Bridges Public Charter School Dismisses Well-Loved Teacher Who Spoke Out

Originally published in Washington City Paper on February 17, 2019.
Last week, Kay Elaster, the principal at Bridges Public Charter, told Liz Koenig, a preschool teacher who has worked at Bridges for the last five years, that she was “not a good fit” for the school and would not be welcome back next year. This is Elaster’s first year.

Koenig, one of the most highly-regarded teachers at her school by both parents and colleagues, says administrators told her they made the decision not based on her teaching quality or her dedication to students—both of which they acknowledged were strong. In 2016, Koenig was voted by Bridges teachers as “Best of Staff.”

In the past year Koenig has started speaking publicly about working conditions, both within her school and across D.C. charters as a whole. In October, at a conference organized by the teacher activist group EmpowerED, Koenig spoke on a panel with four educators and this reporter about increasing transparency in the charter sector.

In her speech, Koenig talked about learning two years ago that their pre-K classes were going to be increased from 18 to 20 students in order to boost their school’s per-pupil funding. Four Bridges teachers mobilized in response. “My fellow educators and I wrote a letter detailing our concerns about this change to the board, including that our ability to deliver quality instruction would be hampered,” she said. “In response to our letter the board told us this type of instructional decision was not in their purview, even though we know this was discussed at a board meeting from someone who was there, and moreover, inaccurate information about our pre-K program had been presented in support of the increase [in class size].” The board told the teachers to take their concerns to the school’s leadership team. Koenig says they were soon reprimanded for going outside the chain of command. In the 2017-18 school year, pre-K class size at Bridges increased to 20 students.

“It was demoralizing to have our voices shut down so completely,” she says. “It was defeating to realize that I had no tools to investigate the leadership team’s and the board’s decision to make money off my classroom at the expense of instructional quality.”

This experience motivated Koenig to become an activist for charter school transparency. She notes that in most other cities, the public can review board meeting minutes, attend the board meetings themselves, and file Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about decision-making within the publicly-funded, privately-managed schools.

In October, Koenig also joined Twitter with the handle @dcteachersunite, where she has posted frequently about the importance of increasing transparency in the charter sector—particularly subjecting individual schools to FOIA and the Open Meetings Act. In November, she filed her first FOIA request with the D.C. Public Charter School Board, and shared the results publicly online when she got the documents the following month.

In late January Koenig testified at the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s monthly meeting about the need to increase transparency in the charter school sector. “I am both a parent of a child in a charter school and a teacher at a charter school in the city,” she said. “As a parent and as a teacher I’ve learned that the best schools are built on trusting relationships—between students and teachers, between parents and teachers, and between teachers and their schools … Transparency builds trust.”


And most recently, Koenig spoke on the record for a City Paper story on charter school teacher pay, bringing to light the challenges educators face when trying to plan for their financial futures in a sector that doesn’t make detailed salary information publicly available. She also pushed back on the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s suggestion that posting average teacher salaries, as opposed to a more detailed breakdown that could illuminate disparities and even discrimination, was enough. “What does average teacher salary tell me about how teachers are compensated for experience, credentials, and education?” she asked on Twitter. “What does it tell me about how TAs are compensated vs. leads? What does it tell me about parity in pay for different demographic groups of teachers?”

Principal Elaster and School Director Olivia Smith did not return City Paper’s request for comment, including for further explanation on what a “good fit” means, and whether Koenig’s termination was related to her recent activism around transparency and working conditions.

Mikey Weidman, who has had two of her children go through Koenig’s class, tells City Paper that Koenig has “been the best teacher we’ve seen” at Bridges. “She’s fantastic, smart, creative and incredibly energetic,” Weidman says. “She’s devoted to her families, she gives a lot of individual feedback, and she speaks Spanish and developed fantastic relationships with some of the Spanish-speaking families.”

Weidman requested that her son have “Ms. Liz” after seeing their daughter have such a positive experience in her class. “Our kids love her, and having watched her stay with the school for much longer than most people do, and all the while continue to grow her expertise and serve families who come back to her over and over, it’s hard to look at this decision as anything that’s not retaliatory.”

Weidman and her wife have sent a letter to Elaster and Smith, and say they intend to write to  the board of directors, too. “When you have an excellent teacher being fired for nothing to do with her teaching, it sends a message to other teachers that they need to be quiet and comply,” says Weidman. “And what I hear loud and clear from this as a parent is it’s more important to the administration that no one is rocking the boat than a highly exceptional teacher be able to continue in the school, and I find that profoundly upsetting.”

Jamie Boese was another parent who personally requested that her daughter be placed in Koenig’s class. “She was the best teacher in the entire building,” says Boese. “She frankly taught me how to be a better parent. To say she’s not a ‘right fit’ really makes me question what kind of staff they’re trying to cultivate.”

Koenig plans to finish out the school year at Bridges.

“What I do every day is my absolute dream job,” she says. “Goddammit, I love those kids.”


Even for Washington, The Fight Over Online Gambling Has Been Unusually Shady

Originally published in The Intercept on February 15, 2019.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C., talked to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “several times” about changing the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law that banned interstate betting, he told The Intercept. A 2011 Justice Department analysis of that law effectively legalized online gambling; last month, the department reversed that opinion.

“I’ve been pushing this from the day it came out under the Obama administration,” Graham said. “Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein and myself have been asking for them to change this absurd interpretation because it leads to the Wild Wild West.” Asked whether he’d spoken to then-Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had recused himself from the issue, about it, Graham, in a brief interview in the Capitol, said, “I don’t know.” (On Thursday, the Senate confirmed William Barr as attorney general, replacing Whitaker.)

In 2011, the Department of Justice issued a legal opinion clarifying that the Wire Act, a federal law passed in 1961 to stop interstate betting, applied only to sports betting and not other forms of gambling. This announcement opened the doors for states to begin legalizing online gambling — now an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Last week, The Intercept reported on the Justice Department’s recent reversal of its 2011 stance, a long-sought cause of Sheldon Adelson, the Republican billionaire casino mogul. The new Justice Department interpretation was released in the middle of the government shutdown, on January 14, the night before U.S. Attorney General nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing.

Graham himself has been the Senate sponsor for the Restoration of America’s Wire Act, or RAWA, legislation that would effectively ban all forms of online gambling, since 2014. His advocacy on the issue coincided with an increase in political contributions from Adelson. In 2015, when Graham announced that he would run for president, it was widely understood that Adelson’s largess would be key to his campaign strategy.

In 2017, Graham and Feinstein, a California Democrat who had previously co-sponsored Graham’s RAWA legislation, wrote to Rosenstein urging him to overturn the Justice Department’s 2011 opinion.

As The Intercept previously reported, the deputy attorney general had wanted little to do with the gambling brouhaha, according to people close to him. “We’ve checked in over the last two years with Rod Rosenstein, and he’s consistently said he has no interest in this issue, that there’s more important issues going on,” said one gaming industry executive who opposes the ban. The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on Rosenstein’s involvement.

Several hours after The Intercept’s story was published last Friday, Whitaker appeared before the full House Judiciary Committee to testify on Justice Department matters. At the hearing, Whitaker, who had been acting attorney general since November, hotly denied having any influence over his agency’s new Wire Act opinion. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., specifically grilled Whitaker about whether Adelson had influenced the reversal.

“Your inferences on how that process was corrupted or corrupt is absolutely wrong,” Whitaker said. “And the premise of your question, I reject.” He also said that he has never met with Adelson or spoken to any of his lobbyists about online gambling.

Raskin’s line of questioning stood out in a hearing that focused primarily on the Trump-Russia probe. Raskin himself has received more than $38,000 since 2016 from individuals associated with law firms that represent national and international online gambling companies.

Before Whitaker came to the Department of Justice, he directed the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, an organization that formed in 2014 to purportedly hold Democrats accountable for ethics violations. Whitaker was its sole employee, and he earned more than $1.2 million over three years. In November, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that a single six-figure donor “accounted for 100 percent of funding”raised by Whitaker’s old organization.

At Friday’s congressional hearing, Raskin asked Whitaker if he knew the identity of that sole donor and suggested that the money had come from Adelson. Whitaker said it was from Donors Trust, a conservative donor-advised fund, but that he has “no idea” who specifically donated the money.

WHILE RASKIN EMPHATICALLY defended the 2011 Justice Department interpretation of the Wire Act, saying that the statute’s language “plainly prohibits only sports betting,” the 2011 opinion actually has its own set of critics who say that it was issued on corrupted grounds. Eric Holder was the U.S. attorney general at the time, and despite having previously represented companies with ties to the gambling industry, according to a former U.S. attorney who dealt with him on those issues, he did not recuse himself from gambling matters.

Michael Fagan, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri for 25 years, told The Intercept that he personally worked with Holder and his Covington & Burling colleague Lanny Breuer in the early 2000s while prosecuting forfeiture cases related to illegal offshore gambling.

“I can’t remember who they represented, some big multinational company, but I would say on at least two different occasions, they came to St. Louis to meet me and work out an agreement, and I had phone calls with both of them about this too,” said Fagan. “In the end, they agreed their client would forfeit a substantial amount of money in the hundreds of thousands or millions, I believe.”

As U.S. attorney general, Holder brought on his old partner Breuer to lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. It was Breuer who then asked the Office of Legal Counsel to revisit the agency’s position on the Wire Act, citing inquiries from New York and Illinois about selling online lottery tickets. Like Holder, Breuer did not recuse himself, despite his past involvement with companies tied to the gambling industry. Eventually U.S. Assistant Attorney General Virginia Seitz quietly issued an opinion changing the Justice Department’s long-held stance. Holder, Breuer, and Seitz did not return requests for comment.

Seitz’s Wire Act interpretation hinged on a close reading of the punctuation of the law, as well as the fact that on the same day the Wire Act was originally enacted, Congress passed a separate statute regulating other forms of gambling. She said this suggested that the Wire Act was exclusively targeting sports betting.

