School Officials Welcome Homeland Security Surveillance After Student Fights

Originally published in The Intercept on November 9, 2021.

IN LATE OCTOBER, after a series of student fights broke out at public schools in Prince George’s County, school district officials informed parents in the predominantly Black suburb of Washington, D.C., that they were taking steps to respond. “All has been handled,” wrote Timothy Gover, a school security official, in an email reviewed by The Intercept. With footage of some fights circulating online, Gover added, “Also reached out to A/Sgt Tilus of Homeland Security and they are going to attempt to monitor social media in ref to the Suitland and Wise,” two high schools where fights had recently taken place.

Anthony Tilghman, a local education activist, posted Gover’s email in a community Facebook group. The email listed other measures, including the temporary addition of extra school security to the two high schools and a request to the local police department for reinforcements. But it was the casual reference to “Homeland Security” that stood out.

Two years ago, the Prince George’s County Council voted unanimously to bar all county agencies from working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security. But if state and local homeland security divisions collect student data, agents could enter that information into any of the many federal DHS databases, creating a backdoor route for federal surveillance and immigration enforcement.

Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson Meghan Gebreselassie confirmed in an email to The Intercept that “Homeland Security” was contacted to “support monitoring social media for student conflicts/ to mitigate a possible school fight.” While the county has its own Office of Homeland Security, Gebreselassie clarified that the school district works with a separate Homeland Security division housed within the Prince George’s County Police Department. She said the district contacts the office “regularly for assistance when it comes to ensuring student safety.”


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“This warrantless, dragnet surveillance of minors is a clear violation of their civil rights and is an immediate threat to undocumented students and students with undocumented family members,” wrote Daniel Greene, a Prince George’s County parent, in an email to Board of Education CEO Monica Goldson and 13 board members. Greene raised concerns that the district’s practices were in violation of the 2019 ordinance barring cooperation with ICE and said that he would be filing Freedom of Information Act requests for more information. “I don’t believe federal anti-terror and anti-immigration surveillance is in any way suited to the task of settling fights among minors,” he wrote.

Goldson responded by writing that the district would review its actions to ensure that they were in compliance with the 2019 ordinance and that it is the district’s “desire and intent” to follow the law’s expectations and guidelines.

Gebreselassie referred The Intercept’s questions about the collection of social media posts to the police. The Prince George’s County Police Department did not return multiple requests for comment.

CIVIL RIGHTS AND legal advocates told The Intercept that they had not heard previously of homeland security offices surveilling students following school fights and warned that teenagers would likely have little idea of how their information is later used.

“Given how central social media is to young people’s lives, protecting people’s social media posts and protecting kids from state surveillance is extremely important,” said Vera Eidelman, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney focused on protecting free speech online. “It’s even more pernicious for kids who tend to say any number of really strongly felt things in the moment.”

Data collected through youth surveillance could be used to bolster already shoddy and discriminatory gang databases, national experts warn. Individuals, typically Black and Latino men, are frequently added to these police databases for trivial matters like standing on certain street corners, having particular tattoos, or meeting with someone else suspected to be in a gang. Even though the databases are well known to be riddled with inaccurate information, federal agencies still routinely consult them.

“Allegations of potential gang involvement are where we historically have seen and continue to see real collaboration between the Prince George’s County police and ICE,” said Nick Katz, legal director of CASA, an immigrant advocacy organization. “Often individuals will be flagged for baseless gang allegations — like being in a picture with someone else believed to be in a gang — and then entered into local and national databases which can be used in any way [officials] want.” Katz had not heard of homeland security forces surveilling students after school fights before but said he was not surprised given the way high school students of color are routinely branded as public safety threats.

Greene, who studies technology and surveillance as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, knows from his professional work how federal agencies can leverage the data they collect through surveillance. In 2017, for example, ICE used surveillance data to arrest and deport Rómulo Avelica-González, a father of four who had been living in California for 25 years.

“The first thing a parent said to me when I brought this up was, ‘Well, you know this might sound scary, but if people weren’t involved in those fights, then they’ve got nothing to worry about,’” Greene told The Intercept. “I think that fundamentally misunderstands what this surveillance is for and how it works.”

THOUGH IT IS now the largest federal law enforcement organization and the third-largest federal employer in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security did not exist before 2003. Feeling they had been caught flat-footed by the 9/11 attacks, federal leaders launched the new agency with a mandate to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts and doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to establish so-called fusion centers, which collect, analyze, and share information about alleged terror threats. Blurring the jurisdictional boundaries between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the centers encourage sharing as much data as possible between all three.

Two decades in, critics charge fusion centers as yet another invasive and ineffective national security measure. A two-year bipartisan Senate investigation released in 2012 concluded that fusion centers had “yielded little, if any, benefit to federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts” and often collected intelligence of “uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.” In 2020, The Intercept reported that fusion centers were being used to monitor racial justice organizers and Black Lives Matter protests.

“Far from the lofty justifications given for their existence—securing the homeland and so on—the titles of the reports [fusion centers have] produced suggest a focus on criminal activity (supposed or otherwise) so mundane it’s at times comical,” wrote Ken Klippenstein in an investigation for The Nation earlier this year. Klippenstein, now a reporter at The Intercept, found that fusion centers rarely produced reports focused on counterterrorism, opting instead for investigations with titles like “Subscribers of Black Extremism Collaborate Musically” and “Criminal and Violent Extremist Use of Emojis.”

Gover, an operations supervisor for the Prince George’s County school district’s security division, said in his email that he had communicated with “A/Sgt Tilus of Homeland Security” about social media monitoring. The only county police officer listed in OpenPayrolls and other databases with that name is Wantalex Tilus, a Prince George’s County police corporal. In 2011, Tilus was sued by a parent for handcuffing and beating her seventh grade son in a civil case that was ultimately dismissed in 2015. Gebreselassie, the Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson, did not answer multiple requests for comment about the officer’s identity. Tilus referred The Intercept to the police department press team, which did not return requests for comment.

In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Homeland Security said their department “is not participating in social media monitoring related to PG County schools” but did not deny that it could review any data collected. The spokesperson wrote that the state-operated fusion centers exist “for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and private sector partners.”

Prince George’s County Council Member Deni Taveras, the lead sponsor of the legislation barring cooperation with ICE, did not return a request for comment. The county’s Board of Education Chair Juanita Miller also did not return requests for comment.

AN EXAMPLE OF how the sharing of this flawed data can be used was on display in March 2017, when six ICE agents raided Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez’s home in Chicago, arrested him, and placed him in deportation proceedings. Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers later learned that his arrest came from Chicago police erroneously placing him in their local gang database, a measure that effectively stripped him of sanctuary privacy protections he would have otherwise had. The city later acknowledged its mistake, and Catalan-Ramirez was released from ICE custody in 2018. This past spring, national civil rights groups organized a petition calling on DHS to end its practice of prioritizing for immigration enforcement those alleged to be involved with gangs.

“The thing about bulk data collection is, even if you trust the guys now, you might not later,” said Greene, the parent and University of Maryland assistant professor. “Data is used to build categories, and it all justifies more collection tomorrow. It’s far from being this thing where you’re looking for one bad kid. You’re taking all kids, or certain subsets like young Black and Latino working-class kids, and saying, ‘We’re going to hold on to their socials to build patterns.’”

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, noted that in the wake of horrific school shootings, private companies raced to develop new social media monitoring software to sell to districts under pressure to take action. These programs purport to help identify potential future shooters, she said, but they have been of dubious quality and invariably capture loads of irrelevant information in their pursuit for red flags.

“You’re talking about kids who are easily misinterpreted, a system where there are significant racial disparities, and you’re basically encouraging this data sharing that’s not vetted,” she said. “How long does this data even follow a kid around? Once you’re in a database, are you forever flagged as being suspicious?”

How To Cancel $3.2 Million of Debt for 20,000 People Who Went Through the Carceral System

Originally published in The Intercept on October 29, 2021.

DOUGLAS HARPER WAS stunned by a piece of mail he got earlier this month. The letter said the $270 he owed in probate debt had been canceled.

“No one should go to jail because they are unable to pay a private probation fee,” the form letter read. “You no longer owe the balance of this particular debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached. You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else. … You are not a loan!”

Harper, a 31-year-old man living in Quitman, Mississippi, had been trying to pay off this debt for nearly two years, all while having his driver’s license suspended for the traffic tickets that led him to start accruing debt in the first place. Instead of going to jail for failure to pay his tickets, he was put on probation, which meant he needed to pay at least an extra $25 each month in probate fees.

