, Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case in court. A picture of Charles Hamilton Houston hangs behind Schneiderman’s desk in Albany.

Schneiderman is hopeful, noting that the level of democratic and progressive activism he’s seen since Election Day surpasses anything he’s witnessed since the 1970s.

“It’s important to support groups like Planned Parenthood, but we also need to channel that grassroots energy into passing specific legislation,” he said. “And as state politicians, Democratic AGs are in a great position to lead on that.”

Will Crumbling School Buildings Get a Piece of the Infrastructure Pie?

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 8, 2017
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Paul L. Dunbar Elementary school, a historic, four-story building of orange brick located in North Philadelphia, looks solid and imposing from the outside. But inside Dunbar, water leaks from the school’s aging roof into classrooms, the windows are in need of repair, and the heating system only works some of the time.

Dunbar is one of hundreds of schools in Philadelphia and throughout the country that is literally falling apart. From fire code violations to faulty boilers that make it too hot or too cold for students to concentrate in class, structural problems plague as many as two-thirds of America’s schools. By one 2016 estimate, it would cost $145 billion a year to properly repair and maintain the nation’s school buildings.

So when President Donald Trump flagged school infrastructure investments in his first speech following the presidential election, public school advocates sat up and took notice. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump declared. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

But excitement turned to uncertainty a few weeks later when Trump gave his inaugural address. The president talked again about infrastructure spending, but this time made no mention of school facilities. In fact, Trump actually argued that America’s education system—as opposed to being starved for investments—is “flush with cash.”

It’s been like that a lot for public school advocates toiling to drag the nation’s crumbling school buildings into the 21st century. A full two decades ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that as many as 28 million students attend schools under conditions that are unhealthy, uncomfortable, or even unsafe. Yet virtually no federal funding has been set aside to address these infrastructure problems. That burden falls on the shoulders of local districts. And since some localities possess far more power to raise money for repairs than others, the condition of schools in wealthy versus low-income districts varies wildly.

The last time the nation debated school infrastructure spending in 2009, billions of dollars were set aside to renovate school buildings in disrepair. The school infrastructure money had been proposed as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill following the 2008 financial crisis. Advocates of that bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, needed to secure the vote of Maine Senator Susan Collins, one of three Republicans who held the key to its passage. But Collins argued that education facility spending should be a local, not a federal matter, so the school repair money was stripped out at the last minute.

“Her reasoning was that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in public schools, that it was a local issue,” recalls Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden from 2009 to 2011. “We tried to explain that this is just a one-time jolt of infrastructure money to help them improve their facilities, maintenance, and energy efficiency. This was about the quality of the buildings kids would be walking into, not the federal government coming to take over your curriculum.”

School repair advocates tried again in 2011, when Democrats Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut introduced the Fix America’s Schools Today Act, which would have authorized $25 billion in federal school improvement funds. The legislation would have distributed 40 percent of the money to the 100 largest high-need school districts, and the remaining 60 percent would have been split among state education departments and administered through competitive grants. But the bill, too, went nowhere, and it was never reintroduced.

Now, Trump’s plans for sweeping infrastructure investments give public education advocates what some say is their best chance in decades to finally repair the nation’s dilapidated schools. Senate Democrats, for starters, recently unveiled an infrastructure bill that included $75 billion for school investments. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the Democrats’ proposal, adding that her union has “walk[ed] the walk” on infrastructure investment for years, harnessing billions in teacher pension money to pay for projects. But the size and shape of the GOP plan is unclear, and it’s anyone’s guess whether Republicans will include in their legislation the repair money that school facility advocates seek.

Convincing Congress to spend big on school infrastructure could be an uphill battle. Unlike the highway and railway lobbies, school infrastructure advocates don’t have a well-funded institutional presence on K Street. Moreover, advocates also lost a key political champion when Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, retired in 2015. Harkin had chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee in 2009, and had been one of Capitol Hill’s strongest champions for school infrastructure funding.

Still, advocates of school buildings are gearing up to make their case. One promising new weapon in their arsenal is the National Council of School Facilities, a nonprofit organization formed in 2012 to support state agency officials responsible for public school facilities. Late last year, the group issued a resolution calling for pre-K–12 public school buildings and grounds to be included in federal infrastructure programs. Though the group has a tiny budget, it is the first federal lobbying vehicle for state leaders to advocate on behalf of school repairs.

Proponents of increased school infrastructure spending have their work cut out for them, says Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a national nonprofit that advocates for improved public school facilities. Our “feet are still a little flat,” she admits. “States are not prepared to make as strong a case as they need to about the importance of school buildings, and their role in economic change.”

Federal school infrastructure investments are important, Filardo and her allies say, because aside from creating jobs and directly providing resources for school repair, the feds can also help motivate states that are currently contributing nothing to building repairs in local districts to step up and help out.

Currently, local communities pay more than 80 percent of capital costs for school buildings. Over the past two decades, by contrast, states covered only 19 percent of school facility capital spending on average, according to the 21st Century School Fund. And in 2015, 12 states provided no school repair funding at all.

Even more importantly, school repair advocates see federal investments as the only real means to eradicate the gaping disparities between school buildings in wealthy versus low-income communities across the nation. “When facilities are just funded locally, how much you can spend is entirely a function of the wealth of your community,” says Filardo.

The school infrastructure crisis has been building for decades. In 1995, the GAO issued a report estimating that $112 billion was needed to repair and modernize the nation’s school facilities. By 2013, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public school facilities a “D+” grade on its national report card. The group found that school construction had diminished to approximately half the level spent before the recession, even as public school enrollment continued to grow.

And last year, yet another report, issued by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools, estimated that it would cost roughly $145 billion a year to maintain, operate, and modernize school facilities to the point where all American students could learn in safe and healthy environments.