Though the Office of Legal Counsel opinion is dated September 20, 2011, it was released on December 23, 2011 — the Friday before Christmas as lawmakers were leaving D.C. and one day after Nevada approved the first-ever state regulations for online poker. (Harry Reid, D-Nev., who was then Senate majority leader, would say later that legalizing online poker on the federal level “may be the most important issue facing Nevada since Yucca Mountain.” Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign was strongly backed by Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM, both of which wanted to establish national online poker sites.)

Seitz was an Obama appointee who had previously worked in the president’s old Chicago law firm, Sidley Austin. She returned there after leaving the Justice Department in 2013 and still works there. Newsweek reported in 2014 that Sidley Austin expanded its business operations in the gambling space after the 2011 Justice Department decision came down. Other Obama alumni got involved with the gambling industry too, with 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina joining the American Gambling Association in 2014 to work on “grassroots initiatives” that included online gambling. “Jim is as politically astute as they come and he will be a great resource for us,” AGA President Geoff Freeman told The Hill at the time. Today, Holder works as a partner at a law firm that represents MGM casinos.

THE CRITICISMS OF online gambling extend beyond Adelson’s vested interest in shutting it down. Les Bernal, the national director of the Washington-based Stop Predatory Gambling, a group that advocates against commercialized gambling, told The Intercept that there is “no grassroots movement” for online gambling. In March 2017, he sent a letter on behalf of his group’s members to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to reverse the 2011 Wire Act opinion. “The error of the OLC opinion is conclusively established by the carefully-researched, well-reasoned law review article ‘Understanding the Wire Act: Why the Department of Justice Missed the Mark When It Overturned Fifty Years of Interpretation of the Act,’” Bernal wrote in his letter, referencing an article co-authored by Darryl Nirenberg, an attorney and longtime registered lobbyist for Adelson. In April 2017, Nirenberg delivered a legal memo to a top-ranking official at the Justice Department, outlining reasons to reverse the 2011 Wire Act opinion.

Bernal told The Intercept that his organization takes no money “directly or indirectly” from the gambling industry, does not work with Adelson, and opposes all forms of commercialized gambling. “I know Nirenberg is a lobbyist for Adelson, but on that specific law review article, his opinion was correct,” Bernal said.

Fagan, the retired assistant U.S. attorney who now teaches a course on international money laundering and corruption at Washington University School of Law, said he also was quite impressed by the Nirenberg article, despite the author’s ties to Adelson. “It’s quite good and shows very convincingly why the 2011 opinion is wrong,” Fagan said.

In 2015, Fagan spoke before Congress at a hearing for the Restoration of America’s Wire Act and submitted testimony criticizing the 2011 Justice Department opinion in detail. He called it “rushed, biased, and flawed by reliance on intuition rather than careful analysis.” Fagan also argued that Seitz’s opinion was worded to “favo[r] moneyed corporate interests” and that she had taken up this action less than 90 days after having been confirmed for her Justice Department job. He pointed out that Seitz, Breuer, and Holder all had “represented — and, presumably earned substantial fees from — huge clients, either to advocate for increased Internet gambling or to avoid liability for the client’s role in facilitating and promoting Internet gambling” and that none had disclosed those histories beforehand.

Bernal of Stop Predatory Gambling said many people were advocating for the Justice Department to reject its 2011 interpretation, though “certainly” Adelson’s voice helped boost the effort. He noted Americans lost $118 billion in personal wealth to government-sanctioned gambling schemes in 2018, with another trillion dollars projected to be lost over the next eight years. “A lot of people were outraged at how Holder’s Department of Justice acted in 2011,” Bernal said. “I think Adelson’s voice was influential but that he was the lynchpin is a phony narrative that the gambling industries in this country are pushing to try and get the new opinion flipped.”

Teachers’ Strikes Are Rattling Washington. This Hearing in the U.S. House Is Proof.

Originally published in In These Times on February 14, 2019.

As Denver public school teachers head back to school, ending their first labor stoppage in 25 years, it’s hard to dismiss the impact the nation-wide teacher strikes have had on American politics. As Democratic presidential candidates rush to voice support for the Colorado educators, Denver’s strike marks the ninth major teacher uprising in the last twelve months, with the anniversary of the very first—West Virginia’s—coming up next week.

Survey after survey has shown the striking teachers have gotten their message across: The majority of Americans agree teacher pay is a real problem. The annual PDK poll reported in September that two-thirds of people say teacher salaries are too low — a new high in its data since the poll started in 1969. Another national poll released in April found 78 percent of adults think schools don’t pay teachers enough, and 52 percent supported those going on strike over wages.

As further evidence of how the teacher protests have shaped the national conversation, the House education committee convened this week for its first hearing on K-12 schools in the new Congress, and the topic of teacher pay was front and center. Republicans and Democrats both agreed that teacher salaries were simply too low.

The House Education and Labor Committee hearing, chaired by Democratic Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, lasted three and a half hours, and was entitled, “Underpaid Teachers and Crumbling Schools: How Underfunding Public Education Shortchanges America’s Students.” Topics explored throughout the convening included more than just teacher compensation and school infrastructure. Legislators and witnesses also discussed adequate funding for students with disabilities, turnaround strategies for low-performing schools, and civil rights protections for students who attend private schools.

While lawmakers from both parties agreed public-school teachers are not earning enough money, the two parties had vastly different explanations as to why.

Witness Benjamin Scafidi, an economist and fellow with EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy group, said that while inflation-adjusted spending on public schools increased 37 percent between 1992 and 2016, real teacher salaries declined by one percent in that same period, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Scafidi said this was due to the “tremendous increase” in non-teacher staff working in public schools—referring to a 52 percent jump.

Republicans seemed content to embrace the idea that the teacher salary problem was not due to their failure to fund schools properly, but because of school districts’ wasteful hiring decisions.

“It scares me when I hear people in education coming up and asking this completely broken federal government for more money when [states] are running surpluses,” said Republican Representative Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin. “Why do people think the federal government should give more money?”

Yet, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2015, 29 states provided less total school funding per-pupil than they had spent before the recession.

Democrats and some witnesses pushed back on the idea that schools are chock-full of superfluous staff, noting many workers included in this category are bus drivers, cafeteria staff, paraprofessionals, nurses, custodians and special-education aides.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, testified that the increase in school staff spending also overlapped with the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990. That legislation obligates schools to provide students with disabilities with additional support services. If the federal government did an audit, Weingarten said, “you’d see that most of the non-teacher increase in schools across America was because of the needs in IDEA.”

Democratic Representative Joseph Morelle also noted the growing movement to provide wraparound social services in schools, since that is where students spend the bulk of their days and where it can be easier for parents to access. That sort of increased investment in community schools, he suggested, is not wasteful spending.

Some of the hearing was dedicated to discussing the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, legislation recently reintroduced by Representative Scott and Democratic Senator Jack Reed. The bill would invest $100 billion in K-12 public school infrastructure, and create an estimated 1.9 million jobs for local workers. Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, spoke of schools where students and teachers are forced to hold their feet over hot plates to keep warm. Even Representative Ron Wright, a Republican from Texas who voiced skepticism for new spending on education, admitted he never had an air conditioner in his overly warm Texas public schools until he reached high school; he said he’d be open to support air conditioners at least for Texas schools.

One 2016 report on national school infrastructure needs estimated it would cost roughly $145 billion annually to maintain and modernize school buildings to the point where all were in safe condition. While federal spending accounts for about 10 percent of school operating budgets, the feds currently spend virtually nothing on school infrastructure. The bulk of those facility costs fall on local governments, which results in a system where wealthier communities can afford to have nicer school buildings, and can more easily make necessary building repairs.

At the hearing, Chairman Scott noted his school infrastructure legislation would create more jobs than the Republican tax bill did, and at 5 percent of the cost. The last time Congress came close to authorizing federal school infrastructure spending was in 2009 as part of the stimulus bill. But Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said she wouldn’t support Scott’s legislation, arguing that school facilities should remain exclusively a local responsibility. As a result, communities across the country lost out on billions of dollars to fix their crumbling schools.

The Republican tax bill made two other appearances during Tuesday’s hearing. Residents who live in areas with higher state and local tax burdens had previously been able to deduct those costs on their federal taxes, so as to avoid paying twice. But in the legislation President Trump signed in 2017, individuals can now only deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes, and freshman Democratic Representative Lauren Underwood noted at the hearing that residents in her home state of Illinois have been very anxious about their skyrocketing tax bills. “We want our money to go to schools, not tax cuts for corporations,” she said. Other states feeling the brunt of the new SALT cap are California, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

The second time the GOP tax bill came up was in reference to so-called “Opportunity Zones,” which are federal subsidies directed toward investment in distressed areas to supposedly revitalize the areas. Ranking committee member Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, said while she’d like to see teachers take home more money, she’s not interested in increasing federal investment in school budgets. Noting the expansion Opportunity Zone funding in the new tax bill, Foxx suggested that community development could perhaps somehow lead somehow to increased teacher pay.

“Time will tell if Opportunity Zones and other new initiatives will finally help us solve the problems of teacher pay and poor school facilities, but time has already told us that higher price tags and more bureaucracy in Washington won’t deliver results,” she said. “The answer is not more money.”

As federal lawmakers continue to bicker over how we got to this point, teachers aren’t waiting around. Earlier this month, 95 percent of Oakland teachers voted to authorize their own strike, and they too could walk out of their schools within days.

To Block One Decertification Vote, a Teachers Union May Undo Charter Teachers’ Right to Unionize Nationally

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 13, 2019.

The National Labor Relations Board announced last week it would be accepting briefs on a case challenging its jurisdiction over charter schools, a matter that’s been settled for several years. Should the Republican-appointed majority rule that charter school employees are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act—thereby reversing two earlier Board rulings—that would leave employees in many states with no way to bargain collectively with their employers.

In 2016, in two decisions issued on the same day, the NLRB ruled that teachers at charter schools are private employees, concluding a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor. This position was affirmed last year by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, when it rejected a New Orleans charter school’s argument that its teachers, who organized a union, were public employees. As there is no statewide collective bargaining law in Louisiana, the teachers would have been unable to negotiate with their employer had the charter school prevailed in court.

