The Untold History of Charter Schools

Originally published in Democracy Journal on April 27, 2017.
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Despite the controversy over their very existence, there isn’t much disagreement over how charter schools came to be. For over 25 years, charter supporters and opponents alike have settled on a straightforward creation story, one defined by a single irresistible irony: Charters were first and foremost the brainchild of teachers’ unions, the very same groups that would become the schools’ greatest foes.

The story goes something like this. In 1988, Albert Shanker, legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech at the National Press Club where he outlined his vision for a new kind of publicly funded, independently managed school. He called them “charters” and saw them as educational laboratories, where teachers could try out new pedagogical approaches. By empowering teachers to experiment with their craft, charters could serve as R&D spaces for new and better practices that could then be transferred back into traditional public schools. In a New York Times column published later that year, Shanker carried his ideas to the wider public.

Shanker said his piece, policymakers heard him and acted, and the rest—the explosion of charters, the debates over unionization and privatization, the constant experimentation with the form and structure of public schools—is history.

Today, this story has been weaponized by every side in the endless war over education reform. The Shanker speech, it turns out, is useful no matter where you stand on charter schools.

Many supporters use it to argue that charters are, ultimately, a progressive and student-friendly idea—but one abandoned by self-interested latter-day union leaders. Reform proponents like Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have defended the charter sector against union attacks by lifting up that Shanker “conceptualized” them. “Union leaders haven’t always been adamantly anti-charter,” Rees wrote last year in The Wall Street Journal. “[AFT President Randi] Weingarten’s former boss and mentor Al Shanker is actually credited with proposing charter schools.” “Here’s a fact,” wrote Laura Waters, a vocal charter advocate. “If Albert Shanker were alive today, he’d still be an education reformer and would support NJ’s efforts to expand school choice for poor urban students.” When a ballot measure to expand charter schools in Massachusetts struggled to find votes on the left, David Osborne, a centrist Democrat, penned a column to gin up progressive support. “Al Shanker gave a speech and wrote a column advocating charters,” Osborne said. “Needless to say, Shanker was no Republican.”

For their part, teacher unions and reform skeptics invoke the same origin story as evidence that they do support school choice and innovation, just teacher-led, unionized, mom-and-pop forms of it. They tell it as a story of an idea stolen and betrayed, drawing a contrast between good charters—those described by Shanker—and what the schools have become today. Supposedly, the creator of charters watched with horror as his idea was “hijacked” by conservatives, profiteers, and privatizers. As described in his biography, Tough Liberal, written by the Century Foundation’s senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg, Shanker “became quite exercised” by state laws written to allow for-profit corporations to enter the charter school sector. Shanker grew worried that charters might actually promote segregation, undermine public education, and be used as tools to destroy unions. By the mid-1990s, Kahlenberg writes, “Albert Shanker largely repudiated a major reform he had helped launch.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten likes to remind audiences that Shanker was one of the first proponents of charter schooling, but that unfortunately some “have shifted the intent of charters from incubating ideas and sharing successes to competing for market share and taxpayer dollars.” Unions are quick to point out that, in Shanker’s mind, charters would employ unionized teachers, would have union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.”

There’s only one problem with the idea that charters started with Shanker and his speech: It’s almost completely wrong.

Shanker didn’t invent the concept of charters. He wasn’t part of the long-running campaign to popularize them. His significant contribution was the term “charter school”—except he used it to describe a very different, loosely related idea.

Oh, and he didn’t invent that term, either.

The truth is that the modern fight over education reform has changed less than the people fighting would have us believe. Who invented charter schools? The same groups, it turns out, that are charters’ strongest backers today: business-oriented moderates and technocrats, focused on deregulation, disruption, and the hope of injecting free market dogmas into the public sector. Charters do have a founding father—but he’s a quintessentially neoliberal “policy entrepreneur” who has mostly kept his name out of the history books. The major principles undergirding charter schooling—choice, deregulation, and so-called accountability—had already attracted significant attention long before 1988, and proposals to break up the “monopoly” of school districts had been building for more than a decade. If Shanker helped usher some of these ideas into the limelight, the truth is that those ideas’ backers had many other roads into the inner circles of government—even if some of those roads had not yet been taken.

Progressives have always occupied an uneasy role in the charter movement—one that’s unlikely to get any easier so long as Donald Trump’s Administration remains the nation’s most powerful promoter of school choice. The untold history of charter schools shows why this is: Progressive reformers are stuck fighting against the tide in a campaign that has, from the start, looked at public institutions, labor, and government with a wary eye.

The real origin story of charters isn’t about unions gone astray or progressivism betrayed by reformers. It’s the story of the Third Way in public schools. And it begins, of all places, in Minnesota.

In the 1970s, deregulation was the name of the game. Efforts to deregulate major sectors of government took root under Ford and Carter, and continued to escalate throughout the 1980s under Reagan. From banking and energy to airlines and transportation, liberals and conservatives both worked to promote deregulatory initiatives spanning vast sectors of public policy.

Schools were not immune. Since at least the late 1970s, political leaders in Minnesota had been discussing ways to reduce direct public control of schools. A private school voucher bill died in the Minnesota legislature in 1977, and Minnesota’s Republican governor Al Quie, elected in 1979, was a vocal advocate for school choice.

Two prominent organizations were critical in advancing school deregulation in the state. One was the Minnesota Business Partnership, comprised of CEOs from the state’s largest private corporations; another was the Citizens League, a powerful, centrist Twin Cities policy group. When the League spoke, the legislature listened—and often enacted its proposals into law. In 1982 the Citizens League issued a report endorsing private school vouchers on the grounds that consumer choice could foster competition and improvement without increasing state spending, and backed a voucher bill in the legislature in 1983. The Business Partnership published its own report in 1984 calling for “profound structural change” in schooling, with recommendations for increased choice, deregulation, statewide testing, and accountability. The organized CEOs would play a major role throughout the 1980s lobbying for K-12 reform, as part of a broader agenda to limit taxes and state spending.

Efforts to tinker with public schooling took on greater urgency in 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, A Nation At Risk. This influential (though empirically flawed) document panicked political leaders across the country. Among other things, the report concluded that American public schools were failing—“eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity”—with ill-prepared teachers and low-quality standards. Its authors tied the country’s economy and national security to the supposedly poor performance of U.S. public schools, and Reagan capitalized on the alarm. His narrative fit snugly within the larger Cold War panic, and as in Minnesota, national business leaders were happy to promote this new movement.

School choice was not specifically mentioned in A Nation at Risk, though Governor Quie, who was then serving as a member on the National Commission, tried to get such recommendations included. But reformers didn’t have to wait long for a national endorsement. In 1986, the National Governors Association, chaired by Tennessee’s Republican governor Lamar Alexander, backed school choice in its Time for Results report.

Back in Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, was elected as governor for his second non-consecutive term in 1983. (He had first served from 1976-1979.) During the four years that Quie governed Minnesota, Perpich worked on a global business committee for a supercomputer firm, and returned to government deeply shaped by his corporate experience.

Ember Reichgott Junge, the state senator who would author Minnesota’s—and the nation’s—first charter school bill, described Perpich’s role bluntly: “According to the history books, Minnesota DFL governor Rudy Perpich had nothing to do with passage of chartering legislation. In reality, he had everything to do with it.”

Junge traces this history in Zero Chance of Passage, her first-person account of legislating charter schools, published in 2012. Junge says Perpich was greatly troubled by A Nation at Risk, and thought increasing competition among schools would be a constructive response. As such, in 1985, with Republicans in control of the legislature, Perpich recommended two school choice proposals: postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO), to allow high school juniors and seniors to attend nonsectarian public and private colleges, and open enrollment, to allow parents to send their children to schools anywhere in the state. PSEO passed in 1985, and open enrollment in 1987.

1987 was also the year that the Citizens League waded back into the subject, publishing a report calling for “cooperatively-managed schools”—where teachers could participate in the operational decisions of their workplace. The thinking was this could help drive more distinctive schools—because school choice would mean little without varied options to choose from. The Citizens League’s description of cooperatively managed schools is strikingly similar to modern-day charters. Teachers would be “held accountable” for student achievement, and the schools would “have flexibility to function differently from the schools we know today, from different uses of personnel and technology to different work hours.”

In the midst of this policy ferment came the famous—or infamous—1988 Al Shanker National Press Club speech. The AFT was in a precarious spot. Public support for organized labor was wavering. Ronald Reagan was still in office, and had earned a reputation as one of the most anti-union presidents in American history, in part by firing more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

Shanker thought part of the path toward saving public education was coopting the forces attacking it. He controversially endorsed aspects of A Nation at Risk, embracing its ideas about higher standards, teacher accountability, and “restructuring.” He wanted a seat at the reform table, and leaned into the idea of “professionalizing” teachers to bring his members along. Shanker felt educators needed to not be seen as obstructionist, and the years following A Nation at Risk marked a massive shift away from the blue-collar unionism that had previously defined the AFT. In 2011, Louise Sundin, who was president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers in 1984, said that Shanker’s agenda following A Nation at Risk “was a pretty screeching U-Turn” for the union, “and still is [today] a difficult one for a lot of our members and a lot of our leaders.”

When Shanker gave his charter speech, he fused his ideas about restructuring and teacher professionalization with the growing popularity of school choice. He got the idea (and the name “charter”) from a little-known educator in Massachusetts, Ray Budde, who proposed the idea of school boards issuing charters directly to teachers to create new departments or programs. Budde presented his ideas at an academic conference in 1974, but they received little notice. Budde decided to try republishing his ideas in book-form in the years following A Nation at Risk, and sent it around widely in early 1988. It landed, among other places, on Shanker’s desk.

As Kahlenberg notes in Tough Liberal, a focus on restructuring appealed to Shanker politically. Pressure had been mounting throughout the 1980s to lengthen the school day and school year, to vie with America’s competitors in other industrialized nations. But this idea was deeply unpopular with union members. “The re-structuring focus allowed Shanker to argue that a longer school day or school year was not worth the extra expense,” Kahlenberg writes. Charters offered Shanker a useful alternative.

Shanker wasn’t even the first noteworthy public figure to call for reorganizing public schools. In the late 1960s sociologist Kenneth Clark, whose work helped form the basis of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, advocated for alternative public school systems run by institutions ranging from universities to the Department of Defense.

And once Shanker put his ideas forward, many ascribed to him far more power to shape the charter movement than he ever had, or even tried to have. Shanker’s endorsement was certainly politically valuable to reformers, but most had long had their own agendas. Ultimately he was just one of many people clamoring to define what direction school reform should take.

