GOP-Led Efforts to Crush Unions Have a New Target: Home Health Care Workers

Originally published in The Intercept on May 16, 2019.

Five states are pushing back against the latest Republican-led assault to weaken unions across the country, which targets in-home caregivers who work with Medicaid beneficiaries.

On Monday, attorneys general representing California, Connecticut, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging a new rule, announced earlier this month, that impedes home care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded paychecks. The rule, which goes into effect in July, will impact more than half a million workers in California alone, and several hundred thousand more in 10 other states.

The case was brought against the Department of Health and Human Services and its secretary, Alex Azar, and filed in San Francisco federal court. The plaintiffs argue that the defendants have illegally reinterpreted federal law “in service of anti-union objectives.” The new rule, they say, disrupts long-settled arrangements that allow seniors and individuals with disabilities — who work with state governments to set wages, benefits, and terms of service for their providers — to direct their own health care. More than 700,000 individuals across the five plaintiff states currently use consumer-directed Medicaid programs.

The lawsuit against the Trump administration rule, which was finalized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, comes the same week as two major developments for home care workers in the United States. In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the nation’s first publicly funded long-term care benefit, a hard-fought victory by advocates including SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 home care workers in Washington and Montana. National advocates say they will use Washington’s policy as a model to push for in other states.

Also this week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to review a case led by a group of Minnesota home care workers who argued that a state law that made Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, their bargaining agent violated their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs pointed to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the 2018 case struck down public sector unions charging fees to non-dues paying workers. The same conservative legal groups that supported Janus also helped the Minnesota home care providers, though this time their efforts failed.

While the high court’s ruling marks a setback to conservatives seeking to leverage free speech laws against union power, there are still dozensof other Janus-inspired lawsuits winding their way through federal courts, with two more lawsuits filedin the last month. This week’s lawsuit against HHS is the opposite of that — a proactive effort to get the courts to defend the rights of unionized workers.

The plaintiffs argue that HHS and Azar have violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the law governing how federal agencies can propose and implement regulation. Their complaint says the new rule “abruptly and without any sound rationale or conversations with affected states” overturns an Obama-era rule that confirmed the practice of taking direct deductions from home care workers’ paychecks. The Trump administration has been repeatedly accused of violating the APA, issuing new rules and mandates, and repealing old ones, often outside the bounds of established protocol.

“With this rule, the Trump administration is not only harming Medicaid skilled home care workers who have joined unions, but the millions of seniors and people with disabilities who depend on these indispensable workers,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement.

SEIU, which represents most home care workers, released a statement calling the rule “racist” — noting that 90 percent of home care workers are women, more than half are women of color, and a quarter are immigrants. “The administration’s attempt to silence home care workers reflects a long history in the United States of double-standard policies that deny working people of color like home care workers and domestic workers basic legal protections and rights, including protections for minimum wage and overtime pay, and the right to organize and form strong unions,” the union said. Without a union, SEIU added, independent home care workers earn a median wage of just $10.49 an hour, with no paid sick time or health care benefits.

The federal Bureau for Labor Statistics projects that demand for home care workers will increase by 41 percent between 2016 and 2026, as the baby-boom generation continues to get older. Union membership gives home care workers an incentive to stay on the job, according to a 2017 survey by the National Employment Law Project of more than 3,000 home care workers, of which one-third were union members. The researchers found that unionized respondents were more likely to expect to be a home care worker a year from now, less likely to be looking for other jobs outside of home care, more likely to receive benefits, and had higher wages on average.

The Trump administration announced last August that it was considering scrapping the Obama-era rule that affirmed home care workers could deduct union dues from their Medicaid-funded paychecks. This practice has been criticized by conservatives who argue that in-home caregivers shouldn’t be able to “skim” government funds away to union coffers and that doing so “damages the integrity” of the Medicaid program.

Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which files lawsuits in favor of banning unionized workplaces from requiring dues for bargaining representation, praised the Trump administration’s new rule in a statement, calling it a “long-overdue rule [that] closes the illegal loophole created by the Obama Administration that has provided union officials with legal cover to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds into union political and lobbying activities.”

In 2014, thanks to a lawsuit backed by Mix’s group, the U.S Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that Illinois home care workers could not be required to pay union agency fees. Mix said the Trump administration’s new rule represents “another important step forward in protecting the rights of home care worker from rapacious union officials” and pointed to the 2014 Supreme Court decision, describing it as a situation where “[National Right to Work] Foundation attorneys freed homecare workers” from making payments.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma has denied their new rule is about making it harder for workers to be in unions; she said it’s simply to ensure that any diversion of Medicaid payments is truly lawful.

Last April, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs — which is tasked with investigating “the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness” of all government agencies — wrote to Verma requesting that she look into this alleged “dues skimming” and cited rising Medicaid costs. The letter, authored by committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said allowing unions to take dues from home health care providers saps $200 million annually from Medicaid recipient care. Johnson asked CMS to review the practice “and determine whether changes to law or regulation are necessary to ensure Medicaid funds are provided to the program’s intended beneficiaries.”

“The effect of this final rule is the elimination of one method of getting payment from A to B,” the final rule states. “It in no way prevents healthcare workers from purchasing health insurance, enrolling in trainings, or paying dues to a union or other association.”

Critics say the Trump administration’s rationale makes no sense, pointing out that eliminating the ability to directly deduct union dues does nothing to curb Medicaid spending.

Caitlin Connolly, the director of social insurance at the National Employment Law Project, a union-backed legal advocacy group, told The Intercept the argument put forward by the Trump administration and its Republican allies is misleading because the money spent on dues is taken from workers’ wages, who get to decide how to spend the money that they earn.

“When I look at my paycheck, I get my wages and I decide, thanks to the convenience of my right as an employee, to allocate some of that money to a retirement account, some to a health savings account, and some to my union dues,” she said. ‘It’s my money, and I get to choose how to spend it. Just because the source of these workers’ wages is Medicaid dollars doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to choose how to spend it.”

And since workers are still able to take their wages and spend it on union dues, just without the convenience of direct paycheck deduction, Connolly said this shows the point is to create more hurdles for workers to jump through to exercise their union rights.

“I think there are locals working with members to see how they can handle dues payments in a way that would reduce the burden if direct deposit were restricted, and I think workers are sharing with them ideas on what would be helpful, but there’s nothing easier than saying, ‘I don’t have to think about this, I agree to this, and please take care of it,’” Connolly said.


Sunrise Movement Calls for Mass Climate Demonstration Outside Democratic Debate in Detroit

Originally published in The Intercept on May 13,  2019.

On Monday night, at the final stop on the Sunrise Movement’s “Road to a Green New Deal” tour across the United States, the group called for a mass youth-led mobilization to pressure Democratic candidates to make the 2020 election a referendum on climate change. On July 30, the scheduled date for the the second Democratic presidential debate, Sunrise hopes to bring tens of thousands of young people to Detroit to present all the Democratic contenders with three demands:

  • Sign the no fossil fuel money pledge.
  • Commit to making the Green New Deal a day one priority if elected president.
  • Pledge support for a presidential debate on climate change so voters can hear where candidates stand on the issues.

Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash called it the “largest action our movement has organized to date for the Green New Deal.” Monday night’s event came exactly six months since Sunrise activists staged a protest in the office of soon-to-be-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had yet to be sworn in to Congress.

Some 1,500 people turned up for the sold-out event in the Cramton Auditorium at Howard University to hear Ocasio-Cortez, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, policy writer Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and Intercept columnist Naomi Klein, among others. The event came just one week after a landmark UN report concluded that at least a million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, and just days after carbon dioxide levels were recorded at the highest levels ever in human history.

“I wish as a public servant I could tell you everything is going to be alright,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who served as the final speaker of the evening. “But I can’t tell you that today, because I’m not interested in lying to you…frankly there is no reason for us to be comfortable right now.”

Activists at Monday night’s event were nonetheless hopeful and spoke unapologetically about the need to center frontline and vulnerable communities in the policymaking process. While none said his name outright, multiple speakers blasted taking a “middle ground” approach to climate change, a reference to Joe Biden, who reportedly told Reuters last week that he sought a “middle ground” approach on global warming.

Ocasio-Cortez ripped “conservatives on both sides of the aisle,” drawing laughs and applause from the crowd skeptical of Democratic intransigence on the Green New Deal. “No middle ground!” a man shouted, drawing agreement from Ocasio-Cortez.

“I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try and come back today and say we need a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That is too much for me.”

At a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday Biden defended his record on climate and said he’d be releasing a detailed climate plan by the end of the month.

Activists say they’re ready to mobilize voters to show politicians there’s strong demand for taking bold action on climate. Recent surveys have shown that climate change is a top voter priority for Democrats, and other recent surveys have revealed increased climate change alarm among voters. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University reported that nearly three quarters of Americans said they grasped that global warming was happening, a jump of more than 10 percentage points from 2015.

