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.

Larry Hogan Can Be Beat

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 5, 2016.
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When Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced in mid-December that he was jumping into the race for Democratic National Committee chair, analysts immediately began to speculate what his motivations could be for challenging Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Ellison had already been in the race for a month, and had received diverse endorsements from the AFL-CIO, Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, among many others. Was the White House putting Perez up to this, nervous about a key Sanders supporter leading the party? Was this about preserving support from billionaire donors like Haim Saban, who said electing Ellison would be a “disaster” for Democrats?

And, wait, wasn’t Perez—a former Maryland state official and a longtime resident of the D.C. suburbs—considering a 2018 run against Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan? Wouldn’t this rising political star’s career be better served by making a blue state blue again?

Last month, when I started asking people around D.C. this question, I got two somewhat contradictory responses. First, I’d invariably be asked if I had seen Larry Hogan’s approval ratings. Yes, I knew that the Republican governor currently boasted a 71 percent approval—his popularity was something The Washington Postreminded readers of again and again. But when I’d ask them what they thought Hogan’s biggest accomplishments were, their responses would quickly become vague. “Look … he can’t be beat,” they’d insist. “He’s moderate and just too well-liked.”

While I’d never claim that unseating an incumbent governor with high polling would be easy, Hogan’s alleged inevitability needs a reality check. Maryland is a state where Hillary Clinton swept the floor by 26 points. It’s a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one. Let’s be clear: Larry Hogan can be beat.

Hogan won the governorship in 2014 under uniquely favorable circumstances. His six-point victory was facilitated in part by Democrats taking the race for granted: They waged a pitifully weak campaign effort for an uninspiring and often invisible candidate. The result was a precipitous decrease in statewide voter turnout, particularly in counties that are critical for Democratic wins. Baltimore City turned out 36 percent of voters in 2014, 9 percent fewer than in 2010. Likewise, in Prince George’s County, turnout dropped by 7 percent, and in Montgomery County, by 12 percent.

There’s good reason to suspect the 2018 campaign season will not much resemble the generally muted 2014 contest. For starters, there’s a man named Donald Trump who’s set to take over the White House later this month. He’ll be starting his presidency with a stunningly low approval rating, and the 2018 midterms will be the first opportunity Americans generally, and Democrats particularly, will have to express their displeasure at the ballot box. What’s more, with the federal government under GOP control, Democrats will be focusing more on winning state governments than they have in the recent past. Thirty-six gubernatorial seats up are for grabs in 2018, and as political writer Greg Sargent pointed out, many states in which Republicans are defending governorships are ones that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton recently won.

Larry Hogan might be a moderate Republican, but he’s still a Republican. That means progressives have an opportunity to link his Maryland agenda to Trump’s national program—and whatever chaos it’s likely to cause. Hogan himself has described Chris Christie and Vice President-elect Mike Pence as his “closest friends” among governors. Yes, Hogan said he would not vote for Trump—a shrewd political calculation that resonated with his liberal state (Massachusetts’s GOP Governor Charlie Baker did the same thing)—but Hogan has hardly been denouncing Trump, either. On the contrary, Hogan congratulated him on his win, and made clear the president-elect would be welcome in Maryland. A few weeks after the election Hogan even said, “Everyone ought to just take a deep breath and give the new administration a chance.”

If anything, Hogan is more vulnerable to an anti-Trump backlash than the far-right, Trumpist wing of his party. The hard core of GOP elected officials usually represent safe red districts. However popular he may be, Hogan is trying to keep his balance in a state that tilts far to the left.

Hogan recognizes his political vulnerability. Clinton and newly elected Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen both performed well in Maryland this past November, including in suburban counties that Hogan won in 2014. And as Maryland progressives move on from their post Trump-election shock, they’re going to be mounting a more concerted effort to define what Hogan really stands for.

And that gets to another important, overlooked reason Hogan can be beat: His record is deeply hostile to liberal values.

Let’s start with the environment. While just this week Hogan’s team released a statement positioning the governor as a champion of green energy and sustainability, his substantive policy positions paint a very different picture. During Hogan’s first week in office he blocked a series of environmental regulations, including a rule setting standards for air pollution at the state’s coal-fired power plants, and another restricting phosphorus pollution from farms near the Chesapeake Bay. This past summer the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters co-published a Baltimore Sun op-ed detailing how Hogan has fought against major environmental reforms, including his veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that passed the state legislature and was supported by 71 percent of Maryland voters.

“Most harmful, though, has been the way Mr. Hogan has confused the public about his overall battle plans,” the environmental activists wrote. “In April, with a grand ceremony in Annapolis, the governor signed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, mandating a 40 percent reduction in statewide carbon pollution by 2030. But Mr. Hogan is careful to point out that the bill has no specific mandates as to how to achieve the goal. So the governor has taken enormous and undeserved environmental credit for signing a bold target on paper while actively obliterating every major policy realm in the state dedicated to actual climate pollution reductions.”

On transportation, Hogan has similarly faked left while moving right.

“He cancelled the Red Line [a $2.9 billion light rail project in Baltimore that had been in the works since 2002], crippled the Purple Line [a light rail project running through the D.C. suburbs], he sidelined reform for the Maryland Transit Administration and the Bus Network Improvement Program,” says Martha McKenna, a Democratic political strategist. “He hasn’t done anything to help people get to work. He’s really failed and now he’s trying to get the media to cover him like he’s been a transit champion.”

“Like Donald Trump, Governor Hogan is a master of political theater that communicates only the message he wants to convey,” adds Brooke Lierman, a Maryland state delegate who champions transit reform. “He can zing off one-liners like ‘road kill bill’ that mask the actual facts of the policy he is discussing. Democrats—myself included—struggle sometimes to effectively convey our policies in ways that resonate with voters.”

If Democrats can learn how to combat Hogan’s PR smokescreen in the coming years, they can expose a governor with an agenda deeply at odds with the state’s electorate.

On the issue of public education, Hogan hasn’t bothered to conceal his true aims. In addition to cutting funding for public schools and lengthening summer vacation—a move that will disproportionately hurt low-income students—Hogan wants to increase funding for private school vouchers and significantly expand charter schools throughout the state. And though under Maryland state law all charter teachers are unionized, Hogan backed an effort in 2015 to change that.