In fact, if charter schools can be attributed to any single person, it’s certainly not Shanker, Budde, or even Clark. It’s Ted Kolderie, a Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” and one-time Citizen’s League director who spent much of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in the middle of discussions over school reform. His influence can be traced to almost every corner of the charter movement’s development, and unlike Shanker and the others, he remained dedicated to building and promoting the idea through decades of effort. Throughout the 1970s—through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO)—Kolderie’s group researched and advocated for different ways to provide government services, including education. As early as 1972 Citizens League published a report calling for “new arrangements”—namely with more choice and contracting. By 1981, Kolderie and a leader of the Minnesota Business Partnership launched Public School Incentives, a PSO successor focused exclusively on education.

One of Kolderie’s central ideas was to “end the exclusive franchise” of school districts providing public education. In several reports, he described the decline of public education as the direct consequence of public districts’ monopolistic power over schooling. His proposal: independent schools, accountable to parents through free market choice, and to the government through a set of contractual obligations. He specified that many different types of entities—universities, corporations, public school districts, nonprofits—should be able to manage these new schools, state law permitting.

This was a remarkably complete vision of the modern charter school, quirks and all.

So why do most people credit Albert Shanker with creating charters, and not Kolderie, who had been developing the concept for nearly two decades longer? One reason is because Kolderie liked it that way.

“To know Kolderie is to know someone of extraordinary vision, who often thinks light-years ahead, but still gently prods others along to where he wants them to go,” wrote Junge in Zero Chance of Passage. “Kolderie was a master at creating, refining, and redirecting ideas. He never would publicly ‘own’ any ideas, and ways to improve those ideas always presented themselves. He nurtured ideas and connected the dots for others.”

Kolderie seems to have understood that Shanker’s very different vision was a useful vehicle for his own ideas. In October 1988, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted its 14th annual Itasca Seminar, a summit for Twin Cities political and business leaders, and the year’s theme was public education. Shanker was invited to speak, and he took the opportunity to expound on charter schooling. His speech complemented the mix of school choice and independent school proposals that had been bouncing around Minnesota for quite some time.

Shanker wasn’t the only person to give a choice-oriented speech at that summit. Other speakers included Joe Nathan, a Twin Cities education reformer who personally worked with Lamar Alexander in the early 1980s to shape the school choice recommendations in the National Governors Association (NGA)’s Time For Results report. At the Itasca Seminar, Nathan would emphasize the need for greater school deregulation in exchange for “results.”

Two months later the Citizens League would issue yet another report, concluding with a strong and specific recommendation that the state legislature allow for the creation of “chartered” schools.

With Junge’s help, Minnesota would pass the nation’s first charter law three years later. Kolderie and Junge like to credit Shanker for helping to shape their ideas, but the final legislation appeared to be in response to the Citizen’s Leagues recommendations—and more than anything else, reflected Kolderie’s own vision of independent, contractually authorized schools.

In the end, Shanker’s comments on the law he was supposedly instrumental in creating were limited. Though Minnesota’s teachers unions fought the law’s passage, Shanker chose not to speak out during the legislative debates.

“I wish the architects of the bill had worked out the collective bargaining issues with the teachers unions,” Shanker told Kolderie, two months after it passed.

Although conservatives led the way in for pushing education reform in the 1980s, centrist liberals jumped on board in the early 1990s. In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as its chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie met PPI’s president in 1990, and was invited to write one of its first policy papers about school choice. Kolderie was happy to bring his ideas about “withdrawing the exclusive [monopoly]” of school districts to the Third Way. Bill Clinton embraced Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches that year, even though he knew it was vexing teachers unions. (“It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches,” Shanker would later complain.)

1990 was also when Wisconsin’s Republican governor Tommy Thompson signed the nation’s first private school voucher program, and when John Chubb and Terry Moe published Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, an influential Brookings Institution book that called for school deregulation, market competition, and parental choice.

The “New Democrats” saw charters as a way to seem proactive on education policy, offer an alternative to private school vouchers, and avoid catering to the “More Money Dem” crowd, as DLC’s co-founder, Will Marshall, put it. For liberals who sought to weaken their party’s relationships with “special interest groups” like teachers unions, charters were a boon.

At the DLC’s national convention in May of 1991, Bill Clinton and DLC delegates would endorse an education agenda that included, among other things, school choice, accountability, and Kolderie’s idea, which the DLC explained as “giving entities other than school districts” the chance to operate public schools. Even in this early stage, the agenda followed Kolderie’s market-oriented vision, not Shanker’s union-oriented one.

Democrats’ endorsement of charters did little to dampen conservative enthusiasm for the idea. Indeed, Kolderie continued to serve as a trusted education advisor for David Durenberger, Minnesota’s Republican senator, who became an early federal champion for charter schooling.

At its outset, the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the “technocratic centrists”: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC members looking for Third Way solutions that couldn’t be labeled big-government liberalism. While charters have drawn praise from other quarters—for instance, some educators and progressive activists see them as tools for racial and economic justice—these groups have never formed the heart of charters’ power base.

It hasn’t always been easy to hold the bipartisan charter coalition together, and fairly stark philosophical divisions have been bubbling to the surface over the past few years concerning what the movement’s priorities should be going forward. The election of Donald Trump, and his appointment of GOP billionaire donor Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, has plunged the charter movement into an even deeper crisis of identity.

Progressive and centrist charter leaders have so far been trying to walk the line between pushing back on the President’s far-right politics and remaining reserved, lest useful opportunities for bipartisan cooperation arise. But grassroots pressure for more aggressive opposition has been mounting.

Other parts of the coalition are moving in the opposite direction. The stocks on for-profit charters have spiked significantly since the election, with industry leaders anticipating a friendly new political landscape for what some in the reform coalition see as low-quality schools. In New York City, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz has emerged, to the chagrin of many liberals, as one of Trump’s most prominent charter defenders. (Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors include major Trump donors such as John Paulson and Robert Mercer.)

Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have charters, educating nearly three million students. Whether charter supporters can maintain the movement’s bipartisan backing while receiving support from a deeply unpopular President who promises to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” remains an open, and dicey, question.

The mythological origin story of charter schools—the Shanker myth—has served an important role in keeping the charter coalition together. The idea that charters come from unions lends a certain weight-of-history inevitability to school reform. It suggests that everyone has agreed that change must come, and the only question is from who, and what it’ll look like in the end.

Besides, on some level, the dramatically compelling nature of the story—unions creating their own greatest antagonist—keeps people from digging deeper. As a writer, it’s easy to want to believe it. This author would know, having once subscribed to it herself.

But the Shanker tale may have also helped undermine progressive school choice advocates, who find themselves chasing a vision that has never played a major role in the inner circles of school reform. Most charters are more segregatedthan traditional public schools, are non-union, and when charter educators do mount union campaigns, they almost always face tremendous opposition. If the promise of unionized, integrated, teacher-centered charters has proven devilishly difficult to fulfill, it may be, in part, because the movement’s leaders never took it very seriously to begin with.

The Shanker myth also leaves those who support traditional public schooling, in its original form, stranded in a political no man’s land. And right now, those people are in the fight of their lives, looking for firmer footing. More broadly, the Democratic Party has grown wary of the Third Way policies of the 1990s, suspecting they provide little defense against a resurgent right. As the charter coalition enters a new, treacherous era, the consensus history of charter schools may at last meet some resistance.

The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available option to preserve the affordable units, lest they become too uninhabitable for anyone to live in at all.

Roughly 60,000 public housing units have been converted to project-based Section 8 rentals through RAD since its launch in 2012, and Congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to return to the private units if they want to, though housing advocates fear the RAD statute has loopholes that could prevent this goal from coming true.

It’s little surprise that RAD—a revenue-neutral program that leverages the private sector—might appeal to leaders like Carson. RAD has garnered strong bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and many expect its congressional cap to be lifted altogether in the coming years, potentially setting the stage for a radical change to much of the nation’s public housing.

But there are housing advocates concerned about how fast RAD is moving, and they warn that oversight and transparency remain mixed at best. For some tenants, the conversions have been a nightmare.

Katrina Jones, a single mother of three, had been living in public housing for a decade when she learned that her subsidized building in Hopewell, Virginia, would be razed through RAD, and new affordable apartments would be built in its place. Jones, who has one daughter confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the prospect of long-overdue housing repairs and upgrades for her 1960s-era building.

However, according to HUD complaints filed in December, the Hopewell housing authority and the nonprofit RAD developer refused to make accommodations for Jones and her family, convincing her to take a tenant buy-out. At the time, Jones’ son was facing criminal charges (which were later dropped), and she needed money to pay his attorney fees. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave., half of which went towards paying attorney fees to defend her son against criminal charges that were later dropped. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave.

Jones now works at WalMart and pays $1,450 per month for an accessible unit in Chester, Virginia; her public housing rent had been $400 a month. “I’m living a whole new life right now where I’m struggling more every single day just to keep my current apartment,” she says. “These people don’t care what happens to you once you’re out.”

Jones is one of a dozen former tenants named in complaints recently filed by Virginia legal aid lawyers who say the Hopewell RAD conversions violated a wide range of federal laws and regulations—including unlawful threats of eviction and discrimination against families with children and the disabled. HUD is investigating the allegations, but tenant advocates say the problems documented in Hopewell reflect larger accountability issues related to the program.

It’s not just in Virginia. John Kelly, a 74-year-old tenant living in public housing in San Francisco, is currently under threat of eviction for not signing the lease of his building’s new RAD landlord, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Kelly, who has been reaching out to housing nonprofits and HUD for the past six months, says the lease he’s being asked to sign is “illegal, dishonest, unconscionable.”

Kelly describes himself as “not a big fan” of government, and he thinks private organizations could do a better job of managing his building than the San Francisco housing authority. But his experience dealing with RAD, he says, has been terrible.

Terry Bagby, a 58-year-old veteran who also lives in Kelly’s building, agrees it’s been extremely stressful. “A lot of our questions go unanswered by all these different agencies that come and have meetings with us,” he says. “I’m surprised I haven’t had another heart attack or stroke dealing with all this nonsense. I’d move out of this city in a heartbeat if I could.”

TNDC did not return multiple requests for comment, but Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee, says local groups have been working closely with the city to monitor RAD conversions. Some developers have been responsible, she says; with others it’s been more of a struggle.

“Tenants are distrustful, for real reasons,” says Sherburn-Zimmer, referring to the city’s history of displacement and eviction. “You definitely get some agencies who have young workers, new to town, who tell tenants everything is going to be great. Tenants aren’t stupid; they want everything in writing.”