“I was so happy to get the letter, it was great, it was a blessing,” he said. “Now I can get my license back and go back to my job.” Harper works as a supervisor at an oil field where, he said, driving a commercial vehicle is a job requirement.

The letter, sent in both Spanish and English, was one of 20,500 mailed out this month to individuals living in Mississippi and Florida by the Rolling Jubilee Fund, a nonprofit mutual aid group that buys debt off the secondary debt market to cancel it. The fund is affiliated with the Debt Collective, a national union of debtors which has achieved significant policy wins over the last few years, including pressuring the federal Department of Education to cancel billions of dollars in student loans.

The Rolling Jubilee Fund launched in 2012 as an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, initially focused on canceling medical, tuition, and credit card debt. The effort went dormant over the last five years as activists turned their sights to other projects they felt would bring about more systemic change. On Friday, the group announced a return to extinguishing debts outright, saying it had canceled $3.2 million in probation debt as “an act of solidarity” amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In the portfolio purchased by the group, the average debtor owed $159. The Rolling Jubilee Fund had been able to purchase all of it for just $97,922.

When the Debt Collective realized that buying and erasing debt wasn’t a sustainable strategy for change, it turned its focus toward building a national union of debtors. “We always knew there were limits to this tactic, but we’ve revived it because of the pandemic,” explained Astra Taylor, the group’s co-founder. “In that sense it’s an echo of 2008, we’re in another economic crisis, but it’s also different now. We can see that people were spending their stimulus checks on debt payments. We know that the non-mortgaged debts of retirees have doubled. We know that payday lenders made a killing over the last year. So we wanted to revive the jubilee for this moment, but a difference this time is also our abolishment of probation debt, which ties us into a whole new domain of criminal carceral debt.”

Canceling Carceral Debt

The $3.2 million in probate debt cancellation isn’t the only announcement the activists made on Friday. Activists also introduced a new online mutual aid tool that will help Californians cancel their bail bond debt. Using this so-called Abolish Bail Debt Tool, individuals who took out bail debt with co-signers will now be able to dispute the payments easily using state consumer protection law. Good data is hard to come by, but the Debt Collective estimates that more than 1 million people across California hold debt from bail bond contracts and that at least $500 million of that was obtained with a co-signer.

Hannah Appel, co-director of the Debt Collective, said the group’s bail tool came out of California organizing they got involved with in 2017, which was focused on other financial penalties from aggressive policing. “We would show up at other community organization meetings and, while there, offer advice on disputing household debt, and folks would say, ‘Yes, it’s great to be able to dispute all these debts that got worse while I was inside but I actually have debts from my incarceration itself. What can you do about that?’” recalled Appel. “And our answer at the time was nothing.”

The median bail bond in California is $50,000, which is five times higher than the national average. Since most people can’t afford that, they turn to private bail companies that typically charge 10 percent of the total bond amount in nonrefundable premiums and fees. While the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional, the court’s decision does not affect the millions in bail debt still on the books.

The Debt Collective soon learned that Danica Rodarmel, then a fellow with the San Francisco chapter of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, had developed a new legal application of California consumer protection law for these bail bond contracts. Her strategy, which she was testing out successfully with some clients, said that if one is a co-signer of a bail bond, then they should be treated as a credit lender under California consumer protection law. Among other things, California law requires co-signers to be provided with liability notices outlining their rights and obligations; Rodarmel noticed virtually no one was receiving these notices. Failure to give this notice entitles the co-signer to rescind (or cancel) the contract. While bail bond companies argue their contracts are not consumer credit contracts, so far the courts have disagreed.

With some funding from the San Francisco-based Future Justice Fund and the New York-based Justice Catalyst, the Debt Collective hired a legal fellow as well as a new carceral debt organizer and set out to make an online tool that leveraged Rodarmel’s application of the consumer protections, along with exploring other methods of using the laws to get carceral debt canceled.

Debt Abolition

The move into carceral debt and the embrace of “abolition” language is relatively new for the Debt Collective, which launched with a focus on household debts, including mortgages, student loans, medical debt, and credit card debt. Appel says the group originally focused on emphasizing debt cancellation as opposed to debt forgiveness, which suggests that a debtor has done something wrong and needs forgiveness.

“We actually didn’t start using ‘debt abolition’ until much more recently — I think it was in 2019 — and it was a very intentional shift due to our movement work with Critical Resistance,” said Appel, referring to a national prison abolition group. “I credit partners like Ruth Wilson Gilmore at CUNY and Dylan Rodríguez at UC Riverside for moving us on this.”

In “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay,” a short book the Debt Collective published last year outlining their strategy for change, the group explores how debt abolition is based on similar ideas as prison abolition. “Like prison abolition, debt abolition is a strategy and a vision for a world without—and a world with,” the collective wrote. “Indeed, the two forms of abolition may require one another.”

Discussion of how debt, policing, and incarceration impact one another grew more public in the years following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. The police killing galvanized what would become the global Black Lives Matter movement. Following Brown’s death, a legal advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, reported that Ferguson had issued almost 33,000 arrest warrants in 2013 — in a city of 21,000 people — often for trivial offenses like failing to pay a municipal fine or fee. A class-action lawsuit later charged Ferguson with being a modern debtors’ prison, outlining how individuals were routinely jailed for their inability to pay court fees. (That case is still pending.)

Ferguson is not unique. Many cash-strapped municipalities have borrowed heavily over the years to fund basic services. As the Debt Collective highlighted in “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay,” in order to pay back creditors, cities began more aggressively extracting revenue from some of their poorest residents. Police departments, in particular, began targeting individuals for arrest to help balance their budgets with new fines and fees.

These penalties have not gone unnoticed. In 2020, as the pandemic swept the nation and protests followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, racial justice activists ramped up pressure on issues related to household and municipal debt. Among other demands, leaders called for rent and mortgage cancellations, moratoria on utility and water shutoffs, and cancellation of student and medical debt.

The Debt Collective’s successes this year in wiping out $3.2 million in probate debt and pressuring the Education Department to cancel billions more in student debt is partly why advocates do not see themselves as proposing something so far-fetched and unrealistic when they call for full debt abolition.

“It’s not an easy task but it’s reasonable,” said Braxton Brewington, a press secretary with the Debt Collective. “And if a group like ours can do this, then surely the government can also negotiate with private companies to take off this debt.”

Just this week Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group led by Stacey Abrams, announced that it too had donated $1.34 million to wipe out medical debt from 108,000 people living in five Southern states. Fair Fight Action gave to RIP Medical Debt, which then erased debt with a collective face value of $212 million that had been sold on the secondary market for pennies on the dollar.

The Debt Collective says its ultimate goal is to destigmatize holding debt and work to organize debtors into leveraging their collective power against companies, banks, and creditors. Unlike labor unions, which have been targets of the right wing for decades, debtor organizing has not really been regulated or restricted. This fact gives debt activists energy. “Debtor organizing has the potential to bring millions of people who may never have the option of joining a traditional labor union into the struggle for economic justice,” the Debt Collective wrote in its book.

Douglas Harper, for his part, feels open to learning more about the debtors’ union now that his probate debt has been canceled. “Yeah I’m interested in maybe getting involved,” he said. “So we can change some of the laws because this is ridiculous. People need a little bit of leniency.”

Parents Reported to Child Services for Keeping Unvaccinated Kids Home

Originally published in The Intercept on October 25, 2021.

KAVITHA KASARGOD-STAUB was looking forward to sending her two kids back to elementary school this fall. After a year of remote learning in Washington, D.C., her kids spent the summer attending day camp. “I’m certainly not in the group of people who avoid all Covid risk,” she said, adding that camp activities were outdoors and there was testing for children if someone was exposed to the virus.

But by August, Kasargod-Staub and her husband were watching Delta variant cases rise across the region. When her husband went to the school to review its safety protocols, he left alarmed, having learned that the HVAC system was broken and there was no plan for outdoor eating. Kasaragod-Staub, who had served as PTA president the year before, called up the principal to discuss.

“The policies were vague, everyone was scrambling, so we decided to keep [our kids] home for the first week of school in the hopes that [D.C. Public Schools] would realize they made a mistake and catch up with things like testing and outdoor eating,” she told The Intercept. “It feels a little dumb now, but I genuinely thought things would change and they’d figure safety stuff out.”