Another reason Hogan’s record has flown under the radar is because the state has been preoccupied with the governor’s battle with cancer. Hogan spent a year-and-a-half of his tenure undergoing chemotherapy, garnering understandable bipartisan sympathy and softening criticisms. He’s also assembled a sophisticated communications team, and benefited from a massively thinned out press corps. All of which have helped divert attention from the big tax breaks he crafted for Northrop Grumman and Marriott International, and the cancellation of another billion-dollar economic revitalization project in Baltimore.

Given the paucity of Maryland media coverage, it will up to Democrats and activists to get the word out about what Hogan is really up to. But holding Hogan accountable to his record is only part of the solution. Another challenge will be prodding suburban liberals to vote in accord with their progressive values. Lily Geismer, a Claremont McKenna historian who writes extensively about suburban voters and shifts within the Democratic Party, has examined the phenomenon of blue states with Republican governors. She says voters in Democratic strongholds like Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland tend to think if they elect moderate conservatives from business-oriented backgrounds, they’ll somehow be opting for efficient, fiscally responsible state management, while still holding true to their liberal commitments. The lure of a federal-state split ticket may be even stronger for suburbanites who spend all day working in the nation’s capital.

“Being so close to D.C. is a blessing and curse,” says Lierman. “Maryland is home to a plethora of brilliant and engaged policy wonks, cabinet secretaries, and federal workers. But by and large they are concerned with federal policy and national politics—not state and local government.” To regain power, Democrats need to remember the importance of local governance; opposition to right-wing policies in Washington matters less if those same policies are simply recreated in statehouses.

Larry Hogan can be beaten in 2018. Exposed as a right-winger, stripped of a favorable national political environment, and facing a reinvigorated Democratic opposition, Hogan’s veneer of inevitability wouldn’t last long.

Which is just one reason why a sharp Democratic leader looking to move on to the national stage might want to take a hard look at the Old Line State and its supposedly invulnerable governor.

Public Education under Trump

Originally published in The American Prospect winter 2017 issue.
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On November 8, 2016, the man who vowed to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” won the presidential contest. About two weeks later he announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has aggressively lobbied for private-school vouchers, online education, and for-profit charter schools, would serve as his education secretary. In early December, Jeb Bush told an audience of more than 1,000 education reformers in Washington, D.C., that he hoped “there’s an earthquake” in the next few years with respect to education funding and policy. “Be big, be bold, or go home,” he urged the crowd.

To say education conservatives are ecstatic about their new political opportunities would be an understatement. With Republicans controlling the House and Senate, a politically savvy conservative ideologue leading the federal education department, a vice president who earned notoriety in his home state for expanding vouchers, charters, and battling teacher unions, not to mention a president-elect who initially asked creationist Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up his Department of Education, the stars have aligned for market-driven education advocates.

Donald Trump neither prioritized education on the campaign trail, nor unveiled detailed policy proposals, but the ideas he did put forth, in addition to his selection of Betsy DeVos, make clear where public education may be headed on his watch. And with a GOP Congress freed from a Democratic presidential veto, conservative lawmakers have already begun eyeing new legislation that just a few months ago seemed like political pipedreams.

Many aspects of education policy are handled at the state and local level, of course, but Republicans will govern in 33 states, and Trump will have substantial latitude to influence their agenda. The next few years may well bring about radical change to education.

School Choice

“President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proclaimed. “Donald is going to create incentives that promote and open more charter schools. It’s a priority.”

Giuliani’s comments reflect the enthusiasm that Trump expressed about choice and charters while campaigning for president. During a March primary debate, Trump said charters were “terrific” and affirmed they “work and they work very well.” A few months later he traveled to a low-performing for-profit charter school in Cleveland to say he’d invest $20 billion in federal money to expand charters and private-school vouchers as president. His campaign has not outlined where the money would come from, but suggests it will be accomplished by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”

Trump’s ambitions will likely be aided by his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who worked vigorously to expand charter schools and vouchers while serving as Indiana’s governor. Pence loosened the eligibility requirements for students to obtain vouchers, and eliminated the cap on voucher recipients. Today, more than 30,000 Indiana students—including middle-class students—attend private and parochial schools with public funds, making it the largest single voucher program in the country. Pence also helped double the number of charter schools in his state; he increased their funding and gave charter operators access to low-interest state loans for facilities.

In the House and Senate, Republicans are eager to expand Washington, D.C.’s private-school voucher program, which has paid for about 6,500 students to attend mostly religious schools since the program launched in 2004. “I think [the Republican Congress and new administration] could eventually turn D.C. into an all-choice district like we see in New Orleans,” says Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Congress also allocates $333 million per year to the federal charter school program, and groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are calling for that number to rise to $1 billion annually. Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, noted that to the extent the federal charter school program is well funded, states will continue to feel pressure to position themselves competitively for those dollars.

Conservative leaders at the state level are also looking to expand private-school vouchers and so-called education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, in addition to private-school tuition. At the Washington conference where Jeb Bush keynoted, panelists spoke enthusiastically about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in all 50 states. On the campaign trail, Trump called for expanding private-school vouchers for low-income students, but his vice president-elect and his nominee for education secretary both support giving vouchers to middle-class families, too.

Congressional Republicans may also try to establish federal tax-savings accounts for K–12, which are similar to the 529 plans that already exist for higher education, and which mainly benefit well-off families. They also may push for federal tax credit scholarships, which would provide tax relief to individuals and businesses that help low-income children pay for private school.

In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground for a federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization. In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, Bush and Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy traded federal standards for more federal funding. The subtext was the Republican narrative that public schools were failing. This in turn led to the era of standardized testing and punitive measures against “failing” schools. Later, by appointing former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, and passing over such progressive reformers as Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama sided with those who sought measures like the nationalization of academic standards. The new backlash from conservatives against testing and the Common Core should not be interpreted as a rejection of a federal role. The right loves it when Washington intervenes—if it serves the right’s purposes.

The Department of Education

Trump has boasted that he would reduce the size of the federal government, and his DeVos-led Department of Education is one likely place he’ll start. Though threatening to dismantle that federal agency is a long-standing Republican tradition, surrogates say it is more likely that Trump will try and “starve” the department, and downsize its responsibilities, rather than kill it outright.

In October, Carl P. Paladino, a New York real-estate developer who was briefly considered for education secretary, took to the stage on Trump’s behalf at a national urban education conference and said the department’s Office for Civil Rights—which oversees initiatives like tackling college sexual assault and reforming school discipline—was spewing “absolute nonsense.”

Obama’s Education Department has given unprecedented attention to reducing racial disparities in school discipline, issuing the first set of national guidelines in 2014 and making clear that it would hold districts accountable for discriminatory practices. Policy experts think these efforts will fall quickly by the wayside in the coming years.