Whether these are isolated incidents or signs that RAD portends greater risks for tenants in the future is not yet clear. The serious shortcomings of earlier housing programs like HOPE VI and Section 236 loom large. Both Bagby and Kelly expressed fears that their city’s commitment to low-income housing will eventually disappear.

Kim Rolla, a lawyer who helped file the Hopewell complaint, says she and her colleagues got a lot of pushback from other affordable housing advocates after contacting the media about HUD’s investigation. “It was the same week that the budget cuts were announced, and they said, ‘Why would you criticize this HUD program right now?’”

Jessica Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, says that Hopewell is the most egregious complaint she’s heard of, but her organization has documented many kinds of tenant RAD issues over the past few years. She also admits there are many places where nobody really knows how these conversions are going. “One of our major concerns is the level and quality of oversight by HUD,” says Casella. “I think HUD has put its emphasis on getting properties to closing, and much less effort in making sure that after deals are finalized, the transitions go smoothly.”

Transparency around RAD has also been a challenge for advocates, academics, and reporters. Rolla says she and her colleagues faced serious difficulty accessing basic information about the Hopewell RAD deal—and their request to have hundreds of dollars in FOIA fees waived was denied on the grounds that such disclosures were “not in the public interest.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees RAD, says his agency is trying to make RAD “the gold standard in terms of protections of residents,” noting that it has far more rules and regulations for tenant treatment than almost any other federal housing program. Davis says there’s also been a lot of work over the last 18 months to upgrade the procedures related to how HUD monitors properties post-conversion, including proactively reaching out to public housing authorities to ensure there are no issues.

“I think if there are any agencies out there meant to protect us, they’re not funded that well,” said Terry Bagby, wearily. “They probably don’t have a lot of people working on their staff, and are underpaid.”

Going forward, as HUD continues investigating Hopewell, advocates hope to make sure that the federal housing agency’s commitment to RAD oversight doesn’t waver.

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 19, 2017.
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When it comes to education reform, perhaps no city has inspired more controversy and acclaim over the last decade than Washington, D.C. Even today, uttering the name “Michelle Rhee”—the city’s first schools chancellor appointed in 2007 after a major shakeup in the district—still evokes heated reactions from local residents. Following the dissolution of the local school board and the centralization of education decision-making within the mayor’s office, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty commanded an unusual amount of power to change D.C.’s schools.

Over the past ten years, the policies undergirding the national education reform movement—offering more school choice, weakening teacher union power, and creating new accountability systems (with incentives like pay-for-performance and teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores)—have taken hold in the nation’s capital. Some see these moves as encouraging proof that education reform is working. Proponents point to positive benchmarks: District enrollment is growing; D.C. scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have improved (in some cases at a much faster rate than students in other large urban districts); and teachers who left the district after receiving low marks on D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system were replaced with higher-scoring teachers who boosted student achievement.

Research suggests that D.C. charter schools have made strides in student learning compared with the city’s traditional public schools, and the city’s overall test gains cannot be explained by demographic changes alone. In 2016, Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York magazine (whose wife helped craft some of D.C.’s new policies and now works for a local charter school), declared, “The dramatic improvements registered in places like Washington show the revolutionary possibilities of education reform.”

For others, these gains have been overstated. Critics point to large racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, misleading claims made by the school district’s public relations department, uncritical press coverage, a precipitous decline in black educators, and funding that has been inequitably distributed to some of the city’s most impoverished schools.

“I know that too many of the successes boasted of by schools and by educators like me are little more than polite interpretations of the same data scores,” a D.C. charter teacher wrote recently. “Too much of what I see in my school today is exactly what I saw ten years ago.” After a decade working in D.C. schools, she is calling it quits.

Subsequent D.C. mayors (Vincent Gray, elected in 2011, and Muriel Bowser, elected in 2014) and schools chancellors (Kaya Henderson, appointed in late 2010, and Antwan Wilson, in late 2016) have largely continued to promote the school reforms launched by Fenty and Rhee. Though it’s been more than two months since Wilson took over as D.C.’s new schools chancellor, it is unclear how he will steer the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) between these competing narratives of success and hype. A better understanding of D.C. school reform, which was long heralded by the Obama administration as a national model, matters even more now that Donald Trump’s administration aims to expand school choice policies across the country—likely beginning with the nation’s capital.

 

THOUGH PEOPLE REMAIN starkly divided over education reform in D.C., the one thing both critics and supporters agree on is that the old way of evaluating teachers had to change. Removing bad teachers from the classroom had been too difficult. Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent, says it was well-known that some teachers shouldn’t have been there, but they were hard to fire.

“There was peak enrollment in the late 1960s, and after that [the district] just abandoned their gatekeeping test and started hiring anyone who was breathing so long as they had a degree,” Levy says. “My older daughter had one of those teachers, and she was unbelievably bad. So the district had an older workforce to whom no standards had been applied, and when enrollment started going down, and there were big layoffs in the 1980s, every elementary teacher with less than ten years in the system lost their jobs, and the older ones got to stay.”

“The union contract in D.C. was awful,” says Mark Simon, an Economic Policy Institute research associate and a former president of the Montgomery County (Maryland) teachers union. “It was an example of the kind of contract that existed in some school districts where the limitations placed on teachers’ time and the specificity of what administrators had to do [for] an evaluation [to] hold weight was so rigid that more often than not, teachers could not be evaluated out of the school system.” Simon added, “If a principal did not get the right documents filled out the right way on just the right line, then the whole thing was thrown out by an arbitrator.”

An American Prospect review of a 2006 D.C. teacher evaluation handbook corroborates these observations. One byzantine rule stipulated that to terminate an ineffective teacher by the end of the school year, the administrator had to make a decision no later than the first week of January. If the process began with less than 90 days remaining in the school year, “the educator must be granted permission to return to the same site the next school year” as the process continued.

Simon opposes D.C.’s new system, IMPACT, which ranks teachers as highly effective, effective, developing, minimally effective, or ineffective, arguing that it de-professionalizes teachers. He contrasts IMPACT with the system he helped pioneer in the 1990s as union president for Montgomery County, D.C.’s suburban neighbor. Simon wrote in 2012, “The focus of teacher evaluation in Montgomery County is professional growth—the nurturing of good teaching, not the sorting and ranking of the teacher workforce.” He added: “Although an evaluation system must be able to weed out people who never should have entered teaching, that objective only applies to a tiny percentage of the workforce and must not be the system’s main purpose. Good teachers are not found through some magical recruitment pipeline. They are made, over time.”

Simon says that in 2008 he approached Jason Kamras, the D.C. school official charged with developing a new teacher evaluation system, and suggested that the district craft a system similar to Montgomery County’s. “[Kamras] ran it up the food chain, said other people had suggested the same thing, but that the response was that it takes too long, costs too much, we’re not interested, we want to use a rubric to hire and fire,” says Simon.

There had been some innovative teacher evaluation models at the time—Toledo, Ohio, was experimenting with peer review and others were exploring so-called professional learning communities. Even though Simon was critical of IMPACT, he agreed that policymakers had not been focusing much on improving teacher quality through feedback and evaluation.

“I think the reformers are right that people hadn’t been paying enough attention to teacher evaluation, and in a lot of places the systems were pretty pro-forma,” says Jesse Rothstein, a University of California, Berkeley public policy and economics professor. “But there were places that were doing it better, and that typically involved things like mentor[ing] teachers and careful classroom observations.”

One reason D.C.’s education reforms attracted significant attention across the country was their timing: DCPS started using IMPACT to evaluate teachers during the 2009–2010 school year, just as the education reform organization The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report recommending that districts develop evaluation systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement.”

IMPACT and TNTP’s report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and Washington D.C. revamped their teacher evaluation processes to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” from 2009 to 2013.

By January 2010, 40 states had applied for the first round of competitive Race to the Top grants. The first two winners, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded grants of $500 million and $100 million, respectively. Tennessee’s proposal notably included a teacher evaluation system that looked just like D.C.’s.

Since Tennessee won the first and biggest prize for a proposal modeled on IMPACT, D.C.’s program garnered even more notice. There was little research on its actual effectiveness, but many states nevertheless looked to D.C. as a leader to emulate. “All of these states were in the middle of a financial crisis, where their revenue declined dramatically, and to get this grant money they had to pretty quickly come up with new plans,” says Matt Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. “I certainly think there is a tendency, an understandable tendency, to look around and see what other people are doing who were successful winning funds.”

 

FOR YEARS, THE D.C. public schools have been known as factious battlegrounds for education reformers of all stripes; new plans and policies would be implemented every few years, only to have new leaders and competing agendas ushered in shortly afterward. The day before Rhee was appointed, The Washington Post traced this trajectory, noting: “The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished. … Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.”

In 1989, a coalition of more than 60 business and community leaders published a report calling for sweeping changes to D.C. education, including closing and rehabilitating schools, lengthening the school day, and drafting new curriculum standards. “There have been countless studies, task forces, and five-year plans for the District’s schools, but few come close to the size and scope of this effort,” the Post reported at the time. The coalition spent six months and $500,000 on the effort, yet like those that came before it, their recommendations bore little fruit.

By 1996, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority issued another report declaring the city’s public schools to be in crisis, and called for urgent changes. By 2004, the Council of the Great City Schools, a national nonprofit, published its own report, noting that D.C. remained one of the lowest-performing urban school districts in the nation. They recommended a series of reforms that had been floated over the past five decades—new accountability systems for student achievement, more standardized curricula and instruction, and incentives to attract high-quality teachers to work in the most challenging schools.

Unlike other places, elected D.C. officials must compete with federal leaders for authority over the city’s public schools. Congress can overturn laws passed by the D.C. City Council, and the District’s two members of Congress cannot vote on legislation. The introduction of an elected school board in 1968 and the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973 were attempts to increase local political representation, but the school board and council lacked independent taxing authority. It was no small sacrifice for residents when city leaders voted to dissolve the school board in 2007—dismantling one of the city’s only elected bodies. But local officials felt drastic action was needed given DCPS’s poor outcomes.

Rhee’s tenure as chancellor was controversial, both locally and across the country. In addition to pushing forward a new teacher evaluation system, she fired hundreds of teachers, replaced principals, and closed schools. Her brash style of leadership frustrated even those who backed her policy ideas. Following Rhee’s resignation in 2010 after Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic mayoral primary, the new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, continued to promote her predecessor’s policies—albeit in a less polarizing way.

MEANWHILE, D.C.’S REFORMS continued to attract glowing praise. In 2013, The Washington Post editorial board concluded that there was “unassailable” evidence that the city’s reforms, based on “high standards, rigorous evaluation of teachers, an investment in pre-kindergarten and school choice” worked. In 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said D.C. was “by every measure the fastest-improving big city school district in the nation.” New America called D.C.’s teacher evaluation “as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get.”