Now, however, the Republican-controlled NLRB might reverse this precedent, sending existing charter school unions into chaos, and potentially preventing other charter teachers, like those in Louisiana, from ever unionizing at all.

Ironically, this opportunity has come before the Board through a case from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT—the local teachers union in New York City), which asked the Board to relinquish jurisdiction because some charter school teachers want to decertify their union.

The decision to revisit the issue was made by three Trump appointees—Chairman John Ring, Marvin Kaplan, and William Emanuel. In their statement, they said they may “overrule precedent” on this issue, though pledged to “keep an open mind.” Lauren McFerran, an Obama appointee, dissented, saying the charter school question has been “well-settled.” She noted her colleagues identified “no specific reasons at all” for revisiting the issue.

To determine that charter teachers are private employees, the courts have relied on a 1971 Supreme Court caseNLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, where the justices found Hawkins County in Tennessee to be a “political subdivision”—and therefore public—since it met several key tests: It was created directly by the state, and was administered by individuals responsible to public officials or the general electorate. By applying this so-called “Hawkins test” to charter schools, the NLRB and other judicial bodies have concluded that the publicly funded, privately managed schools do not constitute political subdivisions—and hence, their labor relations are subject to NLRB jurisdiction.

In announcing their acceptance of the New York union’s case, the Republicans on the NLRB did not object to using this Hawkins test, and agreed the New York City charter school teachers in question were private employees. What they did say, however, was they wanted to reconsider whether the Board should have jurisdiction over charter schools because of Section 14(c)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act—which says the Board can decline to exercise jurisdiction over labor disputes when it considers the impact on commerce to be insignificant. In her dissent, McFerran said it “seems highly doubtful” that charter school labor disputes have an insubstantial effect on commerce, concluding “the majority’s notice is a solution in search of a problem.”

While most charter school union disputes have involved teachers who unionized and then struggled to negotiate their first contract with a recalcitrant employer, the NLRB in this case has granted review to a very different kind of charter labor conflict, involving an obscure fight taking place in the Bronx.

The drama began in 2016. In New York City, there are 13 charter schools operated by the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, a national nonprofit charter network serving low-income students of color. While most KIPP schools, and most charter schools in general, are non-union, the Bronx-based KIPP Academy school is unionized. It is also one of a small handful of so-called “conversion charters” in the city, which means it formed originally by converting a traditional public school into a charter.

David Levin, the network’s co-founder, launched KIPP originally as a program within a New York City public high school in 1995, and in the spring of 2000, he applied to expand it from a program into the entire school. As part of his application to the city’s school chancellor, Levin submitted a copy of an agreement between the United Federation of Teachers and the school district that said any conversion charter school “shall be subject to collective bargaining agreements for like titles or positions … including but not limited to salary, medical, pension and welfare benefits and applicable due process procedures.” The agreement also said the charter’s board of trustees could negotiate changes to the collective-bargaining agreement.

When KIPP Academy Charter School launched in September 2000, all of its initial employees had been previously employed by New York City public schools, all had worked in the original KIPP program, and all had been represented by the teachers union. But the KIPP Academy teachers and the UFT had virtually no relationship for the next 16 years.

In 2016, though, about 20 KIPP educators approached the union to raise concerns about their working conditions. One of them was Fatima Wilson, a fourth-grade science teacher. “Our day runs from 7:20 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon, so we’re there for nine hours and 55 minutes a day, and most of the time there are no breaks,” she told me in 2017. Even going to the bathroom was a stressful experience. “We often have to hold it in, and risk urinary tract infections, kidney infections. This is life as we know it,” she had said.

Seeking to create a more livable and productive environment, as well as to reduce staff turnover, the teachers asked the UFT for help. In June of 2016 the union filed a grievance on behalf of the KIPP Academy teachers. When they received no response, the UFT filed for arbitration that November.

KIPP then filed for an injunction, and in a district court hearing later that month, KIPP’s lawyer argued that the UFT does not actually represent KIPP Academy teachers, as the union has not bargained any agreement, processed any grievance, or attended any meetings for KIPP teachers since the school opened in 2000. The judge rejected KIPP’s petition to thwart arbitration, concluding that none of those facts changed the reality that the UFT has “been deemed and not overruled” as the teachers’ bargaining agent since 2000.

At about the same time, KIPP administrators began talking to their teachers about disaffiliating with the UFT, prompting the union to file charges with the NLRB in January 2017. The union accused KIPP of violating federal labor law by encouraging teachers to decertify, and allegedly threatening teachers with loss of their jobs if they did not do so.

Some KIPP Academy teachers had tried to disaffiliate once before. In 2009, teachers at the school filed a petition to decertify their union, but under the law back then, KIPP teachers would have needed to garner a third of the entire New York City–wide bargaining unit—which included members in all the city’s public schools—to hold a decertification election. There were over 75,000 UFT members at the time. An administrative law judge in 2010 rejected the KIPP teachers’ petition as “numerically insufficient.”

After the UFT filed unfair labor charges against KIPP in January 2017, the charter network’s superintendent emailed his staff to say he “disagree[d]” that the UFT represented KIPP Academy teachers at all, both because of how the school has operated since it opened, and because “of recent changes to the law,” referring to the 2016 NLRB decisions that found charter teachers to be private employees. If KIPP teachers were private employees, his letter suggested, then the number of petition signers needed for UFT decertification might no longer be a third of the entire UFT bargaining unit, as it had been in 2010.

A few days later, some KIPP Academy teachers filed a new union decertification petition with the NLRB, and the regional hearings were held last May. At the proceedings, the UFT argued the federal labor board should disclaim jurisdiction over the KIPP teachers, drawing a distinction between conversion charter schools and regular charter schools. The union argued conversion charters would not pass the “Hawkins test” as a private institution (hence under the Board’s jurisdiction)—but that even if they did, the Board still should stay out of the dispute to preserve labor stability. The NLRB regional director rejected the union’s arguments in August, and also determined that the KIPP Academy teachers are a distinct group, independent of the citywide UFT bargaining unit. The path to decertification suddenly looked much easier.

In September, the UFT decided to appeal the regional director’s ruling to the national board, which it urged to disclaim jurisdiction over conversion charter schools in New York City. To make their case, the union cited an argument advanced by former Republican NLRB Board Member Philip Miscimarra, who had been the sole dissenting vote on the decision to treat charter school teachers as private employees. Miscimarra argued in 2016 that the NLRB should not get involved because those conflicts have an insubstantial effect on interstate commerce. “The same is true here, and the Board should decline jurisdiction over conversion charter schools established in New York, which, like [the school in 2016], have an insubstantial effect on interstate commerce,” the union wrote in its brief. The UFT also approvingly cited Miscimarra’s argument that regulating charter school labor relations would be better left to state and local governments—a position that might help workers in labor-friendly states like New York, but could leave them with no recourse at all in states that haven’t granted bargaining rights to public employees.

In October, KIPP’s lawyer, Thomas Walsh, filed a counter brief, noting that the UFT was requesting the federal labor board disclaim jurisdiction despite “the scores of cases from California to Connecticut” in which the NLRB and its regional offices have recognized that charter school teachers fall under their purview. He argued the union failed to assert “any compelling reason” for the Board to take this case up, and cited over 30 charter schools from 13 different states where teachers had been found to be protected under the National Labor Relations Act. “The [Hawkins’ test] principles have been applied identically across the entire country by the board, its regions, and by administrative law judges,” he wrote. “To reverse course now would be to disrupt the stability which has been years in the making.”

Last week’s NLRB announcement is the latest development in this ongoing and high-stakes saga.

Dick Riley, a spokesperson for the UFT, told The American Prospect the union’s “attorneys are reviewing the decision and we expect to be filing a brief as the case goes forward.” He did not return a request for comment on the concern that an NLRB decision withdrawing jurisdiction could make it harder for some charter teachers, especially educators in states like Louisiana, to unionize.

Neither Thomas Walsh, nor a KIPP spokesperson, returned request for comment.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Prospect that her union and state and local affiliates are reviewing the case “and seeking some basic consistency when it comes to the legal status of charter schools.” She said that charter operators are trying to have it both ways. “Some, like KIPP, profess they are public schools, yet they want to bypass public labor law when it comes to their employees,” she said. “When the shoe’s on the other foot they try to avoid their obligations and they are determined to be private sector employers under the NLRA. Educators at thousands of charters across the country deserve to know where they stand.”

If the federal labor board disclaims jurisdiction, accepting the argument advanced by the UFT and Miscimarra that a charter’s impact on commerce is too insignificant to warrant NLRB involvement, the fate of existing and future charter school unions is not yet clear. While all existing charter union contracts would remain in effect until they expire, some charter schools that previously recognized their staff’s union may decide they no longer need to. The question will then be if the teachers can turn to some state agency for relief.

In Washington, D.C., for example, the city’s collective bargaining law covers only local government employees, which charter school teachers are not. If they can’t organize under D.C. law, or federal law, they might have nowhere to go. The D.C. City Council could pass legislation expanding its collective bargaining law to include charter school teachers, but in a state like Louisiana, that would prove more difficult, as such states lack any collective bargaining statutes for workers not covered under the NLRA

Should the Board side with the UFT, it might then see more cases based on the nuances of charter employment. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some case would come along and the union would go to the NLRB and say we understand you won’t exercise jurisdiction over new cases, but this one was where you asserted jurisdiction that we had a right to bargain, so please enforce our rights to continue,” said Wilma Liebman, a former Obama appointee as NLRB chairman. “I’m not sure this particular Board would accept that argument, but I could see it being made.”

Or should a more sweeping ruling completely strike down the Board’s jurisdiction over charter school employees—well, the Board is increasingly known for its reversals as its partisan composition shifts. Liebman said it’s unfortunately common for NLRB precedent to change between administrations, especially over areas of employment that tend to be evolving, like those involving social media platforms. “Ideally it would be nice if the precedent didn’t vacillate, but the Board has been famous for decades for what formally is called ‘policy oscillation’ and what informally is called ‘flip-flopping,’” she said. “Any case where there was a Miscimarra dissent, those tend to be ripe for Trump-era Board to take up.”


