The Rush to Rein in Baltimore Cops Before Trump

Originally published in VICE on November 30, 2016.
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In addition to frightening Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and women across America, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has put a scare into the people trying to reform the country’s troubled police departments. And Baltimore may be the first city where those fears are realized.

This past summer, the Department of Justice issued a damning report that documented a wide range of police abuses in Charm City. They included making arrests without probable cause, blatantly discriminating against people of color, and cruelty towards victims of sexual assault. The 164-page report marked the first step towards a so-called consent decree between Baltimore and the federal government, a process used since the 1990s to address issues raised by national probes of local cops. While consent decrees are no panacea, civil rights advocates and experts generally agree they represent an important tool for reform and accountability by providing formal oversight over police departments that have proven resistant to change.

But a consent decree is only as good as its enforcement, and an executive branch led by Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “law and order” candidate who campaigned on stop-and-frisk policing, complicates things, to say the least. That’s especially true if the Senate confirms Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions—a politician whose career has been largely defined by accusations of racism and who has spoken out against federal intervention into policing—as attorney general. The two men have basically everyone working on police reform in the city deeply worried that the feds will not use the courts to hold Baltimore accountable come 2017.

The deadline to finalize Baltimore’s consent decree was set for November 1, in part because Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a key player in the negotiations, is leaving office in early December. But at the end of last month, Rawlings-Blake said the deadline was more “aspirational in nature,” leaving open the question of when, exactly, a deal will get done.

“When the mayor came out and said it wasn’t going to be done by the start of November, the community collectively gasped,” says Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Programs at Baltimore’s Open Society Institute, a progressive think tank and advocacy group.

On November 21, six Democrats in Maryland’s Congressional delegation sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Mayor Rawlings-Blake, and Mayor-elect Catherine Pugh, urging all parties to work as fast as possible to finalize the agreement. Rawlings-Blake responded that they are “working diligently,” but it seems unlikely to be finalized under her watch. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis also noted that other cities have had much longer timetables to negotiate their consent decrees, and suggested Baltimore’s agreement is shaping up to be among the most ambitious.

Meanwhile, Mayor-elect Pugh has suggested she’s worried about Baltimore shouldering the costs of paying for these reforms, and teased plans to ask the state and federal government for help. On the campaign trail, the then-candidate released an online ad featuring a white surrogate saying “there’s too much talk of racism going on now” and that “the word ‘racism’ has got to be erased from our vocabulary.” (A spokesperson for Pugh’s transition team declined a request for an interview.)

“We have no reason to think she is opposed to the consent decree, but folks have not heard any really definitive declaration from Pugh that it is important to her, and something that she sees as important for Baltimore,” says Huffman.

The main reason reformers are so stressed about wrapping up the deal as soon as possible is that once the consent decree is finalized, a federal judge will be empowered to enforce it, no matter who is leading the Department of Justice—or, for that matter, the country. In other words, getting it done before Trump and his team take power has taken on new urgency, especially given that Sessions once wrote court-ordered consent decrees are “undemocratic” and “dangerous.”

Adding to reformers’ anxiety is that even if Baltimore does manage to get the decree in place before Inauguration Day, the police department and city political leadership may not follow through completely on the agreed-upon reforms. That’s when Trump’s team could wield tremendous influence.

“There will likely be an independent monitor, selected by the parties and the court, who will issue periodic reports of the city’s compliance,” explains Sam Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who has worked in the Justice Department. “The reports will provide some public shaming, but even if the monitor says the city is out of compliance, the DOJ will have to be willing to go to court and seek further relief to enforce the consent decree. If a Trump/Sessions DOJ wants to shut the case down, all it has to do is let the decree sit.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment, and the Trump transition team did not return request for comment prior to publication.

Huffman says Baltimore’s negotiations with the DOJ have included generous solicitation of public input. For example, local groups have requested additional resources so community organizations can provide on-the-ground feedback about policing, in addition to whatever attracts the attention of the independent monitor.

The first DOJ consent decree with city cops was imposed in 1997 with the Pittsburgh Police Department. Witold Walczak, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, helped bring the lawsuit that attracted federal attention in that case. He says that after four years, the city was in compliance with about half of the decree’s provisions, but those mainly consisted of operational changes like establishing a computerized early-warning system for troublesome officers.

After George W. Bush took office, Walczak says, the decree was eventually dropped at the instigation of his Justice Department—before many of the most serious issues had been addressed. There has since been major backsliding when it comes to local policing.

By the Marshall Project’s count, the federal government launched 20 police department investigations under George W. Bush’s administration, but entered only into three consent decrees. In contrast, the Obama Justice Department has led 23 investigations, and imposed 11 consent decrees.

“It wasn’t perfect under Clinton, and we’ve had an uneven relationship with the DOJ even under Obama—it’s not like they’re an extension of the ACLU,” Walczak says. “But under the Bush administration, and what we expect will happen under Trump, is this is simply not an issue they care to deal with.”

“Police abuse is a major problem that is crying out for federal intervention,” he adds. “And reforms are not going to happen without some kind of legal muscle.”

The Right Way to Assess Charter Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 30, 2016.
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On November 8, Massachusetts residents went to the polls not only to cast their vote for president but also to weigh in on a hotly debated question regarding charter schools. The ballot initiative—which proposed lifting the state’s cap to allow establishing up to 12 new charters or expanding existing charters annually—had generated a heated battle for months, with voters inundated by mailings and advertising from both sides. About $34 million was spent on these efforts, making them easily the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in state history. Teacher unions provided nearly all the money to fight the measure, while out-of-state donors and Boston’s business community shelled out most of the money in support.

The debate mostly went like this: Supporters of the ballot measure, known as Question 2, argued that charter schools in Boston have proven extremely effective for disadvantaged students. They pointed to research studies that show students who attended Boston charter schools, compared to students in Boston’s traditional public schools, were more likely to graduate high school in five years, more likely to attend and complete college, and less likely to enroll in remedial education. In addition, researchers found attending Boston charters led to significant gains in state tests, AP tests, and the SAT.

Supporters of charter expansion also pointed to long charter school waiting lists as evidence that families, especially poor families, desperately seek better school options. If the ballot measure failed, proponents insisted, it would be because wealthy white suburbanites were too selfish, or short-sighted, to let low-income African-Americans escape their failing public schools. Polls conducted throughout the campaign did reveal higher support for charter school expansion among black and Latino voters.

Critics of the charter school ballot initiative challenged the legitimacy of the waitlist figures that supporters wielded—pointing to evidence that the stats were substantially inflated. Critics also pointed out that the research on charter school effectiveness was dramatically less impressive outside of Boston, and this statewide ballot measure would impact schooling all over Massachusetts.

But the most salient argument critics levied—and one that Question 2 supporters never figured out how to overcome—was that the ballot measure might expand opportunity for some students, but would ultimately drain money and resources from those students who remained in traditional public schools. Supporters tended to dismiss these concerns, saying that per-pupil dollars would “follow the child” so there would be no real negative impact on other students who didn’t attend charters. But a number of experts, including Boston’s chief financial officer, said the fiscal strain would be tremendous. This became the rallying point for Question 2 opponents—and the primary reason the ballot measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, with cities all over the state, including Boston, voting in opposition.

Throughout the campaign, many Massachusetts voters said that they found the news coverage confusing. Someone would make an argument, a new report would come out claiming the opposite, so-called experts would go back and forth about it, and the media would often do little more than cover the “he says, she says” discussion—leaving residents unsure of what the truth really was.

Today, the Economic Policy Institute is publishing a report by Bruce Baker, a national expert in state school finance, charter schools, and teacher and administrator labor markets, that he hopes will help improve the level of public discourse the next time residents and political leaders are asked to make such high-stakes education decisions.

Baker’s report looks at the fiscal impact of charter school expansion—an area that has received surprisingly little academic attention, despite the charter sector’s 25-year existence, and the growing public awareness that this is a critical issue to understand.

I covered the topic back in June, and at the time the only real research study available on the issue was one published in 2014 that documented the negative fiscal impacts that traditional public schools in Buffalo and Albany had experienced from charter schools proliferating. Since then, David Arsen, an education policy professor, published research finding that the biggest drivers of fiscal distress across Michigan school districts were declining enrollment and revenue loss, particularly where school choice and charters were most prevalent. Moody’s Investor Service, a bond credit rating agency, has also been sounding the alarm about the severe financial distress a growing number of school districts face as charter schools expand.

For Baker, the debate over whether charter schools are seen as good or bad was for a very long time “one-dimensional”—based on whether charters produced marginal increases or decreases in students’ standardized test scores. The debate over whether to lift Massachusetts’ charter school cap, Baker says, was more “two-dimensional,” in that people talked about both academic impacts and some fiscal tradeoffs. But still, the parameters of the fiscal conversation were limited, and Baker says he hopes his new report will provide a framework for a more “multi-dimensional” discussion of tradeoffs going forward.

So what does a multi-dimensional discussion look like?

“If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available,” Baker writes. “That is, resources should be used most efficiently and equitably to achieve the best possible system of schools for all children.”

Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.

In an interview with the Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis. He cites transportation costs as one example that rarely gets attention when leaders decide whether or not to open more charter schools.