All the talk of success and failure led Steven Glazerman, a Mathematica Policy Research fellow, to coin a new phrase—“misNAEPery”—which describes how leaders and pundits wrongly attribute the rise and fall in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to the success or failure of specific education policies. “D.C. [NAEP] scores [rose] faster than other cities—that part is basically true, but if you want to say it’s because of school reform, that’s a harder case to make,” says Glazerman. Alan Ginsburg, a retired 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Education, published a report in 2011 that found that D.C. NAEP scores were already steadily improving before Michelle Rhee took over in 2007, and that “the rates of D.C. score gains under Rhee were no better than the rates achieved under [the prior two superintendents].”

Another thorny issue is demographics: Some critics charge that any documented learning gains can be attributed to the increase in white, affluent students who now enroll in DCPS. Yet when controlling for demographics, about two-thirds of the city’s ten-year gains in math persist for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students. However, controlling for demographics does make the ten-year reading gains for eighth graders almost entirely disappear. In late February, Levy, the independent D.C. budget analyst, went before the city council to testify about the district’s low academic performance. She noted that the lowest achieving groups are black males, at-risk students, and special education students. Achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic students have narrowed somewhat since 2003, but white proficiency rates still run about 65 percentage points above black proficiency rates, and 53 to 61 percentage points above Hispanic rates. Socioeconomic gaps have widened.

“We have an ever-worsening achievement gap in this city, that has been spun into the D.C. miracle,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Were a teacher to perform in this manner for their students, they’d have long since lost their jobs.”

Critics have raised other concerns about the way D.C school reform has been cast as an example of “clear progress.” School funding advocates have criticized DCPS for inequitably distributing financial resources to the neediest schools, and last September, the Washington City Paper published a cover story on Kaya Henderson’s failure to deliver on her five-year strategic plan. A new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project explores the city’s heavily segregated schools.

But if there’s one reform that supporters of D.C.’s school policies point to as evidence of success, it’s IMPACT. In 2013, two education economists published a working paper suggesting that D.C.’s teacher evaluation system induced teachers with low evaluation scores to voluntarily leave DCPS, and improved the performance of teachers who stayed. In 2016, the researchers published another working paper that found DCPS teacher turnover between 2011 and 2013 led to a net positive effect on student test scores—suggesting that turnover is not necessarily bad if low-performing teachers can be replaced with higher-quality ones.

These were encouraging results, but DCPS officials went on to exaggerate the findings. School administrators falsely said the research showed teachers and students improved because of IMPACT, and that IMPACT caused low-performing teachers to leave. The researchers had repeatedly emphasized that their work was not an evaluation of IMPACT, per se.

“DCPS has one of the best publicity operations I have ever seen,” says Levy. “I think, unfortunately, they go beyond spin, and into some areas of half-truths.”

DCPS was not alone in spinning the IMPACT studies. Supporters of VAM, a controversial statistical tool that uses student test scores to come up with estimates of teacher effectiveness, tried to frame the positive IMPACT studies as proof of VAM’s merit. “People looked at the study and concluded it must be the VAM-based firing that did it, and that’s not supported by the evidence,” says Jesse Rothstein, who has raised concerns about using VAM in teacher evaluations.

The real issue with attributing the researchers’ results to IMPACT is that there’s no proof that other new teacher evaluation systems wouldn’t have also worked. Dee and Wyckoff also caution that despite the positive results of their research, IMPACT might not work as a national model, given that D.C. is a particularly attractive location to live in (thus it has an unusually robust labor pool). The high salaries and bonuses DCPS teachers earn would likewise be difficult for many struggling school districts to adopt.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Dee adds that the leadership in D.C. was very strong and thoughtful, and that a system like IMPACT might not thrive under different political conditions. “When I present the IMPACT work, I say, yes, it does seem extremely promising but I worry it won’t be a proof point,” says Dee. “You had certain planets in alignment politically, and capable, entrepreneurial leadership.”

Indeed, one factor that worked in DCPS’s favor was that the 4,000-member Washington Teachers Union was significantly weakened, and unable to successfully fight against using test scores to evaluate teachers. The WTU has been under siege since the Rhee years, and teachers have been working under a contract that expired in 2012.

According to Davis, the union president, DCPS educators still strongly oppose the new evaluation system. “IMPACT does little to seed improvement in practice,” Davis says. “Our professionals don’t believe teaching every year should be a scene out of The Hunger Games, fighting for survival against what could best be considered arbitrary standards.” She adds, “WTU teachers believe that educators should have an evaluation system that focuses on supporting and assisting those who work in the classroom and holds the whole system accountable, not one that obsesses on points, ratings, and consequences solely for teachers.”

David Grosso, a city councilmember and the chairman of the education committee, tells me that while he respects the teachers union, when they “testify or complain or say things are awful, it’s hard to believe” based on his personal conversations with educators. “Nine out of ten teachers I speak to are pretty happy and feel like they’re making a difference,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, if you’re a teacher in the District of Columbia, you have the support that you need and when you are successful, you will get paid a lot of money and be treated with a lot of respect, and that’s just a reality.”

For what it’s worth, schools located in the poorest areas of the city have the smallest percentage of teachers rated “highly effective” under IMPACT. Teacher turnover districtwide also remains very high. Levy, the budget analyst, finds almost half of all newly hired teachers, whether experienced or new to the profession, leave the classroom within two years; and 75 percent leave within five years. There is similar turnover among principals: Levy finds most schools have had two or three principals in the last five years.

ONE REASON IT’S become so easy for advocates to spin the city’s school reforms is that despite DCPS’s claims of being “data-driven,” comprehensive, accessible data actually remains hard to come by. As a result, it is hard for researchers to get a sense of how specific policies are working, and for the public to hold school leaders accountable.

When D.C. passed its 2007 education reform law, one provision required the mayor to produce annual evaluations on new school reforms, such as academic achievement and personnel policies. The law also allowed the mayor to skip the annual reports and produce a five-year independent evaluation by September 2012. Fenty opted for the latter—but his two proposed evaluators, Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Kenneth Wong of Brown University, had both supported the DC mayoral school-takeover plan. Then-councilmember Vincent Gray objected to Fenty’s picks, arguing that they involved conflicts of interest.

Gray also objected to the mayor’s desire to have the $750,000 evaluation paid for by an entity known as the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private organization launched and run by a former Fenty aide, which solicits private-sector donations to support education reform. Gray believed that the evaluation should be publicly funded. Yet three years later, when Gray himself ran for mayor, his tune on rigorous evaluations changed. “Adrian Fenty refused to carry out the evaluation, and when Gray ran against Fenty, he also lost interest,” says Levy. “Gray’s attitude changed a lot when he became mayor.”

Levy thinks that incentives for oversight worsened after the switch to mayoral control. Before the change, the city council would sketch out the school district’s finances, but the body could not control how those funds were actually spent. This dynamic frustrated councilmembers who were often blamed for the public schools’ struggles, but had few tools to address the problems. This issue led the council to enact tougher oversight measures. “The public would come down and say, ‘You need to give us more money,’ and the city council wanted to justify not coming up with all of it,” Levy explains.

But after the move to mayoral control, DCPS failures were no longer pinned on the city council. “Now the mayor comes up with a budget number for the school system and that’s pretty much it,” says Levy, who thinks the city council is not interested in rocking the boat. “They too have gotten all this good publicity,” Levy says, in regards to the supposed successful turnaround of DCPS.

D.C. finally produced a publicly funded independent evaluation of its school reforms in 2015. The National Research Council, an organization chartered by Congress, conducted the review and found some promising evidence of improvements, but the evaluators identified many persistent disparities, and noted a lack of comprehensive, accessible data. They said they were often unable to obtain important information for their research effort, and recommended the creation of a data warehouse for ongoing, independent studies.

After the NRC issued its report, a group of education advocates and public policy researchers gathered in 2016 to discuss creating an independent think tank to evaluate D.C. education policies. Inspired by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has access to a broad range of Chicago Public School data, the D.C. group envisioned their think tank serving a similar function as the Congressional Budget Office.

Mathematica’s Glazerman agrees it has been difficult at times to obtain DCPS information to conduct research. “The researchers want to do research, they want access to data, and the people who control the data don’t want to give it up, except under tightly controlled circumstances,” he says. “Researchers need independence and access to data, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the agency is going to look good—both in whether they undertake the study, and how they report results from their study.”

He thinks the idea of a publicly funded research organization akin to the CBO is a good one, but that it could be a heavy lift to get off the ground. It would take real leadership, and right now, the mayor and the city council have few incentives to poke holes in the narrative that D.C. school reform has been a tremendous success.

“We met for about six months and put together a proposal,” says Mark Simon, who was involved in the 2016 effort. “Initially we got good, positive encouragement from David Grosso, and he basically promised to put money in the budget, but when we got to the actual budget hearings we were iced out.”

The Prospect asked Grosso why he withdrew his support for the independent research organization. “I hadn’t heard that much about it, but I do support the idea for third-party analysis and review of what we’re doing in DCPS, but I was not convinced that what they were offering at the time was the best approach,” he said. “It seemed like it was a purely academic thing. There was a desire to do something similar to what was done in Chicago and, in the end, I decided I did not want to do that. I thought it would confuse governance in the city more than it would help.”

THIS PAST FEBRUARY, DCPS’s new schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, took over. Prior to coming to D.C., he spent two years as the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California and worked as a public school administrator in Denver. He also participated in a superintendent training academy funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which finances education reform efforts. “The candidate [Mayor Bowser] has selected appears by résumé and reputation to have the same kind of forward-thinking passion for excellence that has helped make D.C. schools the fastest-improving urban school district in the country,” The Washington Post editorial board said in November.

Wilson declined the Prospect’s request for an interview through DCPS press secretary Michelle Lerner. Lerner is a former communications manager for several reform-driven organizations, including the Fordham Institute and the advocacy group American Federation for Children, formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. secretary of education.

Looking to the future, Councilmember Grosso says D.C. will need to invest more heavily in wrap-around services for poor students, including basic health care, housing, and resources for coping with trauma. He says that he’s spoken with Antwon Wilson and that the new chancellor “absolutely understands” this.

The bipartisan political forces that shepherded D.C.’s education policies may shift in the coming years, as the election of Trump and the ascendance of the controversial DeVos threaten to fracture some of the Obama-era coalitions. New leadership, both in the district and the mayor’s office, could also portend greater changes for D.C. public education.