In L.A., Magnet Schools Attracting Students but Not Headlines

Originally published in Next City on February 12, 2019.

When tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike last month, the media focused its attention on educators’ concerns over wages, class size, support staff, and the future of charter schools in the city. While they didn’t make the headlines or even the pithy posters teachers carried around throughout the six-day labor stoppage, magnet schools were another point of debate between the union and the District — and they matter to understanding the direction of school policy in L.A.

Magnet schools are schools organized around a certain theme, like art, technology, or even healthcare and journalism. Sometimes they’re an entire school, and sometimes they’re a program within a traditional school. In L.A., magnets are very popular: more than 79,000 students attend one of the city’s 260 magnet schools and programs, with enrollment having grown 35 percent in the last five years. Thirty-six new magnets opened this school year, and 37 new ones are set to launch in September.

One reason they’re in such high demand is due to their reputation for being academically strong. L.A. magnet students generally score higher on state exams than those both in traditional public schools and charters.

“Over time we have recognized that magnets are a choice for families and the magnet brand is very popular,” says Mónica García, the president of the L.A school board. “We have many schools with waiting lists and we want to work to accommodate them.”

The first magnets in L.A. opened in 1977, as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan. Magnets are open to all students living within the city, and at least half of a magnet’s student body typically comes from outside the school’s zoned neighborhood. The idea is to create appealing schools that will attract students — a “magnetic” way to foster diversity. The first magnet schools in the U.S. cropped up in the 1960s, specifically for school integration.

Gary Orfield, the co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, was involved back in the 1970s when the city’s magnet program was originally established.

“The vast majority were created for desegregation, but they lost that focus since the U.S Supreme Court’s [Oklahoma City v. Dowell] decision in 1991,” Orfield says. “Magnet schools were designed to be much more autonomous than traditional public schools, but they also had strict civil rights policies, which charters never had.”

Today roughly a quarter of L.A. magnets are desegregated, according to the L.A. School Report.

Given their popularity and performance, local officials have viewed expanding magnets as a key strategy for keeping families enrolled in Los Angeles Unified School District. Enrollment in the district has been declining since 2002 partly because families have left for charters. (About 112,000 students currently attend charter schools that are independent of the city’s school district.) Unlike charters, L.A.’s school district doesn’t lose per-pupil funding when a student enrolls in a magnet.

But magnets emerged as a tense area of disagreement during the union contract negotiations. To convert to a magnet, a majority of teachers at a school must vote in favor of the change, and then all staff must reapply for their jobs at the new magnet if they want to stay. Sometimes school leaders decide they need to hire different people with a more specialized skill-set to accommodate the new school theme. If an educator is not selected to come back, they could then seek a transfer to a different school.

The union fought these rules, demanding any magnet conversion should require 60 percent approval, that all full-time teachers should have the right to stay, and that no full-time teacher should have to reapply for the jobs they currently hold.

In a letter sent in July, in response to the union’s “Last, Best, and Final Offer,” the school district’s Director of Labor Relations wrote that they “fundamentally disagree” with the union over this, and believe the union “want[s] to effectively limit the number of new magnet schools and limit the District’s ability to select teachers with special skills or talents for new magnet schools.”

In the end, the union lost that battle. In their new contract — which essentially codified the district’s existing policy — it says that if the school board approves a magnet conversion, all teachers must receive notification “no less than one calendar year” prior to the magnet opening. That way educators could seek specialized training in the focus area of the magnet to be “priority candidates” for hiring, or they could seek a voluntary transfer. A majority of teachers — not 60 percent — also have to vote in favor of magnet conversion for the school board to consider the application.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, rejected the idea that his union tries to fight magnet schools. “We don’t want to block magnet schools, we want a teacher to have a say if they’re is going to be a big change in their school,” he said. “To frame that as though we want to block magnets is ridiculous.”

Caputo-Pearl says one problem with magnets is that they’re “the flavor of the day” for the school district. “Instead of investing in schools appropriately and doing things that matter like having administrators collaborate with teachers and parents on school improvement programs, the District falls into this game of changing names — and now it’s magnets,” he says. “Magnets can and should play a role, but not an oversized role.”

García, the school board president, says she and her colleagues take seriously that the “magnet brand is recognized as high-quality” by families. She emphasizes the District is interested in supporting all different kinds of school choice, including dual-language schools, charters, pilot schools, themed schools, and traditional comprehensive schools.

Challenges remain to expanding magnets further in the city.

One problem is the complicated, byzantine admissions process that has made it harder for some families — especially Latino families — to enroll in magnets.

“That’s something we definitely intend to begin raising more frequently and louder,” says Katie Braude, the executive director of Speak UP, a parent organization in Los Angeles that supports school choice.

Orfield of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA also notes there can sometimes be steep start-up costs for good magnets, requiring as much as a ten percent budget increase to get them off the ground. “There are other costs,” he says. “A good magnet requires a commitment to invest and train people to offer distinctive programs, and of course magnet schools that are run under good civil rights policies have to offer transportation.”

In Los Angeles, the school district provides free transportation to elementary students if they live outside a two-mile radius of the magnet, and free transportation for middle and high school students if they live five miles beyond the school.

Braude says the public has to ensure the school district doesn’t just convert schools to magnets without really giving them the resources to succeed. “Magnets have such a cachet,” she says, “But you can’t just slap the magnet name on something.”

A Lawsuit Threatens a Groundbreaking School-Desegregation Case

Originally published in The Nation on February 11, 2019.

On a Saturday morning in mid-January, 150 residents crowded inside the Hartford Public Library to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sheff v. O’Neill, a court case that transformed public education in Connecticut. Seven years after that filing, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools denied Hartford children their right to an equal education. As a result, nearly half of all Hartford students learn in integrated settings via magnet schools or by enrolling in nearby districts. Participation is voluntary, and the plaintiffs vow they will not stop fighting until every student in Hartford who wants to attend an integrated school can do so.

At the anniversary event, students and graduates gave speeches about their educations, and the original lawyers and plaintiffs shared remarks about their journey and where the movement should go next. “It was never about me, or trying to get something for myself,” said 40-year-old Milo Sheff, who back in 1989 was a fourth-grade Hartford student and the plaintiff for which the case was named. “It was always about Hartford and what we could do to make Hartford better.” (Sixteen other students were named as plaintiffs—for a total of five black children, six Latino, and six white.)

Milo’s mother, Elizabeth Horton Sheff, still a leading Sheff advocate, echoed her son’s comments: “When I entered this lawsuit, I was clearly aware that my son would not benefit from the fruits of this labor. I never entered this action for my son, I entered it for our children.”

The keynote speaker was freshman Representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District and the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Hayes told the crowd that she has two pictures hanging in her new Washington, DC, office: a photo of her and President Barack Obama when she was honored for her teaching, and a print of Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting showing 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white public school. Hayes emphasized that the civil-rights work is not over: “We have a responsibility to respond to the time and the generation that we’re in.”

But amid the joy of that celebration loomed an existential threat to Hartford’s educational model. In 2018, the Pacific Legal Foundation—a conservative law firm based in California known for challenging affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, and bilingual education—filed a federal lawsuit to dismantle Hartford’s integrated system, alleging “rampant unconstitutional discrimination.”

Three decades ago, 80 percent of Connecticut’s black and brown students were concentrated within 14 of its 165 school districts. At the time of Sheff’s filing, students of color comprised more than 92 percent of Hartford’s public-school enrollment, while in the 21 surrounding suburbs, only seven had school districts with minority enrollment that exceeded 10 percent.

While schools in the Hartford region are more integrated today, the Sheffremedy has fueled resentment among those still enrolled in traditional public schools, with some parents feeling like their children are losing out in a two-tiered system. Sheff is also unpopular among many of Connecticut’s politicians. State leaders resent the amount of money they’ve spent on policies they feel a court has forced them to green-light, and local officials don’t like ceding some decision-making power to the plaintiffs, who privately negotiate policy that otherwise would be handled by elected representatives.

For a school to be considered integrated under Sheff, no more than 75 percent of a school’s student body can be black or Latino, and no less than 25 percent can be white or Asian. In 2017 the state tried loosen these benchmarks, in an effort to open up more magnet seats to minority students. The plaintiffs, and ultimately the judge, rejected this. “Equity cannot favor more segregation,” ruled Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger. Now Sheff plaintiffs are waiting for a new trial date, to push the state to fund additional magnet-school seats.

In 2017, after reading a series of articles published in the Hartford Courant detailing issues with Sheff and featuring students who were not able to land spots in the coveted magnets, the Pacific Legal Foundation went searching for local Hartford parents they could recruit for a lawsuit. The articles “opened my eyes,” said Joshua Thompson, the lead Pacific Legal Foundation attorney on the case. “I made a couple of trips out to Hartford after that, and six or seven months later I found LaShawn.”

LaShawn Robinson is the named plaintiff on the new federal suit, Robinson v. Wentzell. A Hartford mother of five, she’s suing against what she believes is a racially discriminatory system that barred her African-American son, Jarod, from accessing a magnet-school education. After multiple years applying through the Sheff lottery system, Jarod couldn’t get off the wait list. Robinson said her son was getting a “decent education” at his neighborhood school, but she wanted him to have an “extraordinary” one.

This past October, the Pacific Legal Foundation argued before a District Court judge for their suit to move forward. “We’re challenging the racial quotas that require all magnet schools to be 25 percent white, and we’re challenging the lottery system itself,” Thompson said, alleging the lottery discriminates based on race, though officials stress the lottery is race-blind.


