Q&A: Getting Millennials Off That Treadmill

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 6, 2017.
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How are millennials stereotyped as lazy, despite being a highly efficient and productive generation? Why are millennials characterized as spoiled and entitled, yet just 6 percent of us expect to one day receive Social Security benefits like those enjoyed by current retirees? In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennialswriter Malcolm Harris explores these and other questions—unpacking the precarity, the economic pressures, and the contradictions surrounding those born between 1980 and 2000. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Let’s talk a little about “human capital.” What does that mean?

Malcolm Harris: Generally speaking, human capital is the skills, abilities, talents, accomplishments, and resumes that go with you when you work. It refers to the relationship between workers and owners. What some people get wrong is thinking that we own our human capital, and that we can sell it. That’s not true. We don’t own ours, and nobody is legally allowed to own human capital—[i.e. slaves]—anymore.

You say that kids today take fewer risks, and it’s partly a result of parents adopting a “risk elimination” approach to childrearing.

Through various means, we’re forcing or compelling kids to take fewer risks. Children are living increasingly conservative lives, especially compared to the immediately preceding generations. And some people talk about it like millennials are wusses, scaredy-cats, we need our mommies—stuff like that—but that’s all irrelevant because children do not raise themselves or define the world in which they come to be. In other words, we have to look for the sources of that risk-averse behavior with practices elsewhere.

I think we can find them in this idea of human capital and treating young people like appreciating assets—which gets you into the realm of risk management. In this economy, the competition has grown steeper, and the consequences of error have grown higher. The ability of people to accept risk has gone down—so you have all these risk-elimination strategies for parenting, which is very hard to live with.

Tell me about the story of Danny Dunn, and why you think it’s relevant for our time.

Danny Dunn was this children’s story I read when I was a kid that I found on my parents’ shelf. It was written in the 1950s, and it’s about this boy whose mom is a housekeeper for a scientist. Danny is always getting into the scientist’s things, and one day gets a hold of this computer. Now this was a ‘50s-era computer, so really a prototype, a slow machine. You could ask it questions and it could be programmed to tell you answers. Danny finds this and decides he’s going to use this machine to do his homework faster, so that he and his friends can get out of school more quickly.

Some other teachers find out and tell Danny that he can’t do that—that it’s cheating. Danny says, no, everyone can use technology, and I’m just using it to lighten my workload. What’s wrong, Danny asked, with doing my work faster with tools?

And this reflects a larger social tension at the time and over the second half of the 20th century: whether workers would get the benefits of technology or if owners would. Would productivity-enhancing tools result in people working fewer hours a day and getting more leisure time, or would people work not just as hard, but harder with this technology integrated into their lives?

What we see in Danny Dunn is that he ends up getting more homework as a result of his computer, and ultimately does more work than he had in the first place. In our modern economy, there’s this idea that if people work hard and get more education, use the available tools and technology we have, build more human capital then they’ll be better off. But we actually see that most people aren’t better off at all.

You explore the idea that more and more skills-training has become the burden or responsibility of the job applicant, rather than of employers who could train workers on the job.

It’s all about saving costs. It’s obscene that a company as rich as Google complains about a lack of skilled workers and that they want someone else—whether it’s a charity, or a 501(c)(3), or the government—to teach people how to do the work Google needs, and to pay for that training. Google should be paying for it, and the idea that this isn’t the response every single time someone says “skills gap” is wild. We should be saying, no, we won’t re-engineer the entire public education system for your benefit, and we’re not going to waste our kids’ time teaching them things they’re likely never going to use.

Wouldn’t the counter-argument to that be that we’re not really doing this for the companies’ sake, but for the students’? So they can earn decent livings?

But we know that when everyone does this, the aggregate effect is that wages go down. But that’s what companies want: They want it to be cheaper to pay for coders and workers with digital skills. If governments really wanted to help kids succeed in the labor market, the best correlate with high pay is union membership. Teach kids how to collectively bargain and join a union in schools. If schools wanted kids to get good jobs, strong jobs, no matter where they end up, they would teach them how to stand up for themselves and others on the job market. But we don’t have any classes on that. We have “here’s how you can get ahead by getting skills.”

On a related note, as you look at how barriers to enter various professional fields have changedyou talk specifically about music artists, comedians, and actors. Can you say a bit about this?

It’s sort of like the homework machine example with Danny Dunn. It used to be that you could get together with your friends and make music. And if you found somewhere with lots of space, and a sound-system, you could perform with other people. That’s what you could do as an individual. Now you have to do literally everything—produce your music, promote your music, release your music. You can do it, you have all the tools, and there’s nothing that’s stopping you from making the next big hit. But with that ability comes the responsibility, and people will start shouldering more and more of those tasks. So if I want to be a musician, I can’t just say I don’t want to do that graphic design for my album because I’m practicing my music. No, you have to go design your album, or find someone who can do it for you. You can no longer say, well the record label will take care of it down the line. The label won’t even look at you unless you have that done already. And this functions across the entertainment industry and beyond.

You note that no longer will attending a good school and landing a good job necessarily lead to ample leisure time. You say, “for young people who are working hard to put themselves on the successful side, they’re setting themselves up for more of the same. This road is no mountain climb: It’s a treadmill.” I related to that passage, though it certainly feels bleak.

It is bleak but I am actually optimistic. I just think optimism has to be realistic. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the jobs of the ‘50s and to that split of the national GDP between labor and capital. People who think that we can aren’t really looking at the facts or the numbers, they’re just sort of hoping. And that’s not being optimistic, that’s wishful thinking, naiveté, or delusion. Optimism is looking at the world, and at America, and seeing that history isn’t over. History is still going on, and this social system—with all its implications—is not the be-all-end-all of life on this planet. There are other ways in which we might be able to organize ourselves. That is my optimism, though I don’t think change will come in a nice, clean, or easy way.

You also say that millennials enter the labor force “structurally, legally, emotionally, culturally, and intellectually dissuaded” from collectively organizing as workers. Yet polls show that millennials are pretty supportive of unions. Is this a contradiction?

No, because we’re not stupid. Our cohort is starting to develop a political consciousness and it’s a pretty radical one compared to anything we’ve seen. Bernie Sanders got more young people’s votes in the primary than Clinton and Trump combined. We’re starting to develop this collective political consciousness, but at the same time, we’re still stuck in systems that demand individual competition from us in ways that we know are not in our collective interest. If you’re competing all the time, the implications are that you enter into this arm’s race situation, a death spiral, where kids are competing over everything constantly and never getting a chance to relax. We know this isn’t good for us, this system isn’t working for us. But in terms of power, there’s not a lot of choice right now.

What should parents or schools be doing differently?

I don’t think I have a lot of great advice for parents or schools. The problem is we have our policies and society built around everyone trying to get the most for their own child as opposed to thinking about everyone’s children. It’s the same with schools—everyone’s success is someone else’s failure. But this is a collective action problem; it’s not something we can solve by changing the behavior of individual parents or schools.

That said, teachers don’t have to give these standardized tests. The official union position is that these high-stakes tests are bad, yet teachers have been crucial in administering them.

What about kids? Can they be doing anything differently?

I focus on kids’ labor in the book. I think kids could be organizing for student power, organizing for less work, to work less hard. We tend to demonize that desire or interest but it’s in every worker’s interest to work less hard.

What is your ultimate hope for the book?

I hope it gives people, young people in particular, a frame for their experience and for the changes they see in the world. I hope it might be useful for thinking about American society and their lives in a different context, maybe one they haven’t heard before.

The longer we keep debating things like avocado toast, asking if young people are spoiled, the longer we talk about those things, the more we ignore things that are actually true—based in fact, evidence, and data.

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Will America’s Schools Ever Be Desegregated?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on December 5, 2017, co-authored with Will Stancil.
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Only a few years ago, school desegregation was a topic confined to history books—a tumultuous chapter of the civil rights era, starting with Brown v. Board of Education and ending, ignominiously, with the backlash of white parents in the 1980s and ’90s. But over the past three years, thanks to the renewed efforts of advocates and researchers, a surprising resurgence has taken shape. Authors and activists are once again highlighting America’s failure to successfully integrate its schools as a root cause of educational inequality and a driving force behind the nation’s persistent racial divides.

As concerns over unresolved segregation have picked up steam, so too has recognition of the hard practical obstacles to educational integration. Is desegregation a feasible goal? Even some self-described integrationists voice skepticism—potentially slowing, or even derailing, momentum for integrated schools. History threatens to repeat itself, with frustrated advocates accepting segregation as inevitable and refocusing, as many did in the ’90s, only on providing better education in racially isolated environments. But this would be a mistake.

No obstacle to school desegregation is greater, or has been more frequently cited, than racially divided housing patterns. The basic issue is simple: Segregated neighborhoods tend to produce segregated schools. If most of a school district’s population is black or Hispanic, most of its schools probably will be too.

This relationship between school and housing segregation has long been the bugbear of integration efforts, though for slightly different reasons than today. During the 1970s, when courts across the country tried to dismantle segregated districts, education officials pointed to housing patterns as a reason they couldn’t be held legally responsible for the demographics of their schools. The Supreme Court agreed, in part. It called school segregation that arose out of living patterns “de facto segregation,” and argued that it represented private activity that shouldn’t be corrected by government action. The role of the courts, it said, was to eliminate the effects of officially sanctioned discrimination, not to engage in racial balancing for its own sake.

But recent work has helped expose the government’s pivotal (and heretofore frequently overlooked) role in the creation of housing segregation. In 2014, as part of an explosive Atlantic cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates traced how the government redlined black neighborhoods and denied their inhabitants good mortgages, trapping residents in place. This year, Richard Rothstein followed up on Coates’ work with The Color of Law, a book that takes aim at the myth that racialized living patterns are the result of individual choices. Instead, he shows, they are mainly the product of government policies developed to maintain the racial character of neighborhoods.

With these developments have come a subtle shift: Where housing segregation was once cited as a legal defense excusing districts from the obligation to integrate, it is now raised as a practical obstacle that makes integration impossible. Skeptics say that, until cities address their legacy of discriminatory housing, little can be done to ameliorate school segregation. This argument was notably deployed last spring, when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio suggested his options were limited on school integration, given that “we cannot change the basic reality of housing” across the city.

Undoubtedly, segregated housing complicates school integration. But residential patterns can’t become a scapegoat for racially divided education either.

For decades, school districts have exploited arguments about housing to attack court-enforced desegregation plans. Critics still maintain that any form of proactive school integration will result in white flight, intensified housing segregation, and, ultimately, greater racial isolation in schools.