Though Glazerman is skeptical that a publicly funded research agency committed to robust, independent evaluations will be created, it is possible that Wilson may be more open to the idea, since his outsider status might shield him from the fallout from any negative findings—at least at the outset. Mary Levy also thinks the independent think tank idea could resurface, citing the new influx of upper-middle-class families who send their children to D.C. public schools.

“They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says. “These are city parents behaving like persistent suburban parents. So in the future, this idea may grow.”

Why D.C.’s First Charter Union Election Was Called Off

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3, 2017.
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In February, I reported on the first public union campaign at a charter school in Washington, D.C. Teachers at Paul Public Charter School wanted to form their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Seventy-one percent of Paul’s staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked their administrators on February 22 to voluntarily recognize their union.

When the administration refused to do so, Paul teachers filed for an NLRB election—scheduled for Thursday, March 30. (In a statement, the charter’s management said, “We do not believe that a union is necessary at Paul PCS.”) But the day before the scheduled vote, a surprising thing happened. The AFT, not the charter school teachers, called it off.

David Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul told WAMU that their teacher organizing committee felt they had enough votes to win, and wanted to go ahead with their election, but “we did not have enough people who were willing to be public with their support to convince AFT that we were definitely going to win.”

While 58 of Paul’s 82 teachers, instructional aides, and counselors signed the initial union petition given to administrators in February, in the days leading up to the NLRB election just 33 people were willing to publicly commit to voting “yes” on March 30. Teachers on the organizing committee said that despite this, they were confident, based on private conversations with their colleagues, that they would still have a majority in support of the union when taken to a secret vote.

Experts who’ve studied NLRB elections have no such confidence, however. “If the teachers went forward, they would lose, absolutely,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. “If workers will not publicly say that they will vote for the union, that means they are voting no. That has been proven a hundred times over.”

If the staff’s support for the union has dwindled, that looks to be chiefly the result of management’s opposition. Since the time teachers went public with their union campaign, Paul’s administration engaged in what some teachers described as an aggressive, scorched-earth effort to dissuade teachers from voting to unionize.

The charter school maintains that it never pressured staff on how to vote, and that it “support[s] the right of all employees to participate in such [union] activity.”

But on March 15, Emily Farley, the high school dean of academics; Danielle Singh, the middle school principal; and Rosemarie Ragin, the director of student services, sent Paul staff the following letter:

Make no mistake, this election will have a lasting impact on you, your job, and the entire Paul community.

We are deeply concerned about what this election means to Paul’s staff and our Scholars. We do not believe that this union would be good for you or for our school, and believe the entire community—including teachers and staff—will be better served by continuing a collaborative, cooperative dialogue and problem solving process that does not include a third-party union. One of the advantages that draws both teachers and students to Paul is our ability to work directly and efficiently with our staff on a range of things that matter to all of us. This allows us to meet the needs of our students and families while engaging directly with teachers and staff to create the work environment you need to be successful. We readily agree that this is not always been a perfect process and that it can always be improved, but by voting for AFT in the election, you may be voting away your legal rights to deal directly with Paul and your supervisors on issues that will determine your pay, benefits and working conditions.

We also believe that our future success and security hinges on our ability to provide a high quality education to our Paul Scholars. This is why their families entrusted them to us. We do not believe that the involvement of AFT will help any of us educate our students.

This issue is about our commitment to each other. You will be asked to decide whether you want to continue to have a cooperative working relationship with the Paul administration, or whether you want an outside third party, AFT, to speak for you. Remember, AFT can only promise to do things; we have proven that the Paul community can deliver when we work together. Our proud history demonstrates that we do not need outsiders trying to get us to work against each other.

Over the next few weeks, we will try to provide you with the facts about AFT and the potential impact of unionization at our school. We believe that once you get all the facts you will see that unionization is not right for Paul staff or students, and you will vote “NO.”

And in an email sent to staff on March 20, Paul administrators told staff to “PROTECT YOUR PAYCHECK. VOTE NO ON MARCH 30TH.”

xx

Moreover, on March 27, three days before the vote, Tammy Wythe, the school’s director of talent, sent a letter to Paul staff saying the school would hold off on issuing employment contract information for the 2017–2018 school year until after the NLRB vote. The school had previously told staff that they would receive this information by the end of March—acknowledging that “this information allows all of us—teachers, staff, and school leaders to plan for the next year.” The AFT filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint in response, saying administrators crossed a line by withholding information about whether teachers would continue to have their jobs until after the vote. (Following the election’s cancellation, the union withdrew its ULP.)

Despite all of this, the teachers still wanted to move forward with their vote. An AFT spokesperson told POLITICO that Paul’s administrators “created a toxic environment so full of fear, harassment and intimidation that we felt a fair election would be impossible at this time.”

From the union’s perspective, the fact that more teachers no longer wanted to publicly declare that they would vote for a union meant that management’s aggressive tactics were working, and that they had lost a significant amount of support.

By cancelling the NLRB election, teachers are able to schedule a new one in six months. If they had held the election and lost, then staff would have to wait one year before filing again. More importantly, from the union’s perspective, if the teachers lose their union election, then management might take that as a mandate to do whatever they want over the next school year. But by canceling it, management will have to remember that a failure—union advocates would say, a continued failure—to satisfy teachers’ conditions could mean that the staff could file again quickly for a vote. In other words, the union says it can help keep the boss on their best behavior.

Bronfenbrenner says that based on her 25 years of labor research, the AFT was right to conclude that the vote would fail given the drop in public commitments to vote in favor. “The initial petition is not a measure of ‘yes’ votes—it’s a benchmark as to whether you should go forward to the next step,” she says. “And if you vote and lose, it’s much harder to win than if you withdraw and try again. If you vote and lose, then the employer can go after the pro-union teachers and reward the anti-union ones. If they withdraw, then the campaign can continue.”

Despite not getting to vote for a union, it appears the staff’s organizing effort already helped increase teacher voice somewhat within Paul Public Charter. Since the teachers went public with their campaign, Paul’s administration added teachers to both the charter’s CEO hiring committee and the high school’s principal hiring committee.

The optics of canceling a vote that teachers wanted to hold doesn’t look great for the AFT, given that union officials regularly make a point to say that workers should have the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to be represented by a union. Bronfenbrenner stresses, however, that a unionization campaign isn’t about voting, per se. “It’s about winning. And if they vote, they will lose—they will get slaughtered,” she says. “It’s not democracy to let them vote. What would be democratic is to let them build their union.”

One Paul teacher, who didn’t want to be specifically mentioned in this article, said the campaign’s stalwarts are likely to continue organizing with their colleagues, but that it’s unclear what shape those efforts will take, or if they’d consider working with the AFT in the future.

Maryland Showdown on Testing, Charters, and the Direction of Public Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 29, 2017.
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Politicians and policy experts have long debated how and whether to hold schools accountable for what students learn. For 13 years under the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the federal government required states to identify schools that were failing by the metric of standardized test scores, and dictated how schools should intervene. Critics said the law amounted to untenable and unacceptable levels of federal overreach, and ultimately did little to close academic achievement gaps. Defenders say the law, while imperfect, led to small yet significant gains in student achievement, particularly for black, Hispanic, and low-income children.

At the end of 2015, Congress passed NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which limits the federal government’s role in shaping school accountability, and gives states considerably more discretion to craft their own plans. In order to receive federal funds, however, each state has to submit its plan for federal approval. These plans are due this coming fall, and the law is supposed to take full effect during the 2017-2018 school year.

A heated battle over the future of Maryland’s plan—specifically, how much weight standardized test scores should be given in determining a school’s rating, and how much power the state should have over low-performing schools—has become a flashpoint in the polarized education reform wars, not only within Maryland but across the country. At the crux of the debate are questions about who gets to speak on behalf of racial minorities and low-income children, and what school accountability should look like in the age of Donald Trump.

Last fall, the Maryland Board of Education—a 12-member body, ten of whom were appointed by the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan—released an initial draft accountability plan. The plan did not include details about what specific interventions should be taken if schools are deemed low-performing, but the board’s president, Andy Smarick, a former George W. Bush education official and a current resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Baltimore Sunthat he favored “bolder” approaches than Maryland has taken in the past. In February, Governor Hogan sent Smarick and Maryland’s state superintendent of schools a letter encouraging them to include private school vouchers, charter schools, and a state-run “recovery” school district as specific interventions in Maryland’s ESSA plan. Under current Maryland law, the state education department submits the plan to the state education board, which has the final authority to approve, amend, or reject it before sending it on to the federal government.

In response, Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature has been working with teachers unions and education advocates on legislation that would shape the direction of the state’s accountability plan, effectively limiting how much Hogan’s appointees could decide on their own.

States have a lot more freedom under ESSA than they did before, but they don’t have total freedom. ESSA dictates that when crafting accountability plans, states must assign indicators of academic performance “much greater weight” than other measures like class size and school climate. But what this language means in practice isn’t so clear. Education reformers say it means that a significant majority of a school’s accountability rating should hinge on standardized test scores—at least 70 percent. Last week, for example, the D.C. State Board of Education approved a plan that would make 70 percent of D.C.’s school accountability rating based on student growth and proficiency scores. (D.C. reformers originally pushed for testing measures to comprise 80 percent of a school’s score, but that percentage dropped amidst criticism.)

In mid-March Maryland’s House passed a union-backed bill—“The Protect Our Schools Act”—that would cap standardized testing measures at 65 percent of a school’s accountability score. Thirty-five percent would be reserved for indicators like class size, absenteeism, and school climate. The bill also would prevent the state from using vouchers and charters as school turnaround interventions, bar the creation of a state-run school district, and require districts and the state to negotiate any school improvement plan with the local teachers union. It passed 91-46, with a veto-proof majority.

Last week, as the state senate prepared to vote on the bill, Governor Hogan called it “misguided and horrible” and vowed to veto it should it land on his desk. In a press conference, the governor claimed the bill “will make it nearly impossible for [Maryland] to save some of these persistently failing schools.”

Maryland’s state board of education also expressed strong opposition to the bill. Chester E. Finn, Jr., the vice president of Maryland’s school board and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, called the passage of the Protect Our Schools Act “painful.”

Market-driven education reform organizations also moved into high gear to defeat the bill. MarylandCAN, a reform advocacy group, released a statement saying the bill “hurts children.” The head of Maryland’s Alliance of Public Charter Schools said it would be “most damaging for students within Maryland’s minority and low-income populations who need every opportunity available to them to lower the achievement gap—not being held to lower sub-par standards.”