“If we’re saying that driving kids two hours here, and one hour there, is creating liberty of choice, which some people simply like as a policy, and we’re also getting some marginal test score gains—well, we have to be clear about how much we’re spending to get those things,” he says. “We have to ask, could we be getting similar test score gains, and similar favorable public opinion for a better price for more students? We’re not even bothering to take those measurements and to ask those questions.”

Baker says that before leaders decide to open new charter schools, they should take into account the inefficiencies created from having multiple transportation systems, duplicative administrative overhead costs, additional financing fees associated with alternative capital investments, and any transition costs that arise from creating new school systems. Baker wants to see leaders wrestle with whether it’s possible to achieve comparable gains by investing in programs and services in existing public schools. Do the gains of charter expansion outweigh the costs? Is it possible to design a more equitable and efficient system by other means?

Economic Policy Institute president Larry Mishel says he hopes this report will lead to greater attention paid to the impacts of unbridled charter school expansion, especially under Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We would like the focus to be on what really matters—giving the students the support they need to make great learning possible, which involves their homes, their families, their neighborhoods—and to integrate those concerns with schooling,” Mishel says. “We’ve had a 25-year history of being distracted by issues of governance. We see charters as an evasion of the core questions.”

Education Reform Democrats on Donald Trump

Originally published on The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on November 28, 2016.
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November 17: Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, issued the following statement: (bolded emphasis mine)

It is, generally speaking, an honor for any person of any political persuasion to be asked by the president of the United States to consider a Cabinet-level appointment, but in the case of President-elect Trump, DFER encourages no Democrat to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration. In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

Foundational education reform principles—from raising standards and strengthening accountability, to expanding public-school choice, to furthering innovations in teacher preparation and support, and advancing resource equity—all find their roots in a progressive commitment to ensuring that all children, particularly our most vulnerable, have access to schools that enable them to fulfill their potential.

This progressive commitment to equitable education policy also goes hand-in-hand with intersectional issues that affect our kids. While effective school policies are vitally important, so too are the environmental conditions affecting children and families. A child who is homeless; a child without access to food or health care; a child whose parent cannot find steady work; a child whose dad is locked up for years on low-level drug offenses—each of these situations dramatically compromise the life chances of our children.

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

For these reasons, no Democrat should accept appointment as Secretary of Education, unless and until President-elect Trump disavows his prior statements and commits to educating the whole child and supporting the communities and families they depend on.

November 22: Shavar Jeffries expounds on DFER’s statement in a Washington Post op-ed. Excerpts highlighted below:

Based on the positions he has taken, President-elect Trump’s administration will undoubtedly etch away at the progress we’ve made towards creating a more equitable public education system under President Obama—and irreparably damage our children’s futures.

Some have concluded that Trump’s stated support for increasing funding to the federal Charter School Program, an important priority for progressive reformers, ought to suggest reconsideration. High-quality public charter schools change lives throughout the country, and we applaud proposals to increase appropriations to that program. But as much as we enthusiastically support resources to grow and expand any high-performing public school, including public charters, that by itself in no way counterbalances the grave, generational challenge Trump’s retrograde policies and rhetoric present to America’s schoolchildren, particularly our most vulnerable low-income urban and rural children.

We wish that our president-elect represented the broad mainstream of leaders from both parties who have championed a vision of progressive education reform and a commitment to basic social policies that are currently working for kids and communities across the nation. But the stated policies and rhetoric of the president-elect run contrary to our most fundamental values. Until Trump expresses a willingness to educate the whole child and invest in the communities that nurture our children, no Democrat should accept appointment as secretary of education. In doing so, that person would become an instrument of an agenda that both contradicts progressive commitments to educational equity, and also threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

November 23: Shavar Jeffries issues an FAQ to “flesh out their reasoning” on what DFER’s official statement, and his Washington Post op-ed meant. Highlights excerpted below:

Q: Why did DFER issue the statement? 

We’re not saying that Democrats should not, when possible, work with President-elect Trump on education issues, but rather that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education.

We believe it is critical to the long-term sustainability of the work we care about to make a clear distinction between the progressive education reforms that we support, and the agenda put forward by President-elect Trump.

Q: Wouldn’t a Democratic secretary be in a position to get Trump to change those positions? 

Perhaps anything is possible, but the president-elect has made his positions and discriminatory values clear over the last 18 months. Furthermore, the appointments Trump has made to his administration so far—including white nationalist Steve Bannon as a senior advisor and Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, whose views on race are so problematic that the Senate previously failed to confirm him for a judgeship, do not show signs of moderation.

Much more likely is that the appointment to secretary of a Democrat who is identified with our issue would do irreparable damage to our movement’s credibility with the progressive leaders and voters we hope to engage, and could be seen as giving implicit support to an agenda that attacks the very communities we aim to serve.

Q: Does this mean you would rather someone incompetent be in this position?

That’s a false choice. There are many competent Republicans who would be a good fit for a Trump administration. Our goal, as Democrats who support education reform, is to work within our party to build support for reform policies. For the reasons stated above, we do not believe a Democrat should accept the appointment.

Q: Does this mean you won’t work with the Trump administration?

As noted earlier, we draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump. Where appropriate, we will work with the administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.

But our mission is to build more support among Democrats for reform—a critical agenda in light of the outsized power of the teachers’ union within the party—and to cultivate bipartisan support for reform by growing the number of Democrats who support pro-child policies. Over the next four years, we will work with the hundreds of Democrats we’ve supported and helped to elect at the federal, state, and local levels to support positive policies for kids and to oppose negative ones.

November 23: Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, issued the following statement: (bolded emphasis mine)

DFER congratulates Betsy DeVos on her appointment as secretary of education, and we applaud Mrs. DeVos’s commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools.

However, DFER remains deeply concerned by much of the President-elect’s education agenda, which proposes to cut money from Title I and to eliminate the federal role on accountability. These moves would undermine progress made under the Obama administration to ensure all children have access to good schools. In addition, our children are threatened by many of the president-elect’s proposals, such as kicking 20 million families off of health care, deporting millions of Dreamers, and accelerating stop-and-frisk practices. We hope that Mrs. Devos will be a voice that opposes policies that would harm our children, both in the schoolhouse and the families and communities in which our children live.

Finally, regardless of one’s politics, Trump’s bigoted and offensive rhetoric has assaulted our racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, causing millions of American children to perceive that they are less than full members of our communities. We hope Mrs. DeVos will push the President-elect to disavow such rhetoric.

Note: It’s not clear how DFER defines a “commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools.” The DeVos family spent thousands of dollars this past summer to nix the Detroit Education Commission, a legislative reform that would have provided increased oversight and accountability to the city’s drastically failing charter sector.

Should a New Tax Credit From Washington Subsidize Housing for the Middle Class?

Originally published in Next City on November 8, 2016.
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As voters head to the polls to vote on their next president, they will likely encounter a campaign ad or two promising that the candidate in question will deliver a better future for America’s middle-class.

But while presidential elections have long been about playing to the middle-class — or those who consider themselves to be in that hallowed American demographic, the question of how to build housing for them is now coming to Congress.

An Oregon senator has introduced a bill to create a new federal program that would incentivize developers to build and preserve housing accessible to those families earning up to 100 percent of the area median income. In Portland, where the senator lives when he is not in Washington, the 2016 AMI for a family of four is $73,300.

The “Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit” proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is modeled after the 30-year-old Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the largest federal program to support placed-based affordable rental housing, which requires that units must target those earning 60 percent or less of the AMI. Wyden’s idea is to create a program for middle-class families who struggle to afford housing, but who earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies restricted to the poor. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, as the housing industry — including powerful lobbying groups such as the National Association of Home Builders— lines up behind the bill, a growing number of advocates for low-income populations and affordable housing organizations are saying no — and urging the Senator to focus on those with the most several housing needs instead.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition president Diane Yentel says Wyden’s bill is a misguided and wasteful use of federal resources. In an email to Next City, Yentel said that data clearly shows that for households in the 80 percent to 100 percent income band, there’s little to no need for a federal solution. Just 101,623 of those renters are severely cost burdened, compared to the 7.8 million extremely-low income households that have severe cost-burdens.

“There are literally more children living in homeless shelters than there are severely cost-burdened middle-income renters,” Yentel wrote.

For households earning 61-80 percent of AMI that are severely cost-burdened, Yentel says you’ll find them clustered in just a few cities and a better solution to address those problems would be through a different bill co-sponsored by Wyden. That bill would allow some LIHTC developments to target households up to 80 percent of AMI, and to construct more low-income housing through the National Housing Trust Fund. This, she says, would create a “reverse filtering effect” that would help move extremely-low income individuals into affordable housing, and out of housing that would otherwise be affordable to households higher up the income scale.

Defenders of the middle-income tax credit proposal point to data released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies that found that in the 10 highest-cost metro areas, 75 percent of renter households earning $30,000-44,9999, and half of those earning $45,000-74,999 were cost burdened in 2014. In the Oregon cities represented by Wyden, more and more renters are feeling the pressure of a hot housing market.