Things didn’t change, and the children stayed home. Pretty soon, Kasargod-Staub was notified that her family was being referred to D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency due to her kids’ unexcused absences. “I have a lot of privilege, I know the system, and it was still terrifying,” she said. “My mind immediately goes to, ‘Where will this lead? Are they going to take away my kids?’”

Kasargod-Staub was soon contacted by a government social worker for an intake call. “The person I spoke to said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t have any sense of where this will go,’” she recalled. About a week and a half later, things escalated, and child protective services called to schedule a home visit. (A Child and Family Services Agency spokesperson did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.)

Kasargod-Staub and her husband discussed whether they should formally pull their kids out, but they felt extremely committed to their school. “I was the freaking PTA president, my Ph.D. work is around public education, and I didn’t want my Title I elementary to lose my kids’ per-pupil funding,” she explained. While her unvaccinated kids were not eligible for a remote learning option through D.C. Public Schools, which requires a doctor to certify that virtual school is necessary, she and her husband provided them with learning supplements and later enrolled them in a national online school for more structure.

The questions Kasargod-Staub soon fielded from child protective services felt invasive and inappropriate. “The social worker asked about our monthly income, about the paternity of my own children, are there any mental health diagnoses for the parents,” she said. “I was very clear with them exactly why we were not sending our kids to school and what safety policies would put us at ease.”

A few weeks later, Kasargod-Staub was asked to show a social worker where her children sleep and documented proof that there was food in her kitchen. “We don’t have undocumented status, we don’t have incarceration, we’re not unsheltered,” she said. “If we’re enduring this, I cannot even imagine how terrifying it is for many of our less fortunate neighbors who also have Covid concerns right now.” Her case is still not closed out.

KASARGOD-STAUB IS not alone. In Washington, D.C., at least 90 families with Covid-19 safety concerns have been referred to child protective services for “educational neglect,” which the Department of Health and Human Services defines as a parent or guardian’s failure to provide a child with appropriate schooling. As of October 8, about 30 of those referrals had been upgraded to more serious investigations, Paul Kihn, the deputy mayor for education, said at the time. (His office declined to provide more recent figures.) In one warning letter sent to another D.C. parent and reviewed by The Intercept, the school district threatened referral not only to the Child and Family Services Agency but also to the city’s juvenile probation agency.

Like D.C, New York City has taken a hard line against remote schooling. In both cities, the mayors have resisted petitions and calls from parents for virtual options this fall, in contrast to the majority of large school districts across the United States, which are making such options available.

Though government officials claim that they have strict legal obligations to investigate suspected instances of child abuse and neglect, experts say there exists far more discretion in the strapped systems than officials often admit. Gabriel Freiman, a public defender in Brooklyn who has been helping New York City families facing similar issues, says he thinks that there’s “sufficient room” for the city to ease up on these sorts of probes. And indeed, school districts neighboring D.C. in Maryland and Northern Virginia told NBC4 Washington they are not currently reporting families to child protection agencies for unexcused absences.

“The New York State Education Department does require every school district to have a policy about child neglect and absences — it’s not like this [is] out of nowhere — but it’s being handled here in an extreme way,” Freiman told The Intercept. “Parents who are actively engaged with the school asking for a remote option, asking for home curriculum, wanting to be involved, I think there’s sufficient room for [the New York City Department of Education] to decide that fails to meet the legal standard for educational neglect.” (A spokesperson for the city’s Education Department did not return a request for comment.)

Researchers have long documented racial disparities in child protective service investigations. The Intercept spoke with one white D.C. parent who has kept their children from school but has not received any warnings yet for unexcused absences. And while child protective services nationally declines to confirm maltreatment allegations in roughly 83 percent of cases it responds to — and for cases referred by educators, that figure stands at 90 percent — experts say the terror of the probes can leave lasting trauma. Closed-out cases can also “stay on families’ case records to potentially affect the trajectory of any future reports that come in,” said Kelley Fong, a sociologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the U.S. child protection system.

Reports, even if unsubstantiated and closed out, can fuel lasting mistrust between the accused and the government. “After being reported, families disengage from the systems [and] people who filed the report,” said Fong. “For instance, they might not share so much with the doctor next time. In the case of schools, reports can undermine school engagement, and parents might even look into changing schools.”

Jennifer Jennings, a sociologist at Princeton University who focuses on education policy, said that “child protective services is very much to Black women what mass imprisonment is to Black men.” There’s a very real fear of being caught in a dragnet, she added, “irrespective of what the facts are.”

DEPLOYING CHILD PROTECTIVE services on families for Covid-19 schooling is not entirely new. Last year, teachers and school staff reported parents whose children were not consistently logging in to virtual school to protective agencies. Reports were most common among Black and Latino families in high-poverty areas.

Things are different this fall for concerned families that no longer have the option of remote school. Many households are also still grappling with grief and death from the coronavirus pandemic; a new study published this month estimated that more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to Covid-19.

With states easing up on their quarantine, testing, and social distancing policies, some parents say they are just not comfortable having their child return to school, at least not before vaccines are available for the 28 million students under 12. (The Biden administration told governors to prepare to administer vaccines to young children early next month.)

And kids are getting infected. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, there were more than 1.8 million new pediatric Covid-19 cases between August and early October — nearly one-third of the total pediatric cases in the U.S. since March 2020. (Cases have been decreasing since their peak on September 2, though the American Academy of Pediatrics says new cases remain “extremely high.”) As of September, 41 percent of the public thought that elementary schools should provide a remote option to families, and 51 percent thought that high schools should.

Paullette Healy, a New York City parent who is keeping her children home from school this fall, has been pressuring the city for months for a remote option. While her family has not been contacted by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services — the city’s version of child protective services — she’s been part of a coalition supporting families that have.

“We developed a toolkit on how to respond because the social workers are still knocking on doors, leaving notices, and threatening to take kids away,” she told The Intercept. Healy says her group has worked with about 10 families that have had Administration for Children’s Services visits from caseworkers but added that most reports the group has received have been of threats made by principals to refer families to child protective services if they do not send their kids back to school.

“During any interaction, ACS works to ensure that families have the services and support they need, including educational services,” a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services told The Intercept. “We have also been working closely with the Department of Education to clarify that reports to the hotline should be made only when the reporter has reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused or maltreated.” Agency figures indicate that referrals have been decreasing compared with the same time period last year. Between September 1 and October 14, New York City educational personnel made 69 reports of educational neglect and an additional 61 reports of educational neglect combined with other maltreatment concerns. During the same period in 2020, there were 99 and 87 of such reports made, respectively.

Kihn, the D.C. deputy mayor for education, declined to comment on what the possible consequences are for parents who keep their kids home out of Covid-19 safety concerns, but in an emailed statement, he said his department is continuing to explore “additional solutions and policy adjustments that meet the needs of families” during the pandemic. “While we know our schools remain safe for vital in-person instruction, we understand the uncertainty and anxiety that some of our families are feeling about returning to school,” said his statement. “In their initial referrals, our partners at [child protective services] are focused on offering support and identifying solutions, including providing medical waiver forms and exploring alternative educational options with families.”

Fong, of Georgia Tech, noted that this Covid-19 schooling situation exemplifies how “child maltreatment” is not always a straightforward, objective descriptor and can reflect societal debates around values, culture, and language. “Is it endangering your child to keep them out of school or to expose them to a deadly virus?” she asked. “States [and] authorities view things one way, but it’s easy to flip and frame the other choice as ‘neglect.’”

What If We Just Gave Renters Money?

Originally published in The Atlantic on October 20, 2021.

In an obscure but public meeting last week, local and federal housing officials discussed a controversial idea that could transform U.S housing policy: What if the government gave money directly to renters, rather than relying on a complicated voucher system that drives both tenants and landlords up the wall? You’ve heard of universal basic income. What about universal basic rent?

The status quo is not working particularly well. More than half a million Americans experience homelessness on any given night, housing stock is in too-short supply, and rent and mortgage payments consistently rank among the heftiest bills families have to bear. For decades, most federal housing assistance has come in the form of a voucher program known as Section 8. But the program is cumbersome and bureaucratic. Landlords are often reluctant to jump through the government’s regulatory hoops to get the money, so they opt out. Because of funding constraints, only a quarter of those eligible for vouchers even get one, and those lucky few often must scour dozens of ads before finding even one unit that might accept the subsidy.

President Joe Biden promised during his campaign to make these vouchers available to all low-income families who qualify, and Congress is debating a measure as part of his economic package that would add roughly 750,000 more vouchers to the program. If it becomes law, that expansion would surely help some Americans find homes. But it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem: Most landlords don’t want to rent to voucher recipients.