The bill’s supporters rallied to its defense. On Monday, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) put out a statement that said, “while the Protect Our Schools Act is supported by teachers, the Maryland PTA, civil rights groups—including the ACLU of Maryland and CASA de Maryland—and leading education scholars, it is only opposed by national school privatization advocates and Governor Hogan’s administration.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor and the president of the Learning Policy Institute, sent a letter to the Maryland state Senate last week to voice her support for the bill. “While academic outcome indicators are important, it is equally important to include indicators of student and school conditions that predict outcomes, so that educators have information to use for diagnostic purposes and improvement decisions,” she wrote. “By including school quality indicators [such as access to effective teachers and college-ready coursework] and using them in meaningful ways, parents, educators, and education stakeholders can have a richer understanding of what is going on in a school and what is fostering or delaying its success.”

Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA’s graduate school of education, also sent a letter to the senate expressing support for the bill, saying he felt it would provide Maryland with “the strong accountability system that it needs and enable it to be positioned to monitor school and student performance, and draw attention to inequities in learning opportunities that research has shown obstruct effort to close achievement gaps.”

Education reform groups opposed to the bill argue that it will have the opposite effect, actually obfuscating information about achievement gaps and inequities.

On Tuesday morning, the Maryland Senate passed the Protect Our Schools Act with a final vote of 32-15. The House concurred Tuesday night, also with a veto-proof margin, and it now heads to Larry Hogan.

Teacher unions and other education advocates who favor the bill have been stressing that the Protect Our Schools Act serves as a preemptive measure against school privatization, particularly since Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both advocates of charters and vouchers, now guide federal policy. The MSEA also claims that Hogan has ignored their efforts to collaborate on school improvement.

“Since the day after his election, we’ve reached out to the governor repeatedly to try and put partisanship aside and work with him on reducing over-testing and other education issues,” says MSEA’s communication director, Adam Mendelson. “We’re still waiting on him to return our calls and include public educators’ voices in his policy development.”

How far Hogan will go in fighting the Democratic-controlled legislature over school reform remains an open question. Despite his statewide popularity, the Republican governor is expected to face a tough reelection battle in 2018, and Maryland voters express strong support for public education.

The Washington Post recently found that 41 percent of registered voters said they’d support Hogan for a second term, down from 46 percent in September. Maryland went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by 26 points.

How Schools Are Trying to Make Undocumented Kids and Their Parents Feel Safe

Originally published in VICE on March 22, 2017.
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On Tuesday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that America’s largest public school system will prohibit federal immigration agents from entering their buildings without a warrant signed by a judge. While there have been no reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rounding up kids at school, de Blasio was echoing similar shows of support for immigrant children made over the past several months by mayors and school officials across the United States.

In November, Pew Research Center reported that about 3.9 million kindergarten through 12th grade students in US public and private schools were children of undocumented immigrants, and 725,000 K–12 students were undocumented themselves. Even before President Trump took office, the feds were known to apprehend some of these students and their parents on their way to school. And now, under a White House that has already begun to dramatically reshape immigration policy, undocumented people and their advocates say the simple act of taking a kid to school has become a terrifying ordeal.

“Parents are fearful of dropping their kids off at school, and kids are concerned while they are at school that they’ll come home and their parents might not be there,” said Laura Vazquez, the program manager with the National Council of La Raza’s Immigration Initiatives.

In 2011, then president Obama’s Department of Homeland Security issued a memo instructing ICE agents to generally avoid enforcing federal immigration policy in so-called sensitive locations such as schools and churches. While President Trump has abandoned many of Obama’s policies restricting immigration enforcement, he has, so far, kept the rule about schools and churches in place. But that’s been little consolation for the millions of families who have witnessed immigration raids in their communities, as well as the political empowerment of conservatives who take a hardline on deportation. And given Trump’s repeated condemnations of so-called sanctuary cities, how long the president will be willing to tolerate the quasi-sanctuary status of schools remains a serious question.

Schools have been proactive in hopes of alleviating the anxiety of immigrant children, emphasizing that they remain open to everyone. For example, Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, released a memo in December affirming that it would remain a “safe and welcoming” environment for all students and staff. And in February, CPS announced guidelines for principals should agents arrive on school grounds.

Even in districts that aren’t taking pains to make immigrants feel safe, US law already provides a fair number of protections for undocumented students. In addition to the DHS memo still on the books, in 1982 the US Supreme Court ruled in Plyer v. Doe that no public school could deny children access to an education based on their immigration status. Subsequent court decisions reaffirmed this principle, barring schools from enacting policies that could significantly interfere with student enrollment. For example, in 2012, a federal appeals court unanimously struck down an Alabama law requiring public schools to check the immigration and citizenship status of new students.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law preventing schools from sharing confidential student information, also serves as a bulwark for undocumented students. While schools can share confidential information under limited circumstances, sharing with ICE agents is not considered such an exception. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act also creates obligations for schools to prevent discrimination based on race or immigration status. And the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, requires ICE agents to obtain judicial warrants to enter schools, not just the administrative warrants they generally use to make public arrests.

In light of the precedents favoring their cause, the National Immigration Law Center has been pushing school districts nationwide to adopt “Campus Safe Zone” policies, which mostly affirm existing policies while expressing strong support for undocumented students. (A Department of Education spokesperson told VICE that the agency has not released any statements or new guidance for schools concerning the president’s immigration policies.)

For his part, Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank, told me that school leaders speaking up about undocumented students “are intentionally lying in order to gin up panic and opposition,” adding that “it’s a ridiculous idea” that an ICE agent would ever go into a school.

But even if schools may be safe spaces right now, getting there remains a real challenge—immigration experts say there are few legal options available to protect undocumented students and parents who are en route to “sensitive locations” like school or church. For example, in Los Angeles in late February, ICE agents arrested Rómulo Avelica-González, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, right after he dropped off one of his daughters at school. Avelica-González, a father of four who has lived in the US for nearly a quarter century, was apprehended a block away from the school. The ICE agents were in unmarked cars and wore jackets that said “police.”

Such arrests don’t technically violate federal policy, even if they come right up to the line. And it’s important to bear in mind that raids targeting people en route to school were reported last year, after the Obama administration ordered agents to arrest, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants from Central America. Most of these arrests involved entering homes and picking people up off the streets, but some students were also detained by immigration officials on their way to school. Public school teachers at the time said the ramped-up enforcement  had a chilling effect on other students, leading to increased absences and general classroom stress.

David Hausman, a Skadden Fellow at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, says it’s more important than ever to inform students that protections remain in place for them—that even if getting there is a heavy lift, some places really are safe. “Although we’ve seen disturbing incidents near schools, we have not at least yet seen any enforcement actions within schools themselves,” he said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on possible changes to ICE protocol Wednesday afternoon, but that agency did confirm the 2011 policy on avoiding sensitive locations remains active. Meanwhile, conservatives like Krikorian insist it’s “not a legitimate concern” for schools to talk to parents about possibly facing arrest when picking up their children.

“You don’t get a free pass to break the law just because you have children,” he said.

The Hour of the Attorneys General

This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine.
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On a Tuesday night in early February, not three weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, three federal judges in San Francisco heard arguments about whether to halt his first major policy undertaking. Trump had issued an executive order banning hundreds of thousands of travelers from entering the country, including citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and all refugees. As many as 60,000 individuals had their visas revoked. Almost immediately, a pair of Democratic attorneys general, Washington state’s Bob Ferguson and Minnesota’s Lori Swanson, brought suit against Trump’s executive order, arguing it violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law as well as the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, harmed all Washington and Minnesota businesses and communities, and was “undermining [their] sovereign interest” as welcoming destinations for immigrants and refugees.

More than 100,000 people from across the nation sat glued to a YouTube livestream of the legal hearing. The high-profile courtroom drama unfolded amid massive protests against Trump in streets and airports. Besides Democratic attorneys general, civil rights groups and private lawyers filed dozens of other lawsuits in federal courts across the country. A few days later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked Trump’s executive order, ruling that it failed to advance U.S. national security. So went the opening round in what will surely be a continuing legal struggle over Trump’s powers.

As millions of Americans steel for years of conflict with a Republican-controlled Congress and an authoritarian president, Democratic state attorneys general—politicians with independent authority to sue on behalf of their states—are expected to take a leading role on the front lines of the mobilized resistance. Though their numbers have fallen in recent years, the 21 Democratic AGs now in office have pledged to work together to use their powers to protect citizens from executive overreach. They will be a crucial source of support in fighting a president who says he will deport millions of undocumented immigrants and deregulate everything from the banking industry to the environment.

The Supreme Court and, ironically enough, Republican state attorneys general have paved the way for the Democratic AGs. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the states have stronger grounds for contesting federal authority than they did in the past, and during the Obama administration Republican state AGs honed the legal playbook for challenging federal laws, regulations, and executive orders. Democratic AGs may now be able to use that same playbook to contain Trump, especially because the Republican Congress shows little evidence of serving as an independent check on the executive branch. Since Democrats at the federal level have no power to conduct investigations, much less bring indictments, state AGs have been propelled into the forefront as a check and balance against one-party national government.

Since the election, Democratic AGs have begun other actions besides opposing Trump’s travel ban. The day before his inauguration, six Democratic AGs filed a motion to defend an EPA pollution rule being challenged in court by the fossil fuel industry. Four days later, 16 Democratic AGs filed to intervene in a case regarding the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency the Obama administration had been defending in court. Many suspect Trump will fire the CFPB’s director and downgrade the agency. “The CFPB has been the cop on the block, and as Republicans try to defund and kill off the agency, there will be a huge gap to be filled,” says Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society. “AGs will be a major part of that response.”

AGs have also been preparing to defend health-care rights. Massachusetts AG Maura Healey has taken the lead in organizing a multistate working group to protect the Affordable Care Act, and New York AG Eric Schneiderman reintroduced legislation to protect access to free birth control for New Yorkers as afforded by the health-care law.

AGs have been beefing up their offices. New York—already one of the largest AG units, with nearly 700 lawyers—is hiring two new senior attorneys to focus on issues related to Trump’s presidency. Schneiderman already has an ongoing investigation of the Trump Foundation. In February, Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature moved to expand the authority of their state AG for the first time since 1864, citing the unique danger posed by Trump. Maryland lawmakers are also considering appropriating $1 million more per year to the state AG office and hiring five additional attorneys to take on the federal government.

AGs are under no illusion: It’s all hands on deck.

STATE ATTORNEYS GENERAL trace their roots to 17th-century England, where the office of AG became independent of the king. According to James Tierney, who leads Columbia Law School’s National State Attorneys General Program, the idea of an independent attorney general migrated to the American colonies and became a fixture of American state governments after the Revolution. In contrast to the U.S. attorney general, who is appointed by the president and can be removed at any time, most state AGs are elected, strengthening their position as true independent checks against executive power.