“One of the arguments the LIHTC people brought up is that if the MIHTC passes, it will take funding away from the LIHTC,” says Carol Ott, an affordable housing advocate in Baltimore. “I’m concerned about this, but I firmly believe if we work hard enough, we can have both.”

Low-income housing advocates are skeptical. In the next Congress there will be major pushes to increase the LIHTC, to create a renters’ tax credit for the lowest-income families, to increase spending for family homelessness, to expand the Section 8 voucher program, and to increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that Wyden’s MIHTC proposal would cost $4.5 billion annually when fully implemented, and that to pass such a large housing subsidy for the middle class would very likely crowd out the political will for even larger investments for the poor.

A spokesperson for Wyden’s office told Next City that they’re not worried this would crowd out funding for low-income households, and that if state housing authorities want to use their Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit dollars to bolster their Low-Income Housing Tax Credit pool, they can do that.

Wyden is the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, and if Democrats regain control of the Senate after Election Day, his office says that pushing forward the Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit would “absolutely” a top legislative priority.

Fining Teachers for Switching Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 3, 2016.
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Last month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on the story of Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher who received a $6,087 bill over the summer from his former employer—a suburban charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. Kowalski had worked at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School for seven years, but with three young children and another one on the way, he said he wanted to find a teaching job that would offer something more stable than at-will employment.

Mystic Valley now seeks to collect thousands of dollars in “liquidated damages” for Kowalski’s departure. Every spring, the charter school requires its employees to sign one-year contracts for the following school year, but since many new teaching positions don’t open up until May, June, and July, this puts teachers in a tough position if they want to consider looking for alternative jobs. Kowalski signed Mystic Valley’s 2016-2017 contract in April, got a job offer from a traditional public school in May, and gave the charter written and verbal notice by May 20. Mystic Valley then hired Kowalski’s replacement, whom Kowalski trained. Two months later, his $6,000 bill arrived. It didn’t take long for Kowalski to learn there were others who had faced a similar fate. MTA Today reported on another teacher who had worked at Mystic Valley for four years, who was billed $4,900 in “damages” for giving notice over the summer.

As MTA’s legal division worked to help the former Mystic Valley teacher fight these charges, Kowalski’s attorney stumbled upon something surprising: Mystic Valley employment contracts included non-compete provisions, prohibiting teachers from working in any public or private school in any of the six “sending districts” near the charter school. Though charters are often framed as a way to induce competition into American schools, non-compete agreements—which have grown increasingly common in the private sector—make clear that some charter employers don’t believe that schools should compete for teaching talent. Nor is it clear that the agreements are even legal, or enforceable.

Just how common contracts like these actually are remains a mystery, but they’re not just limited to Mystic Valley.In 2015, the Akron Beacon Journal found that Summit Academy Schools, the largest charter network in Ohio, sued nearly 50 former teachers in a three-year period for leaving for other jobs. Summit Academy schools have non-compete provisions in their employment contracts.

“Summit Academy’s legal team filed [lawsuits] against as many as eight [former teachers] at a time,” the Akron Beacon Journal reported. One such teacher was Joel Kovitch, who quit in 2013 to take a higher-paying position. He gave his notice one month into summer vacation, and thought there’d be plenty of time to replace him. He ended up paying Summit Academy $1,200 after growing tired of fighting the legal battle.

The American Prospect also reviewed an employment contract for a charter school within the Constellation Schools network, another Ohio charter chain with 17 campuses throughout the state. The contract requires teachers to work for one year, to have no expectation for employment beyond that, and to pay their school $2,000 in liquidated damages if they terminate their employment at any time before their contract expires. The Constellation contract says this is not a “penalty” for leaving, but an acknowledgment that the employer “has expended considerable time and effort recruiting and/or retaining and training you to ensure you are prepared for your position, and … that such a disruption to the educational process is difficult if not impossible to calculate.”

In other words, teachers can’t expect to stay more than one year, but if they leave before one year is over, then they will need to pay their school two grand. Constellation Schools did not return request for comment.

Teachers who work at Ozark Montessori Academy, a charter school in Arkansas, also have to sign non-competes, agreeing to not “directly or indirectly … solicit, induce, recruit, or cause another person in their employ of Employer to terminate his/her employment for the purpose of joining, associating, or becoming employed with any business or activity which is in competition with Ozark Education, Inc.” The agreement lasts for two years after the teacher leaves the school, and it applies “in any area in which Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” Charter teachers at Ozark are also required to sign confidentiality agreements that they will not directly or indirectly disclose “trade secrets” which are “used by Employer and give it an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know those trade secrets.”

The American Prospect contacted Ozark to inquire about their employment contract, and in regards to their non-compete requirement, a school representative said, “We pay for our teachers’ Montessori training, and since that’s such a big expense for us, we wanted in [the contract] that we’re not going to pay for a teacher’s training and then they go quit and work for someone else.”

The American Prospect reviewed a contract for another charter school in Washington, D.C., that, in addition to having a one-year non-compete provision and requiring teachers to keep “trade secrets” confidential during and after employment—including information related to the school’s “academic policies and strategies”—also requires teachers to not “create, or appear to create, a conflict of interest with Employee’s loyalty to or duties for” the school, “including, but not limited to, providing any tutoring for hire.”

This charter school also requires teachers to agree to mandatory arbitration—a process that involves waiving away your right to sue for grievances, or to contest the terms of the contract itself. The provision requires teachers to waive their rights accorded them by worker protection, civil-rights, and anti-discrimination acts, as follows:

The parties agree that … any dispute (“Dispute”) between the parties arising out of or relating to the Employee’s employment, or to the negotiation, execution, performance or termination of this Agreement or the Employee’s employment, including, but not limited to, any claim arising out of this Agreement, claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1966, as amended, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and any similar federal, state or local law, statute, regulation, or any common law doctrine, whether that dispute arises during or after employment shall be resolved by final, binding, and non-appealable arbitration by one arbitrator in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, in accordance with the National Employment Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association, as modified by the provisions of this Article.

The Covenant Keepers Charter School in Little Rock, Arkansas, requires its teachers to not disclose “trade secrets” and to agree to not work for any “business or activity in competition with the charter school” for two years after leaving, in “any area in which the Employer currently solicits or conducts business, and/or any area in which an Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” The teacher also has to agree to pay liquidated damages in the amount of “$100,000 plus court costs, litigation expenses, and actual and reasonable attorneys’ fees” if the non-compete or confidentiality agreement is breached.

No one has sought to tally how many charter schools include non-compete agreements in their contracts. Schools certainly don’t publicize them; it often requires individual teachers coming forward to alert the public to their existence. A Gainesville, Florida, elementary school teacher wrote on a legal advice forum asking whether the non-compete agreement she signed at her charter school was enforceable. A teacher at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School confirmed to The American Prospect that they too must sign non-compete agreements.

The Prospect reached out to the National Association of Public Charter Schools to inquire if the group promoted any kind of model charter employment contract, or if there are any provisions they specifically discourage charter schools from adopting. Vanessa Descalzi, a senior communications manager, says her group had never heard of other charter schools with practices like suing departed teachers for liquidated damages, or including non-compete, or forced-arbitration clauses.

The revelation of such provisions in charter school contracts comes at a time when the Obama administration and the National Labor Relations Board have begun to crack down on overly broad confidentiality agreements, mandatory arbitrations, and non-compete clauses. The White House says 20 percent of American workers are bound by non-compete agreements, and just last week urged state legislatures and policymakers to ban them for certain categories of workers, particularly those unlikely to possess real trade secrets.

The Economic Policy Institute says survey evidence reveals that many workers have no idea they are bound by non-compete agreements, with fewer than one in five employees consulting an attorney before signing, and only about one in ten attempting to negotiate the terms of their agreement. And as Economic Policy Institute vice president Ross Eisenbrey notes, even when workers know about the clauses, it’s a choice “between taking a job and not taking it in a tough labor market that favors employers.”

Even if such provisions are one day banned by legislatures or nullified by the courts, their current inclusion within charter employment contracts may be enough to deter teachers from taking the legal risk of moving on to a different school. This may be what the employers are counting on.

Rethinking School Discipline

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect

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On a Friday morning in early September, all the middle school students at Hampstead Hill Academy, a pre-K–8 school in Baltimore, filed into the gym. The Ravens were playing on Sunday, which meant that students could take a day off from wearing their navy-blue collared uniforms if they wanted to dress in purple in support of the city’s football team.

The roughly 240 students sat on the gym floor, forming a big circle. Each week, all sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders come together for this half-hour event—to formally recognize the good deeds of their peers and teachers, to offer apologies to those they had wronged, and to share upcoming personal announcements. Matthew Cobb, an eighth-grade science teacher, helped facilitate the morning’s community circle. Encouraging students to make eye contact with one another and to project their voices, it was an exercise in public speaking as much as it was in relationship-building.