While activists are now calling for a full presidential debate dedicated to climate change, in 2016, there were no questions dedicated to climate during the general election presidential debates at all, and in the primary the discussion was limited to fracking policy.

“I think we have talked about climate change more in the first two months of 2019 than in the last two presidential races combined,” said Prakash at the end.

Another speaker Monday night was Jeremiah Lowery, a D.C. native, the chair of DC for Democracy, and a board member for the DC chapter of the Sierra Club. He told The Intercept that the energy from the national Green New Deal “did trickle down and inspire [local] DC organizations and advocates” to push for a 100 percent clean energy bill, landmark legislation which the DC City Council passed in December.

Some D.C. advocates are also now in discussions about pushing for the establishment of “an expansive green jobs program for unemployed residents,” Lowery said, adding that the Green New Deal has also “done wonders”  to mobilize local youth into the climate fight. “I’ve seen so many youth,” he said, “who are organizing, locally and nationally for the first time.”

What People in Kentucky Coal Country Really Think About a Green New Deal

Originally published in In These Times on May 9, 2019.
In late March, Republican Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky—a member of the Congressional Coal Caucus—invited Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to come to his state to talk with coal miners about what her proposed Green New Deal  “would mean for their families, their paychecks.” The invitation came after Ocasio-Cortez spoke passionately in Congress against the idea that aggressively tackling climate change is something that matters only to rich, coastal elites.

Ocasio-Cortez readily embraced Barr’s invitation to visit Appalachia, but a couple weeks later, when she criticized another Republican congressman, Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw from Texas, for his condemnation of Rep. Ilhan Omar—Barr demanded Ocasio-Cortez apologize to his colleague before visiting. The public drama continued to escalate, with Ocasio-Cortez saying the GOP is clearly “getting scared” of her coming to Kentucky, where constituents “will realize I’m fighting harder for their healthcare than their own Reps.

While some in Kentucky chuckled over the fact that Barr’s legislative district doesn’t actually have any coal mines, activists nonetheless say they understand that any successful Green New Deal will require engaging those most directly affected by the energy transition, like those living in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Forty-four-year-old Scott Shoupe offers a model of what’s possible. Shoupe spent 22 years working as an underground coal miner in eastern Kentucky, and finally left the industry last April. He has black lung, two ruptured vertebrae and other health problems. Feeling generally burnt out, Shoupe said he knew the coal industry was headed for an irreversible decline, yet he didn’t know what he could do instead. (The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects coal production will decline through 2040 in Central Appalachia.)

Shoupe eventually enrolled in a six-month job retraining internship, sponsored by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a local nonprofit. Interns are paid hourly wages and health benefits while earning credentials for a wide range of energy efficiency skills, like solar paneling and weatherization. After graduating from the internship program, Shoupe started his own consulting business, where he now works on energy efficiency and renewables for commercial and residential clients. He says that while he took a pay cut to participate in the internship, he thinks by the end of his first year of business he’ll be earning more money than he did when he worked as a miner.

One challenge, Shoupe said, is convincing other members of his community that coal—long understood as a boom-and-bust industry—is really not coming back. The political influence of the coal industry remains strong, and “you’ve got a lot of people in this area who really truly think President Donald Trump is going to bring coal jobs back,” he said. Since Trump took office, Kentucky has lost more coal jobs.

While Shoupe feels optimistic that other coal miners could go through the type of retraining program he did, he warns that a major challenge will be persuading miners to sacrifice their high earning potential. Ocasio-Cortez has said it’s her priority to make sure that miners’ pensions remain fully-funded, and she has co-sponsored a bill to prevent miners’ healthcare and pension benefits from being lost as a result of company bankruptcy. But Shoupe says workers could still expect to see a cut in wages in their new jobs.

“It’s really tough because with coal, an 18 year old out of high school could earn $60,000 or $70,000 their first year on the job,” he said. “That’s one thing people overlook when they talk about a just transition, and I don’t know the answer to it. Many people with college degrees can’t even find that type of work.”

Another challenge is convincing non-coal miners who rely on the coal industry to support bold climate legislation. While advocates for the Green New Deal support a “job guarantee” as a path for economic prosperity, details on what that would mean in practice remain scant. John Quintrell, a general manager of JRL Coal in Harlan County, told the local CBS-affiliated television station that without coal in the region, other local businesses might disappear. “Everything from the biscuits the guys buy in the morning, to the groceries, to the local hardware stores, the car dealerships, everything is based around coal,” he said.

While focusing on the future employment of miners makes sense and carries clear political logic, others say that prioritizing those who already earn decent livings risks missing the fact that most of the state has long been shut out of good economic opportunity.

Tom Sexton, a 33-year-old Sierra Club organizer and co-host of the leftist Kentucky podcast, Trillbilly Worker’s Party, reflects on how politicians and the media characterize coal miners in his state. “I grew up in a single-parent household. My mom never made more than $13 an hour and she retired last year,” he said. “We always looked at coal miners’ kids as the rich kids, and now the indigent miner has become an archetype and it’s so weird to contextualize that with how I grew up, and just the working poor in Kentucky in general.”

Sexton expects a Green New Deal to be a bigger political undertaking than its supporters have suggested. “I’m not saying that to be a stick in the mud,” he explained. “I just think we need to know what we’re getting into.”

Kentucky has been trending right in recent years, and Republicans have had full control over the state’s government since 2016. In 2017, state lawmakers approvedright-to-work legislation, and as of last year, for the first time since the Civil War, Democrats no longer make up the majority of registered Kentucky voters. There are also no active union-run coal mines left the state.

But Sexton notes support for ambitious federal initiatives like the New Deal has precedent in his state. “FDR was just a peg or two under Jesus Christ here,” he jokes. “You still hear that from people in their 80s who are still very much tied to the Democratic Party of yesterday, including my family.” And the GOP’s dominance in Frankfurt is still a relatively new phenomenon. Before Republicans seized control of the state House in 2016, Democrats had controlled the chamber for the preceding 95 years.

“I guess what I don’t want to see happen in the Green New Deal is we just get a greener capitalism,” Sexton said. “And I understand that you build bridges to get to the ideal world that you want to live in, but there are so many things we need to restructure and it just doesn’t seem like politicians are thinking about this in a very revolutionary sense.”

While Republican legislators in Kentucky remain skeptical about the Green New Deal, and aggressively tackling climate change in general, other residents across the state have said they will not wait around for their sluggish politicians to act.

In 2017, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a statewide community organization, released its “Empower Kentucky” plan for transitioning to a clean energy economy and implementing a just transition by 2032. The plan was developed over two years of concerted grassroots outreach, where leaders engaged over 1,200 residents to help determine the plan’s 15-year goals. Among other things, the plan calls for reducing electricity demand by 17 percent, generating a quarter of Kentucky’s electricity from renewable sources, distributing 18 percent of energy-saving benefits to low-income households, and implementing a $1 carbon tax that would then help coal mining communities and residents transition to new jobs.

“In the absence of responsible public leadership or any effort to develop a state plan,” the report states, “Kentuckians For The Commonwealth stepped up to take on the task.”

On Saturday, as part of their “Road to a Green New Deal Tour,” the youth-led Sunrise movement is sponsoring an event in Frankfurt, with the backing of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth and SEIU 32BJ. Scott Shoupe will be telling his story at the event, too.

“I think a lot of people can do what I did,” Shoupe says of his career shift. “I think anyone [who] truly wants to can do it, it just takes a little initiative and drive. Everything in life isn’t easy, but—yeah man—anyone could do it.”


After a Black Cop Was Convicted Of Killing a White Woman, Minnesota Activists Say Focus Should Be Police Reform

Originally published in The Intercept on May 2, 2019.

ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, outside the Hennepin County government building in downtown Minneapolis, a few dozen community activists gathered in the cold to process the rare and polarizing conviction of Mohamed Noor, a Somali American and former police officer. A day earlier, a Hennepin County jury found 33-year-old Noor guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called the police to report a possible sexual assault in her neighborhood in the summer of 2017. Noor shot and killed her, and at trial, he claimed self-defense.

The case has galvanized local activists, some of whom embraced the verdict and others who say that, in a criminal justice system where cops are rarely held accountable for on-duty killings, Noor was unfairly targeted because he is a black man who killed a white woman.

At the rally, Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, said the case was a “scapegoat” against a man of color to fool residents into thinking “the police force is in tact.” Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and local racial justice leader, said Noor’s conviction reveals how the court system treats white people differently compared to everyone else.

Family members of other police shooting victims gave speeches, including Kimberly Handy-Jones, a mother who lost her 29-year-old son to St. Paul police in 2017, and Don Amorosi who lost his 16-year-old son to Carver County deputies last summer. Activists held up signs for other local victims of police shootings, like Tycel Nelson, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Minneapolis in 1990, and Philip Quinn, a 30-year-old shot and killed by a St. Paul police officer in 2015.