In 1907, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) formed to chart a shared antitrust strategy regarding the Standard Oil Company. The group, which also tackled issues such as habeas corpus, federal-state relations, and criminal law enforcement, was staffed through state AG offices until 1936, when it was taken under the umbrella of the Council of State Governments. In 1980, NAAG split off once again as an independent association. Over the decades, its agenda has expanded to include pressing issues of each new era: internal security in the 1950s, civil rights in the 1960s, cyberspace law in the 2000s, and consumer financial protection in the 2010s.

It was in the mid-1990s, though, that state AGs really began to innovate new ways to use the powers of their office. More than 40 states came together to sue the five largest U.S. tobacco companies, charging them with consumer fraud and seeking payment for the Medicaid costs incurred for tobacco-caused illness. The bipartisan effort led to a groundbreaking settlement in 1998 and provided the template for multistate litigation ever since.

“We knew AGs were increasing [their] power back in 1995, when they started to take on the powerful tobacco industry,” says Karen White, the executive director of the Conference of Western Attorneys General, another AG association, which White has worked for since 1991. “This was the first time that AGs had front-page news headlines every day. Their powers were elevated, and people started to understand what they do, and could do. It wasn’t the first multistate case, but it was the most impactful in terms of catching people’s attention and catapulting AGs into a force to be reckoned with.”

Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political scientist who studies AGs, finds that while there were a few multistate cases in the 1980s, their numbers increased during the 1990s and 2000s and reached new heights during the Obama years. Some were bipartisan—particularly around consumer protection issues—but the later years of the last century and early years of the new one saw the birth of party-affiliated AG associations and more multistate, partisan litigation.

Republicans led the way, bolstered by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a group dedicated to electing Republican AGs and litigating cases based on conservative legal philosophy. RAGA launched in 1999, moving under the auspices of the Republican State Leadership Committee in 2002. But the group’s formidable legal efforts did not take off until the Obama years.

And take off they did. Launching a concerted effort to beef up its political power, RAGA began fundraising and spending money on AG campaigns at unprecedented levels. In 2014, the group split off to become its own organization, creating its own super PAC to boot. RAGA raised $16 million that year, nearly four times what it raised in 2010. Pharmaceutical companies, the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Koch brothers were among the group’s largest benefactors. Promises to fight for deregulation in the courts proved to be effective fundraising appeals. In joint actions, Republican AGs challenged President Obama’s policies on immigration, health care, the environment, and the workplace—raking in even more money with each successful court action.

Increased campaign spending paid off. By 2015, Republicans commanded a majority of AG seats, and in the 2016 election, Republican attorneys general increased their numbers from 27 to 29, the most at any time in U.S. history.

Democratic AGs, after dragging their feet, began rethinking their own strategies in 2014. They had a part-time committee—the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA)—which had been based in Denver, Colorado, since its founding in 2002. DAGA was disconnected from the rest of the party, though. And while it had always done some fundraising, budgets for AG races had been fairly small.

“RAGA could really marshal its Republican AGs, whereas DAGA just wasn’t as good,” says Travis LeBlanc, who served as special assistant attorney general of California and a senior adviser to California AG Kamala Harris. “RAGA really ran like a really well-oiled machine.”

At the end of 2015, DAGA decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., and turn itself into a full-time operation. In May 2016, the group hired its first full-time executive director, Sean Rankin, a veteran Democratic political operative. Charged with aiding and electing Democratic AGs across the country, Rankin tells me he thinks he has the coolest job in politics.

Today, DAGA has offices in both Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Rankin spent most of 2016 forging new relationships with groups like the National Education Association, Planned Parenthood, and the Democratic Governors Association, and since Election Day he has been working with tech groups, labor unions, Latino Victory, and the Congressional Black Caucus. “We needed to leverage new strategic partnerships,” says Rankin. “This component seems obvious, but for DAGA it didn’t exist before in the same way.”

Despite the decline in the number of Democratic AGs, DAGA is quick to note its successes in the 2016 election: Democrats won two out of three of their most contested AG races, even outperforming Hillary Clinton in states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina. DAGA’s fundraising prowess still pales in comparison to RAGA’s; in the 2016 cycle, DAGA raised $10 million, compared with the more than $23 million RAGA raked in. But in February, DAGA hired its first full-time fundraiser, and has been working to raise money from progressive interest groups motivated to fight back against Donald Trump.

“Gun control, reproductive choice, environmental issues—at the end of the day, these are all being played out more in the courts than they are in Congress, and so our Democratic interest groups are coming to realize they need to support Democratic AGs more going forward,” says Steve Jewett, a political consultant who oversees campaign work for DAGA.

“RAGA certainly has the lead, but that lead is not going to last forever,” Rankin adds. “We are going to catch up.”

DAGA’s investments over the course of 2016, while made on the assumption that Clinton would win, have nevertheless enabled AGs to coordinate faster responses to the new president. But how effectively the Democratic AGs will contest Republican policies and Trump’s agenda remains to be seen.

“Republicans are different, they’ve always been more sophisticated and disciplined in the orchestrated exercise of power,” says a political consultant involved with AGs who agreed to speak on background. “With RAGA, they’re pretty harsh with one another. If you don’t participate, if you don’t play along, you won’t get support. I don’t think DAGA has been as disciplined about that.”

DEMOCRATIC AGS WILL SURELY look to the example set by their GOP colleagues as they prepare to oppose Trump’s policies. During the Obama years, Republican AGs took their cases to Texas courts, which are chock-full of conservative judges who are amenable to their arguments. The GOP did not originate “forum shopping”—Democratic AGs won injunctions against George W. Bush’s policies from district court judges in California’s more liberal Ninth Circuit—but the Republicans did increase the practice. Greg Abbott, Republican governor of Texas, says that on a typical day when he was Texas’s AG, he went into the office, sued the federal government, and went home. Abbott sued the Obama administration 31 times, and his successor, Ken Paxton, brought 17 additional legal challenges.

For nearly a century after Massachusetts v. Mellon, a 1923 Supreme Court case, states were treated like any other litigant. They were not allowed to bring lawsuits unless they had “standing” to sue—that is, they could not challenge federal policies they believed were generally bad unless they could show a concrete and specific injury caused by the challenged conduct that could be remedied by a court. A harm affecting everyone was not a sufficient legal basis.

“Otherwise you’d get every state marching into court the second that you do something they don’t like,” says Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas Law School professor. “You’d turn what are really political disputes into court challenges at the outset. Find me a federal policy that all 50 states endorse.”

Under George W. Bush, however, Massachusetts’s AG, joined by 11 other Democratic AGs, sued the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. In a surprising 5–4 decision in 2007, the Supreme Court gave Massachusetts “special solicitude” in the standing analysis, making it easier for states to get into court than it is for individuals and private organizations. The ruling effectively expanded states’ authority to bring lawsuits against the federal government.

Under Obama, Republican AGs pushed open this door even further. In 2014, Obama announced new policies to give undocumented parents and lawful permanent residents permission to live and work for three years without fear of deportation. Twenty-six Republican AGs sued the federal government in response, arguing that the president violated procedural norms and exceeded his constitutional authority.

Abbott argued that Texas had standing to challenge Obama’s immigration program because his state would suffer a financial burden in providing undocumented immigrants with state-subsidized driver’s licenses. A Texas district judge, Andrew Hanen, agreed that this burden constituted sufficient “harm” to bring the case and issued a national injunction to block the order. (Hanen, it should be noted, was no fan of Obama: He had previously been on record saying that the administration worked with drug cartels to smuggle children illegally over the Mexican border.) In a 2–1 decision, an appellate panel on the Fifth Circuit upheld Hanen’s injunction.

Last year saw even more preliminary national injunctions against Obama’s policies, all issued by federal district court judges in Texas. Republican AGs were able to block several Department of Labor regulations, a letter from the Department of Education advising schools about policies regarding transgender students and public-school bathrooms, and a rule interpreting an anti-discrimination clause in the Affordable Care Act.

Some scholars, such as Samuel Bray, a professor at UCLA School of Law, have been speaking out against the trend of issuing national injunctions—a legal innovation that didn’t become commonplace until the latter half of the 20th century. The idea that a single district judge could issue an injunction to block federal policy nationwide, as opposed to just restraining the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the plaintiff, was, Bray says, unthinkable for most of U.S. history.

But what goes around comes around, and Democratic AGs intend to use the new legal strategies forged by their Republican colleagues to challenge President Trump.

“Republican AGs engaged in continuous warfare,” says Maryland’s attorney general, Brian Frosh. “Scott Pruitt [the former Oklahoma Republican AG and new EPA head] created a federalism unit in his office and went out and sued the Obama administration repeatedly. Maybe that’s what this evolves into for us. I really hope it doesn’t, but we will engage when necessary.”

Democrats, in short, have no interest in unilaterally disarming.

WHEN A STATE FILES A LAWSUIT, it invokes a special sort of gravitas that private entities don’t have. And when ten, or fifteen, or twenty states join together to sue a corporation or the federal government, it sends a powerful message—something AGs rarely overlook.

“Every case is about the law, and the politics,” says Amanda Frost, a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University. “If you read the complaints AGs file, they are very often written with reporters in mind, with the politics in mind.”

Not coincidentally, Democratic AGs hailing from solidly blue states such as California, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts have shown themselves particularly willing to position themselves on the front lines of the political resistance against Trump.

Schneiderman, New York’s AG, brings with him personal experience battling Donald Trump in court. In the summer of 2013, two years before Trump announced his candidacy, Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against him, alleging that Trump University, which ran a real-estate training program from 2005 until 2011, ripped off thousands of people all over the country.

In response, Trump created a website to attack Schneiderman, sued him for $100 million, and filed ethics claims against him—all of which went nowhere. The Trump University case appeared to settle this past November, with Trump agreeing to pay $25 million. (One of the former students has recently pulled out of the settlement, raising questions as to whether the case is indeed resolved.) “From our perspective, [Trump’s] response to our suit was really a preview of the scorched-earth tactics he’d go on to use during the presidential election,” Schneiderman says. “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.”

Legal problems with Trump’s taxes or businesses could be a state as well as a federal issue, and if any state AG investigates those issues it would be Schneiderman, since the Trump Organization is headquartered in New York. Some progressives have been calling on him to launch such investigations, but none are yet under way, and they could be difficult for a state AG to pursue. (Investigating Trump might have been easier for Preet Bharara, the fired U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.) But at a conference of the National Association of Attorneys General in early March, Schneiderman said “it is not sustainable” for Trump to refuse to disclose his holdings or to divest them. He added that his office is currently studying Trump’s potential conflicts of interest, but that “it would be premature to say” how his team will proceed.