If there’s one lesson school facility advocates say they’ve learned from the past few decades, it’s that money doesn’t just trickle down to the schools and districts that need it most.

“From 1995 to 2004, there was tremendous growth in the U.S. economy, and I wondered whether because of this, low-wealth zip codes would get plenty of school construction money,” says Filardo. “What we found is that there was no trickle down—the poor districts were starved compared to the wealthiest districts, except where there had been court cases, and even then it still didn’t compensate for the differences in where they started out.”

In the decade following the GAO’s seminal 1995 report, the nation’s most disadvantaged students received about half the funding for their school buildings ($4,800 per student) as their more affluent peers ($9,361 per student), according to a study led by Filardo’s group. The 21st Century School Fund found that poor schools were most likely to use their limited funds for basic repairs, like asbestos removal or new roofs, while schools in more affluent communities tended to use repair money for things like constructing new science labs and performing arts centers.

These findings underscore why throwing money at schools is, by itself, not enough, say public school advocates; infrastructure investment must be consciously directed to districts with the greatest needs. Otherwise, any school repair money allocated in a Trump administration infrastructure package could just deepen the colossal disadvantages students in poor communities already face.

 

DeVos Might Not Force Private School Vouchers on States — But She Could Promote Them

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 6, 2017.
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In 1997, when Arizona launched the nation’s first tax-credit scholarship program, allowing individuals to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofits offering private school tuition grants, legislative aides estimated it would cost the state $4.5 million annually. By the 2015-16 school year, the yearly cost of the program had grown to more than $140 million, even though private school enrollment was actually below its 1997 levels.

Florida launched the nation’s second tax-credit private school voucher program in 2001, with a cap of $50 million. Today the program tops out at $559,000,000 annually, and will increase to $699,000,000 in the next fiscal year.

Pennsylvania’s tax-credit school voucher program, also launched in 2001, was originally capped at $30 million. Designed to provide tuition assistance to private schools, pre-K programs, and “innovative” public school initiatives, it now hits $175 million annually.

Tomorrow the Senate will hold its final vote on Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the federal education department, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has spent decades advocating for charter schools, private schools, and virtual education. No other Trump appointee has faced the same magnitude of opposition, with hundreds of thousands of Americans calling, emailing, and faxing their senators in protest.

Though it’s widely expected that she’ll be confirmed on Tuesday, the past few months of anti-DeVos campaigning have created some new fault lines within education reform coalitions. In addition to labor unions and civil rights groups, more liberal school choice organizations, like Democrats for Education Reform and Education Trust, have lined up against DeVos’s nomination. Billionaire Eli Broad, who funds charter schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and other cities, penned a letter last week against his fellow billionaire education reform champion. On the other hand, Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, has emerged as one of DeVos’s most ardent supporters.

One major concern critics have voiced about DeVos is whether she will use her federal perch to push school privatization. She’s referred to the public education system as a “dead end” and has neither attended a public school, nor worked in one. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos has spent years (unsuccessfully) pushing private school vouchers, and has funded voucher efforts in other states.

Though DeVos has promised she would not “force” voucher programs on states, there are other ways she could support their growth if she’s confirmed as education secretary. She might get behind what’s known as “Title I portability”—a policy that would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow them to the public or private school of their choice. At $14.5 billion annually, Title I is the federal government’s largest program for K-12 students. Some congressional Republicans tried to include Title I portability in the federal education law that passed in 2015, but Barack Obama said he’d veto any bill that contained it. Democrats and Obama’s administration maintained that such a policy would significantly harm poor students by directing federal funds away from high-poverty school districts.

Title I is likely to come up again, given that in early January Donald Trump tapped Rob Goad, a senior education adviser to Representative Luke Messer of Indiana, to join his administration. Messer is known as one of the most vocal Congressional advocates for Title I portability, and Goad will serve as the key education expert on Trump’s White House Domestic Policy Council. A DeVos-backed Title I portability amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act could win congressional approval unless Senate Democrats successfully filibuster it.

DeVos is also likely to support states establishing education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, as well as private school tuition. In December, right-leaning education reformers gathered together in Washington, D.C., for a conference hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an education advocacy group on whose board Betsy DeVos served until recently. At the conference leaders spoke animatedly about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in every state across the country.

Noting the liberal opposition to DeVos’s nomination, some education analysts have suggested that private school vouchers are unlikely to expand beyond conservative legislators and red states. However, the reality is that private school voucher programs are often pushed in blue cities and purple suburbs—where a plethora of religious schools are located. In fact, it’s Republican-leaning rural areas that tend to have some of the greatest opposition to private school vouchers, given their scant school options.

Indeed Maryland, a blue state that went for Hillary Clinton by 26 points, established its first private school voucher program last year, appropriating $5 million to the effort. While school voucher initiatives are often pitched as vehicles to help poor, black students escape their local public schools, data from the first year of Maryland’s program reveal that more private school vouchers went to white students than black students, and 78 percent of the 2,464 vouchers issued went to students who were already enrolled in private schools. Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan says he wants to double the funding for the voucher program over the next three years.

“In Maryland, no one has lobbied harder or been more excited about Governor Hogan’s voucher program than religious schools,” says Sean Johnson, the legislative and political director for the Maryland State Education Association. “Despite the rhetoric you hear on vouchers from President Trump, Governor Hogan, and Betsy DeVos, vouchers are less about moving kids from public schools and more about moving taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools. We can’t afford to fund two different school systems—public taxpayer dollars should be spent improving our public schools, not subsidizing expensive private schools.”

Meredith Curtis of the Maryland ACLU says what’s happening in Maryland is similar to what’s happened in other states, where private school voucher programs start out small, but continue to steadily grow, even as public school budgets are cut.