In a press conference following Trump’s victory, David Cleary, the chief of staff for Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said his boss believes the Office for Civil Rights should be reined in. “There will be aggressive oversight from Congress to make sure it shrinks back to its statutory authority and responsibilities,” Cleary said.

Another major threat to the Education Department is a significant loss of institutional knowledge. Politico reported that the agency is already experiencing a loss of morale since the election, and bracing for a serious brain drain: Many veteran employees who have served for decades, in addition to younger staff who entered government under Obama, are considering leaving because they don’t want to work for a President Trump.

Common Core

One crowd-pleasing element of candidate Trump’s stump speech was his promise to “kill” Common Core—the standards launched in 2009 that lay out what all K–12 students are expected to learn in English and math. The standards, which were created by a coalition of state governors, and incentivized by the Obama administration through the federal Race to the Top program, have been a flashpoint for conservatives, who see them as a threat to “local control.” Trump vowed to eliminate Common Core through the so-called School Choice and Education Opportunity Act—part of the legislative agenda he says he’ll focus on during his first 100 days. DeVos now stresses that she does not support Common Core, although an organization she founded—the Great Lakes Education Project, which she also funded and served as a board member for—strongly backed the standards in 2013.

While there are limits to what Trump and DeVos could do to end the Common Core standards (they are state standards, after all), Trump’s executive bully pulpit could certainly help embolden Common Core opponents on the local level.

Still, Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, is not so worried about the future of the national education standards. “I don’t even think Donald Trump knows what the Common Core is,” she says. And despite candidate Trump’s demagoguery, Brown points out that states haven’t really abandoned them, even in more conservative parts of the country. “To the extent that states have changed their standards, they basically renamed them and kept the basic content,” she says.

Teachers Unions

This past year, public-sector unions faced an existential threat from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn a 40-year-old ruling that required public employees represented by a union to pay fees to cover the union’s bargaining and representation costs, even if they do not pay full membership dues. Five of the nine justices were clearly primed to rule against the so-called “agency fees” and upend decades of legal precedent, but Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February, before the Court could rule. The case ended up in a 4–4 tie, leaving the law, and collective bargaining, in place.

Now that the Republican Senate has refused to hold a vote on Obama’s appointment of Judge Merrick Garland, Trump will nominate a conservative Scalia successor to the Court. With a number of Friedrichs look-alike cases headed to the Supreme Court, it’s a near certainty that a reconstituted majority of five conservative justices will strike down agency fees, which could considerably reduce the resources available to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—two of the nation’s largest unions. Were that not trouble enough, the massive support that the AFT and NEA gave to Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not likely to endear them to a president with a well-known penchant for revenge.

Every Student Succeeds Act

At the end of 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding to school performance. The new law is set to take full effect during the 2017–2018 school year. While there was broad recognition that ESSA marked a positive step forward from the test-and-punish regime that had reigned for 13 years under No Child Left Behind, a diverse coalition of civil-rights groups has worried that its replacement, which substantially reduced the federal government’s role in public education, will not do enough to hold states accountable for the success of racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English language–learners. “The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Capitol Hill during the ESSA negotiations.

For the past year, the Obama administration worked to draft regulations that would help maintain some level of federal accountability for student learning and funding equity, particularly for disadvantaged students. These executive-level regulations, which have been controversial among congressional Republicans, are likely to be abandoned, or weakened, under President Trump.

One policy that congressional Republicans might push for under a President Trump is known as “Title I portability,” which would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. While still a candidate, Trump brought in Rob Goad, a senior adviser to Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican, to help him flesh out some school-choice ideas. Messer co-sponsored a bill during the ESSA negotiations that would have launched Title I portability, but Obama threatened to veto any version of the law that contained it. A White House report issued in 2015 said that Title I portability would direct significant amounts of federal aid away from high-poverty districts toward low-poverty ones, impacting such districts as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia particularly hard. Conservatives may see a more politically viable route to push this policy under Trump.

Brown of the Center for American Progress doesn’t think Congress will likely pursue Title I portability, however, in part because it has a lot of other legislative priorities to attend to. “The ink is barely dry on ESSA; states haven’t yet submitted their plans. I think [portability] is probably dead on arrival, but maybe six years from now,” she says. Even then, Brown thinks the policy will never be all that popular, since huge swaths of the country lack many school options, making them poor candidates for private-school vouchers.

But other education experts say that the lack of brick-and-mortar schools in rural communities just means that the door could open more widely for for-profit virtual schools, which DeVos has strongly supported. In 2006, Richard DeVos, her husband, disclosed that he was an investor in K12 Inc., a national for-profit virtual charter school company that has since gone public. As of mid-December, Betsy DeVos had not clarified whether her family still holds a financial stake in the for-profit education sector.

Higher Education

Trump, who founded the now defunct for-profit college Trump University, recently agreed to pay $25 million to settle a series of lawsuits alleging fraud. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who studies college affordability, predicts America will be “open for business” under President Trump when it comes to promoting for-profit colleges. “This means cutting regulation and oversight, and defunding public higher education so that students view for-profits as a good deal,” she wrote on her blog following the election. The Higher Education Act, which governs the administration of federal student aid programs, is also up for reauthorization in 2017.

Trump didn’t devote much time while campaigning to talking about colleges and universities, but he did say in an October speech that he’d look to address college affordability by supporting income-based repayment plans, going against many Republicans who say such initiatives are fiscally reckless and create incentives to acquire too much higher education. Conservatives have also proposed rolling back Obama administration reforms that federalized all new student loans and applied stricter regulations, particularly to for-profit institutions. If President Trump does ultimately re-privatize student loans, consumer protections would likely disappear, and the cost of borrowing would rise.

University leaders are also worrying about what a Trump administration could mean for research funding. The government is likely to cut back on investments on budgetary grounds, but also on ideological grounds, since universities tend to be seen as liberal enclaves. Experts say that non-ideological scientific research is particularly vulnerable. House Republicans, led by Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, have tried before to cut federal funding for social sciences and climate and energy research, and having a president who refers to global warming as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” doesn’t augur well for federal research investments.

Moreover, as the president-elect frequently rails about political correctness, higher education leaders worry that a Trump administration will not look kindly on student free speech and protest. Ben Carson, who was briefly considered for Trump’s education secretary, said that if he were in control he would repurpose the department to monitor colleges and universities for “extreme bias” and deny federal funding to those judged to have it. Decrying alleged campus bias is a staple of “alt-right” (read: white nationalist) media outlets like Breitbart, whose chief, Steve Bannon, will be Trump’s strategic adviser and senior counselor.