Matthew Hornbeck, the school’s principal, has been leading Hampstead Hill for 14 years. For the past nine, he and his staff have actively incorporated “restorative justice” into their school’s culture, a model that involves holding structured conversations to facilitate relationships and reconciliation. While Hampstead Hill still has suspensions and detentions, Hornbeck says restorative justice has dramatically reduced the need for them. Hampstead Hill holds school-wide circles, class-wide circles, and when someone misbehaves, teachers hold circles that include the offending student, the victim, and anyone else who may have been affected. “It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s a huge piece of the puzzle and I think principals would be crazy not to check it out and take it seriously,” Hornbeck says. “It’s not a fad.”

Every teacher at Hampstead Hill is required to lead at least three class-wide circles per week. These don’t take very long, perhaps 10 to 12 minutes, but the idea is to regularly create the space for students to share their feelings, ask each other questions, and build trust.

Later that Friday morning, Mr. Cobb led a restorative circle for the 20 students in his science class. The day’s question was a silly one: Would you eat a worm sandwich if you could meet your favorite TV star or musician? One by one, each student went around the room and answered the question. “No way,” Nyya told her classmates. “It would depend on how much time I’d have with the stars, but I would probably do it if I could meet the Dolan twins,” said Hannah. Taras said he’d eat a worm sandwich if Drake were waiting for him at the end.

“I would eat a worm sandwich to meet who, class?” Mr. Cobb asked his students.

“Beyoncé!!!!” they all yelled back, laughing.

IN THE ERA OF BLACK LIVES MATTER, the movement that has spotlighted racist policies afflicting black Americans, a new national focus on school discipline disparities has taken hold. Activists point to staggering statistics—for instance, that the number of high school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased roughly 40 percent between 1972 and 2009, while the racial disciplinary gaps also widened. During the 2013–2014 school year, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reported that black students were 3.8 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension. Similar disparities held true even for black preschoolers. Advocates have pressured school officials and policy-makers to end these suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, which they say push too many students into the criminal justice system—a process commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Many districts have responded to the calls for change. By the 2015–2016 school year, 23 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States had implemented policy reforms requiring limits to the use of suspension and/or the implementation of non-punitive approaches to discipline, according to Matthew Steinberg, an education researcher and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Some cities have banned certain types of suspensions, while others have reduced the length of suspensions, or curtailed the types of penalties students could receive for lower-level offenses.

When it comes to exemplary models of discipline reform, Hampstead Hill stands tall. Yet the racially integrated public charter is rather unusual in its ability to devote meaningful resources to implementing restorative justice. The school employs a full-time psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, family therapist, and a director of restorative practice. Many cash-strapped schools have none of these, but are still being asked to revamp their policies, and fast.

Much of the liberal and education establishment has thrown its weight behind school discipline reform. In February, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the stage in Harlem to discuss societal barriers facing African Americans—among them, the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in police involvement in school discipline, especially in schools with majority-black students,” she declared. “We’re seeing an over-reliance on suspensions and expulsions.” Investments in school districts, Clinton said, will help leaders reform their school discipline practices. She pledged to commit $2 billion to the effort, and promised to push the Office of Civil Rights to intervene if schools and states refuse to change their ways.

Five months after Clinton’s Harlem speech, the Democratic Party platform adopted at its convention included language to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and to oppose discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Embraced by the highest echelons of Democratic politics, the battle against the school-to-prison pipeline has traveled a long way since researchers first coined the term back in 2003.

But challenges remain for progressive reformers. Research has well established that removing students from class has negative impacts on their academic achievement, and there’s broad recognition that suspensions and expulsions do very little on their own to address the underlying issues that cause most students to misbehave. However, good evidence on potential alternatives is fairly thin, and the linkages between school discipline and the criminal justice system are also less clear than advocates tend to acknowledge. While there’s a lot of energy to move forward, to do something about the glaring racial inequities, this same pressure threatens to produce policy change that could inadvertently hurt other students, teachers, and schools. Tackling such deep structural inequities as segregation and resource allocation is likely necessary to really address school discipline disparities—lest we face yet another instance of educators being asked to throw local solutions at systemic problems.

LONG BEFORE HILLARY CLINTON gave her speech on the school-to-prison pipeline, activists, lawyers, and researchers were figuring out how to raise public awareness about the harms of punitive school discipline.

“It’s been incredible to hear the Democratic candidate speak specifically about the school-to-prison pipeline. That really didn’t just come out of the year; it was through a movement that has been built over the past decade and a half,” says Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of Advancement Project, a civil-rights group.

Critics describe the school-to-prison pipeline as the policies and practices that push American public school students—particularly students of color and students with disabilities—out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The American Civil Liberties Union says the pipeline begins with overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, and a dearth of funding and supports like school counselors and special education resources.

Advocates point to “zero tolerance” policies—which automatically impose predetermined punishments for certain types of student misconduct—as another major factor contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Judith Kafka, an education historian and author of The History of “Zero Tolerance” in American Public Schooling, traces the phrase “zero tolerance” back to a U.S. Customs Service antidrug program from the 1980s, which was soon adopted by states and districts for school discipline. The idea was elevated into federal law in 1994, when Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, requiring schools to expel for one year any student found with a gun. Since 1994, most jurisdictions have passed additional zero-tolerance policies that extend well beyond those mandated by federal law.

By 1997, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 94 percent of all schools had zero-tolerance policies for weapons or firearms, 87 percent had them for alcohol, and 79 percent had them for tobacco. Critics say that these nondiscretionary policies are regularly used in response to low-level, nonviolent student misconduct. And the greater the number of suspended and expelled students there are, they say, the greater the likelihood there is that unsupervised young people will engage in negative behaviors, leading them ultimately to the criminal justice system.

The school-to-prison pipeline is also linked to the growth of police assigned to work in schools—known euphemistically as “school resource officers.”According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy nonprofit, between the 1996–1997 and 2007–2008 school years, the number of public high schools with full-time law enforcement and security guards tripled. Advocates say this has yielded an increase in school-based arrests, many of them for nonviolent offenses.

Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ideally wants to see no police in schools, because they’re too often used to handle disciplinary problems traditionally managed by school administrators. But, Dixon says, if they are going to be in schools, then they should be evaluated annually on their effectiveness, based on clear data on who is getting arrested, the reasons why, and what available alternatives could have been used. One analysis of federal data revealed that more than 70 percent of students involved in school-based arrests or referred to law enforcement in 2010 were black or Hispanic.

More than four decades of research has shown that black students are suspended at two to three times the rate of white students. These disparities have been consistently found in all sorts of studies, across and within school districts.

In 2008, an American Psychological Association task force released a literature review on zero tolerance, concluding that not only do such practices fail to make schools safer or improve student behavior, but they also actually increase the likelihood that students will act out in the future.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a sense that our schools were becoming more violent,” says Russell Skiba, a long-time researcher on school discipline issues, and the lead author of the American Psychological Association report. “A careful examination of the data, though, showed there never really was an increase in youth violence in schools. But it made for a good sound bite for policy-makers to say we’d be tough on school crime.” When better data emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Skiba says it became clear that zero tolerance was ineffective.

After the release of the American Psychological Association’s report, along with the advent of scandalous news stories featuring students expelled for infractions like bringing nail clippers to school, more focus was directed at finding alternatives to zero tolerance. Citing districts like Oakland and Indianapolis, which have revised their codes of conduct to emphasize more preventative approaches to school discipline, Skiba says there’s been tremendous interest in reforming punitive policies over the past three years.

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Restorative Circle at Hampstead Hill Academy | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

THE 2014-2015 SCHOOL YEAR marked the first time white students no longer comprised a majority of the nation’s public school students. And after Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were killed by police officers in 2014, followed by subsequent police killings in 2015 and 2016, an increasing number of activists and political leaders began drawing connections between the disproportionate discipline black youth face in school and the unequal treatment of black adults by law enforcement.

This national focus on racism prompted attention from teachers unions, too. In the summer of 2015, the National Education Association passed a resolution committing the nation’s largest labor union to fighting institutional racism. The NEA pledged to provide support for programs that end the school-to-prison pipeline, and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.”

The American Federation of Teachers also took action following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, forming a Racial Equity Task Force to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for youth, especially young black men.

Individual districts prioritizing school discipline reform, like Denver and Baltimore, also began to attract national attention. In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who worked to overhaul the district’s discipline policies. He scaled back the scope of offenses that could warrant out-of-school suspensions and expanded the number of non-punitive discipline measures to keep kids in class. The results were dramatic: During the 2009–2010 school year, Baltimore issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004.

The federal government took notice. In 2014, then–Education Secretary Arne Duncan and then–Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore to unveil the first-ever set of national school discipline guidelines, calling on districts to “rethink” their policies. The joint guidance from the U.S. Justice and Education departments instructed schools nationwide to examine their discipline data and to end racial disparities.

The government’s rethink was also informed by a key report, the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, released in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University. This study tracked school records for all Texas seventh-graders in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and analyzed each student’s grades for at least a six-year period, comparing this information to the state juvenile justice database.

“That particular study made it crystal clear, it gave a clear vision of what the school-to-prison pipeline really looked like,” a Department of Education official says. “It made clear that when a child is suspended or expelled from school, their risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system goes up, as does their likelihood of dropping out of school, and repeating a year.”