“Maryland public schools have tremendous needs that need to be addressed by the state, but we have no promises from the governor to meet those urgent needs, and yet he proposes increasing funding to religious schools,” Curtis says. “What we’ve seen in other states is that once allocations for vouchers are set in place, they just continue to increase, but there’s no accountability for benchmarks to compare the quality of education. We support [the right of] private schools to set their own curriculums, but we object to publicly funding [them].”

Assessing the educational value of private school voucher programs has been difficult. As Erin Richards details in The American Prospect’s most recent issue, Wisconsin, which launched the nation’s first private school voucher program 27 years ago, still lacks high-quality data for assessing performance, and still lacks robust mechanisms to hold private schools that receive public dollars accountable.

DeVos, congressional Republicans, and a host of GOP governors around the country may be enthusiastic about increasing the number of students enrolled in private schools, but public support for such policies is actually falling. According to an annual poll conducted by Harvard’s Education Next journal, nationwide support for vouchers targeted at low-income students fell from 55 percent to 43 percent between 2012 and 2016, and support for universal vouchers fell from 56 percent to 50 percent.

If private school vouchers become increasingly associated with Donald Trump, the nation’s staggeringly unpopular new president, then public support for vouchers may fall further yet.

 

New Jersey Supreme Court Blocks Chris Christie’s Efforts to Bypass Teacher Union Contracts, Alter School Funding

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 2, 2017.
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s post-election tribulations continue to pile up. In September, Christie’s administration petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to vacate a 2011 ruling that found his prior education funding cuts unconstitutional. The petition also requested authority to bypass teachers’ collective bargaining agreements and tenure laws. The outspoken Republican, a long-time foe of organized labor, claims that these employment rules, not school funding levels, squander already scarce dollars and harm students in low-income districts.

But Tuesday, New Jersey’s high court denied the Christie administration’s attempts to link tenure and collective bargaining to school funding. Long regarded as a national leader in progressive school finance, the Garden State’s funding formula is the result of three decades of state Supreme Court litigation: The Abbott v. Burkecases determined that in order for the state to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to every student, New Jersey must send additional funds to 31 disadvantaged school districts across the state. Christie argues that these monies have been wasted, pointing to the districts’ low test scores and graduation rates.

In his ruling, the chief justice, Stuart Rabner, noted that the Abbott cases did not cover tenure and collective bargaining and declined to “exercise original jurisdiction” on those areas. He also emphasized that the court was not “opin[ing] on the merits of the issues or arguments” when it came to the teacher employment rules.

David Sciarra, the lead Abbott counsel and executive director of the Education Law Center, a New Jersey legal advocacy group, praised the court’s decision. “Issues related to collective bargaining and teacher layoffs were never in the Abbott cases, which has been singularly focused on ensuring adequate funding and resources for students in New Jersey’s poorest schools,” he said in a statement.

The state teachers union has argued that Christie’s efforts were politically motivated from the start, since the administration filed its legal petition just as the high-profile Bridgegate trials were getting started. “The court’s thorough rejection of Governor Christie’s frivolous but costly legal action demonstrates that his political Hail Mary lacked any solid legal basis,” New Jersey Education Association president Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement. “It was simply another taxpayer-funded Christie boondoggle, designed to divert attention from his many political woes.”

NJEA’s Steinhauer also commended the court for declining to rule on collective bargaining agreements and tenure. Calling Christie’s efforts an “attempted power grab” the union president said, “The court was wise to realize, as the Legislature long has, that no governor or commissioner of education should be given that amount of unchecked authority.”

New academic studies also challenge Christie’s contention that it is wasteful to direct supplemental funding to poor school districts. A 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research paper compared student test scores in 26 states that altered their school funding formulas since 1990, usually in response to court-orders like Abbott, with 23 states that had not. Researchers found that funding reforms that increased dollars sent to low-income school districts improved achievement and outcomes for those students. Another recent study found that poor children in districts subject to funding court-orders attended school longer, and earned higher wages as adults, compared to poor students in districts that were not under court-order.

The state Supreme Court ruling marks a setback to Christie’s education agenda. The governor shocked the nation this past summer when he announced his intention to upend his state’s school funding formula—declaring “no child in this state is worth more state aid than another.” Rather than direct more money to the poor, urban districts that have high concentrations of low-income students, Christie proposed distributing the exact same amount of funding to every school district in New Jersey. Only that, he insisted, would be fair. If implemented, Christie’s plan would have had crippling impacts on certain communities. NJ Advance Media found that the governor’s proposal would reduce state aid to Camden, one of the poorest cities in the United States, by 78 percent, and 37 other districts would see funding reductions exceeding 50 percent.

But, Democratic lawmakers, who control both the General Assembly and the Senate, plan to negotiate a new school funding formula  and have already expressed opposition to Christie’s proposals.

Meanwhile, challenges to teacher employment statutes in New Jersey are not over. In November, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s “last in, first out” law, which requires teacher layoffs to be made exclusively on the basis of seniority. The plaintiffs say the current law violates students’ right to an education by ignoring individual teachers’ records when determining which teachers to let go.

The Newark parents’ lawsuit mirrors a California case, Vergara v. California, which argued that teacher tenure, seniority, and other employment rules violated the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide students with an equal education. The California plaintiffs won the that case in 2014. But in a unanimous 2016 decision, the California Court of Appeals struck down that ruling and the state Supreme Court declined to take up case. Similar lawsuits challenging teacher job protections have also been filed in New York and Minnesota.