Cara McClellan, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, vehemently denied the suggestion that there are racial quotas being used. “The Pacific Legal Foundation is completely mischaracterizing and misrepresenting what’s going on,” she said, adding that the lottery system “uses perfectly constitutional tools” to further integration. In 1971 the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that flexible racial targets were distinct from rigid racial quotas, and affirmed that state and local school authorities could set such targets for integration purposes. “School authorities are traditionally charged with broad power to formulate and implement educational policy and might well conclude, for example, that in order to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society each school should have a prescribed ratio of Negro to White students reflecting the proportions for the district as a whole,” the Court held in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. “To do this as an educational policy is within the broad discretionary power of school authorities[.]”

The NAACP LDF intervened in the Robinson suit on behalf of the Sheff plaintiffs, and McClellan stressed the importance of seeing the case within a larger context of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s broader assault on civil rights. “We know this is not just a threat to Hartford, but for the development of law in this country,” she said. Indeed, the Pacific Legal Foundation has been open about its hope to use Robinson to set federal precedent around removing race-conscious measures for promoting diversity.

In 2007, the last time the US Supreme Court heard a case concerning school integration, the justices upheld, in a 5-4 decision, the ability to use certain strategies to advance racial diversity, like drawing attendance zones that take into consideration the demographics of students’ neighborhoods, and allocating additional resources for programs like integrated magnets. “This Nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity for all of its children,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion.

While the 2007 decision did limit the available legal options to further racial integration, “the Supreme Court’s decision does not stand for the proposition that school districts can’t think about race, or plan for racial integration,” Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council explained in 2017.

Rachel Martin, the interim executive director of the Sheff Movement, a coalition of parents, teachers, and students in Greater Hartford who support the 1989 decision, said her group sees the Robinson case as a reflection of the nationally divisive moment we’re in. “In this political climate, there’s been a lot of unfortunate sentiment coming out of different sources around racial issues, fears are being stoked, and we really see Pacific Legal Foundation taking advantage of all that to push their agenda forward,” she said. “They don’t actually care about Hartford, or our families, or our students.”

Martin says ultimately her organization and the Robinson plaintiffs want the same thing, which is greater access to magnet schools. For Sheff advocates, that means ramping up pressure on the state to expand the number of seats it will fund, until demand is fully met and there are no more student wait lists.

Some worry a win for the Robinson plaintiffs will mean a loss of funding for Hartford’s traditional public schools. As a result of Sheff, state legislators have spent substantially more money per-pupil on Hartford students than in other racially segregated parts of the state. While some Hartford City Council members and school-board reps say they’ve tired of the lawsuit and want more say in how those additional dollars get spent, legal experts say it’s unlikely the state would continue spending on Hartford at its current levels if it weren’t bound by Sheff rules.

The state of Connecticut opposes the Robinson case, but they’re not exactly fans of Sheff, either. “The state has sought to dismiss our case, but they’re certainly not arm-in-arm with the Sheff plaintiffs,” said Thompson. “They see themselves as between a rock and a hard place.”

A spokesperson for Connecticut’s attorney general declined to comment for this story.

On the campaign trail, Connecticut’s newly elected Democratic governor, Ned Lamont, said he’d oppose opening new magnet schools, and would support efforts to free the state from Sheff’s legal mandates. “I think we can take a pause on this, on the legal remedies,” he told The CT Mirror in October. Lamont wants to focus his attention on investing in neighborhood schools, though he also pointed to declining enrollment in suburban schools, and said maybe financial incentives could help induce those schools to voluntarily enroll more Hartford students, too. Lamont’s Democratic predecessor, Dannel Malloy, was also notably hostile to Sheff, going so far as to call the lottery discriminatory and likely unconstitutional.

Sheff advocates counter that state legislators’ hand-wringing over their constitutional obligations is why parents had to file the lawsuit in the first place.

There are signs that the Pacific Legal Foundation is preparing to mount a second challenge in Connecticut, against a statewide law passed in 2017that requires all magnet schools, even those outside the Hartford region, to maintain the Sheff racial-diversity standards. “You should stay tuned,” said Thompson. “The justification for expanding this statewide is even more tenuous than with Hartford.”

The New Haven Independent reported in September that a local education-reform group, the Connecticut Parents Union, was aiding the Pacific Legal Foundation in finding plaintiffs for a second case. Gwen Samuel, the founder of Connecticut Parents Union, says her group has 125 members statewide, and has also been helping to build support for the Robinson lawsuit.

On the other side, rallying proponents of Sheff to defend the lawsuit can be difficult. “Parents are busy, they have to get dinner on the table, and homework done, and, frankly, for parents whose kids are already benefiting from a magnet school, it’s a little harder to convince them to come out and fight for that opportunity for more students,” said Martin.

Martha Stone, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy and the lead attorney for the Sheff plaintiffs, said there’s a lot of myths surrounding the Sheff lawsuit, including that there aren’t enough white families interested in attending the magnet schools. “White families are on the wait lists too,” she said. “We have the wait list data, and there’s a lot of interest broadly in attending these schools.” Stone acknowledged that’s a separate matter from whether there’s adequate mobilization to support the magnets. “I think that’s where there’s been some difficulty,” she said. While there have been some bills to increase funding for magnets, and there has been some local organizing, it’s still been fairly limited. “No one can afford to hire a full-time organizer,” Stone said.

The backdrop to all these legal battles is the fact that Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps between poor and wealthy students in the nation, as well as one of the largest household-income gaps. Connecticut relies more heavily than most states on local property tax to fund public schools, which means affluent towns have more dollars flowing into their schools than those in poorer communities. On top of all this, Connecticut is one of just nine states with a shrinking population, and its nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis has projected budget deficits in the coming years.

If the Robinson plaintiffs are successful, integration advocates worry Connecticut will see a return to de facto segregation. In 2014, Robert Cotto Jr., the director of Urban Educational Initiatives at Trinity College, published a report that found Connecticut charters were racially segregated, despite a statutory requirement to reduce racial and ethnic isolation. Connecticut’s Sheff magnet schools were the only choice-based option Cotto found that significantly reduced segregation. Charter schools are relatively limited in the state, though some would like to increase their number. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization, recently identified Connecticut as a state where his allies “have a strong foothold” after the 2018 election.

Sheff supporters recognize the politics are challenging, in both Hartford and on the state level. And while the plaintiffs repeatedly put forth ideas to make Sheff more popular, including giving priority to people who have been on the wait list for multiple years, opening more dual-language magnets to attract more English-language learners, or requiring more regional coordination from the many small towns in the Hartford metro area, the state, thus far, has rejected all these ideas, citing cost pressures and fears of backlash.

“Folks often feel like if we’re talking about integration, then we’re taking time and money away from supporting neighborhood schools, but we can do both,” said Martin. “This is one of the richest states in the nation, and governments find money for things they need to find money for.”

Sheldon Adelson Got A Surprise Gift in the Middle of the Government Shutdown

Originally published in The Intercept on February 8, 2019.

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Republican casino mogul, is associated with a singular political project: his long-running mission to uproot the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and plant it in Jerusalem instead.

But there’s a second project — lower profile, but no less of a passionate priority — that Adelson has long been gunning for, and that’s his war against online gambling. Adelson’s casino empire is comprised of brick-and-mortar establishments, to which online gambling is a major threat, but Adelson says he is at war with online gambling for the good of society: Gambling in casinos is one thing, but gambling online is a public health nightmare.

Adelson’s crusade against online gambling led to an attorney general recusal, tense debates within the Justice Department, and a standoff with the White House that culminated with an extraordinary reversal of policy in the middle of the government shutdown, when the Trump administration issued the legal opinion against online gambling that Adelson had long sought.

His mission dates back to 2011, when the Justice Department issued an opinion clarifying that the Wire Act, a 1961 federal statute designed to stop interstate betting, only applies to sports betting and no other forms of gambling. The opinion paved the way for states to begin establishing legalized online gambling, so long as they did not create interstate sports betting arrangements. Today, Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania have all legalized online gambling, and 22 states have pending gambling legislation for a mix of casino, poker, and sports.

For years, Adelson has poured money into lobbying efforts to override the Justice Department opinion, corralling his closest congressional allies to pass legislation, bluntly called the Restoration of America’s Wire Act, or RAWA. Adelson pledged to spend “whatever it takes” to ban online gambling, claiming his motives are purely altruistic, an effort to prevent the exploitation of children and the poor. “I am in favor of [gambling] as a form of entertainment, but I am not in favor of it exploiting the world’s most vulnerable people,” he said of his opposition. “I know I am a Republican, and I am not supposed to be socially sensitive, but I am very socially sensitive.”

In 2014, Adelson began bankrolling a new advocacy group called the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, and that same year, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, first introduced RAWA in Congress. Graham had not previously been a vocal opponent against online gaming, but in 2013, Adelson began significantly scaling up his political contributions to the South Carolina senator, even hosting a high-dollar fundraiser for Graham at his Las Vegas Venetian hotel. Also in 2014, Adelson emerged as the top GOP donor, giving $13.2 million to help Republicans take control of the Senate.

Despite all this, RAWA gained little traction. Republicans felt uncomfortable pushing for a new federal ban, and many Democrats were both interested in the new tax revenue streams that could be directed toward things like public education, and suspicious of helping a pet cause of Adelson.

“Adelson worked with [John] Boehner, [Harry] Reid, and Chaffetz for years trying to move legislation on this, and wasn’t able to get so much as even a hearing in the committees of jurisdiction,” said one Republican lobbyist, referring to the House and Senate judiciary committees. “He also tried to get [RAWA] inserted in must-pass omnibus legislation, but they could never get it through. Lawmakers knew it would look terrible to pass a bill that couldn’t even get a hearing in the committees of jurisdiction.”

RAWA did manage to get one House Oversight Committee hearing in 2015 when Chaffetz was serving as chair, but the proceedings backfired, with both Democrats and Republicans challenging the witness testimony and voicing opposition to the legislation. Most Republicans opposed RAWA on the basis that it’s an intrusion on states’ rights. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., noted that if RAWA passed, it could pave the way for a national ban on firearms. Rep. Elijah Cummings,D-Md., came right out and said this whole debate was “about money” — namely the profit margins of brick-and-mortar casinos.