Noor’s conviction marks the first guilty verdict for a fatal shooting by an on-duty cop in Minnesota in decades — something that brings both relief to advocates who seek greater accountability for police shootings but also anguish, as residents wrestle with the racial realities of the conviction. Meanwhile, in recent police killings of unarmed black men in the Twin Cities, white cops involved were either not charged at all or acquitted of charges. According to data compiled by the Star Tribune, Noor’s case marks the first conviction out of 179 police-involved deaths in Minnesota since 2000.

“There would have been no trial if Noor’s victim was African American or Native American, and I think the vast majority of people in our movement believe that,” said Jess Sundin, an activist with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar; the group is named after 24-year-old Jamar Clark, a black man shot to death by Minneapolis police in 2015 and whose killers faced no criminal charges. “There also would have also been no conviction if it was a white police officer.”

The July 2017 killing led to a number of shuffles within the police department. Following Damond’s death, then-Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges requested the city’s police chief step down, leading to the appointment of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first African American police chief. Noor was fired shortly after being charged in March 2018.

In the wake of the verdict, a broad swath of activists are seeking to build on their multi-year efforts to reform the police and use Damond’s case as a way to highlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system. There has been global interest in the case because Damond was Australian, and the activists are leveraging that attention to make their concerns and demands known to a wider audience.

A GROUP OF Damond’s neighbors, who started organizing under the banner of Justice4Justine shortly after her death, planned the rally with the backing of local groups, including the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar, Black Lives Matter Minnesota, and Communities United Against Police Brutality.

Todd Schuman, an activist with Justice4Justine, told The Intercept they planned the rally because “we’re not afraid to say that in the dozens of other examples where white officers shot black victims, there wasn’t anything close to the level of investigative rigor, anywhere close to the level of media coverage, or a result in a conviction.” Schuman emphasized that his group is “not afraid to name that disparity, and we want to create a space where families of police violence victims who did not receive justice have their opportunity to share their perspective.”

Noor’s guilty verdict has had reverberations throughout Minnesota, galvanizing not only the activists who held the Wednesday rally, but also prompting reactions from elected officials and the local Somali community.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose legislative district includes Minneapolis, released a statement on Wednesday morning calling Noor’s guilty verdict “an important step towards justice and a victory for all who oppose police brutality.” Omar also said it cannot be lost that Noor’s verdict comes in the wake of other acquittals for officers who took the lives of people of color, and called for “the same level of accountability and justice” for all officer-involved killings. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement that the city must come together, and that Minneapolis stands with both the Somali community and the local police. “Wherever a person’s beliefs may part ways with today’s decision, we should find comfort in knowing that not one person in Minneapolis hoped for what transpired that July night,” he said.

Other members of the local Somali community said Noor was wrongfully convicted. Community leader Omar Jamal told local news outlet WCCO that many Somali people had called him to say they feel Noor was innocent. Noor’s cousin, Goth Ali, told the Star Tribune that the decision was “shocking” and that he thought Noor “didn’t get a fair trial.”

The Somali American Police Association, or SAPA, released a statement saying it “believes the institutional prejudices against people of color, including officers of color, have heavily influenced the verdict of this case.” The “aggressive manner” taken by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the group said, “reveals that there were other motives at play other than serving justice.” SAPA, which expressed condolences to Damond’s family, said it fears the “differential treatment” given to minority officers will “have a devastating effect on police morale and make the recruitment of minority officers all the more difficult.”

The incident is reminiscent in some respects to the 2014 killing of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, a black man shot by a Chinese American police officer while in a Brooklyn public housing complex. Gurley’s death came just four months after Eric Garner, another black New Yorker, was killed after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer. In Gurley’s case, NYPD cop Peter Liang was indicted in 2015, a rarity for police-involved killings, and in 2016, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter — another extremely rare outcome. The charges sparked some of the largest Asian American protests in decades, as Liang’s supporters accused prosecutors of scapegoating Liang due to his race. (Two months after Liang’s conviction, a judge reduced the charges, sentencing him to just five years of probation and 800 hours of community service.)

Reached for comment, Minneapolis Police Union President Lt. Bob Kroll said his union “respects the legal process and the findings of the jury.” He said this has been an “extremely unfortunate situation for all involved” and that his union sends condolences to Ruszczyk’s family, and that “our thoughts are with former Officer Noor.” At the rally on Wednesday evening, activists said Kroll threw Noor under the bus by firing him and only nominally speaking up in support of him; they argued the union would have more vigorously defended a white officer. Justice4Justine criticized the police union’s statement on the verdict as “empty and vapid.”

The Minneapolis Police Department did not return request for comment, but Arradondo, the chief of police, released a statement on Tuesday to say he “respect[s] the verdict rendered” and will “ensure that the MPD learns from this case and we will be in spaces to listen, learn and do all we can to help our communities in healing.” Through collaboration and partnerships, he added, “I am hopeful that we will strengthen our community wellness and safety.”

WHEN JUSTICE4JUSTINE FIRST formed, neighbors focused primarily on supporting Justine’s grieving fiancé, Don Damond, and the Ruszczyk family, who are based in Australia. Over time, according to Schuman, the group began shifting their energies toward police reform and police violence more broadly.

“We have a lot of mixed feelings,” Schuman said of the verdict. “We said from almost day one that for us, this is more than just one trial and one verdict, and while we wanted a conviction, in this case, the real justice that we’re looking for is a comprehensive reform of the police. Our commitment is to a justice system where what Justine got is what everyone gets.”

One of the concrete policy changes racial justice organizations in the Twin Cities have pushed for is ending so-called “warrior-style” police trainings, which activists describe as a fear-based approach that encourages cops to believe they are always under threat. Last May, about four dozen people staged a protest outside the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to call for the mall to stop sponsoring the trainings and for local police departments to stop using them.

Last month, in a victory for activists, Frey, the Minneapolis mayor, announced that the city’s police officers will no longer be allowed to use the warrior-style training. “Chief Medaria Arradondo’s police department rests on trust, accountability, and professional service,” the mayor said in his recent State of the City address. “Whereas fear-based, warrior-style trainings like ‘killology’ are in direct conflict with everything that our chief and I stand for in our police department. Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing.”

Sundin of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar told The Intercept that her group remains focused on prosecution for Jamar’s killers, hoping to see the case reopened. Sundin said her group is also focused on getting community control over the police through an elected board of community representatives. “Our experience has been that the mayor and the city council—both those presently in office and those before—have been unwilling to fire abusive police officers, and we want that to change,” she said. “We think the community has every right to decide who policies our communities and how.” Community control would go beyond just disciplining officers when something goes wrong, Sundin explained, and would also include “writing the rule book” for police officers and negotiating contracts.

When asked to reflect on how things have evolved since 2015, Sundin said she thinks there is a greater recognition of police brutality among residents of the Twin Cities and a deeper understanding from the media to not “parrot the police’s story without looking into it first.”

Sundin also says the Minneapolis police chief being asked to resign following Damond’s death marked a significant development, because a police chief “had never before been held accountable for the police killings that happen under their watch.” Arradondo replaced Janeé Harteau, who stepped down in July 2017.

The last difference, Sundin said, is that she thinks there’s a much greater awareness surrounding the “shoddy investigation work” conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state agency that helps law enforcement agencies prevent and solve crimes. In December 2017, a video surfaced of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman telling a group of union members that the BCA was doing a poor job of collecting evidence that could lead to charges against Noor. While Freeman later apologized for his remarks and said he didn’t know he was being recorded, he also extended the time for the BCA investigation, something Sundin says has never happened before.

“Every family we’ve ever talked to has had the experience of the BCA botching investigations, but in Justine’s case, it came to light because Mr. Freeman was caught on tape criticizing the BCA for its bad investigatory work,” Sundin said. During the trial, which was held in April, prosecutors also criticized the BCA for its initial handling of the investigation, citing things like waiting three days to interview the only witness and refusing to investigate the source of the screaming that prompted Damond to call the police in the first place. On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that his office was looking into the allegations surrounding the BCA’s investigation.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesperson for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, told The Intercept his office is not taking individual interviews on the case until Noor is sentenced on June 7. At a press conference after the trial, though, when Freeman was asked about the allegations that he worked harder to charge a black officer who killed a white woman, Freeman denied that he would have behaved differently in the case of a black person shot by a white cop. “Race has never been a factor in making any decision and never will be,” Freeman said. “We have charged white cops with crimes, and we will again.”

Can start-up companies profit off one of the lowest paid professions: home-based child care?

Originally published in The Hechinger Report on May 2, 2019.