Teachers Union Battle Escalates at KIPP Charter School

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 30, 2017.
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Public school advocates and labor unions have been pressuring members on the Senate education committee to vote Tuesday against Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s controversial pick to head the federal education department. Pointing to the Republican billionaire’s track record in politics, advocacy, and philanthropy, critics argue that she represents an existential threat to public schooling.

Flying under the radar of this high-profile fight is a little-known labor battle escalating at one of the nation’s most well-regarded and politically powerful charter school networks. With 200 schools across the country, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is known for boosting student achievement among low-income students, and elevating the “no excuses” style of teaching to the national stage.

In late June, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City’s teachers union, filed a grievance on behalf of staff at the Bronx-based KIPP Academy Charter School, which became the first KIPP school in the city when it opened 16 years ago. (Eleven operate in New York City today, making KIPP one of the largest charter chains in the city.) The union accused KIPP Academy of failing to provide its employees with a host of basic labor rights they’re entitled to under the citywide collective-bargaining agreement. Specific grievances included a failure to provide teachers with summer vacation pay, an appropriate number of sick days, and sufficient rest periods on the job.

The battle has since metastasized into a wider legal fight, when KIPP Academy launched an ostensibly unrelated effort to encourage its employees to decertify their union.

KIPP’s academic model, defined by longer school days and school years, is also known for its high teacher turnover—fueling criticism that it’s an unsustainable model for school reform. A 2013 study published by the policy think tank Mathematica found KIPP teacher turnover was 21 percent during the 2010-2011 school year, compared with about 15 percent nationally for public schools. The study also found 86 percent of KIPP principals said teacher vacancies were hard to fill.

While most charter schools are staffed by non-union teachers, KIPP Academy is one of four so-called “conversion charters” in New York City, meaning it was formed by converting an existing public school into a charter. David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP Foundation, had launched KIPP as a program within P.S. 156 in 1995, and in the spring of 2000, he applied to expand it from a program into the entire school. As part of his application filed to the New York City Schools chancellor, Levin submitted a copy of an agreement between the UFT and the school district that said any conversion charter school “shall be subject to collective bargaining agreements for like titles or positions … including but not limited to salary, medical, pension and welfare benefits and applicable due process procedures.” The agreement also said the charter’s board of trustees could negotiate changes to the collective-bargaining agreement.

When KIPP Academy Charter School launched in September 2000, all of its initial employees had been previously employed by New York City Public Schools, all had worked in the P.S. 156 KIPP program, and all had been represented by the teachers union. KIPP Academy’s original students were all also former P.S. 156 students.

Last spring, 16 years later, about 20 staff members approached the UFT to raise concerns about their working conditions.

“Our day runs from 7:20 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon, so we’re there for nine hours and 55 minutes a day, and most of the time there are no breaks,” says Fatima Wilson, a fourth grade science teacher at KIPP Academy, and one of the teachers to approach the union. Even going to the bathroom becomes an ordeal, Wilson says, as teachers must inform the entire staff if they need to relieve themselves. “We often have to hold it in, and risk urinary tract infections, kidney infections. This is life as we know it,” she said in an interview with The American Prospect. “It winds up being a long day, an unsustainable day, but you know we still come to work because we love our kids.”

Wilson, who is in her second year at KIPP and her ninth year as a classroom teacher, wants to work at KIPP until she retires. She’s “embarrassed” by how terrible the staff turnover is, and says it’s because of the labor conditions.

The UFT filed its grievance on behalf of KIPP Academy teachers on June 28, 2016; when KIPP did not respond, the union sent a letter in late October announcing its intent to move forward with arbitration—a process of settling legal disputes outside of court. UFT filed for arbitration on November 7.

Shortly thereafter, KIPP representatives began talking with staff about decertifying the union—a process to revoke UFT’s legal representation.

Some KIPP Academy teachers had actually tried to do this once before. In 2009, employees filed a petition for union decertification, but under the law at the time, KIPP teachers would have needed to garner a third of the entire citywide public school bargaining unit—then 75,780 employees—to hold an election. In a 2010 hearing before the New York Public Employees Relations Board, an administrative law judge rejected the teachers’ petition as being “numerically insufficient.” KIPP Academy officials also tried to argue that the UFT didn’t even represent its staff since KIPP began as a program, not a school, meaning the charter shouldn’t be considered a real “conversion charter.”

New York’s PERB didn’t buy it. “Contrary to … KIPP Academy’s argument, the fact that one of numerous letters submitted with the charter application refer[s] to KIPP [as] a program, rather than a school, does not change the fact that the charter application specifically sought charter status based on the conversion of a public school,” the judge concluded in December 2010.

After the teachers union filed for arbitration this past November, KIPP filed for an injunction. In a district court hearing held on November 29, KIPP’s lawyer, Jeffrey A. Kehl, argued that UFT does not have representation status to file grievances on behalf of KIPP Academy teachers, pointing out that the union has not bargained any agreement, processed any grievance, or attended any meetings for KIPP teachers since the charter opened in 2000.

The judge, Carol Edmead, responded that none of what Kehl said alters the fact that the UFT has “been deemed and not overruled” as the teachers’ bargaining agent. She denied KIPP’s petition to thwart arbitration.

Since then, KIPP officials have held several meetings with their staff (what the union calls “captive audience meetings”) to discuss decertification, prompting the UFT to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board on January 19. The union’s complaint accuses the school of violating federal labor law, alleging, among other things, that KIPP encouraged teachers to end their relationship with the union, and threatened teachers with termination if they did not do so.

In response, school superintendent Jim Manley sent an email to staff at all 11 KIPP schools across the city, saying the NLRB complaint, along with the union’s subsequent press release and its demand for arbitration, “highlights our concern that engaging with the UFT will fundamentally alter the way in which we have worked together over the last 22 years to keep our promises to our kids and their families.” Going further, Manley said KIPP does not believe the academic success it has achieved would have been possible under a UFT collective-bargaining agreement.