The Path Forward for Progressives

For a week following the election, it wasn’t clear how exactly the liberal groups that backed Obama’s education reform agenda—Common Core standards, test-based accountability, and charter schools—would respond to their new choice-friendly president. The fact that the school reform agenda has long had bipartisan backing has always been one of its strongest political assets.

As pundits tried to guess whom Trump would pick for various cabinet-level positions, rumors started to float that Trump might be eyeing Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. Public Schools chancellor, or Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, for education secretary. Both women back the Common Core standards, and are broadly revered among Democratic school reformers.

But on November 17, just over a week after the election, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, issued a strongly worded statement urging Democrats to refuse to accept an appointment to be Trump’s secretary of education. “In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids,” Jeffries said. He condemned Trump for his plans to eliminate accountability standards, to cut Title I funding, to reduce support for social services, and for giving “tacit and express endorsement” to racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes, and he called on the president-elect to disavow his past statements.

Shortly thereafter, Moskowitz announced that she would “not be entertaining any prospective opportunities” in the administration, but defended the president-elect, saying there are “many positive signs” that President Trump will be different than candidate Trump. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, took a tour of a Success Academy charter in Harlem later that week. Rhee, following a meeting with Trump a few days later, issued a statement saying she would not pursue a job in Trump’s administration but that “[w]ishing for his failure” would amount to “wanting the failure of our millions of American children who desperately need a better education.”

The equivocating didn’t end there. Democrats for Education Reform soon walked back their original declaration of opposition to Trump. In a statement sent to the group’s supporters, Jeffries wrote that DFER was not saying Democrats should not work with Trump on education, but just that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education. “[W]e draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump,” Jeffries wrote. “Where appropriate, we will work with the Administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.”

In a political climate where teachers-union strength may dramatically diminish, opposition to Trump’s agenda from liberals who supported Obama’s education reforms could be an important deterrent to Trump’s rightward march on education. But with DFER already signaling that it’s open to working with Trump, with high-profile reformers like Moskowitz and Rhee also giving him a public nod of approval, and since some of the same billionaires who fund the charter school movement also back the president-elect, the chances aren’t great that Democratic education reformers will staunchly oppose Trump’s school reform agenda.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is under no illusions about the enormous challenges that loom for the future of public education. Yet she notes that over the past half-decade, educators and their unions have worked with their communities like never before. “If Donald Trump opts for privatization, destabilization, and austerity over supporting public education and the will of the people,” she says, “well, there will be a huge fight.”

My favorite work from 2016

Last December I did a roundup of the pieces I was most proud of writing in 2015. It was nice to take the opportunity to reflect on my year, and I decided to do the same for 2016.

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1. Can Charlotte-Mecklenburg Desegregate Its Schools … Again?
In 1971, the Supreme Court legalized busing as a means to desegregate public schools in the landmark case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. I covered this metropolitan school district grappling with school segregation 45 years later.

2. Under Armour’s Slam-Dunk Deal
I reported on a massive and controversial development project that Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has been pushing for in Baltimore.

3. Rethinking School Discipline
I published a feature on racial disparities in school discipline, and the growing political pressures to address them in the age of Black Lives Matter.

4. School Desegregation Lawsuit Threatens Charters
I explored a new school desegregation lawsuit in Minnesota that involves charter schools and could impact education nationally.

5. United Workers Organize For Fair Development
For Baltimore City Paper I profiled an awesome organization that’s doing some of the most important social justice work across the city.

6. School Closures: A Blunt Instrument
In The American Prospect‘s spring 2016 issue I wrote about low-income communities fighting to save their schools from closure. I was lucky to travel to Newark and Chicago while reporting this story to meet with parents and activists.

7. The Complicated History of America’s First ‘Union-Backed’ Charter School Authorizer
I investigated the nation’s only “union-backed” charter school authorizer, and how it became such a bizarre scandal.

8. Can Baltimore Recover from Its 2015 Murder Wave?
I wrote this VICE piece in January, following a year where Baltimore saw a shocking 344 homicides in 2015. As of this writing, 316 individuals were murdered in Baltimore in 2016.

9. North Carolina Educators Fight Deportations of Central American Students
This story looked at how North Carolina teachers organized to protect their undocumented students from Obama’s deportation raids. Officials at the Department of Education actually invited one of the teachers I interviewed to D.C. following the article’s publication.

10. California’s Ed Reform Wars
This feature looked at the heated legislative fights in California over changes to their teacher tenure laws following the high-profile Vergara litigation.

11. How Cops Have Turned Baltimore into a Surveillance State
With a secret aerial surveillance program, a scathing DOJ report on Baltimore’s discriminatory policing, and the end of the Freddie Gray trials, Baltimore was left figuring out how to move forward with police reform.

12. The Afrocentric Education Crisis
I looked at the challenges faced by the dwindling number of Afrocentric schools, coupled with the rise of the education reform movement.

13. Fining Teachers for Switching Schools
I discovered a bunch of strange provisions in charter school employment contracts, like mandatory arbitration clauses and non-compete agreements.

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As you can probably tell, the pieces I felt most proud of in 2016 dealt primarily with schools and Baltimore. Thanks for reading, and happy New Year!

Education Interviews, 2016

I published six education Q&As this year. I’d recommend all of them 🙂

1. Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation9780226025254
 An interview with historian Ansley Erickson

2. The Economic Consequences of Denying Teachers Tenure
An interview with economist Jesse Rothstein

3. 
It’s Not the Cost of College — It’s the Price
An interview with sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab

4. How to Stop For-Profit Colleges
An interview with sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom

516yzaplyl-_sx332_bo1204203200_5. Pulling Back the Curtain on Education Philanthropy
An interview with political scientist Megan Tompkins-Stange

6. College, the Skills Gap, and the Student Loan Crisis
An interview with economist Marshall Steinbaum

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The complicated history of America’s first ‘union-backed’ charter authorizer

Originally published in MinnPost on December 21, 2016.
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Despite its name, the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul has not distinguished itself with excellence. Instead, the Hmong-focused charter has become one of Minnesota’s most scandal-ridden schools. Battles between teachers and the administration have been common, with educators repeatedly reporting threats and retaliatory behavior. And since 2012, the school has been found not only to have suppressed multiple reports of suspected child abuse at the urging of its controversial superintendent, but also to have misdirected federal funds for subsidized student lunches — even after receiving a hefty fine for the practice.