The discipline policy shifts by a range of governments have yielded real change: In 2014, California became the first state in the nation to ban “willful defiance” suspensions for its youngest students—a category of misconduct that includes refusing to remove a hat, to wear the school uniform, or to turn off a cell phone. Consequently, the number of California students suspended at least once during the 2014–2015 school year declined by 12.8 percent from the previous year. Similarly, in Chicago, out-of-school suspensions fell by 65 percent between the 2012–2013 and 2014–2015 school years after the district revised its policies, while New York City, after a policy shift, issued 31 percent fewer suspensions in the first half of the 2015–2016 school year than it did in 2014.

In July 2015, the White House convened a “Rethink Discipline” conference, highlighting progress made by the school districts of Oakland, Los Angeles, Broward County (Florida), and others. This past June, Education Secretary John King went to the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville to urge charter school leaders to “rethink” their discipline policies. And this September, the Departments of Justice and Education released the first-ever federal guidance for districts that employ school police officers.

In terms of concrete alternatives, advocates point to models that focus on improving relationships within the school building. Supporters of these approaches—that have names like “Social and Emotional Learning” and “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports”—say that teaching students positive social skills can help prevent or eliminate such risky behaviors as drug use, violence, bullying, and dropping out.

Another popular reform, backed by teachers unions and civil-rights groups, aims to train educators on ways to overcome any racial biases they may harbor. Many worry that middle-class white educators in particular lack the cultural understanding that could help them work more compassionately with poor black and brown students.

The last major alternative is restorative justice, the kind of climate-based improvement program that Matthew Hornbeck has been building in his school over the past nine years. The amount of high-quality research on the effectiveness of restorative justice is limited, but academics at the Johns Hopkins School of Education are currently engaged in a rigorous evaluation of schools implementing the model. Cities aren’t waiting around, though: From Chicago to Los Angeles to New York City, many districts have already moved to implement restorative justice pilot programs.

Kathy Evans, an education professor at Eastern Mennonite University, helped start the nation’s first graduate program focused on training teachers to use restorative justice. “It’s not just that I think restorative justice is more effective, it’s that I think suspensions and expulsions hurt a lot of kids,” she says. “They experience suspensions or expulsions not as a deterrent, but as just one more message that ‘You’re not worthy,’ ‘You’re not important,’ and ‘You don’t matter.’”

“I think reform really comes down to leadership, and how well we’ve managed to get information in the hands of leaders that are willing to take on this challenge,” a Department of Education official told me. “And it is a challenge. You have had educators who for so many years may not have been trained to manage classrooms without the use of exclusionary discipline, and have become reliant on their ability to send children out of the classroom.”

BUT EVEN AS DISTRICTS TURN away from the harsh disciplinary policies of recent decades, few studies exist on alternative approaches. This is partly because so many reforms are only just emerging, and it will take time for academics to evaluate their impacts. However, some researchers also question how much we can really conclude based on the studies we currently have.

There is, for instance, little evidence that black students and white students within the same school receive different kinds of school discipline. In 2011, Josh Kinsler, an education economist at the University of Georgia, ran a study that looked at roughly 500,000 students across 1,000 elementary, middle, and high schools in North Carolina. He found that within schools, black and white students were treated similarly, but that student disciplinary outcomes varied significantly across schools.

Another recent study released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research echoes some of these findings: Researchers found that the specific Chicago public school students attended was a much stronger predictor of whether they would be suspended or expelled than any individual student characteristic, including race or gender. Chicago schools with high rates of suspensions and expulsions served extremely vulnerable, segregated populations, while those with low levels of exclusionary discipline did not.

There are also limitations to the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, which produced correlational, not causal, findings. “The Texas study … would fail the Department of Education’s own research evaluation tool,” says Kinsler, referring to a rubric for high-quality research by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Nevertheless, the immediate challenge for school leaders is figuring out how to balance the harm a disruptive student would face from losing more class time with their responsibility to effectively teach the rest of the class. We already know that those students who arrive at school with the most serious challenges, those who need the most instructional support, are also among those who are most likely to be suspended.

Academics with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA say that softening disciplinary practices would be minimal and manageable, and that resolving unequal discipline is necessary to reduce the racial achievement gap. They point to the Denver Public Schools, a district that has made concerted efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Researchers found that at the same time that Denver’s punitive discipline went down, the district showed “a steady and substantial increase” in the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in nearly every subject for six consecutive years. Another recent study found that the impact of Chicago shortening the length of suspensions for more serious misconduct from ten days to five did not seriously disrupt or harm other students.

“We summarily reject this narrative that if you just identify the kids that don’t deserve to be in school then everyone else is going to thrive,” says Kesi Foster, a coordinator with the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth-led group focused on the school-to-prison pipeline in New York City. “Communities thrive when [people] see that everyone in the community is valued and supported. This theory that some people are disposable is what has led to mass incarceration and continues to ensnare young black people.”

ROBUST AGREEMENT IN FAVOR of exploring less-punitive disciplinary measures has not prevented the emergence of controversy, however, especially as elected officials and districts move to implement broad policy changes quickly.

When the federal government released its school discipline guidelines at the start of 2014, the American Federation of Teachers praised the effort, but warned that new policies would succeed only if additional resources were made available.

It’s been difficult for teachers like Kimberly Colbert, an English teacher in Saint Paul, who feels passionate about social justice and reducing exclusionary discipline. Colbert has taught for 21 years, and has helped lead her local union to push for reductions in suspensions and expulsions. In their recent round of collective bargaining, her union negotiated increased funding for restorative justice pilots. “We’re looking at racism, we’re calling it out, and we’re trying to interrupt it,” she says.

Colbert remains hopeful about change, but also worried that the expectation to fix everything will fall, as usual, on the shoulders of under-supported teachers. She notes that not every public school has a librarian or a school nurse, and Minnesota has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the United States. Last year, a series of violent school incidents in Saint Paul served as harsh reminders of the daunting challenges that persist. In October, a student showed up to one Saint Paul high school with a loaded handgun in his backpack. Two months later, a student at Colbert’s own school slammed a teacher against a concrete wall, choked him unconscious, and ultimately gave him a traumatic brain injury. A few months later, at a third Saint Paul school, two students assaulted a teacher, punching him in the face, and throwing him to the ground.

“It was really difficult for everybody,” recalls Colbert. “We don’t want to see our colleagues hurt, we don’t want to be hurt, and at the same time we understand that we have students who get angry and have needs.”

These concerns extend beyond Saint Paul. Several years into various efforts across the country to scale back suspensions and expulsions, more and more teachers are saying they feel they are being put in untenable situations.

In 2013, the teachers unions in California initially opposed the statewide “willful defiance” suspension ban, which many felt went too far in limiting teachers’ discretion. “Some legislators don’t understand, they haven’t been in the environment, so when they say let’s eliminate all suspensions and expulsions, we’ve had to work to make sure the teacher still has authority in the classroom,” says Jeff Freitas, the secretary treasurer for the California Federation of Teachers. “And we need doctors, mental-health specialists—you’re going to take away this [disciplinary] tool without providing strategies? That’s been our struggle.”

Teachers aren’t the only ones worried about losing their discretion. Mark Cannizzaro, the executive vice president for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing New York City principals, says that while the renewed focus on school discipline has been very welcome, his members worry about the degree to which school leaders are losing their authority. He cites a new rule the city’s education department implemented last year, requiring principals to seek permission to suspend students for infractions related to “defying the lawful authority of school personnel.” Local political leaders are also considering a citywide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. Both Cannizzaro’s union and the New York City teachers union have raised objections to this proposal.

“The school leader is the person who knows the community, knows the circumstances, and that person is in the best position to make that discipline call,” says Cannizzarro. “You can’t legislate every type of social interaction into a code of conduct. We agree that suspensions should be extremely rare, but there are cases where something egregious happens, and there are often few other tools in a principal’s toolkit.”

Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting firm, says the push to ban all suspensions is just zero tolerance by another name.

“Suffice to say that suspending and expelling students from school certainly is not a real solution to the underlying negative behaviors and problems of individual students,” he says. “That said, there are very legitimate cases when student misconduct poses a serious threat to other students and even the student demonstrating the unsafe behaviors.”

Trump also thinks the public should be more critical of districts that tout dramatic drops in school suspensions. “Have school officials reduced negative behaviors or have they just reduced their discipline numbers? Rarely does behavior change overnight, nor do even the most successful programs have dramatic drops of 30, 50, or greater percent in one year,” he says.

Reports have been surfacing of teachers who say they feel they can’t discipline out-of-control students because their district wants to “keep their numbers down.” Relatedly, many educators are saying they feel unsupported, and even unsafe, as they try to keep up with new school discipline policies.

Los Angeles was the first city in California to ban suspensions for “willful defiance” and was also hailed for its commitment to roll out restorative justice pilots. But last fall, the Los Angeles Times reported that teachers at only about a third of the district’s 900 campuses had been trained in restorative justice, and that the district was failing to budget sufficient funds for its implementation. The report cited one Los Angeles middle school where teachers felt overwhelmed by their inability to respond to students who pushed, threatened, and cursed at them. Two teachers took leaves of absence as a result.