Manley also said KIPP “disagrees” that the union represents its staff. He gave no mention to the PERB decision in 2010, or to the district judge’s recent decision in November. “We disagree both because of how we have operated since our chartering and because of recent changes to the law,” Manley said, referring to an NLRB decision issued last summer that says charter school teachers should be considered private employees. (If KIPP teachers are private employees, then the number of petition signers needed for UFT decertification may no longer be a third of the entire UFT bargaining unit, as it was in 2010. This question is unsettled and would likely need to be resolved by the federal labor board.)

KIPP NYC declined The American Prospect’s request for further comment.

One KIPP Academy teacher I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that teachers became interested in the union after seeing how KIPP responded to the filed grievance. This teacher was not one of the educators to approach the union last spring, but joined on this fall after seeing the administration’s reaction. “They didn’t want to work with the union, they didn’t want to hear what teachers were saying, and that made me passionate about joining the effort,” the teacher told me. “We felt disrespected.”

That feeling informed Wilson’s reaction to her superintendent’s suggestion that KIPP Academy might not be able to do as much for its students if teachers worked under a UFT contract.

“The only way we would sign on to work long days is because we believe in the mission, the vision, and we believe in the kids and families and each other,” she said. “Our success has nothing to do with the fact that [KIPP] is breaking laws by not giving us our right to duty-free lunch, our right to uninterrupted prep periods, the right apportion of sick days. Despite everything, despite the laws KIPP is breaking, we’re still persevering because we love our kids.”

The teacher who spoke anonymously echoed Wilson’s sentiments. “We love our school and students,” she said, but “it just feels terrible to be silenced about things like your mental health and your daily life. The idea of having a real collective voice, to be part of the decision-making process—that’s what people are most interested in.”

The NLRB will now conduct an investigation into what happened at KIPP Academy, and if the federal labor board decides to issue a complaint, an administrative law judge will conduct a hearing to determine whether KIPP violated federal law.

On January 25, some of the school’s teachers filed a new union decertification petition with the NLRB. At least 30 percent had to sign on to file for an election, though it’s unclear at this time if all the signatories were employees represented by the UFT. A hearing is typically set before an election to address those concerns.

The UFT maintains that any decertification election should be seen as illegitimate, since it alleges that KIPP has already illegally encouraged, cajoled, and threatened their employees into voting against union representation.

KIPP clearly recognizes the high stakes in this battle. If KIPP Academy teachers prevail in their fight to improve their working conditions through the UFT collective-bargaining agreement, other KIPP charter school teachers in New York City, and even across the country, might consider organizing similar efforts. KIPP Academy teachers could also choose to negotiate modifications to their citywide contract—something unionized KIPP teachers in Baltimore have done. (In Maryland, all charter school teachers are automatically covered under their district’s collective-bargaining agreement.)

These sorts of charter school labor issues may soon surface at the federal level. Last week, Jason Botel, who founded a Baltimore KIPP charter school, was named as a senior education adviser to the White House. And Betsy DeVos’s nomination is still before the Senate.

Unlearning the lessons of the housing crisis

Originally published in Curbed on January 19, 2017.
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Nearly six million American families lost their homes to foreclosure between September 2008 and September 2015.

This unprecedented housing crisis, promulgated by well-documented Wall Street fraud and predation, led—eventually—to government action, culminating in July 2010, when President Obama signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law.

Dodd-Frank outlawed some prominent forms of predatory lending and established a new agency—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—whose primary mandate is to aggressively penalize firms for fraudulent and shady business practices. Three years after its launch, the CFPB had addressed more than 400,000 consumer complaints concerning issues like unauthorized credit card fees and ballooning mortgage payments, and distributed more than $10 billion in settlements back to consumers.

Another three-odd years later,  Donald J. Trump’s surprising presidential victory has sent a deep chill down the spines of housing and civil rights advocates across the country. In his capacity as a developer, Trump was a defendant in one of the largest cases ever brought by the federal government for housing discrimination against African-Americans. In his short political career, he has pledged to deregulate the housing and financial sectors, and his early cabinet appointments have close ties to Wall Street.

“We’re about a decade out from the housing crisis, and it’s important that we don’t succumb to this collective amnesia about what happened,” says Sarah Edelman, the director of housing policy at the Center for American Progress. “We’re at real risk of returning to predatory lending and losing the protections Congress put in place to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 bars landlords, lenders, and sellers from discriminating based on race, sex, religion, or national origin, and requires recipients of federal funds to proactively promote housing integration. In 2015, under Obama, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a new federal rule—known as the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule”—to provide communities with new tools to ensure they meet their fair housing obligations.

At the time, Republicans decried the AFFH rule as government overreach. Trump’s now-nominee for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, called it a dangerous “social engineering” scheme in an opinion piece published during his 2015 primary run. And while campaigning for president, Trump said he’d rescind the rule.

Already active litigation regarding violations of housing and civil rights law would also likely be stymied by a motivated Trump administration. For context, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice filed more than 100 lawsuits between 2012 and 2015, with a majority of those casesconcerning housing and lending discrimination. Former DOJ officials predictthat Trump’s administration will not be as committed to enforcing fair housing laws, especially if the Senate confirms Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as the incoming attorney general.

Sessions allegedly railed against the NAACP and the ACLU for trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people,” according to testimony at his 1986 confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship (he was ultimately denied the position because of such remarks). If Sessions brings this point of view to his new role, Justice Department lawyers working on fair housing cases could be reassigned, and Trump’s team could simply avoid pursuing similar suits in the future.