Following the election, Massachusetts Democratic AG Healey organized town halls to gauge citizens’ reactions to Trump around her state. Hundreds turned out—far more, she says, than she ever anticipated. “I’m hearing from Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They’re really upset. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Healey says. “We need to stand up on the front lines to play defense, but also to play offense and continue to pass laws that help people, the economy, the environment, and consumers, in the face of a president and an administration that may abdicate any and all responsibilities.”

AFTER DISAPPOINTING RESULTS in the 2016 federal elections, Democratic party leaders—including Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee—say they recognize the need to shift political focus back to the states.

“Republicans have taken so many states, dominating governor’s mansions, legislatures, and even state AGs,” says Healey. “That’s because the Republican Party made a concerted effort to focus on the school committee on up. We have got to do a better job of telling everyday people why Democratic policies translate to prosperity.”

Democrats may find that refocusing on states produces more than short-term political gains. For years, the GOP has positioned itself as the party of federalism. But there is also a progressive version of federalism, historically associated with Louis Brandeis, the early 20th-century reformer and Supreme Court justice, who envisioned states as “laboratories of democracy.” Democratic AGs seeking to act as checks on the Trump administration might find themselves reinvigorating this ideal.

Take, for example, Trump’s threat to cut off billions of dollars to states and cities that refuse to help with deportations. Democrats may find themselves grateful for certain Supreme Court decisions that they otherwise oppose. In its 5–4 ruling on the Affordable Care Act in 2012, the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the law that effectively forced the states to expand Medicaid. The Court held that by making all federal Medicaid funds conditional on the expansion, Congress would be unconstitutionally commandeering state governments. In the age of Trump, Democrats may now find that decision a helpful precedent in protecting states from having their state and city police forces commandeered for immigration enforcement, on penalty of losing federal funds they would otherwise have the right to receive.

“Trump’s never been in government, his people have never been in government, they’re not lawyers, and they don’t seem to have a sense of the Constitution at all,” says Columbia Law School’s James Tierney. “They’re going to learn that we’ve got judges; we’ve got good, strong, judges. And a lot of those suits will be brought by attorneys general.”

Lawyers will be watching the Trump administration like hawks, looking for any slight procedural violation. Not only can state AGs sue for things Trump affirmatively does; they can also sue for inaction if they feel the president fails to fulfill his duties under the law.

“It’s actually much less complicated than reporters think it is,” Tierney says. “If someone does not enforce the law, then someone has to do something about it. We haven’t even begun to see what cases will be dropped, what unfair settlements will be struck—but people are watching very closely. And if [Trump] operates in a way that impacts the sovereignty or the proprietary interests of the citizens of the state, AGs will sue.”

TIERNEY ADMITS AGS ARE more partisan than they were a few years ago but says they’re still less partisan than Congress or the American public. AG partisanship may be set to escalate, however, in dramatic new ways.

In November 2015, Schneiderman launched a probe into ExxonMobil in response to news investigations that suggested Exxon knew since the 1970s that its products were heating up the atmosphere, yet intentionally misled investors and the public about it. Schneiderman requested internal Exxon documents spanning the past 40 years. Schneiderman said he had suspicions that, as in the tobacco cases of the 1990s, corporate executives in the oil industry may have had hidden knowledge that their products had harmful consequences. California AG Kamala Harris opened an investigation in January 2016, and Maura Healey of Massachusetts joined Schneiderman’s probe two months later.

In May 2016, 13 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent a letter demanding that Democratic AGs and environmental groups turn over their own documents to show whether their Exxon investigations were politically motivated. A month later, ExxonMobil filed a federal lawsuit in Texas against Healey, claiming her AG probe was politically motivated and violated Exxon’s corporate right to free speech. Lamar Smith, the House Science Committee chairman from Texas, followed up in July by issuing subpoenas to Healey, Schneiderman, and eight environmental organizations.

“The attorneys general are pursuing a political agenda at the expense of scientists’ right to free speech,” Smith said at the time. (ExxonMobil is headquartered in Texas.)

Both Democratic AGs responded that Congress lacked the authority to intervene in their state-level investigations, and refused to comply. In mid-February, Lamar Smith issued new subpoenas.

Paul Nolette says he’s never seen this kind of congressional interference before and that for the most part, corporate investigations, such as when state AGs probe pharmaceutical companies, have been considered nonpartisan. “That may be changing,” he says. “I suspect this won’t be a one-off thing.”

“You now have a Republican-controlled Congress wasting taxpayer money harassing state AGs, sending multiple subpoenas, which it has no authority to issue,” Healey tells me. “We have the authority to do this investigation, and it’s critically important that it’s not hamstrung by political machinations exercised by the House committee. Let’s be very clear about what this is. It’s an abuse of federal power, and an example of a committee that isn’t interested in facts or science looking to carry the water for corporate interests.”

AGS ARE MOSTLY ELECTED, so a legal strategy for resisting Trump will require not just victories in the courtroom but in the polling booth as well. DAGA has already been eyeing the 2018 electoral landscape, recruiting candidates, and raising money.

ACLU donations skyrocketed in the wake of Trump’s immigration executive order, but no similar wave of cash poured into DAGA’s coffers. Rankin is optimistic that such fundraising will be coming; in addition to its new fundraiser, DAGA has been talking to progressive groups and other organizations that want to help Democratic AGs raise money. Rankin says the organization received its first million-dollar donation in mid-February. “That’s never happened before,” he says.

In many states, attorneys general are the best-situated leaders to run for higher office as a result of their experience, statewide reputation, and legal victories they may have won.

“Our AGs are out there saying, ‘Listen, I’m here to fight for you, I’m going to defend you against big interest groups that are against you or do you harm,’” says Jewett, DAGA’s election consultant. “We look at our Republican counterparts and they’ve essentially been sending a message of, ‘We’re going to fight regulation, fight Obama.’ I think that’s not a long-term winning strategy and Republicans are going to struggle to find a message to stay relevant.”

Right now, faced with a president whom most progressives consider unfit and dangerous, relevance is not a problem for Democratic AGs. No other progressive force in the country is as well positioned to investigate the Trump administration and to take it to court.

Chicago Teachers May Launch Nation’s Largest Charter School Union

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 7, 2017.
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Teachers at Chicago’s biggest and best-regarded charter school network have set out to form a union, a move that if successful would create the largest charter school union in the nation.

In an open letter to administrators and school board members, teachers at the Noble Network of Charter Schools requested permission to organize a union without interference or fear of retaliation. Founded in 1999, Noble operates 17 campuses across the city, educating more than 12,000 students.

“Under current local and national conditions, educators labor to remain in their classrooms while our value is diminished, our capacity drained, and our power constrained,” read the letter, which was delivered on March 3. “Both students and educators struggle to thrive in climates that prioritize test scores and compliance over creativity and personhood. Our students’ learning conditions are our working conditions.”

As of Friday morning, 131 of the roughly 800 Noble teachers and staff across city had signed on in support of the union. Union organizers told The American Prospecton Monday that they have received many more signatures since then, but could not say exactly how many because online signatures are still being tallied.

Known for “high expectations,” as its website says, Noble Network has earned a reputation as one of the most high-performing charter networks in the country. Last year, 90 percent of Noble high school seniors went on to college. In 2015, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation awarded Noble a $250,000 prize for being among the nation’s top charter networks.

On Monday, Noble teachers held a press conference in advance of a Noble school board meeting, reiterating their request to management for a fair and neutral process.

The response they have received from network CEO Michael Milkie has been skeptical.

“We respect the rights of individuals to organize or not organize, and we will continue to address concerns of teachers, staff, parents, and all members of the Noble community,” said Milkie in an emailed statement. “In my experience as a former CPS teacher, I believe a restrictive union contract could eliminate the curriculum and flexibility we have to best serve our students’ needs.”

In most cases, charter teachers have waited until they secured a solid majority in support of their union efforts before going public with their organizing. However, in cases where the size of the unit was considered too large to possibly conduct effective organizing in secret and still maintain job security, workers have sometimes opted to launch public campaigns.

This is the strategy being pursued by charter teachers organizing a union at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter chain in Los Angeles. They have been organizing publicly since the spring of 2015. Several months after LA teachers launched their union drive, California’s state labor board announced that it would be issuing an injunction to block Alliance administrators from interfering with their staff’s organizing. Two weeks ago, Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, also called on Alliance to stop interfering in their teachers’ union drive.

One issue Noble teachers hope to address with a union is high teacher turnover. Last year Melissa Sanchez, a Chicago-based education journalist, reported that state data on certified teachers showed that annual retention averaged 75 percent in recent years across the Noble network, compared with 79 percent at traditional public schools, and 83 percent when in-district transfers were taken into account.

Mariel Race, a Noble teacher involved in the organizing efforts, says her charter network has long focused on expansion, but now operates so many schools that it’s time to shift gears towards retaining strong teachers. “We’ve given our feedback on teacher retention for many, many years, and I don’t feel like it’s really being heard,” she told The American Prospect. “There’s not a whole lot that’s being done about it. I think that having a teacher perspective at the table is a huge piece, and I think in order to be heard, with legal backing, and collective backing, it needs to be a union.”

“We need to keep teachers around,” adds James Kerr, a high school English teacher at Noble. “I can go back to my own high school and I’ll see the same teachers who taught when I was there. That’s what I want for our kids.”

Another issue teachers hope to address is salaries—Noble has no pay-scale, leading sometimes to substantial variation among staff wages. Exit interviews revealed that 39 percent of teachers departing Noble—especially female staff—did not feel they were paid fairly. Through an open records request, Sanchez also found that on average, Noble Street teachers earn about $52,000 a year in salaries, and can earn $5,500 in performance bonuses and $2,000 extra in stipends. An average school teacher in a traditional Chicago public school earns roughly $15,000 more than that.

Chicago already has an unusually large number of charter unions. Thirty-two schools, or a quarter of the city’s charter schools, are currently organized with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. In an AFT press release, Chris Baehrend, the president of Chicago ACTS said that Noble educators are “asking for management to be fair and neutral in this process. After they have succeeded, nearly half of the charter educators in Chicago will have the power of a union behind them in advocating for the schools their students deserve.”

The president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, also voiced support for the Noble Street teachers. “The Chicago Teachers Union stands in complete solidarity with the courageous teachers and staff in the Union of Noble Educators, and personally, I am extremely proud of their desire to strengthen their collective voice to better advocate for the students they serve,” she said in a statement.

While Race says she and her colleagues are “inspired” by the experiences other charter teachers have had in organizing unions, and “humbled” by what they’ve had to go through, Noble teachers want to make their very own union a grassroots organization that represents their school community.

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.”