Nor has the Community School of Excellence excelled academically. Since its inception, the school has produced poor test score results. In 2016, just a third of its students met state reading standards.

Yet these troubles have not prevented the school’s rapid expansion. When it opened in 2007, the CSE had 176 students; today, it’s one of the largest charter schools in Minnesota, with nearly 1,000 kids enrolled.

After a state investigation and reams of bad publicity — within just a few years the school had been investigated by the FBI, the Minnesota Department of Education, the federal Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, local law enforcement, and the National Labor Relations Board — the powers-that-be had had enough. When efforts to jettison the school’s superintendent failed, the school’s legal backer abandoned it altogether, a move that could have effectively shuttered the flailing charter.

Instead, something else happened. The Community School of Excellence was bailed out — just hours before it would have been closed permanently — by an unlikely savior: The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit created by the local teachers union and funded in part by its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

A unique law

To understand what a union-backed group was doing rescuing a notorious charter school — and why that was so unusual — you have to dive into the little-noticed world of charter authorizing.

Charters aren’t unregulated, of course, but their monitoring system isn’t well understood, either. Across the country, charter schools are generally overseen by another organization: most often a public school district, but it could also be anything from a university to a state commission. This third party — called an authorizer — grants a charter the right to exist, and in turn, takes over much of the work of ensuring that the school complies with relevant laws and regulations. Authorizers are also tasked with monitoring schools’ academic performance. In theory, if a charter strays too far from the straight and narrow, authorizers are expected to shut it down.

Minnesota, long regarded as a leader in education reform, virtually invented the authorizer system when it opened up the nation’s very first charter school 25 years ago. By the early aughts, however, state officials recognized that they had accumulated an awfully high number of charter authorizers (then referred to as “sponsors”) that were not taking their oversight responsibilities very seriously, a situation that enabled some charter leaders to seek out especially lax authorizers.

In response, in 2009, legislators decided to increase the responsibilities assigned to Minnesota authorizers. When all was said and done, the reforms reduced the number of authorizers in the state from 51 to 13, and education reform advocates took the dramatic drop as an encouraging sign: an indication that bad actors were weeded out, or at least those not serious enough about monitoring school quality.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says Minnesota’s 2009 reforms were “certainly the most rigorous form of accountability for authorizers that has occurred anywhere in the country, then and today.”

But at the same time that Minnesota cracked down on negligent charter authorizers, state officials opened a new can of worms. Within the same 2009 legislation, lawmakers created what are known as “single-purpose charter authorizers” — unique nonprofits that exist nowhere else in the United States. Only two states, Ohio and Minnesota, currently have nonprofits authorizing charter schools, but these have traditionally been pre-existing entities like universities or social-service organizations.

A “single-purpose charter authorizer” was a new idea: a nonprofit that exists only to open, close, and monitor charters. The thinking was that such an organization could devote all its attention to diligently overseeing charters, thus boosting education quality more broadly.

An unusual alliance

Today, the Minnesota Guild is one of four single-purpose authorizers in the state, though that’s not the only reason it’s unusual. To see why, it’s important to know that teacher unions and charter schools have long had a fraught relationship. Most charter teachers are at-will employees, and the more students that charters attract, the less union jobs are likely to exist at traditional public schools.

And while a growing number of charter school teachers have received support from the labor movement to organize at their schools, teacher unions still generally lobby to limit charter expansion, pointing to negative fiscal impacts they have on traditional public schools, among other things.

The idea for the Minnesota Guild came from Lynn Nordgren and Louise Sundin, two former presidents of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s local affiliate. In 2010, they applied for an AFT Innovation Fund grant, money for local unions in pursuit of creative projects. Nordgren and Sundin proposed creating an authorizer that would open schools “in the spirit of Albert Shanker” — the former AFT president who originally propelled charter schools onto the national stage.

Shanker envisioned charters as small, independent schools, where teachers could experiment with new ideas, and bring the most successful ones back into traditional public schools.

At the time, Sundin and Nordgren said their plan would elevate teacher voices and secure unions a seat at the education reform table. An AFT press release called the Guild “a bold and unprecedented opportunity for teachers to approve charters.” Writing in the Star Tribune, Nordgren said it would “approve new, high-quality schools” and ensure that teachers “are respected and have a voice.” Arguing that unions want and need to be part of the charter school conversation, Nordgren stressed the Guild would “accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.”

In late 2011, the Guild was officially approved as a single-purpose charter authorizer, the new type of overseer the State of Minnesota had approved two years before. In its formal application to the state, the Guild pledged to open 35 charters during its first five years. 

A complicated relationship

It didn’t work out that way. The Guild was slow to get started, and two years in it had zero schools in its portfolio. Now, though, the Guild is opening new charters and taking over existing charters at a much more rapid clip. It is now the authorizer for 11 charter schools, five of which came under its control this fall. Eleven more are in the pipeline, and the organization says it’s still committed to its original plan of authorizing a total of 35 schools.

Though one might expect a union-backed authorizer to oversee a bunch of unionized charters, especially given its public comments at the time of its inception, that’s not the case. The Community School of Excellence is actually the only Guild charter school to have a union, and it was organized in 2014, two years before coming under the Guild’s auspices.

That made more sense after talking to Brad Blue, who has served as the Guild’s director since its inception. Blue is an eclectic figure: He’s played professional hockey, owns a farm, holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence — and, as it turns out, isn’t really so jazzed about unions. In fact, he goes to great lengths to emphasize how neutral he is on the subject. “We don’t work directly, or even indirectly, with unions, or locals,” he said. “We’re neutral about that — we’re neither for unions, nor against. It’s a school’s decision.”

Over the years, many have wondered if the Guild represents a subversive attempt to unionize charters. After all, one of its unique aspects is that it requires employers to stay neutral if teachers decide to launch an organizing drive. But Blue flatly rejects that notion. “How many Guild schools are even unionized?” Blue says. “Only one, and they just transferred in July. For us it’s a really moot point.”

For the past five years, the AFT has given the Guild roughly $500,000 in total grants. But when AFT representatives were asked if they thought it was an issue that so few of the Guild’s schools were unionized, officials said they weren’t worried, noting that charter teachers overseen by the Guild are well positioned to move forward with union campaigns. “There’s no way to wave the wand and make a union happen,” says Mary Cathryn Ricker, the AFT’s executive vice president. “There were no hard deadlines [for organizing unions]. It was more aspirational.”