Experience shows, however, that segregated neighborhoods are not inherent barriers to integrated education. Following a 1996 state supreme court decision, the racially fragmented region of Hartford, Connecticut, established a school desegregation program by funding the creation of diverse magnet schools in Hartford and expanding an interdistrict choice program in the suburbs. Today nearly half of all Hartford public school students attend integrated schools, and parents are clamoring for more.

There is no secret method of school integration that works best. Magnet schools, careful boundary drawing, even the much-maligned practice of busing students to integrated schools instead of just the closest—all seem to work under the right conditions. New York City just announced it will be launching its first-ever district-wide integration plan, using “controlled choice“—a model used in cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois, that balances racial diversity with parental preference. Families rank their top school choices and the district assigns students to schools taking those considerations into account, but also considers the demographics of each school.

And, besides, neighborhood diversity alone will not always guarantee that schools integrate. In the absence of proactive desegregation plans, it isn’t unusual to find diverse communities served by segregated schools.

Consider the school districts surrounding Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several of the city’s major first-ring suburbs have experienced a rapid demographic transition over the past few decades as the region’s non-white population has quickly grown. Over 30 years, these cities—formerly monolithically white—have become highly diverse.

But change in the cities’ schools has outpaced change in their neighborhoods, and tipped into the realm of outright segregation. In 2010, for example, 50 percent of residents in the large suburb of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, were white, but only 26 percent of the students in its schools were white. In nearby Richfield, which is served by a citywide school district, the mismatch was even greater: The city was 63 percent white while its schools were 32 percent white.

Despite the diversity of the areas they serve, districts like Richfield’s and Brooklyn Park’s are caught in a trap: There’s little to prevent white parents, skittish about the effects of integration, from finding alternatives to their neighborhood school. In Minnesota, that means parents can always place their kids in a charter school, or move their child to a neighboring district under the state’s broad open enrollment rules.

There’s an essential lesson in the plight of these districts. Regardless of whether housing is integrated or otherwise, successful school desegregation requires a plan strong enough to discourage boundary trolling by parents. Indeed, the thing that unites the nation’s best school integration plans is a broad scope. Plans that extend across entire metropolitan regions can coordinate the activities of many different districts and prevent any area as acting as a haven for white flight.

There is no more compelling example of such a plan than Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville region implemented a city-county school desegregation plan following a court-order in the ’70s. Students still travel between the city proper and its suburbs to attend integrated schools with carefully drawn attendance boundaries. The system has maintained relative demographic balance for decades, even in the absence of quotas.

Of course, the road has been bumpy at times. Desegregation efforts in Louisville faced initial resistance. This is typical: Parents are deeply sensitive to changes in school policy, and adding race to the mix rarely calms things down. Very few cities, districts, or regions have attempted desegregation without some form of parental protest.

But what divides efforts that succeed from those that have failed often isn’t the presence or absence of resistance, but authorities’ patience in overcoming it. Popular dissent over desegregation, it turns out, doesn’t last forever. If changes look inevitable—and can’t be easily escaped by moving to the next town over or enrolling in a different school—parents generally come to accept them. This is what happened in Louisville: resistance gave way to acceptance and even vocal support. The district’s commitment to desegregation has survived multiple attempts to dismantle it—at the Supreme Court in 2006, and just this year in the state legislature. The plan’s resilience exists in large part because it has been embraced by the region’s parents and leaders, most of whom now believe that integration redounds to their benefit.

If anything, research suggests leaders aren’t worrying enough about effects in the other direction: Segregated schools creating segregated cities.

Last year, University of Southern California sociologist Ann Owens published a study examining census data from 100 major metropolitan areas across the United States. She found that large national increases in neighborhood segregation by income—20 percent from 1990 to 2010—were caused almost entirely by families with children, those seeking “good” school districts. Other studies have shown neighborhoods in cities with metropolitan-wide school integration plans are markedly less likely to become segregated over time. (Notably, Louisville’s rate of housing segregation fell more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Not that the impact of schools on housing is any great mystery: Ask any real estate agent. It’s no coincidence that real estate services like Zillow or Redfin prominently feature metrics of school quality on their house listings—a legal gray area, since realtor discussion of neighborhood demographics is banned by the Fair Housing Act.

Even the Supreme Court’s desegregation cases, which often treated housing patterns as a fact of nature, conceded that the construction of segregated schools “may well promote segregated residential patterns which … further lock the school system into the mold of separation of the races.”

In other words, regions that wait for diversity in neighborhoods to create diversity in schools may quickly find themselves with little of either.

The Grade Unknown: DC Charters Prize Their Autonomy. Does It Come At The Cost of Public Accountability?

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 30, 2017.
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On a Monday night in late April, the D.C. Public Charter School Board convened for its monthly meeting with plans to vote on new charter school applications. One network, DC Preparatory Academy, submitted two requests for expansion: one to increase their student enrollment ceiling, and one to open a new elementary and middle school campus. Founded in 2003 and already operating five campuses, DC Prep is considered among the highest performing charter networks in the city. It was no surprise when the Charter Board’s staff recommended that the board vote in favor of the school’s proposals.

Yet around three hours into the meeting, when it finally came time to vote, board members started asking DC Prep leaders surprisingly tough questions. Board chairman Darren Woodruff noted that at DC Prep’s elementary campus in Anacostia, the out-of-school suspension rate stood at 6.9 percent, nearly double the charter sector’s average. And DC Prep’s Edgewood middle school campus, he said, had an out-of-school suspension rate of 27.9 percent, up from 18 percent the year before. For special education students, the suspension rate was dramatically higher—45 percent.

Woodruff was particularly troubled by the kindergarten suspensions. “I am struggling mightily to understand the logic behind suspending out-of-school 5-year-olds,” said Woodruff. “… I have been in education now for over 30 years and I can’t come up with an explanation that makes sense. I would love to hear anyone from your organization justify a 40 percent suspension rate for 5-year-olds who have disabilities. That’s the reason I will not vote for the expansion.”

Three other board members joined Woodruff in voting 4-3 against DC Prep’s expansion requests.

The votes were a huge shock—to charter supporters and critics alike. Critics were impressed the board turned down a well-regarded and well-connected network. Supporters were frustrated with the board for voting based on criteria not laid out in its own Charter Amendment Guidelines, the document governing how approvals would work.

Two months later, at their June monthly meeting, the PCSB board members abruptly reversed their decisions in re-votes as startling as the first. PCSB had given no notice that it would be revisiting DC Prep’s requests for expansion. A board member introduced it as a last-minute agenda amendment at the start of the meeting.

Seven weeks later, D.C.’s Office of Open Government issued a binding opinion that the PCSB had failed to properly notify the public, a violation of the Open Meetings Act and the School Reform Act. The Office lacked the authority to compel a re-vote, but recommended the PCSB avoid similar actions in the future.

Following this, a coalition of parents and advocates asked the PCSB to void its June vote, schedule a new meeting, and allow for community input. The PCSB stood its ground, saying it “respectfully disagrees” with the Office of Open Government’s conclusions, though it would voluntarily comply with their recommendations going forward.

What spurred the DC Prep vote reversals?

That question, and the fact that it’s proven hard to answer, embodies some of the thorniest public education issues in D.C. The city’s charter sector earns admiration from education reformers across the country, and the PCSB’s work is routinely held up as one of the most rigorous authorizing models in the nation. Autonomy in exchange for academic results has long been considered the grand bargain of the charter movement.

Locally, though, D.C. charters remain controversial. Some residents say the schools operate too much like a black box, and demand greater oversight over the sector—which receives nearly $800 million of taxpayer money per year. Questions have been mounting about the endgame for D.C. charter schools—which educate almost half of the city’s students. How quickly and far will they expand, and who gets to decide?

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Charter schools are private entities authorized to provide public education, free of many rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In D.C. all charters are nonprofits, though they can hire for-profit companies to run their schools.

The District’s Public Charter School Board hasn’t always been the city’s sole charter authorizer. When Congress amended the School Reform Act in 1996, it established the PCSB as an independent agency of the D.C. government, tasking it with opening and overseeing charter schools. But the D.C. Council also gave the now-defunct D.C. school board the same responsibilities, and for the next decade, the two entities together approved at least 55 charters throughout the capital. In 2006, however, the school board ceased authorizing charters, and the next year was eliminated altogether by the city’s Public Education Reform Amendment Act. This left the PCSB as the only authorizing body.

Today 46 percent of public school students in D.C. attend 120 charter schools operated by 66 nonprofit corporations, each of which constitutes its own separate school district. (Roughly 5,000 of those students are adult learners, a population DCPS barely educates.)

The PCSB is not exactly an intuitively structured entity. It has a seven-person board appointed by the D.C. mayor and approved by the Council. It also employs about 40 staff members, including an executive director—Scott Pearson—who reports to the board.

The PCSB’s role in the larger D.C. educational ecosystem is also not quite straightforward. Lines of responsibility within that ecosystem are often unclear, with multiple bodies orbiting each other, influencing each other, and sometimes colliding.

For instance, although the city’s Deputy Mayor of Education, Jennifer Niles, is tasked with overseeing public education across the city, the PCSB does not report directly to her. “I have a ‘dotted line’ relationship with the Deputy Mayor of Education,” explains Pearson, “which means I meet with her usually every week or two and we try to coordinate on things, but she can’t tell me what to do.”

The Council also distributes funds to charters and subjects the PCSB to oversight, though critics contend not enough of that has been exercised over the years. “Nobody really likes to rock the boat that much,” as one federal education researcher put it.

In 2015, the National Research Council produced an independent evaluation of D.C.’s school reforms. “Although D.C. has been called a ‘pioneer’ in its adoption of charter schools, how to coordinate them with [DC Public Schools] for the benefit of the city’s students is not evident,” the report concluded. The National Research Council found that lines of supervision and authority were not clearly demarcated among the city’s education agencies, and that the charter sector’s decentralized structure created unique challenges for accountability.

And since D.C.’s charter law was passed by Congress, even the Council’s authority over charters gets contested. In 2014, two charters and the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools sued the city, arguing that the Council was making budgetary decisions that violated the federal School Reform Act. A judge ruled against the charter plaintiffs this past October, but declined to weigh in on the Council’s overall authority. The plaintiffs are now appealing the decision.

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A perennial question for D.C’s charter sector is how to sufficiently live up to their name—public charter schools—while also remaining independent and free from the kinds of regulation and red tape that other government agencies deal with on a regular basis. Many charter leaders say that their ability to bypass the political battles that afflict DCPS and the Council is what allows them to create innovative schools and prioritize the needs of students. Other education advocates look at the charter sector’s hefty budget—which grows larger every year—and ask whether all this autonomy really makes sense.

“I don’t have anything against charter schools, and I think mostly everybody working for charters has good intentions, but what D.C. shows, unambiguously, is that no matter how well-intentioned you are—that’s not adequate for the public’s purposes,” says Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent.