Change always brings resistance, but finding ways to sustain support from teachers and school administrators will matter greatly moving forward. That means figuring out how to engage local stakeholders so they don’t feel that a series of unfunded mandates are descending upon them.

One challenge will be to find the dollars necessary to invest in non-punitive policies and practices. To be sure, as some advocates point out, when districts need to expand the number of school police officers or implement expensive testing programs, somehow there seems to be far less anguish scraping up the funds. Redirecting school budget line items to better reflect progressive priorities will no doubt be a critical aspect of discipline reform.

But to truly overcome racial disproportionality in school discipline, leaders will need to do more than just shuffle local dollars around. It will require more than just sending individual teachers to anti-racism trainings. Important though those things are, the evidence suggests that systemic problems like the concentration of racially and economically segregated schools must also be addressed if the real, if narrower, issue of racial school discipline disparities is to be resolved.

Turning Out the Pro-Choice Voice

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 1, 2016.
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week out from Election Day, perhaps no state is more closely watched than Pennsylvania. The neck-and-neck Senate race between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has already won the title of most expensive senate race in U.S. history, with more than $118 million spent by the end of September. Democrats need to net four seats to win control of the Senate, and more than $87 million in outside spending has already poured into Pennsylvania’s race.

With 20 electoral votes, the state is also critical for the presidential contest. Though Pennsylvania hasn’t elected a Republican for president since the 1980s, the GOP controls the state legislature, and residents in more conservative parts of the state have particularly responded to Donald Trump’s promises to boost manufacturing and coal and natural gas production.

With the state’s rural regions increasingly Republican, and big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh voting reliably blue, the political outcomes on Election Day will turn largely on the Philadelphia suburbs, where voters tend to have higher incomes, higher levels of education, and higher turnout rates. While historically Republican, these communities have been trending Democratic in recent years.

This fact isn’t lost on Planned Parenthood, which has spent $30 million across six swing states this year to elect Democratic pro-choice candidates. Deirdre Schifeling, the director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, says that of their six states—Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—Pennsylvania is where they’ve waged their largest effort.

Though the Republican Party has spent the last six years demonizing Planned Parenthood, polls consistently reveal strong support for the 100-year-old group. A recent Politico-Harvard poll even found that 48 percent of self-identified Trump supporters back Planned Parenthood.

This past weekend I headed out with Planned Parenthood volunteers in the Philadelphia suburbs to witness their get-out-the-vote efforts firsthand. The volunteers convened Saturday morning at their campaign office in downtown Philadelphia, where the office walls were decked with signs reading “NASTY WOMEN VOTE” and kindred sentiments.

I headed out to Glenside, a suburb in Montgomery County, with two Temple University students. Luke Robinson, a senior, and Paige Hill, a junior, have both been extremely active on their campus during this election, and both attended the Pennsylvania Senate debate their school hosted in October.

The homes the two had been assigned to canvass were ones that Planned Parenthood had deemed to house either undecided or infrequent voters. Difficult though it was for me to imagine how anyone could actually be undecided this late into the election, at door after door, we encountered folks who were truly undecided—either about the presidency, the Senate, or both. And most were willing to explain why.

Barbara Brown, a 58-year-old hairdresser, said she had really wanted Hillary Clinton to win in 2008, and supported her first presidential campaign.

“But then the world changed, ISIS came,” she told us. Brown decided to register as a Republican, and backed Ohio Governor John Kasich for president. She feels the Obama administration is not doing enough to deal with ISIS, and worries Clinton will just follow Obama’s lead.

“The one I trust is Hillary, I just don’t know if she’ll do her own thing in office,” Brown said. “I don’t think I’ll know who I’m voting for until I drive over on Election Day.”

One woman, upon hearing Paige and Luke were volunteers with Planned Parenthood, said she had no interest in talking to them. But when we continued on down the street to the next door, the woman, Piper Lowell, chased us down the sidewalk, with no shoes on. Saying she recognized that we probably don’t have much opportunity to hear from pro-life Democrats, she invited us back into her home to talk.

Lowell told us she’s truly undecided on both the Senate race and the presidency, and feels frustrated that anti-abortion voices are not made to feel welcome within the Democratic Party. She pointed to Democratic Senator Bob Casey Jr., who opposes abortion, as the kind of voice that gets marginalized. Bill Clinton, Lowell said, was better than his wife when it comes to making space for dissenting views, citing his “safe, legal, and rare” abortion rhetoric. “She is just not an impressive candidate,” Lowell said firmly.

That said, Lowell’s top priority is to make sure that Trump “does not sit in the chair of Abraham Lincoln” and she told us she would check the polls right up to Election Day to gauge how much of a lead Clinton has. A New York Times/Sienna College poll released Thursday found Clinton winning Pennsylvania by seven points. Lowell said if she felt confident enough that Clinton would win without her vote, “then she would vote her conscience.”

Nearly all the doors we knocked on were Planned Parenthood supporters though, and a few even said they hadn’t known that Pat Toomey voted to defund the organization seven times throughout his six years in office.

A year ago, many believed that reproductive rights would be a major issue in the election.

A year ago, many believed that reproductive rights would be a major issue in the election. Given the possibility that the next president would appoint one or more Supreme Court justices (this was before Anton Scalia died) and with the Court yet to rule on Texas laws that restricted the number of facilities where abortions could be performed, the progressive universe was busy figuring out how to effectively raise awareness about the stakes for reproductive rights in 2016. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was comparing a woman’s right to choose to supporting slavery, and Marco Rubio, then an elite favorite, was saying he wanted to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest.

Access to reproductive health care has been a major issue this election (Hillary Clinton came out in support of overturning the 40-year-old Hyde Amendment and the Democratic Party platform calls for Hyde’s repeal for the first time ever), but nobody anticipated a year ago that the Republican nominee’s bragging about sexual assault would also turn out to be a galvanizing issue.

Trump’s denigrating and abusive stances toward women seem to be taking a toll on voters, especially in the suburbs. A Bloomberg Politics poll conducted in early October, after the release of the Trump tapes, found that more than 80 percent of suburban Pennsylvania voters said they were bothered by the video that showed him bragging about assaulting women, compared with 60 percent of voters statewide.

“I’ve talked to both men and women who say they lean Republican, or they vote both ways, but they’re all thinking about the effects Trump’s rhetoric has on their children, specifically their daughters,” says Gabby Weiss, an organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice America, who is working in Pennsylvania. “So many folks on both sides of the aisle have mentioned it’s their daughters that they’re thinking about, sometimes even bringing their daughters to the doors when we canvass them.”

One of the questions facing the Clinton campaign has been whether to treat the Republican presidential nominee as a wild exception to the norm, or a logical extension of the GOP’s rhetoric and policies. At times, Clinton has sought to pin him as representative of the party. “Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere,” she said in March. “What the Republicans have sown with their extremist tactics, they are now reaping with [his] candidacy.”

But as Buzzfeed first reported, a DNC memo sent in May revealed that the campaign pivoted midway through the election, deciding to no longer link House and Senate Republicans to the Republican presidential candidate. For the next several months, Clinton rarely talked about Republican ideology, and zeroed in exclusively on Trump’s positions, temperament, and character. This fall, however, Hillary Clinton has tried to swing back in the other direction, implicating other Republicans in her attacks on Trump.

This vacillation could partly explain why, despite Clinton’s seven-point lead in Pennsylvania, the state’s senate race is still a complete toss-up. Pat Toomey has been careful to not take a hard position on Trump’s candidacy, in the hope of winning over moderates who may split their votes and still keep his party’s base by his side. Planned Parenthood staffers told me many Pennsylvania voters they’ve met with hadn’t even known that their state has never before elected a female senator.

In 2012, Barack Obama won the presidency with the largest gender gap in history, winning women by 12 points despite losing married women to Mitt Romney by four points. (Married voters in general have tended to vote for the GOP.)

This time around, though, there’s evidence that more married households may be splitting their votes. An NBC News Poll released on October 4 found that 48 percent of married women supported Clinton, compared with 35 percent of married men. The poll was conducted even before the release of the Trump tapes. In a recent interview with Slate, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that Democrats have been specifically targeting married women this election cycle, encouraging wives to make up their own minds about whom to vote for.

In the third and final presidential debate of this election, Hillary Clinton expressed passionate support for both Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose. A CNN focus group of undecided voters in Nevada found this to be the part of the debate that viewers liked the most.

Planned Parenthood is working to make sure that such sentiments put Hillary Clinton in the White House, and that other candidates who seek to restrict access to reproductive health care pay the price.

 

Affordable Housing is Vanishing. These Ballot Initiatives Could Help Stem the Crisis.

Originally published in In These Times on October 31, 2016.
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Affordable housing may not have received much attention in the presidential election, but it’s on the minds of many voters. A national survey released by Ipsos Public Affairs in July found that six in 10 Americans say it’s a key issue for them, and nearly sixty percent of respondents say their local officials are not doing enough to improve housing affordability.

Faced with rising housing costs, at least twelve cities will be voting on affordable housing ballot initiatives come Election Day – with most of them revolving around constructing more affordable units and providing more support for the homeless.