Ricker also seemed unconcerned about Blue’s remarks regarding unions at the Guild’s schools. “The Guild has to approach authorizing with integrity,” she says. “If you look at the original purpose of the Guild, and the authorizing agreement, there is an effort to deliberately recognize the rights of workers to organize in their workplace. At the same time, the Guild cannot both authorize and organize them. At the end of the day, the organizing itself is our responsibility as current union members.”

Given the unprecedented nature of an authorizer like The Minnesota Guild, I asked Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, if he thought it would violate authorizer norms if the Guild were openly pro-union. “I think it’s more than fine. It’s even good,” Richmond answered, noting that one of the benefits of having multiple charter authorizers in a state is precisely so they can encourage different types of schools.

Locally, the Guild has gained notoriety among traditional public school teachers, many of whom consider the schools it authorizes to be in direct competition with their own schools. Robert Panning-Miller, a 25-year veteran teacher of the Minneapolis public schools and a former MFT president, says there was absolutely no debate or discussion among rank-and-file members about whether their union should back a charter authorizer.

“The first time I learned our union planned to authorize charter schools was when Lynn Nordgren announced it in the Star Tribune,” echoes Valerie Olsen-Rittler, a high school social studies teacher who has been working in Minneapolis for 27 years. She now serves on the MFT executive board, and tries to find ways to protest the Guild’s activities.

Panning-Miller, Olsen-Rittler, and several others I spoke with told me emphatically that their local union has not invested time in organizing the Guild’s charter schools. The current president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Michelle Wiese, did not return multiple requests for comment.

For the Guild’s first several years of existence, the MFT provided the group office space, free of charge. “Those of us who are MFT members had no say in the creation of the Guild, and now we continue to subsidize our own demise,” Panning-Miller wrote in the winter of 2015. (The MFT voted to have the Guild leave its building before the start of the 2015-16 school year.)

Some members have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests between the Guild and the union. For a while, Lynn Nordgren was both the MFT’s president and a Minnesota Guild board member. Louise Sundin still serves as the MFT’s lobbyist in addition to being a Guild board member. Panning-Miller has floated the idea of taking legal action, saying that a union leader supporting the creation of nonunion schools should be seen as a violation of their fiduciary obligations.

From the ‘spirit of Albert Shanker’ to ‘financial pragmatism’

In theory, single-purpose authorizers are supposed to be better able to devote their attention to regulating and monitoring the charter schools under their purview. As Nordgren wrote when the Guild was founded, “In order to receive this approval, the Guild had to meet very high standards, established in Minnesota in 2009, that require authorizers to adhere to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.”

Yet unlike traditional nonprofit organizations that authorize charters, single-purpose authorizers are limited in their ability to fundraise. Aside from grants, they can only raise revenue from authorizing fees, which are paid by the schools being authorized on a per-student basis. In other words, if a single-purpose charter authorizer closes down a school, or turns down an authorizer-seeking charter school, it would be directly harming its own bottom line.

Blue, for one, has been upfront about the reason for the Guild’s ambitious goal of overseeing 35 charter schools: financial pragmatism. “We need to build a portfolio of schools that’s substantial enough for our expenses,” he says.

Blue says those expenses currently include office space, contractors to help review charter applications and monitor schools, an employee who manages the Guild’s projects and portfolio, and a web-based tool for authorizers, Epicenter. Those expenses also include Blue’s salary. In 2013 — before the Guild authorized any schools — he took home $110,000 in compensation from the organization, 72 percent of the Guild’s overall expenses that year. In 2014, the organization raised his pay to $128,000.

Yet Blue’s responsibilities with the Guild have not prevented him from serving in other positions in the charter sector. In 2013, in addition to serving as the Guild’s director, he founded a St. Paul charter school, where he was paid $33,000 in 2014. Tax forms also stated that Blue worked 40-hours per week for each organization. (The school, Upper Mississippi Academy, is not authorized by the Guild.) He has since left that school to found another charter, which will open in the fall of 2017.

“I’m a Canadian, I’m a social welfare guy at heart. I’m also a capitalist, which is why I live in America,” Blue tells me.

Performance issues

Often lost in the Guild’s complicated history is a fundamental question: How are its schools actually doing?

Five years ago, the union insisted the venture would enable it to open up high-performing charters that help close the achievement gap. Or as Nordgren wrote in the Star Tribune: “The Guild will ensure applicants’ proposals include a clear mission, detailed curriculum, high student achievement benchmarks, healthy governance and sound finances.”

In its drive to add schools to its portfolio, however, the Guild has become the authorizer of some of the worst achieving charters in Minnesota. Take the Augsburg Fairview Academy, a charter school that opened in 2005, and that the Guild added to its portfolio this past summer. According to state data, just 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficiently in math in 2016. Or College Prep Elementary, where just 17 percent of students met state reading standards, compared to 60 percent statewide. The state found 26 percent of College Prep Elementary students were on track for math success this past year, down from nearly 50 percent in 2012. Or Lincoln International High School, where just 2.7 percent of students met math standards in 2016, and 6 percent met reading standards.

And while it’s possible that these schools will improve under the Guild’s stewardship, the odds are against it. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers discourages authorizers from taking over low-performing charters, as there’s very little evidence to suggest that new authorizers can turn them around. In fact, such takeovers tend to help poor charters avoid closure and accountability, the very thing single-purpose authorizers were designed to curtail when the law was passed seven years ago.

If the Guild meets its goal of opening 35 charter schools, it would become one of the largest authorizers in the state, though there does remain one possible obstacle. Every five years, Minnesota officials are required to review the performance of charter authorizers, and the state’s evaluation of the Guild is set to be issued by the end of January.

It’s highly unlikely that the Guild won’t pass that evaluation, given the way those reviews are conducted. So far, most authorizers have passed, even if they receive low scores on important metrics, like their criteria for opening or closing a school.

And with each new school that it authorizes, the Guild becomes less financially dependent on the AFT; its most recent grant from the union was for just $50,000, as the Guild now earns sufficient revenue on its own through authorizing fees.

The irony underlying the country’s first “union-backed” charter authorizer is that it soon may not be backed by, or accountable to, any union at all.

How to Stop For-Profit Colleges

Originally published in The New Republic‘s January/February 2017 issue
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Lawmakers are cracking down on them for shady business practices. But sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom says bigger forces are at play.

For-profit colleges have existed for centuries, but now they’re this new kind of beast. What’s changed?