The 21st Century School Fund, a small civic nonprofit that has long been part of the DCPS watchdog community, recognized that no organization was really taking on similar oversight duties for charters—monitoring things like whether public dollars are being spent directly on students, or if funds are being distributed equitably within and across schools.

“We’ve known for a long time that monitoring the charter sector was an issue, and I think we had some naiveté that maybe the charter advocacy groups were doing the work, but they weren’t,” says Mary Filardo, the group’s executive director.

Many interest groups across D.C organize on behalf of charters, including the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), Education Forward DC, Building Hope, and others. But these advocacy organizations are not considered impartial overseers for the public interest, and most—if not all—would consider monitoring charters’ financial decisions an inappropriate infringement of the schools’ autonomy.

This oversight problem was highlighted in 2013, when D.C.’s attorney general Irvin Nathan sued three former Options Public Charter School leaders for laundering over $3 million into two for-profit companies they owned. Nathan filed a second suit several months later against the founder of Community Academy Public Charter for allegedly diverting more than $13 million into a shell management company. But both schools had passed the PCSB’s financial inspection, with the charter board concluding that Options and Community Academy had demonstrated “no patterns of fiscal mismanagement.”

The Options lawsuit settled this past September, with its accused leaders agreeing to pay $575,000 to the charter (which is now under new leadership).

The financial scandals caused an uproar. But some in the charter sector felt giving PCSB more oversight authority over charter school budget books was a bureaucratic slippery slope. “Allowing the legal process to take care of malfeasance is the proper way to go, as opposed to the charter board imposing more regulation,” Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, told The Washington Post in 2014.

Scott Pearson says the PCSB has since taken steps to tighten its financial monitoring—for instance, the charter board can now look at the books or records of any school. “So we had a school that was effectively shielding oversight from us by taking the money and paying a management company and we couldn’t follow those dollars, but that issue doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “It was a loophole and it’s resolved.”

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Not everyone is convinced. Unlike like traditional public schools, charters are not subjected to the Freedom of Information Act. Citizens can use FOIA to get information on the public charter board, but not any of the city’s individual charter schools. (Charters in other states—like New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—are subject to FOIA.)

“There is no nonprofit in the District of Columbia that receives as much taxpayer money as the charter school sector,” says Martin Welles, an attorney and DCPS parent. “Yet the taxpayer has no meaningful input because the processes are not transparent, and the private charter schools are not accountable to the public.” While the charter sector makes some data publicly available, Welles says “the whole crux of FOIA is to allow individuals to craft their own questions that they want answered.” And because charters are not legally obligated to respond to FOIA requests they receive, Welles argues it has “a chilling effect on inquiries.”

David Grosso, chair of the Council education committee, thinks getting data on schools is “a constant battle,” though one that’s not exclusive to the charter sector. “We are always trying to find ways to get more data out there and make it more transparent,” Grosso says. “But charters and DCPS have competing responsibilities and try to protect data that is sensitive for students, and parents, and schools.”

Arguments against opening charters’ books and internal communications to further public scrutiny involve protecting the sector’s independence. “I’m a political libertarian and I want these charters to be absolutely free, as much as possible, to operate the way they see fit,” says Mark Lerner, a longtime D.C. school choice advocate.

Scott Pearson thinks that because the PCSB is subject to FOIA, D.C. has struck the right balance between public accountability and protecting charter autonomy. “What I’ve argued is that because we’re a strong authorizer and scrutinize the charters’ work so carefully—we read all their [meeting] minutes, we actually attend some of their meetings, and we have the right to look over any book or record—that provides the right balance, while also allowing the school boards to operate in a way that allows them to be most effective,” he says.

Pearson used to be on a charter school board in California, where they were subject to the state’s open meetings law. “It was very difficult to talk about confidential matters and to get people who were willing to join the board,” he says, adding that some charter boards then held (illegal) off-the-record meetings.

In D.C. the charter board has access to anything it wants, and though the public can file FOIA requests with the PCSB, the PCSB cannot provide information on charters that it has not already collected. For example, if I want to read emails sent between specific charter school leaders, I can only obtain those records in the (extremely unlikely) event that the PCSB has already obtained them for itself; I could not expect the PCSB to seek them out for me.

Charter advocates are leery of the PCSB collecting too much information, bogging schools down with administrative mandates and bureaucracy.

“The public charter board is the regulator, and all regulators—almost if by nature—will try and put more and more rules in place,” says Lerner, the self-proclaimed libertarian. “But the charter board actually has very little power [given] the way the School Reform Act was written, and these schools are supposed to be independent.”

Irene Holtzman, the executive director of FOCUS, says she spent years working in D.C. school administration, focused on data, compliance, and operations. “My heart is in data, accountability, and research, but satisfying my curiosity is not sufficient to saddle schools with more data collection,” she says. “I think there is a demand for more and more information, but I’m not entirely sure that people have considered the significant opportunity cost of getting that information.”

Holtzman argues that there’s an immense amount of “underutilized” information out there already that she’d like to see people take advantage of before asking charters to produce even more. School leaders, she emphasized, should stay focused on running their schools.

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Concerns over financial transparency are not restricted to the charters themselves. The PCSB itself has at times come under suspicion. (Not without cause: the former chief financial officer of the PCSB allegedly aided the Options Charter self-dealing scam, settling those claims for $84,000.)

The money flowing into and out of the PCSB is both substantial in quantity and not closely monitored. The PCSB has the authority to accept unlimited gifts, grants, and contributions from anyone without obtaining mayoral approval, and has accepted nearly $10 million since 2003, including from the Walton Family Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the DC Chamber of Commerce. PCSB spokesperson Tomeika Bowden says philanthropic support helped the charter sector develop things like evaluative tools and management frameworks. Between 2003-12, outside gifts made up 20 percent of the PCSB’s budget, yet between 2013-2017, under Pearson’s leadership, that number has dropped to 8 percent.

Though it’s not just outside contributions that raise questions. In 2008 The Washington Post  found “conflicts of interest involving almost $200 million worth of business deals, typically real estate transactions, at more than a third of the District’s 60 charter schools.”  The Post also reported that the then-PCSB board chair, Thomas Nida, who was also a United Bank senior vice president, “voted repeatedly to increase student enrollment—and thus taxpayer funding—for charter schools that borrow money from his bank.” Nida was first appointed to the PCSB in 2003, elected chairman in 2004, and served in that role—even after the Post investigation—until February 2010.

The city is statutorily required to provide all students with “by-right” public schools, meaning schools children are entitled to attend. No charter in the city is a by-right school. Some civic watchdogs look at the evolving charter/DCPS landscape and ask: If more charters open, at some point won’t it become impossible to provide by-right public schools for all?

Deputy Mayor of Education Jennifer Niles doesn’t think so, and insists that D.C. will always have DCPS and by-right schools. “We’re not going to charter-ize the whole system and we’re not going to make charters go away,” she tells City Paper.

Yet long-term facilities planning has proven a consistent problem.

Tensions escalated in 2014 when Harmony School of Excellence, a new science-themed charter, announced it would be opening across the street from Langley Elementary, a DCPS science-themed school—both educating the same grades.

DCPS’ then-chancellor, Kaya Henderson, had no idea this plan was in the works. In an interview later with The Washington Post, Henderson said the Harmony-Langley situation was a clear example of why there needs to be more strategic planning across the two education sectors, including more efficient uses of taxpayer resources. “Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both,” she said.

Henderson proposed a system where DCPS and charter school officials work together to figure out which neighborhoods needed new, good schools, and which could benefit from more specialized programs. The charter board could then use that information when determining which new charters to approve. “A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point,” Henderson said at the time.

But three and a half years later, that conversation still does not exist. “PCSB staff believe that proximity to another school is not a valid reason for denying a charter the right to open, and that proximity may even benefit the DCPS school,” reported the National Research Council in 2015. Scott Pearson has said that, “protecting a traditional school is no reason to keep a great charter school from opening its doors.” Plus, Pearson says, it’s hard enough as it is to lock down facility space in Washington, and if the city really wanted to help influence charter site-planning, then it should work harder to give charter operators some of the city’s surplus school buildings that sit vacant.

“We believe in collaboration [with DCPS], but collaboration is not about land-use,” says Ramona Edelin, the executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.

The D.C. Code requires that the mayor submit a “Facilities Master Plan” to the Council every 10 years—a guide for managing the city’s school facilities and supply of public school seats. The plan must include, among other things, the capacity of existing schools, projected facility needs for each local education agency, and recommendations for using or reducing excess space.

Public school advocates say that any fiscally responsible plan must include all the school facilities the city uses and pays for, including charters. But the charter-sector has pushed back, saying they are not legally required to produce long-term growth plans, let alone share them with city planners.

To navigate this conundrum, Niles established a two-year “Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force” to explore policy issues between DCPS and charters. The task force is set to end in February 2018, and the Facilities Master Plan will be released sometime after that.

“The cross-sector task force is kind of a weak attempt to get voluntary cooperation by charter schools,” remarks Mary Levy, a veteran independent budget analyst for D.C. schools.

The resistance toward coordinated planning has fueled questions about whether it’s appropriate to expand charters—at significant cost to the city—while traditional schools still have capacity. According to data compiled by the 21st Century School Fund, D.C. has about 18,000 unused pre-kindergarten through 12th grade seats available, and another 7,000 if one counts the seats in closed schools still owned by the District.

But charter leaders think these figures exaggerate the real picture, and say that unless and until all public school seats in the city are “high-quality” seats, they should not stop opening new charters. “I am acutely aware that we do not have enough great schools, and our highest-performing schools almost always have waitlists,” says Pearson. “That’s the moral urgency I feel.”

Don Soifer, vice chair of the PCSB, echoes this idea. “With 13,000 students on charter waitlists and when one-in-three 14 year olds in the District still test at below-basic levels in math,” he asked City Paper, “can we afford to let the urgency of creating more high-quality educational opportunities for children be compromised for reason of simplifying the planning process for adults?”

Is this a subtle call for an all-charter city?

Pearson says he has no interest in getting rid of traditional public schools. In an interview with City Paper he said that given the charter board’s rigorous authorizing standards, and DCPS’ own improvement, he doesn’t expect the charter sector will even hit 50 percent market share for another decade. “I think we’re holding that rough balance, and by my forecast we will have a rough balance for as far as the eye can see,” he says.

But Mark Lerner disputes the idea that the city has struck the right balance between the two sectors, and would prefer D.C. to look more like New Orleans, which has nearly all charters. “I want to see the traditional school system disappear,” he says, adding that talk of a charter “collaboration” with DCPS strikes him as a euphemism for “cooptation.”