But Adelson was not deterred and poured more than $83 million into Republican races in the 2016 cycle, including at least $20 million to elect Donald Trump.

SHORTLY AFTER THE inauguration, at a small dinner at the White House, Adelson, accompanied by his wife, brought up two issues he said were extremely important to him: relocating the U.S Embassy in Israel, and online gambling, according to two gaming industry sources who learned of the dinner. A spokesperson for Adelson did not return request for comment.

In January 2017, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions testified that he was “shocked” by the 2011 Justice Department opinion on online gaming, and would “revisit it” as attorney general. The question had been put to him by Graham.

A month later, a law firm headed by Charles Cooper, a former lobbyist for Adelson’s Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, drafted a legal memo outlining why the 2011 Wire Act opinion was incorrect. By April, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, an attorney, Darryl Nirenberg, who has worked as a registered lobbyist for Adelson for the past two decades, delivered the legal memo to a top-ranking official at the Justice Department. By May, the department’s criminal division forwarded the Cooper memo to the Office of Legal Counsel and asked them to “reconsider” their 2011 stance.

Then came June, and Sessions hired Cooper, his longtime friend, to personally represent him in the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. By July, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from all gambling matters, given the involvement of his own lawyer.

That left the online gambling issues under the jurisdiction of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, just like when Sessions recused himself from the special counsel probe into Russia, also for conflicts of interest.

According to people close to Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general wanted little to do with the gambling brouhaha. “We’ve checked in over the last two years with Rod Rosenstein and he’s consistently said he has no interest in this issue, that there’s more important issues going on,” said one gaming industry executive who opposes the ban.

Adelson hadn’t fully given up on Congress, and in 2017, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., tried to squeeze language banning online gambling into appropriations bills. He was unsuccessful, and Dent ultimately resigned from Congress in the spring of 2018.

BUT FINALLY, ADELSON found his golden opportunity, in the middle of the five-week government shutdown, which coincided with the transition between U.S. attorneys general. The new nominee to lead the Justice Department, William Barr, is a well-known, staunch advocate for states’ rights, and supporters of banning online gambling knew his confirmation would make overturning the 2011 opinion that much more difficult.

Barr made his opposition to revising the 2011 memo known during his prep time for his confirmation hearings, people familiar with the deliberations said, which is why Graham ended up not asking him any questions about it, unlike the questions Graham posed to Sessions during his 2017 hearings. Asked whether the senator had advance knowledge of Barr’s stance on the question, Graham’s spokesperson did not respond directly to the question, and instead forwarded a public statement praising the new Wire Act policy.

Barr was asked about his views on enforcing marijuana laws, and he pledged in his confirmation hearing “to not go after companies” that had been relying on a separate Obama-era memo that said the Justice Department would not prosecute companies in states that legalized the drug. Sessions had overturned that memo at the start of 2018.

Knowing both Barr’s position on the Wire Act memo and that Barr was planning to give a states’ rights defense of marijuana legalization at his confirmation hearing, Justice Department officials scrambled. Acting Attorney General Mark Whitaker and other Justice officials met with their White House counterparts and described the plan to overturn the previous memo. White House officials, according to sources briefed on the meeting, advised caution, but ultimately left the decision to the Justice Department. The night before Barr’s hearing, the Justice Department circulated a new legal memo attributed to Steven Engel, an assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel. That document conspicuously lacked a signature, leading some to wonder if this was even real or just a draft.

The circulated opinion was dated November 2, 2018, but released publicly on January 14, raising further questions about whether it was a draft or was official. The new memo insisted that most forms of online gambling are in fact illegal under the Wire Act, and that this new analysis “supersedes and replaces” the 2011 opinion on the subject. Observers noted that much of the new opinion mirrored arguments and language reflected in the Cooper memo submitted to the Justice Department in 2017. On January 15, the agency circulated a memo to U.S attorneys, Assistant Attorneys General, and the FBI Director, announcing their new Wire Act position.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not return request for comment.

Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas and a current lobbyist for Adelson’s Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, praised the Justice Department for its new legal opinion. “Today’s landmark action to rightfully restore the Wire Act is a win for parents, children, and other vulnerable populations,” she said in a statement.

Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, has paid Lincoln’s lobbying firm $820,000 since 2014, according to federal disclosures.

Ron Reese, a spokesperson for Adelson, did not answer questions about the casino mogul’s involvement with the new Justice Department opinion or his general reaction to it. In a statement to the Washington Post, Reeseclaimed that the new Justice Department opinion would have “little or no impact” on Las Vegas Sands.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii who sits on the Judiciary Committee, told The Intercept that the online gambling issue has not been a real focus in Congress. “I really don’t know who, besides Sheldon Adelson, was supporting the ban. It’s not as though it’s hit our radar screen. In my view, the world is in flames right now with so many other Trump [things],” she said. Hawaii and Utah are the only states that outright ban online gambling, and in 2015, Chaffetz tried to argue that a federal ban on online gambling would serve to further protect states like Utah and Hawaii.

SARA SLANE, A SPOKESPERSON for the American Gaming Association,released a statement calling the Justice Department’s new opinion “unfortunate” and said the federal law enforcement agency has provided no “compelling reason” to reverse their 2011 stance. Casino gaming, she added, “is one of the most highly regulated industries in the country” and her association encourages the Justice Department to investigate and shut down illegal and unregulated gambling operators.

Mark Brenner, the president of the Poker Alliance, an advocacy group that focuses on the rights and interests of poker players, told The Intercept in an email that his group strongly opposes the Justice Department’s decision. “Make no mistake, DOJ’s Wire Act reversal was a well-coordinated attack against the regulated iGaming, sports wagering, and poker industries carried out by Las Vegas special interests seeking to protect their own bottom line,” he said. “In doing so, they are trampling on states rights and individual rights, while undermining a growing bipartisan coalition of Governors and legislators across the country who are responsibly modernizing gaming in their respective states. Perhaps worst of all, this move will expose more innocent consumers to a gambling black market that is beyond the reach of law enforcement and regulators.”

The ultimate impact of the Justice Department memo is not yet clear, and some expect it will face further challenge in court. Online gambling supporters say that despite Barr’s stance on respecting states’ rights, if investors think they could potentially be at risk of criminal sanction, far fewer businesses will want to get involved.

“I think the gaming community is still uncertain about what this means, and the opinion is now open for interpretation for how far it reaches,” said Jennifer Roberts, the associate director of the International Center for Gaming Regulation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s pretty clear that according to this new opinion that it would affect interstate gaming, but what’s not clear is does it affect any activities intrastate?”

The North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries said the new Justice Department opinion would have a “substantially detrimental impact” on their lottery industry, which “currently provide[s] more than $23 billion in annual revenue to … good causes [governments] support within their jurisdictions, from education to the environment to economic development to senior citizen and veteran programs, and much more.”

On Tuesday, the state attorneys general in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sent a letter to the Justice Department, saying the new Wire Act opinion “undermines the values of federalism and reliance that our states count on.” The attorneys general, Gurbir Grewal of New Jersey and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, urged the department to withdraw the opinion or guarantee that the Justice Department “will not bring enforcement actions against companies in our states that are acting lawfully under state statutes.” They also filed Freedom of Information Act requests for, among other things, any information that relates to outside lobbying efforts to influence the Justice  Department’s opinion on this issue. The FOIA request specifically names the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, Charles Cooper, Darryl Nirenberg, Blanche Lincoln, the Lincoln Group, and Sheldon Adelson.


D.C. Charter Administrators Have Some of the Highest School Salaries in Town; Their Teachers, Some of the Lowest

Originally published in Washington City Paper on January 30, 2019.

Liz Koenig has been working in D.C. charter schools for seven years, and at the same charter for the last five. She used to be a lawyer. “My first-year salary as a teaching assistant was less than my year-end bonus as an attorney, which blew my mind,” she recalls.

When Koenig took her current teaching job, she didn’t know anything about her charter’s salary schedule, other than what she had been offered to start. In the middle of her third year, she asked HR if she could review her school’s pay scale, because she was trying to figure out how her salary might increase if she obtained additional teaching credentials.

“I’ve always been interested in getting a master’s in dual-language teaching for ELL [English language learner] students, or a master’s in curriculum and instruction of literacy, but I’m a mother of two kids, and before I take that leap, I wanted to understand what I could expect to earn at my school if I did get those credentials,” she says. “I can’t take on any more debt. I still have debt from law school I’m paying off.”

But Koenig was denied that information, as are most charter teachers in D.C. “There are 120 schools but you can’t just call them up and learn their salary schedules,” she says. “It puts us in a position where we can’t make informed choices about where we work. Charter schools are free markets for all the parents and kids, but screw those teachers.”

Koenig says if she leaves her school, she’ll probably head to DC Public Schools, “where at least I’ll have the transparency.” Even without getting extra credentials, Koenig estimates she could be earning about $15,000 more right now in DCPS.

D.C. is nationally noted for its above-average teaching salaries—the minimum starting rate for a full-time DCPS educator is $56,313, and the average DCPS teacher earned over $76,400 in the 2016-17 school year. But publicly available information about D.C. charter school salaries is surprisingly scant. And unlike DCPS, charter schools are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

This past fall, the State Board of Education released a report on teacher retention in D.C. schools, prepared by Mary Levy, an independent budget analyst. As part of her research, Levy combed through the annual reports published by each individual charter school organization, where, in addition to publishing information about teacher attrition, most schools also report their minimum, maximum, and average teacher salary. The DC Public Charter School Board requests charters report this information, but does not require it, and so some charters, like DC Prep and Washington Global, decline to provide the salary data.

Still, using what information she could find, Levy estimated the average D.C. charter school teacher salary in the 2016-17 school year amounted to $60,499.

Yet she has reason to question the precision of these self-reported figures. When Levy was compiling data for her SBOE report, she found that most of the charter schools that reported attrition of over 50 percent in fact had far less. “What that says is there’s an assumption that nobody would look at these annual reports, and whoever filled it out apparently confused the words ‘attrition’ with ‘retention,’” she says. “It makes a big difference if anyone actually uses the data. Then the people who are submitting the information tend to be more careful.”