There’s this great narrative about how many more people are going to college now, but that’s not actually true unless you account for the rise of for-profits. Historically, it’s mostly been women and blue-collar white men who enroll in for-profit colleges to obtain certificates for skilled labor. We can’t say that anymore. Starting in the mid-1990s, for-profit colleges really expanded due to financialization and shareholder investment. These schools now offer bachelor’s degrees and even graduate degrees. The pool of students is only going to grow as the economy continues to grow more precarious.

These schools market themselves as holding the keys to the future.

Yes, if you look at their advertising, much of it is about being “future oriented”—that they’re this new, cutting-edge way to go to school. The colleges themselves, especially the larger ones, trade on that idea. And students believe the marketing.

You call for-profit colleges a “negative social insurance program.” What do you mean?

We as a society send this message: Go to school to have a good, middle-class life—it’s the only way. What we don’t say is how. For-profits sell the idea that they can help students smooth over economic shocks. That’s what the social safety net is failing to do—we see that with the decline of welfare programs, our reticence to provide child care, the decimation of labor unions. So these schools are actually a form of social insurance—just not a good one.

Is the government “crackdown” on for-profit colleges the wrong response?

We need to go beyond focusing on whether for-profit colleges help graduates land a job. Why go after those job-placement statistics, for example, when these schools are legally allowed to generate up to 90 percent of their profits from federal student aid programs? If 90 percent of your profit comes from student aid, then you don’t have to invest in things like campuses or research that could help your students. The fact that we won’t even let the public know that that’s actually the issue—not gainful employment data—is again part of the problem.

Did you find that these schools are preying on vulnerable populations?

These students aren’t thoughtless victims. But the choices available to them are predatory. That’s actually not the fault of for-profit colleges as much as it’s a failure of government and politics and social policy. We can get rid of consumer demand for for-profit colleges within a year, simply by providing better social insurance for working-class people. Neither Democrats nor Republicans question what’s fueling the demand for these types of credentials, because to do that would require a much harder political conversation.

For-profit colleges disproportionately hurt poor people and minorities, but you argue that, ultimately, we’re all at risk. How so?

The fact is, many of us are struggling to fit job training into our lives and figure out how to subsidize it—taking an online master’s course here, or teaching ourselves how to code there. Politicians say American workers have to retrain for the jobs of the twenty-first century. But they never say how we’re supposed to do that, or who will pay for it. And that’s a problem for all of us. In this economy, we’re all vulnerable.

 

Ben Carson, the GOP, and Subsidized Housing

Originally published in T’he American Prospect on December 16, 2016.
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Last week, Ben Carson, Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave a talk at Yale University. He told students that the rumors that he planned to end housing programs for the poor are “a bunch of crap” and there is “no way” he’d ever do that. But housing advocates shouldn’t relax just yet. Even if Carson and Trump decide not to axe entire programs, they could still implement policies that create all sorts of new hardships for the millions of low-income people who live in public housing and use federally subsidized housing vouchers.

Trump would not be the first president to go after federal benefits for the poor. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which dramatically upended welfare in the United States. The law mandated two significant changes: the imposition of time limits for cash assistance, and the requirement that welfare recipients seek employment.

The welfare reforms of the 1990s have decimated low-income families. Over the past two decades, the number of families living in extreme poverty increased by 159 percent, while the number of families receiving cash assistance plummeted. Though more single mothers entered the workforce, the low-wage jobs they managed to find did little to alleviate their poverty. Moreover, when the economy tanked during the Great Recession, roughly one-fifth of all poor single mothers could neither find work nor access welfare. In 2015, researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer wrote that more than a million U.S. households with roughly three million children survive on less than $2 per day.

Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and failed GOP presidential contender who recently said that he felt unqualified to lead any federal agency, is likely to rely on congressional Republicans who have long sought to adapt Clinton’s welfare reforms to federal housing policy.   

In mid-November, Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the Financial Services Committee that oversees HUD, spoke at the Exchequer Club in Washington, D.C., and said the federal housing agency “symbolizes the left’s top-down, command and control, centralized planning approach” that measures compassion for the poor “based on how many programs Washington creates” and how much money it spends. He vowed to switch gears, and “bring new ideas to the table” to fight poverty.

Indeed, shortly afterward, in Dallas, he told the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families forum that Republicans would “turn the page” on housing come January. “The new Congress will help lift the poor onto the ladder of opportunity by attacking poverty at its roots, starting with work,” Hensarling said. “We will reform our housing programs for the poor to reflect the value of work.”

He added that HUD rental assistance programs, such as Section 8 vouchers and public housing, while they may be helpful, “do not promote economic freedom” and actually stand in the way of upward mobility. He promised to align housing benefits with cash assistance for “work-capable” recipients in order to “encourage” individuals to move towards jobs, careers, and economic independence.

House Speaker Paul Ryan also endorsed these ideas in his “Better Way” policy agenda, released in June. He said the federal government should “expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work” in exchange for welfare benefits. He also called for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to align with housing assistance.

These conservative proposals would have a devastating impact on people who are unable to meet work-for-benefits requirements. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in federally subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult. Six percent had a preschool-aged child, or a disabled child or adult.

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While CBPP says there’s little evidence available on the effectiveness of work requirements in federal housing programs, there’s ample data to show that cash assistance work requirements have done little to increase employment over the long-term, and have even sunk families into deeper, more severe poverty. This is critical to note given the significant barriers low-income individuals face to accessing stable jobs. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock found, workplace racial discrimination, employment penalties associated with incarceration, entry-level jobs that go to college graduates, and increased automation have all made it even harder for the poor to lock down steady employment.

As Jared Bernstein, a CBPP senior fellow, told The Atlantic: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of this fundamental flaw in poverty policy, i.e, the assumption that there is an ample supply of perfectly good jobs out there that poor people could tap if they just wanted to do so.”

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coaltion, took to Twitter last week to push back on Paul Ryan’s proposal to impose work requirements on public housing residents and federal voucher recipients. She urged the House speaker to invest his energy in devising strategies to make housing more affordable for low-income people. Only one out of four eligible low-income renter households even receive federal housing assistance, Yentel noted, and it’s those unassisted families in particular who are “one illness, job loss, or paycheck away” from homelessness.

Congressional Republicans’ interest in imposing work requirements and time limits on federal housing subsidies fit in well with the conservative rhetoric that Ben Carson has spewed over the past several years. During his presidential run, Carson insisted that welfare programs create cultures of dependency, harm poor families, and even “reward” people for having babies out of wedlock. Some have suggested that Carson’s lack of policy experience could mean he’d bring fresh blood and a “blank slate” to the housing agency. That’s doubtful. His dangerous ideas about welfare and work are already deeply ingrained, and, unfortunately, poised for prime time.