SAN FRANCISCO — Meredith Bunyard, 34, always knew she wanted to run her own preschool. The San Francisco resident graduated from nearby Mills College in May 2018 with a master’s degree in early childhood education, and today she is getting her dream off the ground with the help of a new child care services company called Wonderschool.

Wonderschool is one of a recent crop of child care startups that aim to make it easier to open and operate home child care businesses and easier for parents to find those businesses once they launch. The idea is to assist child care providers with their bookkeeping, licensing, marketing and curriculum offerings, all generally for a 10 percent cut of the revenue. All Wonderschool providers sign a two-year contract; those who opt not to renew their contract still owe Wonderschool a year’s worth of fees for each child the company helped them recruit.

The companies’ pitch to potential home-based child care providers? Avoid high real estate costs of running a preschool center by doing it in your home. We’ll help you with the business and marketing side of things and show you how to write off nearly all your business expenses. And we’ll help you seamlessly fill your open slots with new children.

It’s not yet clear this model will work, as none of the companies championing it are more than a few years old. Moreover, child care is a low-revenue business with tight profit margins, which raises the question of whether these businesses can really make money while helping providers earn more.

The median annual salary for a child care worker in 2018 was just $23,240, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wonderschool’s CEO, Chris Bennett, said recently that he believes his company can help the owners of home-based child care programs earn $120,000 a year. That would be a more than five-fold increase to the median.

Bennett is gambling that by offering providers business support, his company can make home-based child care more financially sustainable and attractive to owners, thereby creating more viable child care options for parents.

“We just want to provide so much value for you that you’re just like, ‘Why would I ever switch?’” said Bennett of his approach to convincing child care providers to use Wonderschool.

And if supply goes up because more people are willing and able to run successful home-based child care programs, he bets the cost of care will eventually come down.

“There’s a huge child care shortage, which is a big reason why we started this company in the first place,” he said.

Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

Wonderschool is “counting on the fact that you’re ignorant and not connected to anyone,” said Pat Sullivan, board president of the Family Child Care Association of San Francisco which offers support to local providers and advocates for their interests. “Most providers in California are low-income,” Sullivan said. “We are the lowest paid part of the teacher workforce, so for us to pay 10 percent of our income for something we could get virtually for free is absolutely not a good idea.”

Sullivan is also doubtful start-ups like Wonderschool will bring down the cost of child care, as the two biggest cost drivers — wages and real estate — will continue to go up.

Whether or not the model works will be proven by providers who, like Bunyard, are among the first to take these companies up on their offers of help in exchange for a cut of earnings.

Back at Bunyard’s sunny apartment in the affluent Alamo Square neighborhood of San Francisco, students arrive each day, ready to play with the blocks, books and other toys she has stocked in cubbies lining the walls.

Bunyard has five students now, who come on a staggered schedule so that there are never more than four in her apartment at a time. Her website lists prices ranging from $1,320 per month to $2,400 per month. She’s already taking home about $6,000 a month after paying all of her expenses, except rent, which she splits with her long-term boyfriend. If those numbers stay consistent, she’ll earn $70,000 per year.

Bunyard would like to grow her business slowly and plans to serve six kids a day, the maximum her license allows, by the summer. Even though she could legally watch six children by herself, Bunyard plans to hire a co-teacher to help her out. While her business income may increase a bit when she starts serving six children, she said most of the additional tuition dollars will go toward her co-teacher’s salary.

Bunyard first learned of Wonderschool through a Craigslist ad.

“I found them in June, and they were like, ‘We can have you up and running by August,’” she said. Bunyard credits Wonderschool with helping her build a website, take professional photographs, create a Yelp listing, and price her services, among other start-up tasks. “The idea of running the business was overwhelming for me and Wonderschool was very open to all the kinds of questions that I had,” she explained.

Bunyard can connect with Wonderschool staff and other providers on Slack, an online chat app, and has access to virtual professional development opportunities. There are also social gatherings for providers in San Francisco, as well as in-person meetings with a Wonderschool advisor.

“Teachers are very secluded. I’m by myself all day working with children,” Bunyard said. Wonderschool is “not just a business; they’re creating a community of teachers and schools.”

Wonderschool has captured the enthusiasm of Silicon Valley investors as well, raising over $24 million in its first two years. Most of that cash — $20 million — came from Andreessen Horowitz, the influential venture capitalist firm co-founded by Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape and an early investor in tech successes including Skype, Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb.

In 2018, Wonderschool reported it had 140 child care businesses spread across San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, with program directors earning an average of $78,000 a year. But by 2019, Wonderschool would share neither how many businesses it works with nor its child care directors’ average salary. “It’s just like, private information,” said Bennett in response to The Hechinger Report’s request for updated data.

Another new company proposing to help home-based providers run better businesses is WeeCare, which launched in Los Angeles in 2017. Its leaders are already eyeing expansion to cities in other states, said co-founder Jessica Chang. “Earn up to $100,000/year doing what you love,” their marketing materials say.

Providers who sign up for WeeCare get access to a curriculum developed in-house, and are encouraged to use it. Those that do are ranked higher on WeeCare’s app. WeeCare also offers help with business tasks including licensing and billing and, like Wonderschool, offers mentorship and the chance to be part of a community of providers.

WeeCare hopes to open a million home-based child care locations over the next decade. To meet that goal they’d have to launch 100,000 new businesses per year from now until 2029. As of February, the start-up had about 150 providers signed up for its services.

Chang said her company seeks to serve lower-income families, but both WeeCare and Wonderschool have so far primarily reached higher-end markets. As of December 2018, only 12 percent of Wonderschool families paid for child care with government vouchers, which are regulated by states and are usually only available to families making less than the state median income. Approximately 30 percent of WeeCare families pay with vouchers. Both startups said they are working on initiatives to increase the number of providers who serve low-income families.

In the Mountain West, a company called MyVillage is offering yet another version of the new business model. MyVillage offers providers assistance setting up and running their businesses, a suite of curricula to choose from, discounts on supplies, access to specialized bookkeeping software and up to two years of intensive mentorship with a local provider, said co-founder Erica Mackey. Her goal is to help providers run a business that works as an “average American family solution” to child care by keeping the cost affordable for families.

Right now, there are roughly 20 MyVillage preschools scattered across Colorado and Montana charging an average monthly price of $900 for full-time child care. Mackey said she’d like MyVillage to sign up over 100,000 new providers in the next 10 years. That would be an average of 10,000 new providers per year. For context, Colorado currently has 5,034 licensed child care facilities, according to that state’s data. Montana has fewer. Mackey said her company’s expansion plan includes the rest of the country.

“We see this as a nationwide thing — rural, urban, suburban areas, with everything from high-end suburban homes to double-wide trailers,” she said.

Currently, home-based child care can be found in all of those settings. Families often choose home-based care because it is less expensive than center-based care. Year-round, full-time infant care in a center-based program costs more than 10 percent of a couple’s median income in 43 states and the District of Columbia, according to Child Care Aware, a nonprofit advocating for affordable and accessible child care. Costs are similarly high for 4-year-olds, for whom center-based tuition costs more than 10 percent of median income in 24 states.

Home-based child care is also far less regulated than center-based care. In 24 states, for instance, there is no minimum education requirement at all for opening a home-based child care, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. Despite the lack of requirements, low wages, among other factors, led to a sharp decline in the number of home-based child care providers between 2010 and 2016, according to the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board, a public policy think tank.

The goal for Wonderschool, WeeCare and MyVillage, their leaders said, is to help existing providers make more money and to convince potential new providers the business is worth giving a shot. All three companies also offer curricular materials in the hope of helping providers improve the quality of their programs.

Yet another new child care services start-up, Pie for Providers, focuses exclusively on business management tools, not curriculum. Clients get access to the Pie for Providers app, which can be used on a computer or a phone, to help them collect payments, track expenses and stay on top of licensing deadlines and regulations. They can also sign up for text-message reminders to keep them on track. And, unlike Wonderschool, WeeCare and MyVillage, the business primarily targets child care providers working with low-income families who pay for child care with government subsidies.

According to Pie for Providers co-founder Chelsea Sprayregen, as of March, 82 child care providers were using the service. While Sprayregen and her team originally envisioned charging home child care workers a cut of their revenue, like WeeCare and Wonderschool, they’ve since changed course. In 2019, they decided to make their services free to providers who work with up to 20 children, while charging larger child care centers. They also plan to sell data on items like how often providers are paid on time, or how many days it takes for government reimbursement checks to come through to unions, government agencies, consulting firms and other large organizations. Sprayregen said they realized they could not expand quickly enough selling to individual home-based providers in such a fragmented market and so switched their revenue model to focus on bigger players.

Related: Few preschool apps are developmentally appropriate, report finds

While all these new startups have vast ambitions for national growth — it remains to be seen how long providers will stick with them once they get the hang of running their own businesses.