Stuart Rossman, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, raises several additional concerns for fair housing advocates. For the past few years, two homeowners’ insurance trade associations have been challenging a 2013 HUD rule that formalized how housing discrimination cases could be tried under the so-called “disparate impact” standard, which lets individuals allege housing discrimination without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate.

The Obama administration has vigorously defended the rule in court. “Will the [Trump] government now throw up their hands and send their lawyers home?” asks Rossman. If the rule is thrown out, individuals may find it more difficult to bring fair housing cases forward.

And then there’s the matter of proving these cases once they’re on the docket. At present, the federal government collects detailed demographic data from banks under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, including price data for loans and information about who has been denied service. “Banks very much want to keep this information private, because they know when it’s collected it will be scrutinized,” Rossman explains. By evaluating HMDA data, lawyers can assess if banks are treating some groups of people differently than others.

“I’m not saying there’s not overt discrimination cases out there, but the systemic, institutional type of cases which affect a broad range of individuals are far more likely to [fall under] disparate impact,” Rossman says. “The banks, auto lenders, and insurance companies are far too sophisticated to engage in overt sexism, racism, and ageism. If you can’t get that aggregate analysis to make a disparate impact claim, you’re in a really bad spot to sue.”

Since the HMDA’s passage in 1975, each administration has had a fair amount of discretion to interpret the law. If, say, Trump’s team decides they don’t need to require banks to report as much information as they do now, changing HUD’s disclosure requirements, lawyers could find themselves locked out from the sort of aggregate data needed to prove housing discrimination in court.

Rossman also points to a tactic taken by George W. Bush’s administration, which used the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to protect banks from civil rights suits initiated by state attorneys general and private lawyers. That means there are multiple strategies the Trump administration could pursue to avoid fair housing litigation at both the federal and local levels.

On the finance side of the equation, Trump’s nominee to lead the Treasury Department is Steven Mnuchin—a Goldman Sachs veteran of 17 years. Mnuchin founded and ran a mortgage lender, OneWest Bank, that was recently accused of housing discrimination in a federal complaint filed by two nonprofit groups. According to the complaint, OneWest (now a subsidiary of CIT Bank), was far more likely to foreclose on black and Latino homes than to lend to those owners, and neglected to maintain foreclosed homes in black and Latino neighborhoods, hastening their decline, while it actively maintained foreclosed homes in majority white areas.

“Mnuchin has a lot of rhetoric about his interest in protecting working families, but that’s not what his record has shown,” says Paulina Gonzalez, the executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, one of the groups to lodge the complaint. “The evidence speaks for itself.” That evidence now includes a newly disclosed 2013 memo from the California attorney general’s office alleging that OneWest repeatedly flouted a variety of foreclosure laws.

Mnuchin isn’t the only Goldman alum lined up to set financial policy in the Trump era. The president-elect has also named Gary Cohn, the president and COO of Goldman Sachs, to direct the National Economic Council, the president’s main forum for economic policy advice. Likewise, Jay Clayton, a Wall Street attorney whose firm has long represented Goldman Sachs, was recently nominated to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. During the last administration, SEC regulations were key to holding banks accountable for bad behavior that led to the mortgage crisis, but the New York Times calls Clayton’s appointment “a strong signal that financial regulation in the Trump administration will emphasize helping companies raise capital in the public markets over tightening regulation.”

Trump will also have the ability to appoint leaders to all three of the major financial regulatory agencies: the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the OCC. “Though the good news is we now have legal standards that prohibit irresponsible lending, it only underscores how important those regulatory agencies are, and their leadership,” says John Taylor, the president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

“These appointments are critical,” Taylor continues. “Is [Trump] finding people whose first obligation is to ensure that average working class Americans are treated fairly, or is he looking out primarily for the businesses and agencies that might be affected by regulation?”

Ultimately, housing advocates worry about what will happen if Trump and congressional Republicans deregulate the housing industry and repeal the young Dodd-Frank law. Trump’s transition team has already said it’s looking to “dismantle” Dodd-Frank and Mnuchin has said targeting it would be a top priority for him. Many experts have suggested that rather than go through the trouble of repealing Dodd-Frank entirely, Republicans may look for ways to starve it, rendering it ineffective.

David Dayen, journalist and author of Chain of Title, a 2016 bestseller on the foreclosure crisis, says Trump may even be motivated to “weaponize” Dodd-Frank—using it to selectively advance his personal goals.

For example, Obama’s Justice Department has been pressuring Deutsche Bank to pay billions of dollars for its malfeasance during the housing crisis. Trump owes Deutsche Bank $364 million. Similarly, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve have been investigating Wells Fargo for anti-consumer practices. Donald Trump owes $410 million to Wells Fargo. Dayen sums up Trump’s fiscal conflicts of interest: “Trump may find it very appealing to be able to prosecute some financial institutions and not enforce rules at others.”

The unraveling of post-housing crisis protections could be especially dangerous as Republicans talk animatedly about privatizing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the quasi-public agencies that help stabilize the U.S. housing market by securing the insurance markets and keeping mortgage rates low. Mnuchin has already said the next administration will get the government out of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

On top of housing discrimination fears, advocates worry about what Trump’s administration could do to exacerbate demand for affordable housing across strata: for homeowners and renters, urbanites and rural dwellers. “After millions had their homes foreclosed upon, and millions more millennials delayed homeownership due in part to crushing student loan debt, demand for rental units has reached its highest levels since the 1960s, resulting in skyrocketing rents,” explains Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Between 2005 and 2015, roughly nine million households moved from owning homes to renting—the largest change over any 10-year period on record. As a result, Wall Street firms started investing more heavily in single-family rentals, and a recent report out of Atlanta found that these institutional landlords were more likely to evict tenants than mom-and-pop ones. “It’s really important to keep watching these companies as they develop, because many of them are not located in jurisdictions with strong tenant protections,” Sarah Edelman says.