Vouchers, Home Schooling, Virtual Education — Conservatives’ Wish List

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 6, 2016.
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These are heady times for free-market education reformers. Republicans control Congress, GOP governors will lead 33 states, the vice-president elect is a champion of private school vouchers, and a conservative Supreme Court might soon have the power to thwart teacher union power irreparably. Best of all for the school choice crowd, billionaire GOP donor Betsy DeVos, a leading advocate of education reform, has been nominated to head up the Education Department.

The excitement of education advocates with conservative policy priorities was palpable last week at the annual reform conference hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), a group founded by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential contender. More than 1,000 people from across the U.S. gathered at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Washington D.C. for two days of panels, plenary sessions, and networking.

“Be big, be bold, or go home,” urged Bush in a welcome speech that exuded the confidence and eagerness of his audience. A recurring conference theme and mantra was “choice.” But choice for these reformers revealed itself to be an ever-moving target. Some speakers said things like: “We’re not about school choice, we’re about education choice.” Others insisted that “instructional choice is the new school choice.”

This was all connected to another conference theme, the notion of schooling in a “post-facility” world. Indeed a major goal for conservative education reformers is to push so-called education savings accounts (ESAs), voucher-like subsidies that can fund not just private school tuition, but also things like tutoring and home schooling.

In theory, additional money to pay for educational expenses sounds like a great way to level the playing field between well-off and low-income students. Children from wealthy families take advantage of all sorts of costly educational opportunities outside of school, such as summer enrichment programs, sports teams, and private tutoring. But at least as they’re currently conceived, education savings accounts are more about  redirecting existing per-pupil funds away from public schools, not so much about supplementing public school students with additional money. In that sense, ESAs differ from cash supplements like child allowances, which are social security payments distributed to parents to help shoulder the cost of child-rearing.

Doug Tuthill, who leads an organization that helps administer education savings accounts in Florida, has touted such policies as a means to “customize” an education that parents deem most appropriate. In a 2014 article dubbed “The End of ‘School Choice,'” Tuthill wrote: “This shift from state control of education funds to parental control, combined with the movement toward customized teaching and learning, is going to revolutionize public education.”

This “customization” concept was spotlighted on an FEE conference panel. Participants were asked to imagine a buffet of educational options, where parents are “empowered” to design their child’s experience. For example, a parent may opt to use public dollars to homeschool their child for half the day, then send their kid to a traditional public school for two classes, and then maybe use the rest of the money for virtual tutoring.

For conservatives at the conference, this notion that parents can go outside the traditional public school system to tap a range of other options, whether in the form of charter schools, private schools, home schooling or virtual classrooms, is the holy grail of education reform. It’s also what makes teachers’ unions and progressive public school advocates worried about DeVos and Donald Trump. One brake on private-school vouchers, for example, has been the paucity of school options in rural communities. But broadly-expanded education savings accounts could help make such vouchers more feasible on a grand scale.

ESAs could also facilitate growth in home schooling, which according to the Education Department was limited to approximately 1,770,000 U.S. students, or about 3 percent of the school-age population, in 2013. The same goes for virtual education, a major priority for DeVos, who has founded and funded groups that promote its growth. This, too, alarms public school advocates, who point to multiple research studies that conclude virtual charter schools produce far worse academic outcomes for kids than traditional public schools. Unfortunately, some of FEE’s speakers downplayed those studies or called their findings into question.

Despite the conference’s upbeat tone, one session was markedly less optimistic. At a panel titled “The Politics of Education Reform,” an assemblage of free-market reform advocates discussed the implications of Trump’s victory, and the messaging challenges ahead. Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder Bellwether Education Partners, an education consulting firm, moderated the event.

Front and center was whether Donald Trump and his far-right nominee for education secretary will drive away Democratic support for a bipartisan education overhaul.

Front and center was whether Donald Trump and his far-right nominee for education secretary will drive away Democratic support for a bipartisan education overhaul. Rotherham asked it plainly: “How should the education reform community position itself and does [Trump’s victory] threaten to split and shatter existing coalitions?”

Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who tracks the politics of K-12 policies, noted that previous bipartisan education coalitions have floundered over the last decade amid growing political polarization. “There’s an unfortunate dynamic where we often decide whether we’re for or against something, based on whether someone else is for or against it,” he said.

West recalled how towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats turned against the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act as it became more strongly associated with the Bush administration. The same thing happened, West said, with the Common Core standards—which once enjoyed bipartisan support, but which conservatives rejected when they became to be too closely associated with President Obama. If charters and choice become similarly associated with Trump, already skeptical Democrats could dig in their heels.

Nevertheless, one Democrat on the panel affirmed there’s room for both sides to work together. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, acknowledged his group’s stance that no Democrat should serve as secretary of education in Trump’s administration, but said that this doesn’t mean his organization won’t work with Trump’s administration on areas on which they can agree.

“We didn’t want one of ours working for him, but working for is very different than working with,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t work together and collaborate on good policies, and we intend to do that.”

When Jeffries was asked what Democrats for Education Reform thinks of DeVos he said his group is “still trying to learn more about her, to be honest.” He later clarified that “the jury is out for us but we look forward to supporting her in anything that’s positive for kids.”

To be sure, Jeffries has something of a DeVos connection. His group has an affiliation with, and he is president of, a nonprofit known as Education Reform Now that has received funding from the American Federation of Children. The latter is a conservative school choice advocacy group that DeVos chaired until recently.

Moreover, some FEE conferees voiced confidence that they can broaden the school choice political coalition by appealing to suburban parents. Some conservatives have argued that it’s time to bring middle-class families on board a movement that until now has touted charters and vouchers as alternatives for disadvantaged students stuck in “failing” public schools.

In his opening remarks, Jeb Bush urged the audience to “focus on the moral case” for school reform, and to “avoid the economic details” or making “the technical case.”

Such moral appeals will almost certainly bring some families into the education reform camp. Conservatives have scored plenty of political points with their rhetoric about fighting for kids, empowering parents, strengthening schools, and broadening access to high-quality education.

But the bottom line as DeVos takes the helm of federal education in the Trump era will be dollars—how they get spent, and whether charters, private schools, home schooling, and virtual education come at the expense of families in traditional public schools. DeVos has yet to be confirmed, of course. But the newly emboldened conservative education movement has signaled that, for better or worse, big changes are ahead for public schools.