Some longtime child care providers doubt the relationship will last. Family Child Care Association’s Sullivan has run her own home preschool in San Francisco since 1992. She thinks startups like Wonderschool exploit the anxieties of new providers who aren’t familiar with the business ins-and-outs.

“I think it’s predatory,” she said. “Especially when they talk about helping someone get licensed. That’s really a much more simple process than people realize.”

Sullivan said the idea of paying Wonderschool upwards of $14,000 for business assistance each year, about what she calculates she would owe, is crazy.

To make her point, she tallied up her annual business costs: $9 for a website, $400 for an accountant, $300 for HiMama, an app that helps providers communicate with parents and manage administrative tasks like billing, and about $2,000 for insurance. She said she also set up her own free account on Yelp. That’s less than $3,000 a year, or less than a quarter of what she’d have to pay Wonderschool.

“I do my own bookkeeping because I only have 10 kids,” Sullivan added. “It takes me like zero time to invoice people and it’s really not a big deal at all.”

Rachele Long, another Wonderschool provider, lives in the wealthy Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco in a house Bennett, Wonderschool’s CEO, found, leased, and now subleases to Long. Her two-year Wonderschool contract includes an agreement to move out within thirty days if she no longer wants to run a home-based child care program in the house. But her contract ends at the end of June and when her lease renews in July, it will be under her name, not Wonderschool’s.

Bennett declined to reveal how many other providers he subleases to.

“It was a test of a ‘pilot program’ of sorts, that if we feel [is] successful, we will plan to share publicly, but are still evaluating it as a scalable offering at this time,” said Kimberly Angell, Wonderschool’s spokesperson.

Long and her two co-teachers care for 12 children, with monthly tuition ranging from $2,121 to $2,365 per child. Long said she earns $65,000 a year in salary and is able to pay her employees between $45,000 and $53,000.

“I am making about 52 percent more now as an owner and director compared to when I was a pre-K teacher in a center-based program,” Long said by text.

Stories like this are part of what makes businesses like Wonderschool exciting to Louise Stoney, a consultant and co-founder of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance, which studies financial models for the child care industry. Stoney thinks these businesses can help providers achieve what she calls the “Iron Triangle” of a successful child care business — full enrollment, collecting payments in full and on time, and having tuition high enough to cover costs.

“Those three things are really hard to do, and it’s harder when you have a personal relationship with the people you serve,” she said.

A 10 percent cut for the companies is reasonable, in Stoney’s view, because she estimates many child care providers leave between 15 to 25 percent of potential revenue on the table by not filling open slots quickly enough, not claiming all the available tax deductions, or other lapses. “I honestly believe that with efficient management, it’s a win-win for everyone,” she said.

All Our Kin, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, has provided free support to family child care providers since 1999, offering guidance on running high-quality businesses. The organization’s co-founder, Jessica Sager, thinks there’s “a lot of potential” for online platforms in early childhood and said solutions that can help providers balance their students’ educational needs with their responsibilities as business owners are a good thing. But she said she worries about providers, especially those who serve low-income families, not being able to afford such services.

“We do know the early child care system is really subsidized on the foregone wages of its workers and we know family child care providers are really making so many financial sacrifices, so we want to understand where these increased profits are going to come from,” said Sager. “I am very nervous about taking dollars away from providers.”

Washington Becomes First State To Approve Publicly-Funded Long-Term Care

Originally published in The Intercept on April 26, 2019.

Washington state lawmakers on Tuesday passed the nation’s first long-term care benefit program, which would provide residents with up to $36,500 to pay for costs like caregiving, wheelchair ramps, meal deliveries, and nursing home fees. Jay Inslee, Democratic governor and 2020 presidential candidate, has said he intends to sign the Long-Term Care Trust Act into law.

The measure is hailed as a monumental achievement not only for Washingtonians, but also for advocates working nationally to tackle the rising and formidable costs of care work and old age, something that’s become only more pressing as the baby boomer generation heads into retirement. The Long-Term Care Trust Act comes on the heels of a novel cash benefit program Hawaii launched in 2017 that distributes $70 a day for up to 365 days to family caregivers. A growing number of states have passed paid sick leave policies over the last five years, and more presidential candidates are elevating the issue of child care and how to afford it. Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s new Medicare for All bill even includes coverage of long-term care, something not currently provided by the federal insurance program.

The ultimate goal, advocates say, is some kind of universal family care, a comprehensive social infrastructure to support all the varied costs of care work from birth to death. “That’s our North Star,” said Sarita Gupta, co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national campaign that launched in 2011. “We have really been trying to help people go from seeing care work as an individual burden to a shared responsibility that we’re all going to face.”

With the Long-Term Care Trust Act, taxpayers expect to save $3.9 billion in state Medicaid costs by 2052. The bill had bipartisan support early on, including three Republican co-sponsors, but it was approved largely along party lines in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Advocates for the bill said that Republicans voted against it for political reasons amid heated budget negotiations, and not because they disagreed with it in substance. Republican Reps. Drew MacEwen and Paul Harris, both original co-sponsors, did not return request for comment.

In some ways, it makes sense that the groundbreaking long-term care legislation would originate in Washington, which has been leading the country in progressive policies. In 2013, the small town of SeaTac, which surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, voted to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour. This marked the first real policy win for the nascent Fight for $15 movement. Seattle would becomethe first major U.S. city to approve a $15 minimum wage a year later. In 2016, voters approved a state ballot measure to raise Washington’s minimum wage and establish a paid sick leave program. The same year, SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 long-term care workers in Washington and Montana, negotiated a home care worker retirement benefit, the first of its kind in the nation.

“We first started talking about long-term care about 10 years ago, because the funding system is really broken and because we’re focused on lifting caregivers out of poverty,” said Sterling Harders, president of SEIU 775, which helped push for the bill. Harders said the union’s work began with commissioning studies, followed by many years of slow coalition-building. “I think it’s easy to forget on days like this when I’m jumping up and down celebrating our victory that we’ve essentially been working on this for the past decade, and intensely for the past three years,” she said. “This is really the end of a long road.”

The bill works like this: Beginning in 2022, workers will pay a modest monthly payroll tax, 58 cents for every $100 they earn in income. The per capita average income in Washington is about $37,000, meaning that the average monthly contribution would be about $18. Those who pay into the program for three years, or for a total of 10 years including five consecutive years, will be able to access the benefit, which, at present, maxes out at $36,500. In 30 years, as it’s indexed for inflation, the benefit will be more than $88,000.

The $36,500 could pay for respite care, in-home caregiving, time in a nursing home or assisted living facility, home modifications like constructing a wheelchair ramp, and other elderly care expenses.

The legislation was first considered by lawmakers in 2018, but at the last minute, the state’s chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, withdrew its support, citing disputes over details like eligibility for qualifying as a caregiver. Members of civil rights, disability, senior, and health care groups who organized under the banner of Washingtonians for a Responsible Future reconvened this year to hash out compromises.

“I think what changed this year is that coalition members just met more and worked more closely to hear each other’s concerns,” said Janet Kim, a spokesperson for Caring Across Generations. “The resulting policy is more comprehensive and flexible than what was considered in 2018.”

Legislators worked on the bill with a few key facts in mind: Caregiving is an increasingly stressful burden for not only seniors, but also for their family members. Nationally, relatives spend an average of 20 percent of their own money on caregiving costs, according to the AARP, and often have to leave their jobs, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and benefits. A 2018 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that approximately two-thirds of adults support a long-term care program like Medicare, including 76 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans.

In addition, legislators grappled with the mounting strain on the state’s budget. Seventy percent of Americans end up needing long-term care after turning 65, and more than 90 percent of people do not have private long-term care insurance. While Medicare does not cover the cost of most long-term care services, many individuals don’t realize this until it’s too late. Medicaid, however, does cover long-term care services, but to access it, individuals have to deplete their assets until they have less than $2,000 in savings, a system that literally incentivizes going into poverty. As Washington’s population gets older, actuaries have projected that the state’s Medicaid-funded long-term care program would almost double to $4.01 billion annually by 2030.

Ruth Egger, A 65-year-old retiree in Seattle and a part-time caregiver for her parents, has advocated for the bill since it was first introduced. Though she and her parents, who are in their 90s, are unlikely to directly benefit from the Long-Term Care Trust Act, she said her personal experience as a caregiver and her professional experience as a social worker motivated her to fight for the legislation. She personally testified in support of the bill last year and this year before the Washington State Legislature.

Egger’s father fell and broke his hip a few years ago, which brought on debilitating depression. “My father temporarily lost the ability to dress himself, and if he had had access to this benefit, he would have been able to pay for an aide to come help him,” she said. “It was exhausting watching him trying to figure out how to get his clothes on, and at that point, it would have been really beneficial if he had access to this extra money.”