In addition to pushing for bond and loan referendums that would create new financing for these ends in pricey areas like San Francisco and Oakland, community activists are confronting a deepening housing crisis in Baltimore, a city that’s often overlooked in discussions of affordability. Baltimore residents will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot initiative that would amend the city’s charter to create an affordable housing trust fund – an entity to provide housing assistance for families making 50 percent or less than the area median income. The fund could also support a variety of other affordable housing efforts, such as providing homeownership workshops and credit counseling, developing new low-income housing or rehabilitating vacants.

Many Americans think of places like New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco as the most unaffordable places to live, but though they have higher rents, they also also higher median incomes. Johns Hopkins graduate student Philip Garboden analyzed the most recent American Community Survey and American Housing Survey data and found that of the top 25 largest cities in the country, Baltimore ranks fifth for rental housing burdens, behind only Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Memphis. (Los Angeles residents will be voting on two housing initiatives this November – one that would raise property taxes to fund housing for the chronically homeless, and another that would require large housing developments to set aside a portion of units for low-income residents.) Despite Baltimore rents ranking as average among the 25 largest cities, only six cities have lower median incomes, and all of those six cities have lower median rents.

For the 34 percent of Baltimore renters who live below the poverty line, the challenge of finding affordable units on the private market has grown increasingly difficult—not to mention that the majority of poor renters in Baltimore receive no housing subsidies from the government. The city has also seen sharp rent increases in recent years, so middle class families with stagnant incomes have also experienced unprecedented housing burdens. In the past six years, the number of cost-burdened middle-income renter householders in the city shot up from 1,800 to more than 7,500.

Affordable housing trust funds are not a new idea, but they’ve attracted more attention as of late. “They have definitely been picking up at a greater clip,” says Mary Brooks, the senior advisor of the Center for Community Change’s Housing Trust Fund Project. “When I started working on these in the late 1980s there was only a handful, and now there are 770 existing in cities, counties, and states across the country.” They’re no panacea – plenty of costly cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston have them – and a housing trust fund’s effectiveness depends largely on how committed the local jurisdiction is to funding it. But they can be powerful tools: in Washington D.C., their formidable trust fund receives annual allocations of $100 million.

Brooks says that housing trust funds tend to be politically popular because their dollars are extremely flexible – there are fewer strings attached to how money can be directed, so funds can be used at different times for different things. “A community could say, ‘Okay, we want to improve existing properties’ – and they do that for a few years,” says Brooks. “And then they could say, ‘Okay, now let’s start producing new housing.”

Housing for All Baltimore, a coalition of local groups, including the ACLU of Maryland, the Community Development Network of Maryland, CASA de Maryland, Enterprise Community Partners, and United Workers campaigned for the referendum. Volunteers needed to collect 10,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, and ultimately gathered more than 18,500 over the summer months. The Baltimore Board of Elections then certified 12,057 of those signatures.

United Workers, a Baltimore-based human rights organization, did a lot of the organizing legwork to collect petition signatures. Members stationed themselves all over the city—from grocery stores, to churches, to community festivals. “I was surprised by the diversity of interest in this issue,” says Todd Cherkis, an organizer with the group. “There really just hasn’t been robust public policy around affordable housing and community-driven development in this city, and we found that that there really was widespread support.”

Last January United Workers unveiled their “20/20 Vision” campaign – a call for $20 million annually invested in public bonds for community land trusts, and $20 million annually invested in public bonds to hire the unemployed to deconstruct Baltimore’s notorious vacant housing. “The 20/20 campaign is a set of demands and goals that attempt to rewire the city to actually meet people’s housing demands, create jobs and do sustainable development,” says Cherkis. “The housing trust fund would be a vehicle to help raise resources directly to do some of this. It’s only a first step.”

If the measure passes, steep challenges will remain. Chief among them, the ballot initiative does not come with any source of funding because the state constitution prohibits appropriations by referendum. Instead, the referendum would empower the City Council to direct funds into the trust fund. At present, only the mayor has that authority. “That’s why we needed the referendum,” explains Odette Ramos, the executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland. “We thought if we tried to do it through the legislative process, the mayor would veto it.” When asked how much she anticipates going into the trust fund, Ramos says she’s “hopeful” that that they can raise between $15 – 25 million. The fund would be open to public financing, including from state and federal sources, as well as private financing, like individual donors and philanthropic organizations. Advocates say they’re exploring different dedicated revenue sources, like a tax on AirBnB rentals. There are also discussions around pressuring local universities to pay directly into the housing trust fund, as they are currently exempt from paying property taxes. “We’ll throw everything on the wall and see what sticks,” Ramos says.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the initiative. Carol Ott, a local housing advocate, says she’s voting against the trust fund this November. “This is what Baltimore does,” she tweeted. “Invests in strawman ‘game changers’ that change little to nothing for those who need it the most.” Ott calls for creating a program that allows middle-income affordable rental housing to coexist with homeowner-occupied homes, as well as diverting more resources from subsidized downtown developments to neglected, poor neighborhoods (something United Workers also supports).

While the goal of raising $25 million for a Baltimore housing trust fund seems relatively paltry compared to the likes of Washington D.C., Mary Brooks says not to underestimate what even a modest housing trust fund could accomplish in Baltimore, and notes that funds in other cities – like Nashville and Richmond – have increased their revenues over time. If the ballot measure passes, supporters say they don’t expect to see money come out of the trust fund until at least 2018. Advocates will also have a brand new city council and mayor to work with following November’s election. According to The Baltimore Sun, about half of current councilmembers are retiring, seeking other office, or lost their April mayoral primaries.

Why Subsidizing Teacher Housing with Tax Credits Is Bad Policy

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2016.
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Late last month California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Teacher Housing Act of 2016—a bill (as its preamble states) that will “facilitate the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing restricted to teachers and school district employees.” Critically, the legislation allows California to use its federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to finance teacher housing—making it the first state in the country to do so.

The law has been sold as a win-win for everyone, and certainly on its face, it sounds appealing. There’s broad recognition that housing is increasingly expensive —especially in exorbitantly pricey cities like San Francisco. Americans strongly support their public school teachers—77 percent say they continue to “trust and have confidence” in them. Moreover, California is grappling with teacher shortages, and champions of the new law believe that providing housing assistance could help attract and retain quality educators, strengthening local communities to boot.

But make no mistake: There are some real losers here.

The LIHTC was established as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and today it is the country’s largest federal program to support place-based, affordable rental housing. The Internal Revenue Service runs it, but individual states get considerable freedom to decide how to distribute their tax credits, so long as they meet federal requirements. One such requirement is that units must target households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

This 60 percent threshold is notably higher than other federal affordable housing programs, like Section 8 vouchers and public housing. While LIHTC units built in high-poverty neighborhoods house extremely poor tenants, plenty aren’t built there, which is why tax-credit tenants tend to have higher incomes than recipients of other federal rental assistance programs.

Given that federal housing subsidies are in limited supply, the allocation of tax credits to fund teacher housing merits more scrutiny that it’s received.

“The low-income housing tax credit is meant for single mothers who didn’t graduate from high school, not those people with college degrees and masters degrees,” says Keren Horn, an economist at University of Massachusetts Boston who studies the LIHTC. “Tax credits are targeted at 60 percent of AMI, and if teachers in your metropolitan area are earning less than that, I think the answer is you have to raise their income.”

And then of course, how do we justify giving housing subsidies to some public workers but not others? Why subsidize teachers’ housing but not nurses’? Or trash collectors’?

“It’s a bad idea, and it gets people competing with each other over who is the most oppressed,” says Peter Dreier, an urban policy professor at Occidental College. “A lot of colleges provide housing subsidies for their employees, and if an employer wants to do that as a benefit, or something negotiated through collective bargaining—sure. But the government shouldn’t be in that business.”

Nationally, nearly 20 million renter households have incomes low enough to qualify for federal subsidies, but fewer than one out of four of these households receive anything at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the number of unassisted renters with “worst case” housing needs—meaning they pay more than half of their incomes for housing, or live in severely substandard conditions—rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2013.

These trends hold broadly true in California as well. In 2016, more than 1,590,000 poor California households paid more than half their incomes on rent, a 28 percent increase from before the recession. The budget for public housing in the state shrank by more than $56 million between 2010 and 2014. More than 113,000 Californians live in shelters, or on the streets.

California’s new teacher housing law does not make more money available for developers of affordable housing; it allows developers to amend the list of eligible recipients. The result is potentially fewer resources available for deeply impoverished families.

The law also carries racial implications. During the 2014-2015 school year, 65 percent of California public school teachers were white; four percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. By contrast, a 2012 HUD report says that roughly 56 percent of the residents in California’s tax credit units were black or Hispanic, and only 28 percent were white. It’s realistic to worry that this new law will facilitate the transfer of resources away from poor people of color to (oft-struggling) middle-class white professionals.

The federal government used to prohibit states from awarding LIHTC to specific occupations. There’s an IRS rule that all residential units have to be available for “general public use.”

But in 2008, as Congress was working on a new housing bill in the wake of the housing market collapse, a group of developers who build housing for artists successfully lobbied for a “general use” exemption. Since then, LIHTC-funded housing complexes restricted specifically for artists have increased considerably.