Tomeika Bowden, the spokesperson for the DC Public Charter School Board, confirmed that her organization does not collect any additional information on charter teacher pay.

City Paper asked the State Board of Education if it had ever tried to learn the salaries of D.C. charter school teachers. “The SBOE has not requested that information because it does not fall within the purview of the Board’s work,” answered John-Paul Hayworth, the board’s Executive Director. When pressed on how that squares with the SBOE’s focus on teacher retention, Hayworth said the State Board generally avoids making recommendations on hiring practices, including contract length, performance assessments, and salaries. While the board might recommend that schools report the overall expenditure on teachers in a school, Hayworth added, it “wouldn’t request individual-level information.”


Though charter teachers earn much less than their DCPS counterparts, administrative pay in the charter sector has been rising at a fast clip, according to public records.

According to salary information posted each year on the DC Public Charter School Board’s website, between 2016 and 2018, staff working at the DC Public Charter School Board received raises averaging 12 percent annually. And in 2017, according to nonprofit tax filings, the average annual salary for the top leader at each D.C. charter was $146,000. Only three charter heads earned less than $100,000, and eight earned more than $200,000.

Summary statistics aside, the sector is replete with examples of steep salaries and quick raises. Allison Kokkoros, the head of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School and the highest-paid charter official in D.C., received a 24 percent salary increase between 2015 and 2016, from $248,000 to $307,000. Then, in 2017, she received another 76 percent increase, bumping her compensation to $541,000. Patricia Brantley, head of Friendship Public Charter School, received a 33 percent raise between 2016 and 2017, increasing her pay from $231,000 to $308,000.

Outside of school heads, other high-ranking charter administrators also claimed significant salaries. In 2017, KIPP DC had four administrators making approximately $200,000 annually, and its president earned $257,000. The chair of Friendship, Donald Hense, earned over $355,000 annually between 2015 and 2017, and its CFO earned between $171,000 and $197,000 in each of those years. DC Prep’s Chief Academic Officer earned $203,000 in 2015, and $223,000 one year later. The board chair of AppleTree Early Learning earned over $231,000 annually each year since 2015, reaching $245,000 in 2017. 990 tax forms list another 110 charter administrators earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, although this list is likely not comprehensive, as schools are only required to disclose their top five highest-paid employees. 2018 figures are not yet available.

In one remarkable instance, Sonia Gutierrez, the founder and former CEO of Carlos Rosario, who now sits on the school’s board, earned $1,890,000 between 2015 and 2017. Board chair Patricia Sosa, when contacted about this large sum, says much of that had been awarded as deferred compensation from Gutierrez’s time working between July 2010 and December 2015. However, according to tax records, she was also paid an average of $326,000 annually during that period.

Research conducted on other cities has shown that administrative spending tends to be higher in charter sectors than in traditional public school districts. Still, administrative spending has also been a concern in DCPS, and it was one of the major points Washington Teacher’ Union leaders brought up during their last round of contract negotiations. And in Denver, Colorado, public school teachers are currently threatening to go on strike over wages, with teachers calling attention to Denver’s above-average spending on school administration.

For their part, charter school executives defend their current salaries as standard for the sector and necessary to retain top-tier personnel. But there may be a risk that within-sector salary comparisons result in administrator paychecks rising in sync with each other, rather than reflecting an underlying demand for staff.


Ironically, as charter administrators claim they need high salaries to compete for executive leadership, teachers complain that the opacity of their salaries makes bargaining for higher pay near impossible.

Last week, Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy—a network of four charter schools in D.C.—announced it will be unilaterally closing its Chavez Prep Middle School next year, and merging its two high schools. The network says this new closure and merger are due to lower-than-expected student enrollment, i.e. a revenue shortfall.

Chavez Prep is the city’s sole unionized charter school, and Christian Herr, a sixth grade science teacher at the school, says the lack of a clear salary schedule was one of the main reasons he and his colleagues were motivated to form a union. “When we were organizing our union, we learned things were just all over the place in terms of who got paid what, and there wasn’t a clear progression,” he says. “Your salary basically depended on how much a principal liked you, or what you were willing to ask for, or demand. The people with the same amount of experience and degrees got paid differently.”

The Chavez Prep union has been negotiating its first contract since the summer of 2017, and establishing a more transparent salary schedule has been one of their top priorities. What will happen to the union next year is not yet clear, and teachers say they plan to launch a full investigation into the reasons behind the closing of Chavez Prep.

Emily Silberstein, the CEO of the Cesar Chavez network, tells City Paper that her organization “has a long history of implementing a teacher pay scale that includes educational degrees and years of experience as factors in pay. Each year, the pay scale is reviewed as part of the network’s budgeting process. When updating the Chavez pay scale, we consider the network budget, pay in the D.C. charter sector, and the DCPS teacher pay scale.”

Silberstein says their updated pay scale is shared annually with teachers, and she defends her network’s compensation rates as competitive with other D.C. charter schools—citing a recent study by EdFuel, a nonprofit that helps schools recruit and retain teachers.

City Paper reached out to EdFuel to review the aforementioned compensation study, but Kelly Gleischman, a managing partner, said the study is not publicly available, as it’s currently shielded under a non-disclosure agreement. She says it was published March 1, 2018, and is under an NDA for eighteen months after that.

DCPS gets about $16,000 per pupil from the city’s operating budget, and charters receive a little less than $15,000—though charters also shoulder some additional costs like retirement and building maintenance. Silberstein says she understands why teachers would choose to teach in DCPS if pay was a top consideration. “For highly effective teachers, DC Public Schools is one of the highest-paying school districts in the country,” she says. “I admire DCPS for that and wish D.C. charter schools received the same kind of public and philanthropic support to make such salaries possible.”

“Speaking personally,” says Herr, “if I were at DCPS I would get paid $14,000 more than I do now, and my wife, who has worked at Chavez Prep as long as I have and has two master’s degrees, she’d get paid $19-to-$20,000 a year more.”


Coming Off LA Strike Victory, A New Wave Of Teacher Protests Takes Hold


Originally published in The Intercept on January 29, 2019.

#REDFORED, THE NATIONAL teacher-led movement that started last year, continues to flex its muscles. On the heels of a successful six-day strike in Los Angeles, teachers in Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere in California are voicing their demands for better working conditions, and, in some cases, threatening to strike.

On Monday, thousands of public school teachers flooded into Richmond, Virginia, for a one-day demonstration to pressure state lawmakers to increase funding for public education. The Richmond day of action was organized by a grassroots educator group, Virginia Educators United. It came after about nine months of planning, according to a Virginia Educators United spokesperson, and was backed by an “independent coalition” of stakeholders who support public schools, including union members, non-union members, educators, parents, administrators, and policymakers. Like the teacher uprisings in other states, supporters wore red in solidarity.

The teachers’ demands for increased funding come amid a steep drop in resources over the last decade. According to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Virginia think tank, per-pupil state funding for the 2018-2019 school year was 9.1 percent lower in real dollars than in 2008-2009.

The march garnered local and national teacher union support. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, marched in Richmond on Monday alongside Lily García, president of the National Education Association.

“Our folks, we’re not big in Virginia, but we’re mighty, and we have three or four very active locals that have been working closely with the Virginia Educators United,” said Weingarten in an interview Monday afternoon. “Virginia is a pretty rich state, but actually spends about a billion dollars less in education than it did before the recession, which means its priorities need to be reordered.”

Weingarten said the last straw for many Virginia educators was seeing how readily lawmakers were able to come up with a “bountiful set of tax breaks” for Amazon to open its HQ2 in the state. If the state can competitively invest in business development, the teachers say, it should be able to invest in its schools and teachers. According to data from the NEA, Virginia ranks 34th nationally when it comes to teacher pay, with the average teacher earning $51,049.

Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam expressed support for the rallying teachers.

About 1,670 miles west, in Denver, teachers are also preparing to go on what would be their first strike since 1994. While the strike was scheduled to take place on Monday, last week, Denver’s public school district requested state intervention, a move that could delay the strike for up to 180 days. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has 14 days to decide if he will intervene, and his office has so far said he is undecided. If the state intervenes, Polis could call for a neutral fact-finder to assist in negotiations, or offer resources like arbitration or mediation. A strike in the middle of state intervention would be illegal, and teachers, guidance counselors, and nurses could face financial penalties and even the revocation of their licenses.

Lisa Calderón, a Denver mayoral candidate, urged Polis to stay out of the situation. “This is not a state issue, this is a local workers’ issue,” she said recently.

The Denver school district and union are at odds over teacher pay, as well as the size of bonuses for educators who work in schools where there are high levels of poverty among students. Denver educators are also highlighting the fact that administrative spending remains much higher in their city than in other parts of the state. Throughout 2018, there were signs of growing teacher militancy in Denver, and many parents, community members, and teachers began talking about the likelihood of a strike months ago. This past April, thousands of teachers descended on Denver, the state capital, to call on lawmakers to increase funding for public education. These demonstrations weren’t technically strikes (educators called them “walkouts”), as most school districts closed down beforehand in support of the teachers.

Teacher pay in Colorado ranks 31st in the country, and last year, the average educator earned just under $53,000, according to the state’s education department. Pay can vary widely across Colorado, with some districts averaging salaries above $70,000 and others with pay closer to $30,000. Last year in Denver, the average teacher pay (before bonuses) was $50,757.

In Northern California, the Oakland Education Association has called for a four-day strike authorization vote to begin Tuesday. Oakland educators, like their counterparts in LA, have been calling for smaller class sizes, more school nurses and counselors, and higher pay. They have been working without a contract since July 2017. In 2010, Oakland teachers went on strike for one day, and in 1996, they took the streets for 26 days.