Egger also stresses that so-called orphan elders — single seniors, or seniors who never had children or have children who live across the country or abroad — are also in particular need for long-term care assistance. “They get old and they have no support to help them, and they may need someone to come in twice a week and help them bathe or set up their medication,” she explained.

Washington’s benefit could also prove beneficial to the long-term care insurance industry. “Those companies didn’t expect people to live so long and to pay out so much, so fewer companies are writing those [long-term care] plans,” said Egger. Some experts think that the Long-Term Care Trust Act will make the economics of supplemental long-term care insurance plans more feasible, similar to the supplemental private Medicare insurance that 13 million Americans currently pay for. A recent article in Forbes reported that insurance industry officials expressed interest “in developing products” to supplement what Washington state is proposing.

Ultimately, Harders sees the Long-Term Care Trust Act as not just providing a needed economic benefit, but also as one more step toward elevating the field of caregiving, which is largely dominated by unpaid or low-wage women and people of color.

“Caregivers are really members of a larger health care team; they spend hours and hours with the person they’re taking care of, they know when that person has changes in their health condition, when someone is losing weight, when someone gets dizzy, but it’s really a struggle for caregivers to be taken seriously as health care professionals,” Harders said. “That’s part of why this bill is so important for our union because we feel this is a step down the path of making sure caregivers are given the respect they deserve.”

Can Opportunity Zone Tax Breaks Be a Boon for Charter Schools?

Originally published in CityLab on April 23, 2019.

For the fourth consecutive year, the growth of charter schools—publicly funded and privately managed schools that educate nearly 3.2 million students across the country—has slowed. Between 2017 and 2018, charter schools grew nationally by 1 percent, an all-time low for the sector.

Charter industry leaders are debating the exact reasons behind the slowdown. Some say it’s rooted in school districts’ financial woes, which make leaders less inclined to open new schools that could strain budgets further. Others blame shifting political winds—fiercer backlash from charter opponents and less robust support from Democratic officials. But there’s one factor nearly everyone in the charter universe agrees on: Accessing and affording sites for these schools is a huge barrier. Many charters, denied access to public facilities, rent their buildings, opening the door to rent disputes and self-dealing scandals. Finding adequate spaces to open new schools, or to expand to bigger buildings if the charter operator wants to increase its student enrollment, remains an elusive and expensive challenge for charter leaders in virtually every state.

To help slake the movement’s thirst for new facilities, charter supporters have been eyeing a new pot of money with growing interest—Opportunity Zones.

These are low-income, high-poverty regions of the country that, thanks to a provision of the 2017 Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, have been tapped to receive new investments. The Investing in Opportunity Act gives major tax breaks to those willing to direct resources into economically struggling urban and rural communities. Just who should count as “economically struggling,” and whether this kind of program is likely to boost such communities or just steer investment toward places that are already on the upswing, has been a hot topic in urban economic development circles since the program was first announced.

Many experts who have studied similar kinds of place-based tax breaks, from the Enterprise Zones of the Reagan administration to the Empowerment Zones of the Clinton years, argue that they boast a poor track record of actually improving the low-income areas they’re supposed to help. In some cases, researchers have found, the tax schemes actually hurt cities overall, distributing large portions of the tax benefit to industry professionals as transaction costs. “These policies almost inevitably result in tax giveaways for investment that would have occurred anyway,” concluded Timothy Weaver, an urban policy and politics professor at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, in a recent CityLab post.

Throwing charter schools into this mix is unlikely to settle any of these arguments.

According to a December report produced by the National Charter School Resource Center—a division of the education consulting firm Safal Partners—charter schools in 44 states might be able to access financing through the Qualified Opportunity Zone tax breaks. The report authors estimate that between 1,078 and 2,079 schools could be eligible for, or be interested in, tapping into this financing stream over the next five years to pay for new buildings or to finance renovations.

And the interest is there. In January, Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, and Chad Aldis, a vice president at the Ohio-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote an op-ed detailing the challenges Ohio charter schools face in accessing facilities. In addition to recommending state-level reforms, they suggested investors try to leverage private capital through Opportunity Zones to build new schools. Ohio has designated 320 tracts as Opportunity Zones.

Aaron Churchill, the Ohio research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told CityLab that while he sees Opportunity Zones as a great opportunity for his state to support new charter facilities, he’s “not really sure it’s far along yet” and “doesn’t know if charter networks have given it a lot of thought.”

National charter organizations are trying to put this new financing opportunity on more groups’ radars. In February, the Charter School Facility Center at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools hosted a webinar on how Opportunity Zone investments could reduce facility financing costs for schools. Former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has also touted charter schools a possibility for Opportunity Zone investment.

Here’s how such financing would work: Individuals or groups can establish “Opportunity Funds,” which require that at least 90 percent of the fund’s assets to go into designated Opportunity Zone census tracts. Investors can then delay paying federal taxes on the capital gains derived from the Opportunity Fund. If they hold their investment for seven years, they can reduce their tax burden by 15 percent. If they hold it for 10 years, the investor would have no capital gains tax at all on the profits from a sale of an Opportunity Fund investment.

Adam Peshek is vice-president of advocacy at ExcelinEd, a national organization founded by Jeb Bush that supports charters, vouchers, and other education-reform staples. Peshek said it’s a “no-brainer” for a lot of philanthropic groups to move some of the money they’re already spending on school facilities towards Opportunity Zone investments, where their dollars could stretch further. He said he has been talking with national charter groups and philanthropies about this and many are deliberating whether they want to create their own Opportunity Funds to generate investment or focus on encouraging private citizens to invest in existing funds.

John Bailey, a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute who has written on this topic, has said, “One could imagine groups such as the Charter School Growth Fund or NewSchools Venture Fund creating charter-specific Opportunity Funds to scale new schools to high-needs areas.”

That’s not happening yet: Peshek said there hasn’t been a huge rush yet to seize on Opportunity Zone financing for charter schools, unlike apartments and other commercial real estate. But he says he could envision charters being integrated in the construction of new multi-use real estate developments. “Having a school in the middle of a multi-use area is always a good draw for people who want to live there,” he said.

The amount of money that could be tapped by Opportunity Zone financing could dwarf the amount that charter advocates have be able to receive from other federal financing programs, like the New Market Tax Credit. Peshek, writing in 2018, noted that if just one-tenth of 1 percent of the estimated $6 trillion in unrealized capital gains in the U.S. goes towards charter school development projects, that would amount to “nearly three times the amount of investment that the NMTC spurred over more than a decade.”

Some states are looking at other ways the Opportunity Zone designation could help grow charter schools. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has said he hopes to leverage the tax incentive to launch a five-fold expansion of charter schools in his state. DeSantis’s plan would effectively link an existing state program called Schools of Hope to Florida’s designated Opportunity Zone areas. This could then boost the number of schools eligible for the Schools of Hope funding from 47 schools to 247.

Supporters of traditional public schools also see potential opportunity in Opportunity Zones. Mary Filardo, the executive director of the nonprofit 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for improved school facilities, told CityLab there are some 13,000 traditional public schools located in Opportunity Zones, predominately serving low-income and non-white students.

While charters are better positioned to leverage Opportunity Zone financing (since in many cases the school is already in a privately held building), Filardo said her group has been working with school districts “which really have far more need” for school modernization to figure out if they might be able to access some of this funding too.

One idea, she said, is to use Opportunity Zones to help break the political gridlock on school infrastructure funding. Polls may show bipartisan support for federal investment in school facilities, but on Capitol Hill, she said, a bill to make that happen has only garnered Democratic co-sponsors.

“The issue has become completely partisan in Congress, and one of the things we’ve been interested in is if we can convince Republicans to agree to direct federal funding for public school facilities located in the Opportunity Zones,” she said. “The rationale would be your other business investments—like your senior living retirement complexes or your tourism—would do better if the public infrastructure were in good shape.”

There’s considerable evidence that investing in capital assets like school facilities is an effective way to boost local wealth, in ways that differ from simply adding new high-end housing, retail, or restaurants, Filardo said. Having better school buildings also helps retain teachers and local businesses and attract new families.

But she also acknowledges that there’s a lot of skepticism surrounding these types of tax breaks and whether they generate true revitalization. Adding schools, whether charter or traditional public ones, to that story could be a novel twist. “School facilities,” she said, “just have not been past focuses of Enterprise and Empowerment Zone investments.”

Maine AFL-CIO Becomes First State Federation to Support a Green New Deal Bill

Originally published in In These Times on April 22, 2019.
On Tuesday, Maine lawmakers will hold a hearing for “An Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine”—a new climate and jobs bill that has the notable support of Maine’s AFL-CIO, the first state labor federation to endorse a Green New Deal-themed piece of legislation. The bill calls for 80 percent renewable electricity consumption by 2040, solar power for public schools, the creation of a task force to study economic and job growth, and a commission to help facilitate a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Its backing from a coalition of over 160 labor unions offers an instructive lesson for other states looking to build union power to tackle a warming planet.