The coronavirus pandemic showed the viability of an alternative path—one that officials in Biden’s administration now seem willing to at least discuss. Congress tried a lot of things to help people struggling with the economic fallout from COVID-19. One initiative, a government-administered eviction-prevention program, has been mired in paperwork and delays, and only one-fifth of the money the feds allotted to it has been distributed. Another program, in which the IRS simply mailed Americans stimulus checks, got money in people’s hands right away.

These recent experiences might inform federal leaders as they research new ways to improve housing assistance. Last Thursday, at a public meeting organized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, policy experts and housing-authority officials considered new voucher-program ideas that could merit formal study. Making vouchers more like cash for renters, as opposed to subsidies for landlords, was one of the top three ideas that emerged from the meeting, and it will be explored further at a second gathering later this month. The leading proposals could be tested under a HUD program known as Moving to Work, which has been around since 1996 but was expanded by Congress in 2016.

Distributing rental subsidies as cash was the second-most-popular idea discussed at the meeting, and participants acknowledged that it could involve a cost-saving element, too, as it would reduce, or even eliminate, the need for regular HUD inspections of voucher-eligible housing. At the conclusion of the three-hour session, committee members voted to continue their discussion of the idea at their next scheduled meeting, on October 28.

“I think it’s interesting in light of [universal basic income], and I think it would be interesting to decouple the government from trying to figure out the right type and size and quality of housing and leave that up to people,” Chris Lamberty, the executive director of Lincoln Housing Authority, in Nebraska, said at the meeting.

A couple of hours into the virtual call, Todd Richardson, the head of HUD’s research arm, noted that meeting participants seemed relatively excited about the cash-assistance idea. He warned, though, that it might not “pass muster” with the agency’s legal department. Asked for clarification as to what the legal concerns may be, a HUD spokesperson told The Atlantic that the public meeting posted on the Federal Register was not “intended for press” and “I don’t think we had put an invitation to the press.”

Moving to Work isn’t the only vehicle policy makers could use to test the idea of distributing cash-based rental assistance to tenants. Congress could also authorize a pilot study, like it did in 2019when lawmakers approved a new voucher program to help families relocate to richer neighborhoods.

And in Philadelphia, starting early next year, a new study will explore how families fare when they receive rental assistance as cash. “There’s never been a full evaluation of using cash to renters for our tenant-based vouchers,” Vincent Reina, one of the University of Pennsylvania researchers who will assess the program, told me. “There’s been some explorations, but a true, proper evaluation is something that we’ve never really done.” Reina attributes the lack of study to political resistance. “Cash transfers are often more contentious,” he said.

The closest thing to a real test of the idea occurred in the 1970s, when Congress authorized the Experimental Housing Allowance Program. That program, which ran for longer than a decade in a dozen U.S. cities, provided cash assistance for housing directly to more than 14,000 low-income families. In a report filed to Congress in 1976, program evaluators noted that housing allowances were being well-received by their local communities and that the housing payments were being successfully administered to renters.

It’s clear that at least some current HUD staff are considering this old research. In 2017, Richardson published a blog post suggesting that the 1970s housing-allowance experiment could inform the Moving to Work program today.

Public-housing authorities might resist the idea, as it could require them to relinquish some control. Other authorities might lack trust that the funds would go toward rent. The findings from the Experimental Housing Allowance Program also suggested that cash subsidies could lead to lower-quality housing options for renters, though experts caution against drawing firm conclusions from the half-century-old study.

Studying the idea of cash rental assistance has great potential, Phil Garboden, a professor of affordable-housing economics, policy, and planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told me. “I imagine vouchers will continue to exist in their current form for quite some time, but studying it is a terrific idea,” he said. “We absolutely do not have good data on it.” Garboden hopes researchers could tease out whether landlords avoid taking the vouchers mainly because they don’t like to deal with the red tape involved, or whether they’re simply resistant to renting to poor people.

Some renters might prefer the voucher status quo, but for others, cash could prove easier to use. Being able to pay for housing with cash or some dedicated housing subsidy might alleviate some of the administrative hassle that comes with navigating the U.S. welfare system—what the Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey coined “the time tax” earlier this year.

“Different forms of support work differently for different people, and a voucher could be a really effective mechanism for some households and some markets and less effective for others,” Reina told me. “It’s not to say vouchers can’t work, or can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be made universal, but we know through our existing voucher research that elderly households, households with kids, and households where the head is Black are less likely to use vouchers.”

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who was in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, told me that distributing housing assistance as cash could feel dignifying for some tenants. “The research on the Earned Income Tax Credit points to the idea that recipients experienced a sense of agency and dignity when they received a lump sum of money, and I suspect that renters being able to present themselves to landlords as paying like any other potential tenant could feel quite empowering,” she said.

Still, DeLuca’s own research suggests that the existing housing-voucher program could be improved in real ways to entice more landlords to participate, even in competitive markets. Researchers have been studying landlord signing bonuses and ways to get landlords their money faster. Even COVID-19 has helped hasten the digital streamlining of HUD contracts, making them less annoying to manage.

new bipartisan bill introduced in May by Senators Chris Coons and Kevin Cramer would seek to remove red tape for Section 8 landlords. HUD is also beginning a new, major study of landlord incentives as part of its Moving to Work expansion.

And to be sure, one reason lawmakers have long resisted cash transfers is fear of political blowback. Over the years, Republican and Democratic politicians have embraced the myth that welfare rewards laziness, and that cash benefits in particular will spark public outrage.

But as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that cash assistance to Americans is more politically viable—even more popular—than many in Washington previously thought. The U.S. government has also proved that it can cut checks quickly when it deems it necessary. In fact, distributing money can be easier than administering a byzantine social-insurance program that eligible participants may not even know about. If landlords continue to resist housing vouchers, perhaps the government will take that decision out of their hands and simply give renters cash.

Legislators Push to Make Phone Calls in New York’s Jails and Prisons Free

Originally published in New York Focus on October 14, 2021

Vivett Dukes made a point to talk by phone with her husband John at least once every day while he was in prison at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 30 miles north of New York City. “The goal was once in the morning, and once whenever else if we could,” she recalled. “I felt very alone with this. There aren’t a lot of safe places to talk about the true impact of incarceration on family connection and how it really tries to rip up love.”

Asked about the cost of the calls, Dukes began to cry. “It was very expensive,” she said amid tears. At times I didn’t eat lunch, or I denied myself other things. The fees that I incurred were enough for me to take a second job.” Dukes said she tried to budget at least $200 a month.

A new legislative effort in New York aims to address the exorbitant costs of communicating with incarcerated people, costs that bear heavily on family members and particularly low-income women and people of color. The yet-to-be introduced legislation would aim to make not just phone calls but also email and video conferencing free, modeled off a bill Connecticut enacted earlier this year, the first state in the country to do so.

People incarcerated in New York pay some of the steepest rates for phone calls in the country. A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a national criminal justice reform group, found that New York had the 7th highest average cost for an in-state jail call in the nation.

How much New Yorkers pay depends on where they’re incarcerated. In 2007, the state passed legislation to drive down the cost of calls in state prisons, and in 2019, New York City became the nation’s first major city to assume paying the costs of jail calls. But neither action affected local jails in the 57 counties outside of New York City, where the average cost of calls in 2019 was $8.83—50 percent higher than the national average. In some jails, costs run as high as $9.95 for a 15-minute conversation.

Most of this money is collected by the counties, which negotiate lucrative kickbacks in contracts with phone providers. Just under two-thirds of revenue from the average jail call goes into counties’ coffers, according to research published this year by the Prison Policy Initiative. In 22 counties, that figure stood at at least 80 percent.

State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), who is leading the charge in his chamber to make calls free, told New York Focus that he expects towns and counties will resist efforts to end these kickbacks. “Whenever states do things that have fiscal impacts, there is always pushback by municipalities,” he said. “They’ll say we’re doing an ‘unfunded mandate.’ That’s just going to be a fight we expect to have.”

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a national group focused on profiteering in prisons, says she anticipates sheriffs mounting some opposition as well. In Massachusetts, where similar efforts to make calls free and eliminate commissions are underway, sheriffs have warned that such measures could result in fewer prison programs and less safe communities.

New York Focus reached out to county executives and sheriffs in eight counties, each of which clawback a majority of call revenue—Albany, Erie, Cattaraugus, Cortland, Delaware, Monroe, Ontario, and Saratoga. Most did not return request for comment.