The stakes are high, and the litany of housing risks is long. But, thanks to the progress made over the last eight years, advocates at least will enter the Trump years with language and policy proposals they lacked a decade ago when foreclosures hit en masse. “Back then, progressives didn’t have a shelf of ideas, or the architecture to actually make the system safer,” says Dayen. This anti-discrimination framework will be threatened, and in some cases dismantled, under Trump. But it can also be defended, and restored.

 

 

Betsy DeVos Alarms Special Education Advocates, Parents

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 18, 2017.
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At an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos’s financial disclosures.

So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent. But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos admitted “she may have been confused” about the 42-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), one of the nation’s most fundamental civil rights laws.

Enacted in 1975, IDEA provides nearly seven million children in the U.S. with special education services. Special education oversight is one of the most significant responsibilities of the education department that DeVos has been nominated to lead. “The fact that she doesn’t understand the basics about federal education law is just appalling,” says Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), a national organization that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities. “It was pretty clear to us that she is not, and never has been, an advocate for students with disabilities.”

“Even around vouchers, which she supposedly does have a lot of experience with, she just talked about them writ large, as if they could solve every family’s dilemma,” Marshall adds. “She gave no indication that she understands that students with disabilities very often have to give up their legal and civil rights to use vouchers.”

One of DeVos’s most stunning blunders came when she challenged the very notion of federal disability mandates, suggesting that it’s best for individual states to decide how to educate students with special needs. “That would turn back the clock by 40 years,” Marshall says. “IDEA was passed out of the recognition that students with disabilities are a group that requires greater protections. If states want to receive those federal funds, then they have to accept higher responsibilities, and provide those necessary supports.”

Thena Robinson Mock, director of the Opportunity to Learn Program at Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, says that an education secretary nominee who does not understand how IDEA benefits children of color is especially alarming. “If we know nothing else about the school-to-prison pipeline, we know that black and brown students with disabilities are the most vulnerable to punitive discipline policies that push them out of school and into the criminal-justice system,” she says. “These students still need the protections of IDEA because they are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, more likely to be referred to law enforcement and more likely to be arrested in school.”

Parents of students with disabilities also had strong reservations about DeVos’s performance, saying that her lack of rudimentary knowledge and experience should disqualify her from the position.

Dustin Park, who lives in Tennessee with his six-year-old diagnosed with Downs syndrome, told The American Prospect that DeVos’s testimony troubled him. “At best, she doesn’t know about the laws protecting students with disabilities, and at worst she doesn’t care,” he says. Park has been organizing and educating other parents about state and federal special education laws and noted that the Supreme Court heard a case just last week that will have massive implications for students with disabilities across the United States.

David Perry, a parent living in Chicago with a disabled child could not understand why a nominee did not have a good answer for such a softball question. “It’s either ignorance, or arrogance, or apathy,” he says. “Either way, I’m even more concerned about her nomination.”

Edward Fuller, a Penn State University education policy professor, told The American Prospect about his experience living in Texas, where his daughter, Jade, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and ADHD, had been routinely denied special education services. In 2016, The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas had arbitrarily decided that only a certain percentage of students would get special education, while denying thousands of other children their lawful services. The newspaper’s investigation has since prompted federal intervention.

“The debacle in Texas is a perfect example of what could happen if states are allowed control over special education and are allowed to interpret the laws around IDEA from their own perspective,” says Fuller. “States can adopt policies that leave huge swaths of kids without access to a free and appropriate education [and] many southern states would adopt the same strategy as Texas in order to reduce education spending.”

Tom Wellborn, a south Jersey parent of two children with special needs, says he can’t imagine how miserably his kids would be doing without the techniques they’ve learned from specialists in their schools. “DeVos is obviously unqualified; painfully so,” he says. Citing the grizzly bear comment, Wellborn says he can’t even fathom “whether she’s serious or thinks we’re all idiots.”

Freshman Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, and a parent of a son with cerebral palsy, challenged DeVos last night on the federal disability statute. In a statement provided to The American Prospect, Hassan said, “The fact that a nominee to lead the Department of Education seemed unfamiliar with the federal law to protect students with disabilities—a law that she would have a major responsibility in enforcing—is unacceptable. I will review Mrs. DeVos’s written responses but at this point she has done nothing to convince me that she’s a suitable choice to serve as secretary of education.”

Baltimore Is Finally Doing Something About Its Notorious Police Force

Originally published in VICE on January 12, 2016.
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The city of Baltimore and the federal government unveiled the terms of a sweeping 227 page consent decree Thursday morning, a legal document mandating reforms to the local police force. The deal emerged 21 months after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody in April 2015, and five months after a scathing Department of Justice report alleged a litany of unconstitutional, racist, and just plain mean-spirited policing practices in Charm City.

“Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to heal the tension in the relationship between BPD and the community it serves,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a press conference in the city. “The agreement is robust and comprehensive,” she added, emphasizing that it was negotiated to ensure effective policing, restore the community’s trust in law enforcement, and advance the public and police officers’ safety.

Like 14 similar deals currently being enforced on law enforcement jurisdictions across America, the Baltimore consent decree lays out a number of new rules and systemic changes. Among other things, it calls for a community oversight task force to recommend tweaks to the current civilian oversight systems, insists on respect for individuals’ First Amendment rights to protest and monitor the police, imposes guidelines on proper use of force and transport of people in custody, protocols on constitutional stops, searches, and arrests, requirements for annual “community policing” trainings for all officers, and new procedures for conducting sexual assault investigations. While the BPD has moved to implement some of these reforms already—which the decree acknowledges and commends—Baltimore now has a legal tool to help cure what critics believe is a broken culture of often-brutal policing.