The bill is the brainchild of Chloe Maxmin, a 26-year-old state lawmaker elected in November, and the first Democrat to ever represent her district. Maxmin, who has been an environmental activist since she was 12 years old, and co-founded the Harvard fossil fuel divestment campaign while in college, said she knew if she was voted into office she would approach climate politics in a different way.

One of the criticisms of the national Green New Resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is that it lacked a broad coalition of supporters when it was first introduced. But Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s political strategy, they’ve explained, is to use the aspirational framework as an organizing tool over the next two years, to bring more key partners on board.

Maxmin, by contrast, sought to bring allies into her coalition prior to going public with the legislation, and Maine labor and environmental groups did not have a deep history of working together before. “I’ve been an organizer for a long time, and to build power and to really create something inclusive I knew it had to be inclusive from the beginning,” she told In These Times. “The traditional strategies that we’ve used around climate and climate policy just have not really gotten us very far.”

Maine has some unique characteristics: It is the most rural state in the nation, the whitest (roughly ­tied with Vermont), and the oldest. It’s also, as of 2019, one of just 14 states where Democrats control all three branches of state government.

While she knows her bill will be associated with the federal resolution, Maxmin stresses that hers should be understood as targeted legislation, specifically tailored to her state’s needs. “Of course, there are national parallels with not only the name but also echoing the themes of economic justice and opportunity, but it’s a very Maine-specific bill, and not meant to cover every component of the climate crisis,” she said.

Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, praised Maxmin for her deliberate efforts to “create a policy that was ambitious, aspirational and do-able” for working-class people. Maine’s labor community, which has about 12 percent union density, has not historically focused on climate issues or climate justice. Schlobohm thinks this legislation is a real chance for unions “to build trust and develop their analysis and capacity” in a meaningful way.

The bill sets less ambitious targets than the national Green New Deal resolution, which, among other things, calls for 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and includes language around reducing emissions from transportation and agricultural sectors. While the Maine Sierra Club supports the legislation, Maxmin acknowledged that some environmental activists have criticized her bill for not going far enough.

“Our approach was targeted legislation focused on economic and job growth in Maine,” she said, pointing to the solar projects for schools, and the jobs-focused task force which would report on its findings by next January. Like the state’s opioid task force which has paved the way to new state policies, Maxmin said she expects to be able to introduce more specific job legislation generated by the task force’s research next year. “There are other [environmental] bills going through the State House around transportation and agriculture,” she said. “This [bill] is for workers, low-income Mainers, and economic growth in Maine.”

Haley Maurice, a junior at Bowdoin College involved in the Bowdoin Climate Action group and a student leader with the national Sunrise Movement, has been involved in discussions with Rep. Maxmin to shape the bill. (Sunrise also endorsed Maxmin’s bid for office.)

“We started meeting in early February, and [Rep. Maxmin] was just really forward in saying we need young people involved,” she said. “I’ve been very impressed by her adamant belief in the democratic nature of the bill and in making sure that everyone who is affected by this is considered and at the table.”

Maurice said that while “other climate bills proposed in the Maine legislature have very ambitious timelines,” this is the first bill she believes really prioritizes how the energy transition will take place, and constitutes “a very strong starting point” for Maine. The legislation outlines requirements for a commission to study and track progress towards a low-carbon economy, particularly for those most adversely impacted: people from demographic groups that have been historically affected, and people who are low-income and cannot participate in energy efficiency programs.

Moreover, Maurice doesn’t think a state bill on a less ambitious timeline is at odds with the work that she and her Sunrise colleagues are pushing for on the national level. If anything, Maurice said, it just reinforces why the federal government needs to also be involved in the process.

“When you say we need 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and we need a faster timeline, you need to think about the burden that places on Mainers here,” she said. “And if state bills have a slower timeline than what science is saying we need, I don’t think that is necessarily contradictory to our values. States need to push forward in the ways we can now while ensuring these transitions are happening in an equitable way, and we need a federal Green New Deal to bolster the work of the states.”

The Maine AFL-CIO’s support for the bill is an important milestone, as labor remains devided on the Green New Deal nationally. While the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee responded critically to the Green New Deal resolution, unhappy with both some of its specific language and its lack of specifics, other labor organizations have started to mobilize in support. In late March the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor approved a resolution in support of “a Green New Deal or similar effort” to address climate change and economic inequality. In mid-April, Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines, wrote an op-ed in in support of the Green New Deal, and the general urgency of tackling climate change.

Schlobohm said if he were to give advice to environmental leaders about how to organize effectively with labor, he’d encourage them to make deliberate efforts to understand unions, and engage them in a good-faith process. “And I think just the basic organizing 101 of showing up for each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of strikes and picket lines these days. Do environmental organizations show up at teacher strikes and grocery worker strikes? The same question should be asked of unions, but I think there’s just opportunity to build solidarity in this moment.”

For his labor allies, Schlobohm says the energy transition is going to happen, so it can either happen “with us or to us” and “one option is far superior than the other.”

Ultimately Schlobohm feels optimistic about the future of climate-labor organizing, says there are lots of opportunities for “win-wins”—and points to the recent organizing done by climate and labor groups in New York.

“There are renewable energy policies moving in every state in the country,” he said. “And every single one of those policy frameworks has the opportunity and levers for job quality and labor rights standards.”


House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer Is Facing A Primary Challenge

Originally published in The Intercept on April 19, 2019.

MCKAYLA WILKES, a 28-year-old administrative assistant, part-time student, and mother of two, has had enough. In late March, she announced that she was mounting a bid for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District, aiming to unseat one of the oldest and most powerful Democratic members, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Wilkes is running on a host of progressive policies, but plans to put particular focus on Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and affordable housing.

A student of political science, Wilkes hasn’t formerly been involved in politics before, but thinks the moment is too urgent to wait. She wants more “relatable people” in Congress and is fed up with Hoyer’s record, which she says does not adequately represent the needs of those living in his district. “We need someone who will be a voice for us, who knows what we go through as daily constituents, and Steny Hoyer has been in office so long he’s never really had to be a regular constituent,” she said. Hoyer, who is 79 years old, was first elected to Congress in 1981.

Wilkes’s challenge comes after an election year in which insurgent progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley toppled entrenched incumbents, making it to Congress and, along the way, showing that it is possible to shake things up and succeed. The Democratic Party has grown increasingly wary of these types of challenges and is trying to make it difficult for candidates like Wilkes to find support for their campaigns. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last month said it would cut off vendors that work with primary challengers.

Mark McLaurin, the political director of SEIU 500, said the climate is ripe for taking down veteran lawmakers in Maryland. He pointed to the 2018 cycle, when progressives unseated some of the most powerful politicians in the state, including state Sen. Thomas Middleton, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who represented part of Hoyer’s district.

“I think you could see that kind of wave continue to crest in the Democratic primaries, and anyone who has been there a long time who doesn’t seem terribly in touch with the needs of their increasingly diverse electorate could find themselves on the losing end,” McLaurin said. “I honestly don’t think in this environment anyone is safe, and certainly not Congressman Hoyer.”

Wilkes is counting on the fact that a lot of people might be interested in unseating an old, centrist white man who seems often out of touch with the more progressive direction of his party.

Her political strategy was on display this past week, in response to a tweet by the president of the United States that included a misleading video that suggested Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar downplayed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wilkes blasted Hoyer as a “coward” for not only his failure to quickly defend Omar, but also for his thinly veiled criticism of the Muslim representative at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

On Thursday, following the release of the redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Hoyer quickly dismissed the idea of impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump, despite its strong evidence of potential obstruction of justice. Hoyer said that “going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.” A few hours later, after public backlash, he walked back his comments to say “all options ought to remain on the table.”

By contrast, Wilkes voiced her unwavering support for impeaching the president. “It’s always been necessary but I think now more than ever,” she told The Intercept after Hoyer’s initial statement. “We can’t risk Trump running in the next election. He simply needs to be stopped and I don’t understand why Democratic leadership is denying this.”

WILKES’S CAMPAIGN IS just getting off the ground, backed so far by volunteers, including a group of students at the University of Maryland, College Park. She’s planning a kickoff event for the end of May.

She admits that she hasn’t really figured out yet how much money she’ll need to be competitive, but insists that she’s not worrying about that right now, and doesn’t have a set overall fundraising goal. Her first benchmark is to raise $25,000 by the end of the month.

Hoyer has not faced a serious primary challenger in years, and, in that sense, Wilkes is entering into unknown political territory. In 2018, Hoyer won his election with 70 percent of the vote and won his primary contesta gainst Dennis Fritz, a U.S. Air Force veteran, with 84 percent of the vote. Fritz raised less than $5,000 and  had “no campaign platform” because “the platform is of the people.” He had previously run for Congress in 2014 as an independent write-in candidate.