But Theordore Kusineirz Jr., the chair of the Board of Supervisors in Saratoga County, which takes 80 percent of jail call revenue, told New York Focus that he opposes the idea of making the communications free for the incarcerated. “The hard-working, taxpaying, law-abiding residents of Saratoga County should not have to cover the cost of phone calls for those who wish to disregard the rules of society,” he said.

Spokespeople for the county executives in Erie and Albany referred questions to their counties’ sheriffs, who, like the other sheriffs contacted for this article, did not respond to requests for comment. The New York State Sheriffs’ Association also did not return a request for comment.

All Eyes on the State Budget

For the last few years, advocates and lawmakers have debated whether to push legislation to make phone calls free throughout jails and prisons or just in state prisons, which could be an easier fight politically. Epstein introduced several bills of varying scope last year, none of which received a committee vote.

This year, the coalition—which includes Epstein, State Senator Jamaal Bailey, and the advocacy organizations Worth Rises, Color of Change, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center—have decided to move forward with one comprehensive bill to make all prison and jail calls free.

With promising state revenue projections, Epstein is hopeful that this bill will find greater success in 2022. “The bill cost money and last year with Covid was a difficult fiscal year,” he said. “This year we’re in a better position to move it forward.”

The coalition plans to press Governor Kathy Hochul to include the idea in her executive budget proposal, due to be released in January, and then to pass a bill based on the budget during the next legislative session, which runs from January until June. Epstein says his office is still working on crunching the numbers for his proposal.

The governor has promised to give the idea a hearing. “Governor Hochul is committed to improving justice and safety in jails, and we will review the legislation,” spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hayes told New York Focus.

Some advocates, including Tylek, have raised concerns that Mike Keogh, the husband of Hochul’s new secretary, Karen Keogh, works for Bolton-St. Johns, a top lobbying firm in Albany that represents Securus, the prison telecom company that covers state prisons and New York City jails.

Securus initially lobbied against efforts to make prison phone calls free in Connecticut, but under pressure from Worth Rises and the private equity firm that owns Securus, the company later announced it would stand down. This year, Securus spokesperson Jade Trombetta told New York Focus that “we have not and will not” lobby against any similar legislation in New York, adding that it is their company policy “to work with any funding model that allows us to provide quality services to the incarcerated and maintain the security technology needed to protect public safety.”

Melissa DeRosa, the former secretary of Governor Andrew Cuomo, also had ties to Bolton-St. Johns. DeRosa’s father was a top partner at the firm, and while the Cuomo administration insisted DeRosa recused herself from anything related to her father’s business, lobbying reports showed the company continued to have access to Cuomo’s inner circle, even when the governor was under investigation.

Rob Galbraith, a research analyst at LittleSis, a corporate watchdog group, told New York Focus that such conflicts of interests were routinely dismissed in Albany for years — which is why paying attention to ties between new executive branch officials and lobbying firms matters now. “The stock response under Cuomo was that it’s misogynistic to even pose the question,” Galbraith said. “But Kathy Hochul has a new mandate for transparency.”

Trombetta, the Securus spokesperson, said Mike Keogh has not worked with them directly. Crampton-Hays said that “recusals have been put in place to ensure that any New York State business relating to the Secretary’s spouse is delegated.”

GTL, another prominent prison telecoms company, covers about 85 percent of jails outside of New York City. GTL spokesperson Natasha Fleury did not say whether her company would support or oppose the legislative push in New York, but said it is “constantly evaluating ways to drive down rates across the country” and noted that it currently provides free phone services in San Francisco county jails. (Last year, San Francisco officials announced that rather than requiring families to pay for calls, the city will pay GTL a fixed monthly rate per phone device.)

As advocates, telecom companies, and government officials hash out the legislation, incarcerated people and their families will continue to foot the bill.

Laron Rogers, who has been incarcerated in New York for nearly a quarter-century, said that legislation to make prison calls free would particularly help incarcerated people communicate with children and the elderly.

“I know some guys [in prison] who have children [but] might not have a relationship with the child’s mother, or the child might live with someone who won’t put money on the phone account, so then it’s almost impossible for them to talk to their kids,” Rogers, who is currently at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, said. “And, you know, my uncle—he puts money on my grandmother’s line, because she doesn’t like the internet, she doesn’t like giving out her personal information. If you have elderly people, that’s a real barrier.”

Vivett said that free prison phone calls would have made a world of difference for her.

“I was so stressed I would miss a call from [my husband]. My blood pressure was up, my anxiety,” she said. “I would sleep with the phone, just every minute, holding it like life support.”

In The Fight for Reproductive Rights, Don’t Forget the Medicaid Gap

Originally published in The Intercept on October 1, 2021.

IN ONE OF the grimmest periods ever for reproductive rights, advocates are scrambling to react to a spate of new restrictions on abortion. The Biden Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Texas in the wake of S.B. 8, the state’s new law that invites private citizens to enforce abortion bans through civil litigation. House Democrats passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would protect abortion providers and remove barriers for patients. And some advocates see hope in medication abortion, a combination of two drugs — mifepristone and misoprostol — which people can take to safely end pregnancies.

But many states still restrict where providers can mail drugs, and most groups still only service states with relatively friendly abortion laws. Last week, a Republican state representative in Florida introduced a bill that mirrors S.B. 8, and lawmakers in other GOP-controlled states have signaled interest in following suit. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused thus far to block Texas’s notorious statute, and the Women’s Health Protection Act stands little chance of passage in the Senate.

As long as the Senate filibuster remains in place, and the U.S. Supreme Court maintains its anti-abortion majority, advocates in the South say there’s little that Washington can really do to aid their plight. There is one crucial method, though, which often falls off the radar: Medicaid expansion.

“What people have forgotten is [in] this entire swath of the southeast, from Texas and Georgia and Florida, we never got Medicaid expansion, so there’s a lot of people, especially people capable of becoming pregnant, unable to access any sort of insurance,” said Robin Marty, a journalist, activist, and head of operations for West Alabama Women’s Center, an independent abortion clinic in Tuscaloosa. “We need national organizations to remember that we’re still five steps behind. While they’re trying to get new medication abortion programs standing, we’d like to even use the [Affordable Care Act] birth control mandate.”

As Congress considers proposals to include in the upcoming reconciliation bill — a $3.5 trillion social spending package that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are threatening to derail — Democrats are weighing at least two measures that would expand Medicaid access in the 12 states that have refused. One pathway, led by Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, would create a program that’s like Medicaid but administered by the federal government rather than by individual states. Their proposal would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to offer coverage to those eligible in the 12 holdout states. Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett also has a bill that would allow cities and counties to expand Medicaid in states that have refused. And some powerful lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., have cited Medicaid expansion as a top priority for inclusion.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks on Medicaid expansion and the reconciliation package during a press conference with fellow lawmakers at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2021.

The cost for expansion so far is estimated at potentially $250 to $300 billion, but the price could shrink if legislators put an expiration date on their plans. Clyburn suggested last week that he would back a few years of Medicaid expansion, which he said could be harder to strip away once it’s in place.

Lawmakers are under pressure to reduce the cost of the reconciliation package — despite the fact that the $3.5 trillion price tag would be spread over 10 years and partially covered by raising taxes on the wealthy — and several health care priorities are competing for space. These include expanding Medicare, bolstering Obamacare subsidies, and ensuring access to in-home care for the elderly. A Washington Post report on Thursday made the chances for a permanent Medicaid expansion look less likely: Some advocates and Democratic senators expressed concern that it might reward recalcitrant GOP lawmakers, or even incentivize states that have expanded Medicaid to reverse course, potentially forcing the federal government to pick up the tab for states that had previously expanded Medicaid.

THERE ARE MORE than 2 million poor, uninsured adults in the so-called Medicaid gap. Of those, roughly 800,000 are women of reproductive age. Most people who fall into the gap are unlikely to afford insurance on the individual marketplace because they’re ineligible for premium subsidies, which help offset high monthly costs. And while the Affordable Care Act applies to most private insurance plans, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 13 percent of workers in 2019 were enrolled in “grandfathered” plans exempt from the ACA’s protections — including the mandate for contraception coverage.

In Washington, D.C., and 38 states that have expanded Medicaid since 2014, public health researchers found an immediate and large increase in insurance coverage for low-income women of reproductive age. Health and economics researchers also found that low-income women in expansion states were more likely to use effective birth control methods during their postpartum period than their counterparts in holdout states, and were more likely to use long-acting reversible contraception, considered among the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancies. The proposed Medicaid expansion plans would increase access to birth control and reproductive services in the remaining 12 states.