And others see further charterization as likely or inevitable. Levy, the independent budget analyst, estimates that DCPS loses almost one percent of market share every single year to the charter sector, as the District’s enrollment increases have not been nearly as fast as the city’s school-age population. Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund says that if DCPS sticks to its proposed five-year strategic plan, which calls to enroll 54,000 students in traditional public schools by 2022, it may soon be unable to provide neighborhood schools in all communities. Public school advocates say that given the city’s population growth projections, DCPS should aim to enroll 65,000 students by 2022 instead. According to Filardo, “DCPS is actively avoiding planning for increased growth, while the charter sector is aggressively planning for new school openings and expanding enrollment caps.”

Critics like Jablow say the charter sector has gone too far in demonizing democratic input in the name of maintaining independence. “A democratic public education for all has become the enemy,” she says.

In May, Jablow testified before the Council laying out a series of recommendations she’d like to see the charter sector adopt, including overhauling the charter board website so it’s easier for the public to study all schools, allowing more time for public comment, and holding more than one meeting per month, and not only in the evenings. “The charter board needs to be responsible for the public in ways it is not right now, as it is the only place where the public can go with concerns that exist in a larger sphere or if a school is unresponsive,” she argued.

As the city continues to craft and shape its growth plans for public education and school buildings, how and whether people will be able to weigh in on these questions remains to be seen.

The First Amendment Case That Could Upend Abortion Law

Originally published in The Intercept on November 27, 2017.
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Do anti-choice activists have a constitutional right to trick vulnerable women seeking an abortion into stumbling instead into a facility run for the purpose of talking them out of one?

And if so, does the state have any right to require the facility to provide the women with basic information about their reproductive rights?

That’s the terrain that will soon be explored by the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently announced it will hear its first abortion-rights related case of the Trump-era. The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, a nonprofit representing anti-choice pregnancy centers, is challenging California’s requirement that all such centers inform patients that the state provides free or affordable access to contraception, prenatal care, and abortion.

The centers — often called “crisis pregnancy centers” in an effort to conflate them with abortion clinics — must also disclose whether they are medically licensed or have medical professionals available. The law, the Reproductive FACT Act, was passed in 2015 after California’s legislature determined that roughly 200 crisis pregnancy centers across the state employed “intentionally deceptive advertising and counseling practices [that] often confuse, misinform, and even intimidate women from making fully-informed, time-sensitive decisions about critical health care.”

The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates argues that California’s law violates its clients’ First Amendment right to free speech by forcing the centers to advertise abortion-related messages against their religious beliefs.

The Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, is behind the suit. The ADF is also bringing Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the high-profile case headed to the Supreme Court next month that will determine whether a Christian baker can lawfully refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

Like so many cases that wind through the Supreme Court, legal experts suspect the outcome will turn on Anthony Kennedy – a justice known for his strong support of First Amendment claims.

“This is a case that pro-choice advocates should worry a lot about,” Sam Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor, told The Intercept. “It is geared right at where Justice Kennedy is.”

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the case “could set the stage for how courts treat abortion rights for decades to come” and represents the Court’s “first test on abortion rights with Neil Gorsuch on the bench.”

The passage of the Reproductive FACT Act was hailed as a landmark victory for reproductive rights. NARAL Pro-Choice California was the lead organizational sponsor for the bill, following a national report NARAL released showing how crisis pregnancy centers often mislead women seeking reproductive care. Black Women for Wellness and then-Attorney General Kamala Harris also helped push the bill forward, arguing that California has a responsibility to regulate the healthcare industry and ensure that all residents understand what services are available to them. California is one of several states that covers abortion with state Medicaid funds. Noncompliance with the Reproductive FACT Act comes with a penalty of $500 for first-time offenders, and $1,000 per subsequent violation.

Sen. Kamala Harris’s office did not return The Intercept’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

Crisis pregnancy centers first opened in the late 1960s when individual states began legalizing abortion. They didn’t attract much attention from Congress, though, until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Critics alleged that the centers used deceptive practices to trick pregnant women into coming in by pretending to be an abortion clinic, hiding the fact that they discourage abortion and don’t offer the service; supporters said the centers’ actions were both honest, and legal under the First Amendment.

Crisis pregnancy centers got a boost from the federal government with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Thanks to welfare reform, George W. Bush’s administration was able to funnel $60 million in federal abstinence-only funds to crisis pregnancy centers between 2001 and 2005, often doubling or tripling their annual budgets.

This flurry of activity attracted further attention from Democratic legislators. In 2006, a congressional investigation led by Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, found that most crisis pregnancy centers funded by the federal government gave women false or misleading information. In 2008 NARAL also reported that an investigation they had launched into eleven crisis pregnancy centers across Maryland revealed that every center “provided misleading or, in some cases completely false, information.”

In 2009, following the Waxman and NARAL reports, Baltimore passed the first-ever legislation to reign in crisis pregnancy centers. Baltimore’s legislation mandated that the centers display signs that make clear they do not offer abortions or birth control referrals. New York City, Austin, and San Francisco passed similar laws shortly thereafter, and all were soon subject to legal challenges.

The authors of California’s Reproductive FACT Act said they studied these laws when drafting their own, and worked hard to craft legislation that could withstand constitutional muster. For example, California’s law just requires licensed centers to tell women what reproductive healthcare options are available to them, rather than compelling centers to say what they don’t provide.

Hawaii followed California’s lead this past summer, passing a similar law that requires crisis pregnancy centers to display the statement, “Hawaii has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, including, but not limited to, all FDA-approved methods of contraception and pregnancy-related services for eligible women.” Crisis pregnancy centers, with the help of National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, are now challenging Hawaii’s law in court.

Since California’s law has mostly been tied up in litigation, it’s hard to assess how effective it’s been in regulating crisis pregnancy centers.

“Within a week of it being signed we had five court challenges, four of them in federal courts,” said Amy Everitt, the state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California in an Intercept interview. “I can’t tell right now how well it’s working because it’s been held in this legal limbo. Our plan had been to wait until the court cases settled to assess how enforcement was going.” Everitt said that a bunch of cities and counties agreed to not enforce the law in exchange for the plaintiffs dropping them as named defendants.

However, in Los Angeles, city attorney Mike Feuer announced last summer that his office was indeed successfully enforcing the law. In May 2016 Feuer sent letters to reproductive health facilities in his jurisdiction informing them of their obligations. When investigators from the LA County Department of Business and Consumer Affairs found three crisis pregnancy centers not in compliance with the Reproductive FACT Act, Feuer sent them notices saying they had 30 days to get in line. Two of the three then complied, and when Feuer made clear he would seek a temporary restraining order to compel the third, the third also started following the law.

“I pledged to protect a woman’s right to have accurate information before she makes the most personal and sensitive of choices—and I meant it,” said Feuer at the time. “We will aggressively enforce the FACT Act, taking any action necessary against those who violate it.”

In July 2016, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s Reproductive FACT Act. “California has a substantial interest in the health of its citizens, including ensuring that its citizens have access to and adequate information about constitutionally protected medical services like abortion,” Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote. She said the mandated disclosures do not “encourage, suggest, or imply” that a woman should get an abortion.

In their filing to the Supreme Court, the petitioners suggest that California is unfairly targeting crisis pregnancy centers. “The state, rather than using countless alternative ways to communicate its message, including its own powerful voice, instead compels only licensed facilities that help women consider alternatives to abortion to express the government’s message regarding how to obtain abortions paid for by the state,” the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates wrote.

Everitt of NARAL Pro-Choice California said she was surprised the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

David Gans, the director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, & Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center told The Intercept that he sees this lawsuit as part of “a new wave” of First Amendment cases where conservative groups claim “under the guise of freedom of speech” that they can’t be required to be complicit in something they are morally opposed to.

“In the past we’ve seen these arguments in the freedom of religion context, and I think what’s distinctive about both the Masterpiece case and this newer one is that the courts agreed to review them on freedom of speech grounds,” he said. “This highlights what I think will be a big thread in Supreme Court decisions.”

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA and an expert on First Amendment issues, told The Intercept that he doesn’t see the Masterpiece case as similar to the crisis pregnancy center challenge.

“If you tell people you’ve got to bake cakes for people on an equal basis, is that really a free speech requirement at all?” he asked. “But [in California] there’s no doubt that what the state is doing is trying to require various organizations, including organizations with an ideological mission, to basically convey the government’s message.”

Volokh says the Supreme Court has made clear that “requiring people to speak” poses a First Amendment problem, but that the Court has also suggested that the kind of speech that’s sought out by people because they have specialized expertise, what he refers to as “professional client speech,” may be more susceptible to regulation.

While the justices will have to weigh whether or not California’s disclosure requirements ask too much of these anti-abortion centers, Volokh said there is “not much by the way of guideposts” to figure out how the Court might rule. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, for instance, Justice Kennedy upheld so-called “informed consent” requirements, although in that case they were disclosures aimed at deterring abortion.

“Kennedy is not always 100 percent consistent, but he’s in a weird place with this case,” said Bagenstos. “He has narrowly supported the right to choose abortion, but he’s obviously personally opposed and believes very strongly that there ought to be an opportunity to be persuaded not to choose it.” Though Bagenstos sees “a really strong argument” in favor of the law’s constitutionality, the plaintiffs, he says, surely recognize that these types of First Amendment arguments likely resonate with Kennedy.

Legal experts note that a win for the crisis pregnancy centers, could, in the end, come back to bite them. In recent years many states have passed laws requiring abortion clinics to provide patients with misleading or medically inaccurate facts, such as telling women that abortions may hurt their mental health or increase their risk of breast cancer. A win for the plaintiffs could make it easier for abortion clinics to challenge these sorts of mandates.

As Gans put it, “Anti-abortion groups urging to intervene and strike down California’s law on First Amendment grounds could help lead to an ideological outcome that perhaps the plaintiffs might not want.”

As the Education Department Strips Away Civil Rights Protections, New Coalition Aims to Fight for Students

Originally published in The Intercept on November 10, 2017.
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The Department of Education has become a civil rights nightmare. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos admitted she didn’t know that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was federal law and suggested perhaps states should decide how to educate students with disabilities. A month later, the Trump administration rescinded protections that allowed transgender students to use whichever bathroom they felt most comfortable in; while DeVos reportedly objected at first, she ultimately green-lit the move. By June, the Education Department had announced it would be scaling back on civil rights investigations and proposed cutting more than 40 positions from its Office for Civil Rights.

Since then, the Education Department has decided to postpone protections for student loan borrowers and withdraw Obama-era protections for survivors of campus sexual assault. When a reporter explicitly asked DeVos if she would support increasing federal funding for IDEA, she wouldn’t say yes.