Wilkes’s challenge could become more potent if she gets the support of local and national groups, which would work to help elevate her profile and reach new voters. She said she’s had conversations with Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, but is not officially associated with them. Evan Weber, the political director at the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led group that helped put the Green New Deal on the map, recently reached out as well.

The primary election is one year away, and many political groups have not yet begun reaching out to candidates they might support. Larry Stafford Jr., the executive director of Progressive Maryland, one of the state’s largest grassroots advocacy organizations, told The Intercept that they haven’t been in touch with Wilkes, but also haven’t begun their 2020 endorsement process.

In early April, she said that her campaign was having some trouble finding a filmmaker due to the DCCC’s primary blacklist, but Wilkes told The Intercept that they did end up finding people interested in helping her with campaign videos.

“I feel confident that my campaign will be able to find alternative vendors, but primarily because I am running against Steny Hoyer,” she said. “I worry about the other progressive candidates running against lesser-known incumbents.” (Justice Democrats has launched an effort to help challengers find alternative firms.)

There are a few other factors that could work in Wilkes’s favor. McLaurin of SEIU 500 pointed out the relevance of Maryland’s closed primaries. Thomas Middleton, for example, lives in a majority-white district but one that’s majority black in the Democratic primary. “We made it about race in the primary and black people woke up and said, ‘Oh wait, why do we keep voting for the white guy?’ and that’s how he lost,” said McLaurin, whose group backed Middleton’s primary challenger, Arthur Ellis. “Like nobody cared in Charles County that Middleton was the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. At the end of the day, nobody cared.”

The state’s increasingly younger electorate could also hurt Hoyer, McLaurin added. “I can guarantee you there are less fervent Hoyer supporters than four years ago because four years ago, more of them were alive,” he said. “The folks who vote for the longtime incumbent reflexively, they die. The newer folks don’t have that kind of allegiance to Hoyer or anyone.” The median age in Maryland’s 5th District is 38, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey.

Wilkes will likely benefit from the presidential campaigns actively trying to turn out the progressive base of Maryland voters, McLaurin said. “Kamala Harris has her headquarters in Maryland, and Bernie [Sanders] will be campaigning here, and by the time the Maryland primary rolls around, they’ll all be desperately trying to turn out voters, many of whom are not necessarily beholden to Hoyer or anyone else,” he said. If Wilkes wins the April 2020 primary, her odds of winning the general election are not long. Trump earned just 33 percent of the vote in District 5 in 2016.

Wilkes describes the whole process as an exciting adrenaline rush. “It’s like wow, I’m actually doing what I’ve always wanted to do, which is fight for what I believe in,” she said. And while she aims to be elected, she said she also wants to send the message that anyone can run and step up to the plate.

“I want to win, but it’s not all about winning,” she said. “If I don’t win, then at least someone will be holding Steny Hoyer accountable.”

WILKES’S PLATFORM, and specifically her plank on criminal justice, is in part shaped by her own experiences. She decided early to come out andshare that she has a criminal record, an unconventional move that she hopes will help her earn voters’ trust. Her aunt, Sharon Carver, was a civilian employee killed at the Pentagon on 9/11, and after her death, Wilkes started acting out. “I skipped class and I ran away from home,” she tweeted. “I was in and out of the juvie from the ages of 14-17.”

Wilkes said this experience exposed her early to the abuses of the criminal justice system, and later on as a teen, she was arrested for having marijuana, though never charged for possession. She said she’s also had her license suspended for not paying traffic tickets on time, something she didn’t do because she was “in an extremely rough spot financially.” Wilkes was then charged with driving on a suspended license, but said if she didn’t drive to work, she would have lost her job.

Wilkes told The Intercept that she felt nervous about sharing those details of her past. “I was intimidated and I felt kind of ashamed,” she said. “But then I thought about it and I need to be transparent because I’m not alone, and my experiences really show how they punish the impoverished.” Wilkes ultimately got out of debt with help from her family. “Thank god I had my family there, it was just unbearable. At one point, there was like $800 in tickets to pay,” she said.

These criminal penalties she faced, which critics say amount to a criminalization of poverty, are increasingly controversial, and some states have taken steps to end the practice. On Thursday, Montana’s state legislature passed a bill that would end the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees, coming on the heels of Virginia, which passed a similar measure earlier this month. Wilkes, for her part, wants to tackle these issues from Congress. “Our criminal justice system must be one of rehabilitation, not punishment,” her platform reads. “It must stop going after people of color for low-level drug offenses and make it easier for low-income individuals to defend themselves.”

Julián Castro Got Off Easy for Ethics Trouble In The Last Presidential Campaign

Originally published in The Intercept on April 10, 2019.

IN 2016, THEN-SECRETARY of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro violated a federal law while campaigning for Hillary Clinton, but the Obama administration chose not to fine or reprimand him. Instead, they praised him for “own[ing] up” to his “inadvertent error.”

Castro himself is now running for president. Aside from his short stint leading the federal housing agency, Castro served as mayor of San Antonio, Texas, from 2009 to 2014; before that, he worked as an attorney. Yet despite his legal background, his Harvard Law School education, and his having attended four federal briefings on how to comply with the Hatch Act — the federal law passed in 1939 that bars most employees in the executive branch from using their official authority or influence to shape an election — Castro claimed in 2016 that he was unaware of his error.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel launched an investigation following a complaint filed against Castro on April 11, 2016, and ultimately concluded that he had violated the ethics law.

One week earlier, Castro did an 18-minute interview with Katie Couric on Yahoo News. According to the special counsel investigation, Yahoo News requested the interview in February 2016 and indicated that it wanted to focus on both Castro’s work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and his role as a surrogate for the Clinton campaign. The details were arranged by HUD’s Office of Public Affairs, and three days before the interview, Castro received a briefing memo from his agency’s press shop outlining that potential questions could pertain to his work at HUD, the growth of cities, and his time as a Clinton supporter during her campaign.

At the time, the primary contest between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was still going on. Clinton had swept five key states on March 15 and appeared to be pulling away from Sanders, but New York had yet to vote, and the insurgent campaign was hoping for an April upset there (that didn’t materialize).

In 2012, Castro delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, and from then on, he was routinely referred to by journalists and political observers as a “rising Democratic Party star.” In 2016, Castro was reportedly being vetted by the Clinton campaign as a potential running mate; he had endorsed her for president in October 2015.

The Yahoo News interview was conducted remotely, with Castro sitting in HUD’s broadcast studio in Washington, D.C. The official HUD seal was displayed behind Castro. After about seven minutes of discussing HUD initiatives, he was then asked about his endorsement of Clinton. “Now, taking off my HUD hat for a second and just speaking individually, it is very clear that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced, thoughtful, and prepared candidate for president that we have this year,” he said.

Castro then went on to describe Clinton’s record as secretary of state and touted her ability to excite the electorate, including Hispanic and black voters. “In the end, the American people understand she has a positive vision for the country that includes opportunity for everybody, and she can actually get it done,” he said.

Despite receiving the briefing memo saying he could expect questions on his time as a Clinton supporter, Castro claimed later, according to the special counsel investigation, that he “expected that Ms. Couric’s questions would focus primarily on HUD’s activities and the growth of cities.”

Castro said he believed at the time that he was complying with the Hatch Act, though he “now understand[s]” that an interview like that “is problematic.” Castro joined the Obama administration in 2014, and prior to his violation, according to the special counsel’s office, he had attended four briefings on the Hatch Act in which he was advised by federal ethics officials on how to properly comply with the law. Castro’s most recent briefing before the violation was in February 2016.

At the briefings, according to the Office of Special Counsel’s report, Castro was told by ethics advisers that if he is speaking in his official capacity about HUD matters and is asked a political question, then he should respond by saying that he is not there to talk about politics. Relatedly, he was advised that if he speaks at a political event in his personal capacity, then he should not talk about HUD or use the title “secretary.” At one of the briefings, Castro reportedly asked an ethics adviser what to do if a journalist asks him about HUD while he’s at a political event; he was told that he should tell the journalist that since he’s at a political event in his personal capacity, he cannot answer questions about HUD.

Based on his training, HUD ethics officials told the special counsel’s office that Castro “should have known that he could not switch from speaking in his official capacity to speaking in his personal capacity at an event or during an interview.”

“In responding to [Katie Couric’s] question about the 2016 election, I offered my opinion to the interviewer after making it clear that I was articulating my personal view and not an official position,” Castro wrote following the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation. “At the time I believed that this disclaimer was what was required by the Hatch Act. However, your analysis provides that it was not sufficient.”

The Obama administration did not reprimand Castro. “So, look, I think to his credit, Secretary Castro acknowledged the mistake that he made,” said then-White House press secretary Josh Earnest at the time. “He owned up to it and he’s taken the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again.”

The Castro campaign did not return a request for comment.