On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood Federation of America issued new fact sheets detailing what Medicaid expansion would mean for each state that has until now resisted broadening coverage. In Alabama, for example, Planned Parenthood says 51,000 women of reproductive age would gain access to affordable health insurance, including more than 20,000 Black women. In Texas, more than 324,000 women of reproductive age would gain affordable health insurance and access to services, including 48,000 Black women and 1930,000 Latina women.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen who wanted birth control and were not able to get it,” said Marty. “The county health departments are booked two to three months in advance, so by the time they get there it’s too late; and then we have patients who do have private doctors, but the doctors are denying them the coverage.”

Jamila Taylor, the director of health care reform and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said expanding Medicaid could definitely help support women who fall into the coverage gap, who lack insurance or access to comprehensive maternal services. “We know this affects people not ready to be parents, and those who are ready to have children,” she said.

So if either the Ossoff-Warnock-Baldwin plan or the Doggett proposal passes, the changes could expand access to contraception for thousands of currently uninsured people. But would they allow Medicaid to cover solutions like medication abortion? Thanks to the Hyde Amendment — a prohibition on using federal funds to cover abortions outside of the exceptions of rape, incest, and endangerment to a woman’s life, which Congress has reauthorized every year since 1976 — the answer is still no.

There is legislation pending in the House and Senate, called the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act of 2021, or EACH Act, that would overturn the Hyde Amendment — but like the Women’s Health Protection Act, it stands little chance of passage with the filibuster in place. On Wednesday, Manchin told the conservative National Review that he was open to considering Medicaid expansion as part of reconciliation — but only if the package includes the Hyde Amendment. States can, however, still opt to use their own Medicaid funding to cover abortions, and 16 primarily blue states already do.

As long as the Hyde Amendment remains in place, those living in regions at odds with reproductive health access will have to rely on more difficult and sometimes risky measures to terminate their pregnancies. If the amendment were repealed, Medicaid funds could potentially be used to prescribe medication abortion, offering an alternative in places where clinics are closed. But many hostile states have broadened their anti-abortion measures to cover mifepristone and misoprostol. Since April, lawmakers in Republican-led states, working closely with anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, have moved to pass even more restrictions on medication abortion.

Marty, who authored “Handbook for a Post-Roe America” in 2019, said for now people should consider obtaining medication abortion pills before they are pregnant, a process known as advanced provision. Some are are already doing this in Texas through Aid Access, an organization based in Europe that a Dutch doctor started in April 2018.

“At this point [activists] do not believe that someone who takes this step is under threat of a lawsuit because pregnant people are explicitly excluded from [SB8], but it could be a potential lawsuit if that person who ordered it gave it to someone else,” said Marty.

But shipping pills from Europe can result in delays. “Hypothetically, there might be people who try get ahold of medication abortion from one of these online retailers despite living in a different city,” said Marty, referring to U.S.-based telehealth organizations like Abortion on Demand. In those cases, which could also present legal risk, women might ask contacts they know living in more abortion-friendly states to obtain the medication and then quietly mail them the pills.

“As an author and activist, I firmly believe that all people need to be [ready] for when abortion is completely illegal and inaccessible,” said Marty. “It’s become clear to me that abortion will mostly disappear in red states.”

Massachusetts May Become First State to Send Money to Low-Income Countries to Deal With Climate Change

Originally published in In These Times on September 16, 2021.

As unprecedented natural disasters ravage the United States, while federal commitments to climate finance have lagged, the Massachusetts legislature is poised to make a statewide commitment to global climate initiatives. A bill winding its way through the Massachusetts House and Senate could make the state the first in the nation to legislate in support of international climate finance — that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can reduce their carbon emissions and respond to threats of climate change. 

The legislation would create a voluntary check-off option for Massachusetts residents to donate through their annual tax returns to the Least Developed Countries Fund, a multilateral fund established in 2001 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to help low-income nations adapt to the climate crisis. 

The Biden administration’s commitments to the Green Climate Fund, another multilateral vehicle established by the United Nations in 2010 to finance projects in low-income countries, have fallen far short of what activists say is necessary for the United States to pay its fair share and meet the scale of the global threat. While Biden has promised to restore trust among international partners in the wake of the Trump presidency, climate advocates say much more funding is needed.

“I think it’s very important for states to step up,” said bill sponsor Tony Cabral, a Democratic representative from the 13th Bristol District in Massachusetts who has served in office for 30 years.

Supporters say the bill can help elevate the oft-ignored climate justice issue and its impact on vulnerable countries which usually receive scant attention. Both the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Green Climate Fund serve the Paris Agreement, adopted by the United States and other major countries in 2015, but they are separate entities and any revenue raised for the former would not count toward the U.S. government’s pledges to the latter.

“One of the objectives is to lead by example,” said Lauren Stuart, a climate change policy adviser at Oxfam America. ​“At the end of the day, realistically, this legislation probably won’t bring in a ton of money — Massachusetts is not a huge state — but the idea is that hopefully this can prompt other states to take action and, collectively, if we can get more states to implement this, then that can lead to much bigger contributions.”

Righting climate wrongs

The impetus for the legislation came in 2017, when former President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and to end the United States’ climate finance contributions. At the time, the country had donated just $1 billion out of a $3 billion Green Climate Fund pledge it promised to meet by 2018.

By implementing the new legislation, lawmakers in Massachusetts hope to begin the process of jumpstarting climate aid to lower-income countries. 

“We were really optimistic it was going to pass during the last legislative session,” said Stuart. ​“It’s a very straightforward bill, there’s no real opposition to it, but policymaking can be a painfully slow process.” The majority of bills that get introduced never become law and those that do often take years to pass, according to Chris Gregory, a lobbyist with the Boston-based Northeast Energy Efficiency Council, a trade group. When Covid-19 hit, legislative priorities in the state were upended immediately as lawmakers grew overwhelmed with new challenges.

Gregory, who has been helping to shepherd the bill on a pro-bono basis, said one challenge advocates initially faced was the fact that the state’s existing process for income tax return checkoffs wasn’t working very well. Massachusetts residents already have six options on their tax returns to contribute to various causes, but while there is an established process for adding charities to the form, there is no way to remove them, even when groups raise no money or no longer merit receiving donations. 

“The lawyers in the [Massachusetts] Senate said, ​‘wait a second this whole thing is screwed up, we essentially need you to fix it before we take up your bill,’” said Gregory. ​“So after the first version, we went back and drafted a mechanism by which [charitable groups] could get thrown off. It took a lot of research and a lot of work, but we think it will work better now across the board.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the first state to introduce a checkoff box on its state income tax form was Colorado in 1977, which was intended to raise money for nongame and endangered wildlife preservation. By 2018, there were over 420 state checkoff programs across 30 states and Washington D.C., with most going to efforts to support military families, health education, disease prevention and groups for children.

Exactly how much money the option in Massachusetts could raise for climate finance each year is not clear, but Gregory thinks it could be in the six figures, and that there’s room for more concerted public service advertising than past checkoff programs have deployed.

Next steps

The legislation has been referred to the Committee on Revenue, and supporters are waiting for a hearing to be scheduled for the fall. Stuart said they’re expecting a legislative schedule by the end of September with a hearing for their bill hopefully within a month or two. ​“We keep asking for the set date and we just heard we will be given plenty of time to prepare,” she said.

While there’s no organized resistance to the bill, which promotes a voluntary effort that costs the state nothing, activists say that doesn’t mean its passage is guaranteed, especially as lawmakers are still focused on processing the influx of federal money from Covid-19 stimulus.

“This should be easy, but stuff that should be easy is always the hardest to pass,” said Gregory. He added that the state Senate is expected take the bill up and pass it quickly, but the House, which both bigger and more conservative, is where the real challenge lies.

“People think of Massachusetts as a very liberal place, but it’s an extremely conservative place in some ways, and lawmakers don’t like frivolous gestures,” he said. ​“So you have to make sure it’s seen as a serious undertaking and that constituents want it.”

Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey did not return requests for comment on whether they support the bill or are advocating its passage. When Warren ran for president in 2020, she proposed a $100 billion ​“Green Marshall Plan” to fund projects in developing nations, but the projects would have required countries to purchase American-made energy technology. Projects funded out of the Green Climate Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund do not come with similar restrictions. Markey, who has emerged as a strong proponent of environmental justice, has been less vocal on the need for international climate finance, though earlier this year he introduced a bill to support individuals displaced by climate disasters.