The deal also represents one of the last chances for the Obama administration’s activist Justice Department to leave its fingerprint on the American criminal justice system—and to rein in rogue cops at the center of Black Lives Matter protests. The only question is how aggressively a new, “law and order” happy White House under Donald Trump will enforce it.

The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of the Police, the local police union, quickly issued a critical statement after news of the decree broke Thursday, bemoaning the fact that they were not included in the negotiations. “Despite continued assurance by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the Consent Decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process,” the statement said. “As we were not afforded an advance copy of the agreement, neither our rank and file members who will be the most affected, nor our attorneys, have had a chance to read the final product and, as such, we will not have a comment now. Be assured, however, that a response will be forthcoming at the appropriate time.”

Police unions in other cities have worked to block reform efforts through their collective bargaining agreements, and Baltimore activists say they are bracing for similar resistance from the local FOP. The Baltimore police union has opposed reforms to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which governs how officers accused of misconduct are treated in Maryland. Some activists say the statewide law stands as the city’s biggest barrier for meaningful police accountability and transparency.

In October, for its part, the Baltimore FOP issued its own recommendations for inclusion in the consent decree, calling for things like increased whistleblower protections, more cops, and technology upgrades.

During his confirmation hearings for US Attorney General this week, Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions expressed skepticism about using consent decrees to force change in police departments. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness,” he said. Sessions also once wrote that court-ordered consent decrees were “undemocratic” and “dangerous,” which taken with his more recent comments has served to send a chill down the spine of police reformers nationwide.

Still, Outgoing Attorney General Lynch assured the public at Thursday’s press conference that the consent decree “will live on past this administration.” After all, it is court-enforceable and there will be an independent monitor overseeing the agreement.

But Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, told VICE he has “no faith in Trump’s folks, especially if it’s Beauregard Sessions” and that he expects the police union to oppose key elements of the agreement. “Other means will have to be utilized to ensure this is enforced,” he said, pointing to ongoing efforts to change or repeal the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter national activist and administrator in the Baltimore City Public School system, praised the agreement on Twitter for its scope, and noted that it’s the first consent decree he’s ever seen to include school police.

 

Skepticism that the new administration will hold local cops’ feet to the fire abounds, however. One member of Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group focused on police reform, told VICE that she and her fellow activists have no confidence in a Trump DOJ to enforce the consent decree, even if they had their doubts about enforcement under a Hillary Clinton DOJ, too. “I think Baltimore Police is going to resist it all the way, FOP’s statement is already obstructionist as hell, and it was the police gleefully violating people’s rights that got us here,” the activist said.

The city has been under pressure to finish the consent decree before Inauguration Day. That’s because once the agreement is finalized—it still needs court approval—a federal judge will be empowered to enforce it, no matter who is president or US attorney general. Still, legal experts generally agree that if the police department or city political leadership fail to follow through on the terms of the agreement, it will be up to Trump’s Department of Justice to take them to court to compel change

New Jersey Public School Employees Sue Over Alleged Political Retalitation

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 6, 2017.

It’s no secret that school board politics can create bitter enemies, but rarely do such battles end in actual employee firings.

But nine New Jersey public school employees are claiming that a school board feud cost them their jobs, and they’ve recently filed a provocative federal lawsuit, each seeking $100,000 in damages.

The former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools—the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey—say they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights of political speech and association after they campaigned for certain school board candidates who ultimately lost. In what could turn out to be a costly twist, the school board says it might file a countersuit, alleging nothing less than federal racketeering violations.

The whole drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter political feud that’s divided two competing factions within the local Democratic party.

The case centers on the district’s November 2015 school board election, when three of nine seats were up for grabs. Two rival Democratic blocs endorsed different slates of candidates, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.

According to the federal complaint, one faction, known as “Continue The Progress” (CTP), has maintained a majority on the school board for about two decades. In 2015, three candidates (Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina, and Michelle Velez-Jont) ran on the CTP ticket.

The other Democratic faction, backed by Elizabeth’s mayor of 25 years, J. Christian Bollwage, supported three CTP opponents (Charlene Bathelus, Stephanie Goncalves, and Daniel Nina). Prior to the 2015 election, the school board comprised five CTP members and four Bollwage-backed members. But all the CTP candidates lost, giving the mayoral faction a 6–3 majority.

The plaintiffs allege that upon taking power, the Bollwage faction “purged” the district of employees who openly supported or were perceived to support the CTP candidates. They claim their contracts were terminated not due to performance, “but rather due to retaliation” for political activity. Their 28-page complaint, drafted by an attorney with a Philadelphia-based law firm, alleges First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The stakes for this kind of suit are high. In the September 2015 issue of The American Prospect, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia, reported on the growing threat of “employer mobilization”—when employers recruit workers into political activity (or retaliate against them for their own political activity). Workers are already subjected to threats, harassment, and other forms of retaliation for union activity, and Hertel-Fernandez says that “it is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.”

In a statement released to Union News Daily (named for the New Jersey county Elizabeth is located in, not the labor movement), Elizabeth district spokesperson Pat Politano said the allegations made against the district, the superintendent, and the school board are “false, frivolous, and will be defended vigorously.” All contract renewals made since January 2016, he said, were done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations. According to NJ.Com, Politano’s former job involved consulting for the political campaigns of mayor-backed board members.

Politano said the school district is “considering all appropriate legal actions” in response to the complaint, including the possibility of filing the racketeering counterclaim, arguing that previous boards of education saw the district “as a source of personal benefit to themselves and their political allies.”

In this northern New Jersey city, it seems corruption charges can fly both ways—even within the same party.