All this and more has prompted the start of a new coalition – the Education Civil Rights Alliance – to pool time, skills, and resources to defend students’ civil rights. It launched last week, and members say they’re aiming to fill a void the Trump administration has helped create.

ECRA is comprised of national legal and education groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Disability Rights Network, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

ECRA members emphasize they have never seen an Education Department disregard civil rights in this way. Speaking on a panel last week at the National Press Club, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said even when her union has had disagreements with Republican and Democratic administrations, they’ve “always been able to count on the Education Department’s Civil Rights Office.”

These concerns were elevated further last month when the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services sent out a newsletter announcing it had eliminated 72 special education guidance documents related to IDEA enforcement. The department gave no explanation beyond saying the documents were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective.”

Advocates felt confused and blindsided. After further investigation, they discovered the Education Department had quietly scrapped the documents over two weeks earlier. Parents of students with disabilities took to social media in protest – the hashtag #ThisIsMyChild became their rallying cry.

Several days later, the Education Department released a revised list of the rescinded documents, including brief explanations for why each one was cut. Some were scrapped because of updated versions also on the books, others because they had been applicable to programs that no longer exist. A spokesperson for the department stressed that “there are absolutely no policy implications” to their actions, and that students with disabilities would not be affected.

But parents and advocates for students with disabilities are not convinced.

Amy Woolard, an attorney and policy coordinator for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, told The Intercept that for families and students with disabilities, advocating for rights under IDEA means “near-constant vigilance” throughout a student’s school career.

“Guidance may not have the force of law, but it’s certainly a critical advocacy tool and helps states and families steer a very large ship in a consistently choppy sea,” said Woolard. “To revoke dozens of guidance documents so quickly and without much notice — even if outdated or redundant, as the department claims — is going to create a great deal of uncertainty and concern, both for states and for a community that has only had the protections of IDEA itself for a few decades.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Liz King, education policy director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “We do not believe that the decision to rescind the guidance was in response to confusion in the field.”

The Education Department did not return multiple requests for comment on whether it acted in response to complaints or requests from the public.

Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national group that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities, told The Intercept that while her organization’s initial analysis indicates students will not be impacted by the department’s rescinded documents, it is disappointed by the way the Education Department made its announcement, which led to real chaos for many people.

“We know this is just the first step in the process, yet we continue to lack any information from the department on next steps, so it’s premature to know what the full impact will be or if substantive feedback provided by stakeholders will be considered,” said Marshall.  “Suffice it to say, we remain very concerned.”

Some national Democratic leaders spoke out against the department’s move.

“There isn’t a basic protection for students that Secretary DeVos hasn’t tried to undermine, and I fear this issue will be no different,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., in a statement to The Intercept. “[She] is turning the Department of Education into some far-right experiment that does the bidding of special interests in Washington.”

Kamala Harris, a senator from California and potential 2020 presidential candidate, took to Twitter to blast the Education Department’s actions.

 

Going forward, the new Education Civil Rights Alliance says it will focus on protecting students – especially students with disabilities, students dealing with sexual assault, and transgender, immigrant, and Muslim students. The alliance says it is hearing lots of anecdotal reports about increases in school bullying and harassment and wants to help push for better data collection on these trends.

“What we’re hoping is by putting all this power together, we’re going to make sure that we have the biggest bang for the buck,” said Miriam Rollin, ECRA director.

Rollin told the Intercept that the new coalition has not yet talked to the Education Department, but “they’re hopefully on notice now.” The Education Department did not return multiple requests for comment on the ECRA or its own commitment to upholding civil rights law.

The Obama administration regularly consulted with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said King, the group’s education policy director, but Trump’s Education Department has rarely ever contacted them for feedback. “Their work has not been sufficiently transparent, it has not been guided by a commitment to protecting students from discrimination, and it has been reckless and irresponsible,” she said.

In October, the White House announced its nomination of Kenneth L. Marcus to lead the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, replacing Candice Jackson, who has served as acting assistant secretary since April. Marcus worked as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for four years under George W. Bush and before that, worked in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Many civil rights groups are waiting to cast judgment on Marcus. “He’s familiar with the law, with the work, so hopefully the Senate will fully explore how he intends to fulfill his duties,” said Rollin.

But, as The Intercept previously reported, Marcus has a history of campaigning for laws to punish people who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which encourages economic pressure against Israel for its violation of Palestinian human rights. Advocates worry that if Marcus is confirmed, he will push for similar measures in his new role, silencing pro-Palestinian voices. That would have a chilling effect on free speech — yet another attack on students’ civil rights.

Life Lessons From A Charter School Founder

Originally published in The New Republic on November 9, 2017.
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Picking up a copy of The Education of Eva Moskowitz, you might expect a bildungsroman. You might expect to learn what really motivates the founder of Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network. What experiences formed her? What led to her conviction that public education demands radical change?

For over a decade, Moskowitz has led a well-publicized campaign to disrupt—or dismantle—public education. The first Success Academy charter school opened in 2006, with 165 kids in Harlem. Today the network operates 46 charters across the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, with 15,500 public school students, 93 percent of whom are black and Latino. Known for its “high expectations” and strict disciplinary practices, the academic outcomes of Success Academy students have indeed been remarkable. In 2017, among those eligible to take state standardized tests, 95 percent scored proficiently in math, and 84 percent scored proficiently in language arts. The comparable figures for New York City Public Schools were 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Success Academy has earned a mythic reputation in the nation’s education reform movement. It’s proof, reformers say, that low-income, minority children can perform just as well as white, affluent, suburban kids. “Success Academy’s closest peers are the state’s richest school districts like Jericho, Syosset and Scarsdale,” their website proclaims. Critics, in turn, say that Success Academy’s academic outcomes need to be regarded skeptically: The network’s “high expectations” can prevent certain students from enrolling and can push out weaker students who have enrolled. Success Academy schools also have high suspension rates, and, when children leave, they have refused to backfill open seats. All of this, critics say, can help build a test-taking population that may be less representative than the network purports.

By 2024, Moskowitz aims to operate 100 such schools. Not only has the network’s expansion been inextricably bound up in Moskowitz’s rising profile, but her hard-driving style has become emblematic of the city’s—and the nation’s—school reform movement. What shaped this vision?

Moskowitz’s memoir certainly includes some biographical details—we learn about her grandparents and parents, how she fell in love with her husband, her struggles initially to conceive (she’s now the mother of three children). We learn where Moskowitz went to school, her brief stints in academia and documentary filmmaking, her six years on the New York city council. But these personal asides, which seem largely calculated for humanizing effect, don’t shed much light on Moskowitz’s ideas or goals. Because while Moskowitz evidently set out to tell a personal story, the book quickly and primarily becomes a vehicle for its author to relitigate battles with her enemies—namely teacher unions, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the media.


Moskowitz has, she claims, never gotten a fair hearing in the press. “Rule number one of journalism,” she says, “is that trying to get in between a journalist and a story he wants to tell is like trying to stop a herd of stampeding cattle.” From the start to end of her book, she attacks the media, describing reporters as irresponsible, unprofessional, and out of control. She calls out individual journalists, such as John Merrow—PBS’s education correspondent for over four decades—and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News. The hostility in her critiques is sometimes startling, but what’s really notable is how Moskowitz swings between insults and praise, sometimes in the same paragraph. At one point, she calls Gonzalez “monomaniacal,” and “smart and industrious,” before lamenting a “sad waste of his talents” all in the space of four sentences.

Do most journalists lie? Not exactly, she admits—but they leave out critical context, and spin facts into preconceived, negative narratives. Moskowitz thinks that the New York Times’s education reporter, Kate Taylor, and her editors—Amy Virshup and Wendell Jamieson—publish critical stories about Success Academy “because they just [don’t] understand the need for it given their backgrounds.” Moskowitz suggests the Times writers may have blind spots, given their prestigious educational credentials. (Moskowitz doesn’t explain how she—a graduate of New York City’s most selective public high school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University—has overcome the same blindspots herself.)

Moskowitz comes across most sympathetic when describing how upsetting it feels to be misrepresented. She thinks she is “relentlessly vilified” by the press and her political foes. A New York Times article from 2004 outlined her “aggressive, confrontational style” and said her “ambitions exceed her political skills.” In a 2005 editorial, the Times described her as a “smart and driven … expert on education issues” but noted that her “abrasive” attitude made her ill-suited for the political seat she was campaigning for. The gendered overtones of the headlines are clear enough. “Some believed I favored conflict because it would advance my political career,” she writes, in reference to her Success Academy notoriety. “My detractors claimed that my every action was in service of a Machiavellian plot to become mayor.”

However, Moskowitz doesn’t hold back from relentlessly vilifying her own political opponents—which are many. She paints New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a duplicitous operator, who helps unions mainly to advance his own career. She suggests the NAACP battles with her schools because it receives teacher union money and has many unionized teacher members. Moskowitz even describes American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as “aggressive,” echoing the criticisms that, when lobbed at her, she found unfair.

And for all the education reform rhetoric around trusting and empowering families, Moskowitz depicts parents who protest her plans as having been “shamelessly exploited” and “manipulated” by teacher unions and union-backed groups. (“I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” she said in an interview about school choice earlier this year.) Moskowitz struggles even to offer compliments without punching at the opposition. “She wasn’t a big fan of charter schools,” she writes of the New York assembly’s education committee chair. “But, unlike some of our opponents, she had common sense and a good heart.”


And yet there’s a distinct sense throughout the book that these are yesterday’s battles. Reading the memoir, one gets the impression that its author longs for the heyday of Obama’s early presidency, when more Democratic politicians tiptoed around Wall Street investors, when Joel Klein ran New York City’s education department, when Waiting for Superman was making a splash.

Moskowitz’s treatment of economic disparities is illustrative. In her memoir she urges the public to approach the income inequality issue “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection”—a warning to not bite the hand that feeds you, lest Wall Street titans decide to pick up and leave New York. She scolds Bill de Blasio’s “class-warfare rhetoric” as “imprudent and dangerous.”