Larry Yu, co-chair of the Boston Metro chapter of the Climate Reality Project, said his group has been working to help advance the bill. ​“Tactically we’ve held a couple of webinars and talked about it in our meetings,” he told In These Times. ​“And we’ve used those talking points in talking to a few targeted legislators in the state House. This is not a campaign where our strategy has been to get 10,000 people to show up at the state House. Our approach has been to go to committees.”

Yu said he and his fellow activists have no illusions that Massachusetts would somehow offset the outstanding commitments from the federal government. ​“But if we save one community’s livelihood, or save another family’s lives, that’s powerful,” he said. ​“This is a real issue of global climate justice that many people haven’t seriously engaged with before.”

Advocates of the bill hope its passage will spur similar legislation across the country. It wouldn’t be the first time states followed one another in adopting pioneering climate reforms, as has happened before in commitments to pursue 100 percent clean energy goals and set new emission standards on construction and transportation. 

Daniel Sosland, president of the Acadia Center, a regional climate and energy think tank, said he’s supporting the Massachusetts bill in part because it offers citizens a way to take direct action on a global level. 

“It’s symbolic,” added Gregory. ​“But sometimes symbols are important.”

Public Campaign Funding Gains Steam to Counter Big Donors’ Sway

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on September 16, 2021.

When Christina Henderson, a new at-large member of the Council of the District of Columbia, first considered running for office, one of her worries was whether she could raise enough money to be competitive. “I was not independently wealthy. Most of my friends worked in the public sector,” says Henderson, who was previously a staffer on the Council.

But D.C. had begun public financing before the 2020 election cycle. The program provides candidates who agree to accept only small contributions with a 5-to-1 match for every dollar raised from a D.C. resident. Henderson took her chance, won her seat, and credits the program with giving her a path.

“One of the best things, as an elected official who plans to continue to participate in public financing, is that I don’t have to spend my term fundraising or worrying about resources for the next election,” she says. “I can just do my job.”

report in August from the D.C. auditor found the program, which distributed almost $4 million to candidates in 2020, increased both the number of people who ran for office and those who donated to local campaigns.

Public financing of elections has been around for decades in the U.S. Today there are at least 27 programs in states, cities, and counties (most but not all of them Democratic), with models ranging from direct candidate grants to small-dollar matching. Advocates say public financing can stem corruption, empower a public that too often feels marginalized by special interests, and diversify public bodies from school boards to Congress.

The idea has been gaining traction: New York City and San Francisco both moved to bolster their existing programs, and new programs in Baltimore and Portland, Ore., as well as the one in Washington, have gotten off the ground. But there are still questions about how much public financing can mobilize new donors at the local level. And it faces a test in Congress this fall as part of a voting rights package.

November will be the first time Democracy Vouchers are used in a mayoral election in Seattle. Under this program, introduced in 2017, vouchers are mailed to registered voters, who can then donate them to candidates. “Seattle’s model is really unique, because it doesn’t require residents to have disposable income to participate,” says Jennifer Heerwig, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After a nonmayoral Seattle election in 2017, Heerwig and other researchers found that voucher donors were more representative of the population in age, income, and race than cash donors. In 2019, the program’s second cycle, the number of residents using vouchers almost doubled, to about 7%.

This year the top two vote-getters in August’s mayoral primary, Bruce Harrell and Lorena González, redeemed the fewest vouchers among the five candidates who chose to use them, and outside spending soared. The two leading PACs that supported Harrell and González, for example, raised almost seven times more money than the top vote-getters did combined in the last election.

Alex Koren, González’s campaign manager, says they’re seeing a significant uptick in voucher contributions since the primary ended and expect to max out on redeeming vouchers this month. Harrell’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but data shows it’s already maxed out.

Not everyone is sold on the merits of public funding, even in blue cities. In May voters in Austin rejected a ballot proposal that would have established a city voucher program such as the one Seattle uses. Polls suggest voters like the idea of reducing the influence of big money in politics, but they’re less keen to put their own tax dollars toward a solution.

Experts say public-financing programs can suffer from not being generous enough, hampering candidates who might choose to participate—as is the case with the system for presidential campaigns, which no general election candidate has taken part in since 2012. When Republican Doug Ducey ran for Arizona governor in 2014, he declined public financing and was able to raise more than double the amount of his primary competitors who opted in.

“The programs will say, ‘Take these public funds, but don’t spend over this amount or else you’re not eligible to take the public money,’ which is an invitation for all these outside groups to spend tons of money,” says Raymond La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “And that’s exactly what happens.”

HR 1, the comprehensive voting rights bill the House of Representatives passed in March, has a provision for voluntary 6-to-1 matching for small congressional campaign donations up to $200. To avoid political blowback from using taxpayer funds, it would be financed through a new fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, and settlements with banks and corporations. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new fees would reduce the federal deficit by almost $1 billion over a decade. HR 1 would also authorize a voucher program to be piloted in three states, where voters would receive $25 to donate to congressional candidates.

Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, the lead sponsor of HR 1, says there’s “good momentum” for the public-financing provision. While key Senate swing voter Joe Manchin of West Virginia has expressed reservations about the size of HR 1, he co-sponsored a compromise bill that Senate Democrats introduced on Sept. 14 that included 6-to-1 small-donation matching. Even a trimmed-down package may not garner the 10 Republican votes it would need in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has attacked the public-financing proposal specifically as “piles of federal dollars going to yard signs, balloons, and TV ads for candidates at least half of Americans disagree with.”

Federal public financing may hinge on the fate of the filibuster. “I think whatever represents real reform, sadly, by definition, will be something that the current Republican leadership in the Senate will stand against,” Sarbanes says. “If that’s the reality we face,” he says, “then you have to look at resetting the rules. And I think that conversation is ongoing among Senate Dems.”

Building Trades Union Imposes Vaccine Mandate on Itself

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 25, 2021.

As the country continues to wrestle with efforts to increase vaccination rates, an international building trades union took the rare step on Wednesday of stating clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), which represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, issued a statement urging the labor movement to “lead by example.” It goes further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.

“We’re not looking for anything at the bargaining table, and we’re not looking at our support in return for something else,” said incoming IUPAT General President Jim Williams Jr. “We feel COVID is a true health and safety risk on the job site, and if the employers mandate it, we want to be supportive. There’s a ton of mandates that employers already put out for health and safety.”

Williams said his union lost 65 members to COVID-19 last year. “What we in unionized construction pride ourselves in is being the safest workforce in the industry,” he told the Prospect. “We’d be crazy to think that we’re promoting health and safety by not having our workforce vaccinated at this point.”

The IUPAT’s new stance will take shape in three ways. Beginning October 15, the international union will require all of its own non–bargaining unit office and field employees to show proof of vaccination. Given this new policy, their statement reads, “it is only reasonable that they apply the same approach to the interpretation of their national collective bargaining agreements.” In practice, this means that for the roughly 150 employers across the country who have agreements with the IUPAT, the international union is declaring that any employer vaccine mandate will be considered “consistent” with their contracts as currently written, and no grievances will be filed to contest such a requirement.

Lastly, the IUPAT is providing guidance to its local affiliates (known as “district councils”), which likely have the right to demand bargaining over vaccine mandates. “The IUPAT expects that each District Council facing this issue will consider the facts on the ground in their jurisdiction—trends in infection rates as well as local or state restrictions—and choose a course of action that best protects our members’ health and work opportunities,” the statement reads. “The General Executive Board is seeking to lead by example.”

The IUPAT’s position is nuanced. The union is encouraging immediate support for employer vaccine mandates, while also encouraging local affiliates to put support for the mandates directly into their contracts, to stave off the duty to file member grievances over the issue.

But negotiating the latter need not come before the former, as other unions have called for.

ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, KEY OFFICIALS in the IUPAT met together in Las Vegas and discussed vaccinations. The rise of the delta variant helped motivate union leaders to take a firmer stance. “There’s still a continued pandemic, and when people take their eyes off the ball, especially in the workplace, that’s when things get bad,” Williams said.

There’s broad support among the American public for vaccine mandates. The COVID States Project, a polling group out of Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern, and Northwestern Universities, found earlier this summer that 64 percent of Americans backed the government requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, including 45 percent of Republicans. Morning Consult separately found even 38 percent of Republicans backed employer-mandated vaccine mandates.

In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said federal laws don’t preclude employers from requiring vaccination against COVID-19, though businesses may be required to provide workers accommodations for religious reasons and disabilities. Several unions have struck deals with employers on vaccine mandates, most recently the Walt Disney Co. with 40,000 workers at Disney World in Florida, who are represented by the Services Trades Council Union.