In May, the Prospect covered a new report on these artist housing complexes, which were found to have far whiter and comparatively more affluent tenants than one typically finds in LIHTC projects. Coining these developments “Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing”—or POSH—the report’s authors noted that such projects carry great political appeal, since using tax credits to support redevelopment and urban revitalization—in this case, supporting the arts—is far less divisive than building new housing for poor black and Latino families.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity, which published the artist housing report, says teacher housing feels an awful lot like artist housing. (In fact, California’s new teacher housing law was passed precisely to legislate the same kind of statutory exemption that Congress carved out for artists in 2008.)

Orfield also notes the lucrative opportunities these projects offer developers, who often struggle to use affordable housing tax credits in more affluent communities. The prospects for LIHTC construction in suburban areas become much more favorable if the developments would go towards housing middle-class public school teachers, who are disproportionately white.

“If you build housing in whiter, suburban neighborhoods, those projects would be worth more to the developer, they would appreciate faster, and there also would be more incentives for developers to turn the units into market-rate rentals as fast as they can,” says Orfield. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build higher-value housing, but what you should do is build true affordable housing for low-income people, instead of taking a political short cut by making it only for teachers.”

The teacher housing idea is already spreading to other states, including areas that do not face acute struggles to afford housing. In Baltimore, where some teacher housing developments recently cropped up, developers say they built it not because affordable housing was hard to find, but because they wanted to reward educators with “Class-A apartments.” In Newark, developers touted the urban revitalization potential of teacher housing. Others say teacher housing will lead to stronger relationships between students and educators, fortifying communities more broadly.

It’s worth noting that while a growing number of researchers have explored how housing instability negatively impacts student achievement, there is no real evidence that says teachers living in the same school district where they work improves public education, student-teacher relationships, or local communities. And as The Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education think tank noted last month, housing incentive programs have never even been studied to determine if they’re effective at recruiting or retaining teachers. (An LA Times investigation found that local teachers earned too much to even qualify for the affordable housing complexes the Los Angeles Unified School District recently built for its educators.) Plus, while research does suggest that teacher turnover negatively affects student learning, plenty of workers take on longer commutes in exchange for higher salaries.

Evidence of a national teacher housing crisis is also thin: A report issued last month by the National Housing Conference found that high school teachers earning median wages could rent a two-bedroom home in 94 percent of the 210 metro areas they studied, and teachers could purchase a median-price home in 62 percent of the metro areas. The report did not even take into account whether the teacher had a second income-earner in their household, suggesting the homeownership statistics are likely much higher.

Rather than carve out exceptions for certain jobs, Dreier says his state must tackle the housing crisis afflicting all middle class Californians, which means building more permanently affordable mixed-income housing, and protecting and preserving the affordable housing that already exists. In an era of tight resources, the public must find ways to prioritize supports for the most disadvantaged families, while also identifying new ways to improve the lives of the middle class. That’s the only real win-win.

 

Q&A: It’s Not the Cost of College — It’s the Price

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 20, 2016.
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This election season Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aimed to galvanize millennial voters by raising the issue of college debt. In a new book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab lays out why college has grown far too expensive, and why our existing systems of aid so often fail to help students manage their financial obligations. In an interview with The American Prospect, Goldrick-Rab discusses her research, her proposals for reform, and why the price of college needs to be at the forefront of affordability conversations.

Rachel Cohen: A prominent theme in your book is that the nature of going to college has changed, but the policy discussions around college have not really changed.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: There’s been a lot of discussion over the last five years about how the students in college are different. The Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and most of the D.C. policy people recognize that what we used to call a “non-traditional student” is now a traditional student—meaning there’s recognition that college students are now older, more racially diverse, more likely to be a first generation student, more likely to have children, and so on.

So there’s been a lot of talk about that, but as I’ve listened, it’s become very clear to me that these people don’t realize how paying for college has changed. In other words, they recognize that the students are different, but they seem to assume that the same sorts of strategies to pay for college that they were used to 10 or 15 years ago work today.

How are things different?

There’s been a lot of change in a very short period of time. First of all, one of the biggest changes is that families are not getting ahead. Prices are rising and people’s incomes are not keeping pace. And at the same time, college feels less optional than it once did.

Prices have notably risen very dramatically in the public sector, including at community colleges. Community college was supposed to be the one place you could go if everything else was unaffordable.

Another shift has to do with work—it is increasingly difficult to find stable, part-time employment, and this really complicates the ability to match work with school.

And then lastly, there used to be more supports for low-income people who wanted to go to college. Those systems have been dramatically changed since welfare reform, which added work requirements, and made it much harder for people to go to college if they’re on cash assistance, or receiving food stamps.

You say there’s too much focus on the “cost” of college and that really we should be focusing on the price. What do you mean?

The cost is what it actually takes to deliver the education. The price is what the institution charges. The price is going up because states are now putting in less money on a per-student basis. We need to understand that the reason that the price is going up is not because the cost of education is rising quickly, but because the government has stopped putting in their share, which forces tuition in the public sector to increase.

You describe how the longer it takes someone to get their college degree, the less likely it is they will finish. So if students have to switch from being a full-time student to being a part-time one in order to manage school and work, they actually decrease their odds of degree completion. Why is it not slow and steady wins the race?

Part of it is because there’s a momentum issue. If you’re trying to learn, it’s very helpful to do it continuously and to focus. It’s very hard to split your attention, and if you’re a part-time student, and you’re working, and you have a family, and you’re probably doing all kinds of other things—to carry on all those roles, for a long, really extended period of time, is hard. Eventually something gives.

Here’s the thing though. The idea that it’s best to go to college full-time has also led to a movement that I strongly disagree with. Now people are telling kids that they should take 15 credits a term, not just 12 [which represents a full-time class load], so that they can finish faster. But that’s hardly realistic unless we make it so that students can really focus. There have been really awful changes to financial aid policy to push people to go faster. The broad assumption is that students just don’t know they should go faster. I find that offensive, and without empirical basis.

More so than just affordability, your book spoke to the importance of public higher education institutions. You raised a lot of questions and concerns about the subsidies the government funnels to private institutions, especially as public colleges grow more expensive, and struggle to stay afloat.

I don’t have many colleagues, if any, who have been speaking about this and I really don’t get it. I don’t get what’s so terrifying about questioning the distribution of sizeable taxable resources to private education. We subsidize private colleges and universities in many ways, and one is through the tax code, and the other is through federal student aid. We have a voucher system in higher education—Milton Friedman liked this thing. This was all about choice, and the theory that the only colleges that would exist were those that provided a good quality service at a good price to the so-called consumer. And the federal aid system would facilitate that choosing. I think it’s sort of laughable that people thought this would work, and that this system would put low-income people in a position where they could somehow exact accountability from powerful institutions.

I don’t know how that was even going to happen, but I think there’s also this question of change over time. I think initially there was a capacity issue. We didn’t have enough public colleges and universities. But now we’ve got plenty of public seats, and I think most of our private institutions are drawing away resources that should go to the public sector.

I’ll add that there is a class of private colleges that exist to serve the most vulnerable—one of them is religious schools, one of them is for our students of color, like HBCUs, and one is tribal schools. Those institutions are a very different category of private schools, and I think we could easily carve out another category for them to continue receiving federal aid, or make them state-supported in some fashion. I think it’s legitimate to say we don’t have a public alternative for those schools.

You’ve done a lot to draw attention to the for-profit college sector. Some defenders say these are the only institutions that will educate poor black and Latino students. How do you respond to that?

That’s nonsense. Any opportunity at a for-profit is available at a community college with sufficient resources. Now, many community colleges are underfunded so they can’t provide night classes, which are what many low-income students want to take. But if community colleges are funded appropriately, then they almost always expand their course offerings to the evening. The University of Phoenix, [a for-profit], invests all these dollars into advertising, but community colleges don’t spend their limited resources on advertising.

This past summer, when Chris Christie came out with a proposal to divert public funds away from New Jersey’s poor urban schools towards wealthier suburban schools, the public was outraged. Yet as you discuss in your book, this happens regularly in higher education, and we don’t have the same sorts of reactions. We don’t direct more resources to higher education institutions serving the most needy students, or even really talk about how we should be doing so.

Yes, the process is quite opaque. Even when people talk about declining investments in higher education, the discussion is never about the breakout in types of institutions, which means people aren’t really asking the right questions. I think there really are big tensions because people assume that higher education is not like K-12, and if there are inequities existing in the system, then it has to do with people’s personal failings. But it’s really a systematic underinvestment in institutions like the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

And then look at the Community College of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. Why should UPenn be getting federal student aid with the endowment it has, when the Community College of Philadelphia sits there without the resources it needs?

You’ve done research to show that many college students are going hungry, lacking the resources to afford food. You’ve proposed creating a subsidized meal program for college students, just like we have in K-12 public education.

Yes, and this idea has gained some traction. Most people don’t seem to realize that people end up hungry in college, and once I proved that and started to explain the types of fixes out there—well, I’ve heard from folks who disagree with me on 90 percent of things I say, yet call my proposals to curb college hunger “common sense.” And this gives me a little hope that maybe under a Clinton presidency we could get this one done.