When it comes to education, she defends her school’s regular use of suspensions—saying they’re equivalent to home time-outs, and help foster safety, community values, and norms. This perspective, too, has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Other statescities, and even some charter networks have worked to reduce reliance on exclusionary school discipline, policies which disproportionately impact poor, black, and Latino students. Moskowitz also dismisses the idea that governments need to spend more on public education, saying “it’s not even clear it would help anyway.” (There’s strong evidence that it does.) Indeed, the biggest barrier to educational success, she tells readers over and over, is not our president, or racial segregation, or the inequitable distribution of resources. No, for Moskowitz the cause has been long clear: It’s teacher unions and their stifling contracts.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Eva Moskowitz does not think very highly of most teachers. Overhauling work rules and job protections for school employees, Moskowitz stresses, is the most critical factor needed to foster academic excellence. She chastises educators for their low expectations and low effort in the classroom. “Most teachers in America could dramatically improve their teaching if they just made every second count,” she writes. She dismisses criticisms that her staff is overworked, even though her own employees responded to a Success Academy-commissioned survey by saying they lacked work-life balance. “[N]obody at Success worked as hard as big-firm lawyers or investment bankers,” Moskowitz asserts. Teaching in her schools, she admits, “wasn’t a nine-to-five,” but she argues “we were seeking to revolutionize urban education and revolutions don’t lend themselves to forty-hour workweeks.” (Leaked documents from Success Academy’s leadership reveal that other senior officials have felt deeply stressed about the network’s high staff turnover, and ambivalent about their CEO’s rapid expansion plans.)

Though charter teachers around the country have started organizing unions for a greater say over their working conditions, Eva Moskowitz does not hide her animus towards the idea. She makes clear that if an educator objects to Success Academy’s pedagogical style, it’s time for them to find a new place to work. “No matter how good a teacher is, if that teacher won’t play as part of the team, you’re better off without her,” she writes.

This “my way or the highway” attitude isn’t reserved exclusively for teachers, either. “Parents who don’t like Success should find a school they do like,” she says. “For someone to enroll their child at Success and insist we change our model is like a person walking into a pizzeria and demanding sushi. If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant!” But the analogy doesn’t work. Public schools are democratic institutions where community input is supposed to be valued. Moreover, the whole idea behind the school choice movement is that low-income parents lack quality school options. If they don’t like their local charter, where, exactly, should they turn? It’s a particularly worrying stance since Moskowitz doesn’t treat Success Academy as a bespoke option for a handful of children, but rather sees such schools as the future of urban education.


The last twelve months have proved especially challenging for Moskowitz. Following the 2016 presidential election, she emerged as a prominent ally of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos. Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors have also included Trump donors like John Paulson and Robert Mercer. Moskowitz’s refusal to condemn the administration—even as other education reform leaders were speaking out in protest—cost her greatly within the school reform movement. By August, the president of Democrats for Education Reform—a vocal Trump critic—had resigned from Success Academy’s board. Success’s board chair, billionaire investor Daniel Loeb, was also quoted that month saying that a black state senator who supported teacher unions had “done more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood.” The timing couldn’t have been worse: Loeb’s comments surfaced just days before the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

After Charlottesville, Moskowitz finally took steps to distance herself from the president. She also publicly criticized Daniel Loeb’s remarks, though defended his right to remain as board chair. That same month Education Next, an education policy journal, released its eleventh annual public opinion poll, finding a dramatic 12-percentage-point drop in support for charter schools between spring 2016 and spring 2017. Support among black and Hispanic respondents also fell 9 and 5 percentage points, respectively. A week later Gallup reported diminishing enthusiasm for charters among Democrats, at 48 percent, down from 61 percent five years earlier.

All this chaos notwithstanding, President Trump, Betsy DeVos and the charter movement’s wavering public support are not subjects explored in The Education of Eva Moskowitz. And in the end, that’s Eva Moskowitz as she wants to be seen: as the center of a story that’s about her victories, and her enemies. When she’s the sole author of that story she can render her cause uncomplicated and unimpeachable. Out in the real world, things are looking more complicated all the time.

Puerto Ricans Fear Schools Will Be Privatized In the Wake Of Hurricane Maria

Originally published in The Intercept on November 8th, 2017 — with Aida Chávez, who traveled to Puerto Rico last month.
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As Hurricane Maria departed Puerto Rico, leaving utter ruin in its wake, one community in Vieques picked itself out of the wreckage by focusing on getting its school back open.

“The community took out of their own time and said ‘let’s do this, we need to repair and reopen this’ and we started working,” Josuan Aloyo told The Intercept in Spanish. “Cleaning out the trash and debris, and trying to find people that had the proper tools.”

Aloyo, assistant director of Escuela Adrienne Serrano, said the school opened up immediately — and without authorization. Aloyo said they were determined to take in as many students as possible in hopes of giving even a bit of order back into their lives.

Right after the hurricane, Escuela Adrienne Serrano had 40 students, a number that steadily increased each week until they managed to bring 80 students back. Then on October 18th Humacao school district’s regional director told Escuela Adrienne Serrano to suspend classes.

School administrators were told they “couldn’t have students until they authorized us to open the school, we couldn’t have classes until the firefighters certified us,” Aloyo said. “Ever since that moment, we didn’t listen to them. We kept receiving the students that arrived but Friday, we ran out of potable water so we had to start turning down students…we hope tomorrow, if we get water, we can start receiving students. Whoever shows up, we’ll receive them. If there’s no food in the cafeteria, well we can just cook for them ourselves and make a simple breakfast and lunch.”

The guerilla campaign to open schools is running headlong into a separate effort from the top, to use the storm to accomplish the long-standing goal of privatizing Puerto Rico’s public schools, using New Orleans post-Katrina as a model. Last month Puerto Rico’s Public-Private Partnerships Authority director spoke optimistically about leveraging federal money with companies interested in privatizing public infrastructure.

Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher has already called New Orleans’s school reform efforts  a “point of reference” — tweeting last week that Puerto Ricans “should not underestimate the damage or the opportunity to create new, better schools.” She repeated these sentiments on Monday, saying that the aftermath of Maria provides a “real opportunity to press the reset button.”

“Of the things I need to worry about — the buildings, the poisoning from rats being around, the flooding, moving kids, transportation, sliding roads — the thing that worries me the most is that somehow I’m not going to deliver on this learning opportunity, this transformational opportunity for us to start to think fundamentally differently about what it is to be in school, and how one goes about getting an education,” Keleher told The 74, an education news site funded by charter supporters. Before her appointment in January, Keleher ran a DC-based management consultant firm she founded in 2009.

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, told The Intercept that after helping students in short-term emergency settings, reformers “should be thinking about how to recreate the public education system in Puerto Rico.” Allen, who was involved in the New Orleans school reform efforts, says charter operators across the country as well as virtual education providers should be thinking about how they can get involved in Puerto Rico’s post-Maria landscape.

Allen says few education reform groups have yet tackled this topic directly. “We really thought there would be a much larger conversation going by now and so far the it seems to be limited to the grasstops, not the grassroots,” she said, referring to Keleher talking with state departments of education.

For the island’s 347,000 students, their concerns are more immediate. All 1,113 schools across Puerto Rico shut down after the hurricane, and as of Monday 598 were still closed; 200 of those don’t have water, and 43 are badly damaged. Thousands of students and teachers fled to the mainland in the storm’s aftermath, and though teachers have until January 8th to return and reclaim their jobs, nobody knows how many actually will.

Puerto Rico’s Department of Education gets to determine which schools reopen, but the process has been anything but transparent. Public school advocates fear that the Department’s refusal to open habitable schools foreshadows permanent closures and school privatization. The Department has already estimated up to a fifth of schools will never reopen.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana lawmakers granted the state’s so-called Recovery School District authority to take over underperforming New Orleans public schools. More than 100 schools were converted to charters, which are publicly funded and privately managed. Today New Orleans is the only city in the nation to have a school system comprised entirely of charters.

Tulane education researcher Doug Harris described the storm as creating “a political vacuum for a few powerful leaders to step in” and revamp the school system, which “wasn’t really a community decision.” (Harris’s research shows the city’s schools have improved over the last decade, in part by increasing school funding)

Puerto Rico’s economic crisis had already been ravaging the island’s school system months before Hurricane Maria, forcing the closure of nearly 200 schools. Puerto Rico’s federally appointed financial oversight board had recommended closing 300 schools, and furloughing teachers two days a month to save money.

Ana María García Blanco, executive director of Instituto Nueva Escuela, a nonprofit focused on expanding Montessori schooling in Puerto Rico, is worried about how the slow return to school will impact students. She says all the talk of school privatization concerns her, and like other advocates, feels frustrated with what she describes as the “callousness” of school reformers.

“The school department should now be a source of relief and of acompañamiento for the community,” García Blanco told The Intercept. “We should not be talking about how we can save money in schools or restructure schools or using the money in a better way. The question is, how can we serve our children so they can go back to a normal day?”

Accessing food remains difficult, especially in the central and southeastern parts of the island where the hurricane hit hardest. García Blanco wants schools to open not only to give children the education they’re entitled to receive, but also to help serve food during the crisis.

Lulú Arroyo, an assistant to the executive director of Instituto Nueva Escuela, fears Puerto Rico’s Education Department is purposefully putting off opening of schools to justify permanent closures down the road.

The Department of Education has not clearly defined their criteria for determining whether or not a school is ready to open. As a result, frustrated community members and public school advocates have blasted the department for what they consider a blatant lack of transparency.

But Keleher told The Intercept that the company contracted to conduct school inspections, CSA Group, had “no explanation for why schools weren’t being turned around.” She said the company was slow going through the process and not providing the information the department needed, adding that everyone’s frustration “leaves her in the middle to explain.”

For a school to be reopened, according to the department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must first inspect it. To pass inspection, a school must be cleaned, repaired, and disinfected. In many cases, this work has been done entirely by teachers and community members.

Last week the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate with 40,000 members, called forgreater transparency over school inspections. The teachers union also demanded transparency over the terms of the contract established between the Puerto Rican government and CSA Group.

On Friday, after Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico raised the alarm, the government cancelled its contract with CSA Group, a company that had been investigated in the past for conflicts-of-interest. “We are looking for more effective and faster alternatives,” said Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares.

A representative from CSA Group did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

“Now that our schools have cleaned, like the school staff and the community has helped clean the schools, the government hasn’t gone there [to inspect],” Arroyo said. “Usually an engineer comes, they do an inspection. Our suspicion is that the longer it takes to reopen the school, the more of a reason they’ll have not to open the schools and then more people keep leaving Puerto Rico to find a school for their kids in the U.S.”

According to Arroyo, the majority of public Montessori schools still haven’t been inspected. And while the Education Department has been telling school leaders they can’t open their schools because they aren’t ready yet, many of those same schools have been used as community centers to assist Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm.

“The Department of Education is saying ‘Oh you can’t open your school because it’s not ready’ but it is ready, and if it can be used as [a community center] why can’t it be used for its normal operation?” Arroyo said. “There’s no good reason for it, no real humanitarian reason. If you’re actually looking out for the students and their families then you’d let them open the schools…why aren’t they doing it?”

Juan Agosto-Alicea, the former Puerto Rico Secretary of Treasury, told The Intercept that the Education Department’s plan is to reopen schools by “region” rather than individual school. A region could include up to 10 or 15 towns.