But for now, most international unions, even those actively encouraging vaccinations, have not gone as far as the IUPAT. Earlier this month, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), issued a statement saying that, with the delta variant spreading, vaccination is “more essential than ever.” But he stopped short of expressing support for employer mandates. “As employers establish vaccination policies, AFSCME will address the impact on workers through bargaining to ensure that the front-line heroes of this pandemic are treated fairly,” Saunders said.

Likewise, when Tyson Foods issued a vaccination requirement for its U.S. workforce earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 24,000 Tyson meatpackers, issued a critical statement, saying employers should negotiate such policies with their workers first. “While we support and encourage workers getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and have actively encouraged our members to do so, it is concerning that Tysons is implementing this mandate before the FDA has fully approved the vaccine,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone had said. “This vaccine mandate must be negotiated so that these workers have a voice in the new policy.” (The UFCW separately supports a national mask mandate, and Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, Comirnaty, was approved by the FDA on Monday.)

SEIU, which is strongly encouraging vaccination for its members, also warns on its website that “employers may commit an unfair labor practice if they fail to bargain with the union before implementing a mandatory vaccination program.” Last week, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new vaccine mandate for all health care workers, nursing home workers, and public-school employees, the local SEIU affiliate president released a statement noting, “When it comes to the vaccine mandate, there is no consensus among our membership. People strongly support the mandate and people strongly oppose the mandate. But I think we can all agree that having a say in how this new policy impacts our lives is a good thing.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, said in late July that any new vaccine policy must be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is currently negotiating a vaccine mandate with AT&T, and attempting to find solutions like permanent at-home work for workers who oppose the mandate.

Some unions, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the American Postal Workers Union, have come out against vaccination mandates writ large. Others, like the American Foreign Service Association and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, have expressed support for vaccine requirements. “We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot,” said IFPTE president Paul Shearon.

For his part, Richard Trumka, the recently deceased leader of the AFL-CIO, expressed his support for vaccination mandates just before his death. “If you are coming back into the workplace,” Trumka had said, “you have to know what’s around you.”

Leaders at Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS Hesitated to Tell Families About Staff COVID-19 Cases and HVAC Systems In Repair

Originally published in Washington City Paper on August 23, 2021.

Three staff members at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to work in-person on Aug. 11, a fact the school did not share with families until the evening of Friday, Aug. 20, after City Paper asked why parents had not been informed. Students are set to return for in-person classes on Wednesday, Aug. 25. Sundai Riggins, the head of school, says they notify “those who [are] in close contact and those present in the building” when there are positive cases and “no students or families are currently in the building.” 

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 19, school leadership sent an email to parents informing them that their previously scheduled in-person “Meet Your Teacher” day planned for Friday, Aug. 20, would now be held virtually to reduce risk ahead of students returning to school next week.  

That same day, unbeknownst to parents, District Urgent Care staff was on site providing rapid and PCR tests to school employees; DC Health recommends that any close contact, even those who are fully vaccinated, get tested 3 to 5 days after an exposure. While no rapid tests were positive, the results of the PCR tests were still pending as of Friday night.

Friday morning, hours before the virtual parent meetings, school leadership shared staff on a document with talking points to use in their forthcoming discussions, which directed teachers to keep the positive cases to themselves.  

Among other things, if a parent or guardian asked their child’s teacher if someone at the school had gotten COVID—which happened in three confirmed instances in the past week—staff were instructed to say, “ITDS, like almost all other communities, has experienced positive cases of COVID since the pandemic began in March 2020.” The talking points continue to say, “ITDS is dedicated to the balance of transparency with our community while respecting the private health information of students, staff, and families.”

“I felt like we were being asked to lie,” one employee told City Paper.

Teachers and staff returned to the school building on Aug. 11, where roughly 80 employees have been gathering in a large multipurpose room for training and activities. Employees generally wear masks, though face coverings are removed occasionally for snacking and drinking. More than 90 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, according to the school. All staff members, except those with a medical or religious exemption, are required to be fully vaccinated.

The following Monday, Aug. 16, all staff were notified in an email from school COO Kate Keplinger that a fellow employee who had been with them on Wednesday and Thursday the week prior had tested positive. The email said all non-fully-vaccinated people had been notified, and fully vaccinated people should monitor themselves for symptoms for the next 14 days but need not quarantine.

That same day, two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19, a fact school leadership learned about Monday evening, but did not tell staff about until the following morning, when they all gathered together again in-person for training. At 12:27 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, Keplinger reiterated in an email to staff that two more employees had tested positive, and that they had last been inside the school building the day before. She informed staff that District Urgent Care would be available on Thursday to test any staff who was interested. DC Health’s guidance states fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine but should get tested 3 to 5 days after exposure.

City Paper asked if all staff involved in the trainings got the provided PCR and rapid testing. Riggins said “the majority of staff” took a rapid test and did not respond about PCR testing. When asked why the tests were optional rather than required for exposed staff, Riggins said, “Optional testing is in compliance with ADA [the Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.” 

But requiring COVID-19 testing if local public health authorities recommend it, which they currently do, is permitted under both statutes. 

“It is not a violation of the ADA or the Civil Rights Act to mandate testing,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, told City Paper. “If the staff member refuses to be tested, DC Health should order them to be quarantined for 10 to 14 days. Health and safety must always be the highest priority in schools. That means either getting tested or being quarantined. There are no other safe or reasonable options.” 

Riggins did not return multiple requests for additional comment.

One Inspired Teaching employee, worried about the in-person event with parents still on the books for Friday, and about other issues with COVID-19 mitigation at their school, reached out Wednesday afternoon to the Office of the D.C. Auditor. ODCA told the employee they would be treated as a whistleblower, according to the employee, who later reached out to City Paper.

City Paper contacted D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson on Saturday to ask what her office did with the information provided to them by the concerned staff member, and if they could share any correspondence they may have sent to other agencies or Inspired Teaching.

Patterson confirmed an employee reached out, and said they consider the employee “a whistleblower because the individual did not want their name used in any way from concern about possible reprisal.” Patterson said ODCA shared the information they learned from the employee with DC Health in case it could provide additional information beyond what the agency had already learned through the city’s contact tracing program.

Patterson—acknowledging that D.C. government emails are public information unless explicitly exempted under FOIA—shared the following from the email her office sent to DC Health.

Our office received a whistleblower alert from a staff member at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School about an outbreak. I’m sharing it with you as it seemed concerning, especially since an in-person back to school night is scheduled for Friday:

The whistleblower shared that at least 3 symptomatic staff at Inspired Teaching Public Charter School have tested positive for COVID via rapid tests after participating in a staff training conducted inside at the school. Other staff were not informed of these positive cases, and the school leader continued to organize additional days of the in-person training. Staff were also not instructed to quarantine. The school is hosting a large in-person “meet your teacher” event this Friday. The whistleblower is concerned that Friday’s event if it continues could infect more people. Additionally, half of the school does not have a functioning HVAC system nor the ability to open windows. Families have not been informed about the cases nor the lack of ventilation. The whistleblower has communicated with DC Health contact tracers who have been helpful.

Please let us know if more details would be helpful to DC Health. I know you will have at least some of this information via contact tracing.

Also, moving forward, how should school staff report such concerns to DC Health?

Patterson did not say whether DC Health responded to her office’s note.

DC Health did not return requests for comment on this story. 

As noted in Patterson’s email, Inspired Teaching had also been dealing for weeks with ventilation issues, though parents were not informed until Friday night, following inquiries from City Paper. “[W]e are currently repairing parts of our HVAC system, which has caused some cooling units to not work in a few classrooms,” the school told parents that night. At a Back to School Zoom meeting held for parents the prior evening, Inspired Teaching’s presentation read:

Mary Pitts, a parent of two Inspired Teaching students, told City Paper she was comfortable with how the school responded to the positive cases and, given the timing of them, did not feel it was necessary for school leadership to alert parents of those cases or of the broken HVAC systems ahead of students arriving on Wednesday.

“As school is starting every year, people get sick or last minute changes happen, and I very much presume that we, as parents, don’t expect to have insight into all of that,” she said, noting it’s typically hectic for schools before the start of any school year. “I feel for the staff—trying to react in an environment that is changing a lot, but I think [the school] put their protocols in place and it sounds like they deployed them.” Pitts praised the administration for responding to parent feedback around making outdoor lunch an option when weather permits, and said she and other parents are looking forward to sending their children back for in-person learning.