“Make the decision [to reopen] by school,” Agosto-Alicea argued. “If the school is ready, the director says it’s ready, then let’s go. You know why? Because these people, they may not have food on the table. And they don’t do anything during the day, we bring them here to the school, they have breakfast, they have lunch and they are with the other kids. I think it would really help the community, otherwise we have to wait one or two months until the whole region is ready?”

Keleher confirmed the Department is opening schools by region, saying that on October 23rd schools in Bayamón opened and last week schools in Ponce did.

Some schools have been operating without authorization, desperate to restore order and provide children with food and learning opportunities.

“We’re reopening the schools without permits or anything,” Arroyo said. “The Department doesn’t really have a reason not to let us open if the schools are already open…we don’t really know what’s their agenda but our mission is for all schools to open as soon as possible.”

Arkansas and Hawaii Lawsuits Present Challenges and Opportunities For Medication Abortion

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 3, 2017.
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The U.S. abortion rate recently hit its lowest level since Roe v. Wade, but medication abortion—non-surgical abortions induced through drugs—has increased in popularity since the Food and Drug Administration first approved Mifeprex in 2000. (Medication abortions typically involve using both Mifeprex—colloquially known as “the abortion pill”—and another drug, misoprostol.)

Yet despite the proven efficacy of medication abortion for safely terminating early-stage pregnancies, a series of regulatory and statutory restrictions have prevented many women from being able to use this abortion option. Two different legal battles taking place right now—in Arkansas and Hawaii—illustrate why.

In 2015, Arkansas passed a law requiring physicians who prescribe drugs for non-surgical abortions to secure contracts with a second doctor who has hospital-admitting privileges. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have both said that there is “no medical basis” for such mandates.

It can be difficult for abortion providers—especially ones in conservative states like Arkansas—to obtain admitting privileges, because hospitals tend to avoid partnerships that could produce a backlash from anti-choice groups. When Texas passed a law in 2013 requiring all abortion clinics to obtain hospital-admitting privileges and to meet ambulatory surgical center building standards, nearly half of the state’s clinics shut down soon afterward. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the package of restrictions in 2016, concluding they posed an unconstitutional burden on Texan women seeking to end their pregnancies.

In March 2016, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a preliminary injunctionblocking the Arkansas admitting-privileges law from taking effect while Planned Parenthood Great Plains sued the state. But this past July, an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals panel lifted Baker’s injunction, concluding that she would need to show more specifically how Arkansas women would be harmed by the law. Planned Parenthood maintains that its two abortion facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville would no longer be able to provide medication abortion if this law were to take effect, and that neither of those centers provide surgical abortions.

Following the July decision, Planned Parenthood requested that the Eighth Circuit’s full bench of judges review the panel’s ruling. But in late September, the Eighth Circuit declined to do so. “The extremists who put this law into place will now be responsible for the lives they’ve put in harm’s way,” said Aaron Samuleck, the interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, after the September decision.

The Eighth Circuit is one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country. In 2015, its judges recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court “reevaluate its jurisprudence” on abortion, urging the high court to return greater reproductive decision-making power to the states.

Now Planned Parenthood Great Plains has notified the U.S Supreme Court that it intends to file what’s known as a petition for a writ of certiorari, which essentially means that the organization plans to ask the high court to review their case. When they do file their petition, Planned Parenthood also plans to also ask the Supreme Court to issue a preliminary injunction to block the admitting-privileges law from taking effect. Planned Parenthood has also gone back to the Eighth Circuit to ask that the appellate court refrain from enforcing the law while they petition the Supreme Court—a request the Eighth Circuit granted in mid-October. So for now, the law remains on hold.

Meanwhile, a very different sort of medication abortion challenge is under way in Hawaii. The FDA has Mifeprex (mifepristone) on its Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies list (REMS), a designation the government uses when it determines that increased restrictions are necessary for a drug’s benefit to outweigh its risks. Because the abortion pill is on the REMS list, the FDA can require that only certified medical professionals in hospitals, medical offices, or clinics administer it. In other words, women can’t fill a prescription for Mifeprex at their local pharmacy. But just as it can be difficult for abortion clinics to obtain hospital-admitting privileges because of political objections, many medical centers also encounter political resistance to stocking and distributing Mifeprex.

In early October, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the FDA, charging that the agency was both violating its own statutory authority, as well as the Constitution’s due process protections, by preventing commercial pharmacies from filling Mifeprex prescriptions. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Hawaiian doctor on Kauai, who cannot stock Mifeprex in his office or direct women to nearby abortion clinics since there are none on the island. If patients come to him seeking early-stage abortions, he has to tell them to fly to another island for the procedure—something that can both increase a patient’s costs, as well as delay it for weeks, if not entirely.

Reproductive rights advocates say there’s no reason for the FDA to put Mifeprex on the agency’s list of particularly risky drugs. In 2016, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that putting the abortion pill on the REMS list “is inconsistent with requirements for other drugs with similar or greater risks, especially in light of the significant benefit that mifepristone provides to patients.” In their new lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the restrictions are unscientific and onerous. They note that blood thinners, Viagra, and other drugs carry greater risks than Mifeprex, yet local pharmacies can fill prescriptions for these medications.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, says the Arkansas and Hawaii cases target different issues, but ultimately revolve around the same core problems: “unconstitutional and unjustified” restrictions on reproductive health care.

Moreover, despite the FDA’s stated concern about possible risks, the agency does not even require patients to take Mifeprex at a designated health-care setting; they only must obtain it there. “There is simply no safety benefit to requiring that a patient be handed a pill at a clinic to then swallow it home, rather than [receiving it] at a pharmacy,” says Kaye. (Some health-care facilities prefer patients to take the medication on site, but the FDA doesn’t require it.) The FDA’s own research also concludes that medication abortion “has been increasingly used as its efficacy and safety have become well-established by both research and experience, and serious complications have proven to be extremely rare.”

“Often health-care providers are unable to stock the abortion pill because of bureaucratic hurdles, or because of opposition to abortion by co-workers,” explains Kaye, who adds that health-care providers must navigate multiple layers of institutional approval before they can administer the drug. “The process is not only complicated and time-consuming, but because there are so many individuals who need to sign off on procurement, even a single individual who objects to abortion can significantly delay or even derail stocking this medication,” she says.

While research suggests that women generally prefer surgical abortions (which tend to be faster procedures that involve less bleeding) over medication ones, many women are unable to access surgical abortions, due to the diminishing number of abortion clinics, as well as restrictions such as mandatory waiting periods. Medication abortion provides women with much-needed reproductive health-care alternatives—especially low-income women, and women living in conservative, rural, and medically underserved parts of the country.

An ACLU win in the Hawaii case would affect FDA restrictions on Mifeprex nationwide.

Steve Bannon Tried to Recruit Teachers Union to Trump’s Agenda While in White House

Originally published in The Intercept with Ryan Grim on November 1, 2017.
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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met one-on-one with then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon back in March, following the announcement of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts and plan to craft a $1 trillion infrastructure package. The Intercept learned of the meeting, which has not been previously reported, independent of Weingarten or Bannon. It was instigated through a mutual friend and appeared to be part of Bannon’s effort to realign the parties, according to Weingarten.

“Look, I will meet with virtually anyone to make our case, and particularly in that moment, I was very, very concerned about the budget that would decimate public education,” Weingarten said. “I wanted it to be a real meeting, I didn’t want it to be a photo-op, so I insisted that the meeting didn’t happen at the White House.”

Weingarten didn’t take notes at the meeting, which was held at a Washington restaurant, but told The Intercept she and Bannon talked about “education, infrastructure, immigrants, bigotry and hate, budget cuts … [and] about a lot of different things.”

She came away a bit shook. “I came out of that conversation saying that this was a formidable adversary,” she said.

He was looking, Weingarten said, for some common ground that could assist him in realigning the two parties, his long-term goal in politics.“I think he sees the world as working people versus elites. And on some level, he’s thought about educators as working-class folks. But what he doesn’t do is think about the other side of educators, as people who fiercely believe in equality and inclusion. It isn’t an either/or philosophy. The [Martin Luther] King philosophy of jobs and justice is not the Bannon philosophy, let’s put it that way,” she said. “He’s trying to figure out where the friction is, and how to change the alignment. I think that’s really what he was trying to do.”

Hearing Bannon attack elites, including the types of hedge fund Democrats who fund the charter school movement, in the same way she would, was surreal. “He hates crony capitalism,” Weingarten said. “The same kinds of things [we say], you could hear out of his mouth, and that’s why it’s so — you sit there in a surreal way, saying, ‘How can you sit right next to all these elites?’”

Since the election, Weingarten has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders within Democratic circles to resist Trump’s agenda – regularly speaking out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, deportation threats, budget cuts, and attacks on the Affordable Care Act. She was one of the first Hillary Clinton allies to endorse the Bernie Sanders-backed Keith Ellison in his race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Less than two weeks after the election, Weingarten and Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center sent an open letter to the president-elect, signed by 100 other organizations, calling on him to forcefully denounce hate. “While you spoke against bullying, intimidation and hate crimes in your ‘60 Minutes’ interview, the appointment of ‘alt-right’ hero Steve Bannon as your chief strategist — which has been cheered by the Ku Klux Klan, the American Renaissance and other white supremacist groups — sends the exact opposite message,” they wrote.

Bannon’s embrace of the “alt-right” movement has at once propelled his rise and put a ceiling on it. It took him from obscurity to the White House and now to the head of a rebel conservative movement. But his ability to realign the parties is hampered by those more noxious elements of his coalition. It was reportedly Bannon, for instance, who urged Trump to not condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, even after one of them allegedly killed a counterprotester with his car. That makes Bannon’s hunt for allies among labor unions and within the black and brown working class that much harder.

“This is one smart guy,” Weingarten said, “but I was pretty clear with him about my criticism of the white nationalism philosophy.” For Weingarten, who is Jewish and a lesbian, Bannon’s “alt-right” politics are more than an abstract threat. Indeed, in a typical White House, a labor leader would not ask to have a meeting outside the White House and then say nothing about it for six months.

In August, just days before he was fired (or resigned) from Trump’s administration, Bannon called Robert Kuttner, co-editor of liberal magazine American Prospect, to talk about a range of issues, including trade and identity politics. Kuttner published a summary of their conversation, remarking that he left “with a sense both of [Bannon’s] savvy and his recklessness.”

Weingarten came away with the same impression: “Let me say it this way: Kuttner’s download about their meeting was not surprising to me in the least.”

At the time of the meeting, the Trump administration had proposed slashing the federal education budget by 13.5 percent, a figure that would amount to more than $9 billion in cuts. The White House also proposedcutting Medicaid by $800 billion, threatening school districts with fundingthey use to provide health and special education services.

“I saw that meeting as my doing my job of trying to find a way to convey, in any way I could, that the public and even his voters had fierce opposition to the education cuts,” she said, adding that she told Bannon their polling showed half of Trump’s voters opposed his cuts.

Bannon, meanwhile, was working hard to build a coalition to push through an infrastructure deal, as well as drive a wedge through organized labor’s longstanding support for the Democratic Party. In January, just three days after Trump’s inauguration, Trump invited five union leaders to the White House to discuss trade and infrastructure spending. Earlier that same day, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in an executive order that drew praise from the union leaders he was hosting. Both Teamsters President Jim Hoffa and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who were not at the meeting, also released statements applauding Trump’s move.

The AFT is a key affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country, and the White House may have recognized that Weingarten could present problems for their economic agenda. On March 13, three days before the administration’s proposed budget cuts were announced, Axios published a piece describing how the teachers union leader could complicate Trump’s infrastructure plans, because the AFT has sizable pension investments wrapped up in private equity, and the White House was hoping to leverage private equity to help fund the infrastructure package. “Weingarten doesn’t control the pension money but she’s got a substantial bully pulpit,” the Axios article said, adding that she “also holds a lot of political sway at the local and state levels, which matters because more infrastructure spending is currently financed via the municipal bond market.”

The AFT was the first labor union to endorse Clinton in the 2016 election, months earlier than other unions, including the National Education Association. The AFT represents 1.7 million teachers, paraprofessionals, higher education faculty, and health care workers, among others.

Weingarten said she ultimately viewed the encounter as an opportunity to make her case for public education. “If you are the president of the union and you’re fighting fiercely to get budget restorations and to not have a dismantlement of public education or of higher education and the administration asks to – or it’s made clear to you that they want to meet – you meet,” she said. “You don’t not meet. You meet.”

In addition to the open letter sent to the Trump in November 2016, Weingarten sent another letter to the White House — which has not been previously reported — this past July. In it, she emphatically lays out the AFT’s concerns about how the president’s budget plans would impact schools, writing that she hopes Trump “can find time to discuss these issues” with her, as well as ways to strengthen public education.

Weingarten told The Intercept this meeting with Trump has not happened. Bannon declined to comment on the meeting.

Late-Stage Abortion Provider Won’t Succumb To Protestors Who Forced Him Out of His Last Maryland Clinic

Originally published in The Intercept on October 30, 2017.
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For seven years, protesters had targeted LeRoy Carhart and his abortion clinic in Maryland, one of just three places in the country women could go for late-stage abortion care. Two months ago, the protests finally worked, as Carhart’s landlord abruptly bowed to pressure and shuttered the clinic, selling the space to anti-abortion protesters instead.

But Carhart is back, with a new Maryland clinic.

Since 2010, he has commuted weekly to Maryland from his home in Bellevue, Nebraska. Carhart is a 76-year-old retired Air Force surgeon who has also owned and operated a Bellevue-based clinic with his wife Mary Lou since 1992. He began traveling to Maryland regularly when Nebraska passed the nation’s first 20-week abortion ban in 2010. Carhart’s mentor, George Tiller, used to provide later-stage abortions at his clinic in Wichita, Kansas, but was murdered in 2009 while attending church.

Maryland is one of the most supportive states in the nation when it comes to access to abortion at all stages of a pregnancy, according to Diana Phillip, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. Nebraska, on the other hand, is one of the more restrictive.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted along party lines in favor of a 20-week abortion ban based on the dubious scientific claim that fetuses can feel pain at that stage of gestation. A similar bill passed the House in 2015 but was blocked by Senate Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to bring this new bill to a vote, and President Donald Trump has also said he strongly supports it. Though reproductive rights advocates say any 20-week federal ban would face immediate constitutional challenge, the measure nonetheless targets abortion providers like Carhart, who could face up to five years in prison for their services.

Carhart is undeniably committed to his work. In addition to the four days he spends working in Maryland, the physician works out of his Nebraska clinic two or three days per week, meaning he spends 26 out of every 28 days on the job.

“I just know it needs to be done, and it doesn’t bother me,” Carhart told me, as we sat together in his new clinic, located at the Wildwood Medical Center in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda. The walls are adorned with art and posters championing female resilience. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” reads one framed poster hanging on a wall. “Females are strong as hell,” says another.

Carhart’s former Maryland clinic – Germantown Reproductive Health Services, located about 11 miles away – had been owned by Todd Stave and his sister, Nancy Stave Samuels. The two inherited it and another Prince George’s County abortion clinic from their parents; their father had been a gynecologist and obstetrician who long provided health services including abortions in the D.C.-area. While the Staves and their abortion facilities have always faced harassment, including a clinic firebomb in 1982, the pressure ramped up in 2010 when Carhart started working in Maryland. The Maryland Coalition for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, formed that year in response to Carhart’s arrival.

In addition to regular protests outside the clinic, calls to the landlords’ homes dramatically escalated over the last few years. A group of protesters even picketed Todd Stave’s daughter’s middle school in 2011, holding up gruesome signs along with her father’s picture and contact information.

The Maryland Coalition of Life helped raise money to close both the Germantown and the Prince George’s County clinics in one fell swoop. About half of the $1.2 million offered to Stave and his sister came from an anonymous Christian businessman, who now owns the property, and the other $600,000 from roughly 400 donors, according to Rewire.

In interviews, Stave said he felt conflicted about the move to close the two clinics, but that at the end of the day it was a dollars-and-cents decision. “There’s a lot of sadness, yeah, a feeling that we’re letting the public down,” Stave told the Washington Post“It’s a tough thing to do, there’s no question about it.” He said the rising costs of security and the declining demand for abortion ultimately drove his decision. The Guttmacher Institute reported this year that the abortion rate has fallen to its lowest level since Roe v. Wade, though the exact reasons are unclear.

It wasn’t easy for Carhart to find a new location for his clinic. “We looked at other spaces and unfortunately it’s really hard to find contractors, vendors, and landlords for abortion clinics because of the harassment,” said Chelsea Souder, a spokesperson for Carhart’s Bethesda and Bellevue clinics.  “We had two other possible places and they both fell through when the [anti-abortion activists] got wind of where and started making threats. We were really lucky to find this place.”

“I’ve got a really, really supportive landlord,” Carhart added. “I can say he’s definitely pro-choice. I have no idea if he’s pro or anti-abortion for himself, but he’s pro-choice, and that’s my ideal. That is the middle ground.”

In some ways, the new facility is more secure than the previous Germantown one. According to Souder, local police officers canvas the building and parking lot on a regular basis, and they also also coordinate with local and federal law enforcement. While anti-choice activists still plan on staging regular protests – and have already started – they can’t stand on the medical center property or outside the adjacent SunTrust bank, which has the same owners. The closest anti-choice activists can stand is on the main road, which is far enough away that they can’t be seen or heard from inside the medical facility. “And our patients have to park in the back so they don’t have to walk by protesters,” Souder said.

“We will definitely maintain a prayerful presence on the sidewalk there,” Maryland Coalition for Life Regional Director Andrew Glenn told The Intercept.

Before protests successfully bought out Carhart’s Germantown clinic, they tried other tactics to shut his facility down. In 2013, a 29-year-old teacher from White Plains, New York, died from complications resulting from a late-stage abortion Carhart performed. The activists blamed Carhart and urged the state to close his clinic, but the autopsy report produced by the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner found that the woman’s death resulted from natural causes, not medical malpractice.

The Maryland Coalition for Life also bought a building across the street from Carhart’s Germantown clinic in 2012, launching Germantown Pregnancy Choices, a so-called crisis pregnancy center. CPCs are facilities that work to persuade women against having abortions, providing them with resources and support, but also often disseminating misleading or patently inaccurate medical information. With an estimated 3,500 nationwide, crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics 3-to-1.

Shortly after Carhart’s clinic was bought out, Germantown Pregnancy Choices closed too. Janet Kotowski, the crisis pregnancy center’s former manager, told The Intercept that their focus had been on connecting women who came in from outside Maryland with supporters back where they came from. (More than two-thirds of Carhat’s Germantown patients were from out-of-state.) “Because we have multiple other pregnancy centers in Maryland that offer ultrasounds, counseling, and post-abortive services for women, we felt ours was no longer needed,” she said.

When asked if she expects a new crisis pregnancy to open near Carhart’s Bethesda clinic, Kotowski said she doesn’t know. “I know that people are motivated to help these women, and we have seen women who change their minds when we offer help, so we would like to have that opportunity again,” she said.

Glenn of the Maryland Coalition for Life also said the group is currently exploring all its options with regards to opening a new crisis pregnancy in Bethesda.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a little more than 1 percent of abortions in the United States occur after the twentieth week of pregnancy, which is halfway through a woman’s second trimester. Carhart’s website states that the clinic’s most common reasons for providing later-stage abortions include “the very late diagnosis of a pregnancy in a woman with a severely compromising medical condition, very young maternal age, rape and incest.”

Anti-abortion advocates insist that Carhart and the services he provides are dangerous.

“I’ve been tracking Mr. Carhart since the mid-1990s and he’s one of the most ghoulish individuals you’ll ever meet,” Troy Newman, president of the anti-choice Operation Rescue, told The Intercept. When asked if he worries the procedure will become even less safe for women if it’s forced underground, Newman shot back that it’s already unsafe. “There’s nothing safe about abortion, certainly not for the baby,” he said. “Carhart is a butcher.”

Kotowski agreed, pointing to a lawsuit filed in 2016 by a former patient alleging negligence and misconduct, but the suit settled out-of-court, with no admission of liability. And Carhart’s new clinic is licensed by the Maryland Department of Health and certified by the National Abortion Federation.

Newman of Operation Rescue spoke excitedly about the progress his allies have made in restricting access to abortion across the country. “We got Trump elected – we put a lot of effort into that, we’re putting Supreme Court justices in place, and now stacking legislation that is going to end abortion as we know it,” he said. “I think these guys should be very worried they’ll soon end up in jail.”

Despite years of threats and harassment, and the escalating anti-choice political climate, Carhart remains undeterred in his commitment to providing abortion care. One goal he has set for his new clinic is to train new abortion providers, both to increase the number of doctors who can perform the procedure across the country, and also to help him balance his substantial workload. There are fewer and fewer places that offer abortion provider training opportunities to medical residents, especially later-stage abortion care, according to Phillip of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.

“I’m looking to train two or three other doctors to work with me here [in Bethesda] and then start a training program for residents and fellows to work wherever they want to work,” Carhart said.

“Morale is good, it’s really good,” Souder added. “Everyone feels really excited to get back to work.”