Los Angeles teachers returned to work last Wednesday after a six-day strike, their first labor stoppage since 1989. Following the strike, 81 percent of United Teachers Los Angeles members voted to ratify their new contract, which includes new caps on class sizes and commitments to hire more nurses and librarians. The union also won a commitment from the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop a plan to reduce the number of standardized tests and explore limits on charter school growth, a big point of contention in the strike. Teachers also agreed to salary increases of 6 percent, which is what the district had offered prior to the strike.

A Democratic Firm Is Shaking Up The World Of Political Fundraising

Originally published in The Intercept on January 23
WHEN KARA EASTMAN pulled off a primary upset this past spring in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, a swing seat in the Omaha metro region, she did so with no help from the national Democratic party. Eastman, a social worker and first-time candidate running on an unapologetic left-wing platform, was competing against former Rep. Brad Ashford, who served for years in the Nebraska legislature and one term in Congress between 2014 and 2016.

Despite Ashford’s long track record of supporting abortion restrictions, pro-choice groups like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL Pro-Choice America opted to stay out of the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, elevated Ashford to their “Red to Blue” list, a signal of official party support for competitive races, and political action committees controlled by House leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., kicked in over $28,000 to Ashford’s bid.

Eastman, who embraced not only reproductive freedom but also policies like “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, and increased gun control, struggled early on to compete. While her proposals and personal story were popular, finding donors was hard.

Yet by the time her primary rolled around, Eastman emerged the winner, raising close to $400,000  and benefitting from a flurry of late-stage media coverage. Using a new digital fundraising company to target customized groups of donors across the country — such as all Democrats who identify as social workers or those who back “Medicare for All” — Eastman’s team was able to change the trajectory of the race.

Her campaign credits Grassroots Analytics, an obscure tech startup that’s quietly shaking up the Democratic campaign finance world. Not a single article has ever been written about or even mentioned it, despite the company having aided some of the biggest upsets of the 2018 cycle, including Joe Cunningham in South Carolina, Lucy McBath in Georgia, and Kendra Horn in Oklahoma.

“Grassroots Analytics absolutely was what allowed us to be competitive in the primary and get on TV, otherwise there is no way we would have won,” said Dave Pantos, the finance director for Eastman’s campaign. “We were definitely not the mainstream candidate, and we didn’t have access to donor lists that more establishment candidates have.” Eastman ended up losing the general election, earning 49 percent of the vote, but has already announced that she’s jumping back in the fray for 2020.

Grassroots Analytics says it wants to level the playing field and to make it easier for candidates to run who don’t already have a built-in network of wealthy family, friends, and co-workers. Using an algorithm to clean and sort publicly available data spread across the internet, the company provides campaigns with customized lists of donors who they believe are most likely to support them. If you’re involved in the world of political fundraising, a thought has probably occurred to you just now: Wait, isn’t that illegal? Hold that thought.

Establishment groups like the Democratic National Committee, the DCCC, and EMILY’s List have largely given the firm the cold shoulder, despite its goals and the fact that it worked with 137 campaigns in the last cycle. Not even mainstream progressive organizations like Our Revolution or Justice Democrats would return Grassroots Analytics’s entreaties to work together.

DANNY HOGENKAMP, THE 24-year-old founder and director of Grassroots Analytics, wasn’t expecting to end up in this kind of business. He had no background in politics; he studied Arabic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and assumed he’d end up doing foreign policy or refugee resettlement work after college.

But after graduating in 2016, with no job yet to speak of, he decided to go crash with some relatives in Syracuse, New York, where he was born, and try his hand in a congressional campaign. He enlisted with first-time candidate Colleen Deacon, a 39-year-old single mother who had worked as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s regional aide in upstate New York. Deacon, who previously lived on Medicaid and food stamps, campaigned on putting herself through college with minimum wage jobs and student loans.

Hogenkamp was placed on the finance team, where he was charged with raising money and managing a team of 20 unpaid interns. It was there that he first encountered the opaque world of political fundraising — a world that even many organizers, pundits, and journalists can hardly grasp.

“I had no idea what campaigns were like, and it turns out that literally what candidates actually do to raise money, unless you’re really well-connected and famous, is sit in a room and call rich, old people to beg for $1,500, $2,000, or preferably [the federal maximum] of $2,700,” he said.

To run a competitive House race, Deacon’s campaign knew it needed to raise between $1.5 million and $2 million. Syracuse is one of the poorer metropolitan areas in New York, and after the campaign exhausted all the local prospective donors it could think of, the next step was the big open secret in political campaigning: finding similar candidates in other states and races and then researching who donated to their campaigns. So, for example, Deacon staffers would search for similar candidates — like Monica Vernon, who was running for Congress at the same time in Iowa — and then try and track down the contact information for the donors listed on their Federal Election Commission reports.

“Our interns would literally just Google people and try to find their phone numbers,” Hogenkamp said. “But donors change their numbers all the time, and they’re hard to find.”

The whole thing was invariably slow and disorganized. “It was the stupidest process,” he said. “It’s not digitized; there’s no math; it’s just random and stupid.”

Hogenkamp, still pretty much an idealistic novice, was convinced that there had to be a better way, some obvious step he was missing. So, from his perch as a relatively high-level finance staffer on Deacon’s team, he reached out to everyone he could think of — like the DCCC, EMILY’s List, liberal consulting firms, and other politicians — to find out how to make this fundraising process easier. “No one had any good answers; they said, ‘Well, this is just how you do it,’” he said. Hogenkamp recalled Gillibrand’s team telling him about its personal wealthy contacts in New York and how fundraising for the campaign meant going to those people and asking each of them to go out and find 10 more donors within their own networks.

Eventually, Hogenkamp connected with David Chase, a Democratic political operative who was then managing the campaign for Rubén Kihuen in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. Chase offered a bit of help: He had developed a very rudimentary tool to aid his team’s fundraising efforts.

“Using OpenSecrets, I built some product that allowed you to search through all the federal and state contributions,” Chase told The Intercept. “It was very simple — I don’t have any advanced technological skills — but I wrote a script that allowed you to upload a list and it spit back the stats on the amount of times someone had given to state races and their average contributions.” In other words, for someone looking to discover who had given $500 or so to multiple candidates, Chase’s tool provided a way to more quickly glean that information.

Chase explained his tool, and Hogenkamp realized that there was a lot more he could do with an idea like that. During college, he had interned at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he learned to model how likely students were to default on their student loans. “I just randomly had a background in R and Python and zero-inflated negative binomial regressions from my time at the CFPB, so it was really just serendipitous that I actually knew what to do,” he said. Following that conversation, Hogenkamp went back and recruited a bunch of Syracuse University computer science students to help him build out his vision.

The result was effectively what he calls a “cleaner” of publicly available data, scraped from across the internet, that analyzes and sorts information for more than 14.5 million Democratic donors over the last 15 years. The tool would generate lists of individuals most likely to support a candidate given shared characteristics and shared views — ranging from race and ethnicity to a passion for yoga or universal health care.

“We know where you live; where you used to live; what issues you care about; if you’re trending Republican or Democrat; what other kinds of candidates you like to support; and contact information” he explained.

The lists aren’t perfect or fully comprehensive. They exclude some websites for legal reasons, and when I asked to see my own donor profile, recalling a $25 donation I gave in college to an Ohio Democrat, Grassroots Analytics had no record of it, because I’ve never given above the $200 reporting minimum to a federal candidate, and only some states and localities disclose small-dollar donations. Had I donated $5 to Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial campaign, by contrast, I would have shown up in their system.

Nevertheless, the tool offers candidates — especially insurgent and working-class ones who lack rolodexes of wealthy friends — a real window into what is arguably the most important part of any political campaign: early-stage fundraising. The unspoken rule of viability in federal campaigning is that if you haven’t amassed at least $250,000 by your first quarter financial report, you’re probably not a candidate who people will take too seriously. EMILY’s List, an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast,” was founded precisely to help female pro-choice Democrats compete against men who have long received the bulk of political contributions from the heavily white and male political donor class. Yeast makes the dough rise.

Connor Farrell, the finance director for Abdul El-Sayed, a left-wing former candidate who ran for Michigan governor this past cycle, credits Grassroots Analytics with fast-tracking his campaign’s fundraising, allowing the team to target progressives and doctors across the country. (El-Sayed campaigned on his credentials as a physician and public health expert.) “The applications of this new tool were valuable for our call-time operation, building for events, and some digital solicitations,” Farrell told The Intercept. “Grassroots saved us enormous research time, while allowing us to pivot quickly to new avenues of research. For a bootstrapped campaign, saving time and being flexible in your finance department is critical.”

IS GRASSROOTS ANALYTICS legal? And moreover, in the age when big tech companies are under fire for sharing personal information — not to mention Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm, hired by the Trump campaign in 2016, which gained access to more than 50 million Facebook users’ private data — is it ethical?

Depends on who you ask. Federal law prohibits “any information copied from” Federal Election Commission reports from being “sold or used by any person for the purposes of soliciting contributions or for commercial purposes.” Subsequent regulation prohibits “information copied, or otherwise obtained, from any [FEC] report or statement, or any copy, reproduction, or publication thereof” from being sold or used for soliciting contributions. But because these laws date back to before the advent of the internet, and campaigns across the country already scour through FEC lists for leads, Grassroots Analytics says it’s effectively just simplifying the process that hordes of interns and finance staffers already do every day when they set out to research donor prospects.

To comply with the legal prohibition, Grassroots Analytics bars its algorithm from scraping the FEC website and websites like OpenSecrets that aggregate data directly from the FEC. Instead, Grassroots Analytics collects campaign contribution data only from public record caches, newspaper articles, nonprofit reports, and secondary websites. However, there’s little question that most of the campaign finance information they do collect originated at some point from FEC reports.

The company, in other words, exploits an ambiguity in the law, which is whether they have in fact “obtained” information from FEC reports. How many layers removed does information have to be in the age of the internet to pass legal muster? In an advisory opinion produced at the request of Grassroots Analytics that was reviewed by The Intercept, an attorney with one of California’s top boutique firms specializing in political and election law determined that existing law, court cases, and the FEC’s enforcement history “provide no clear answer to this question.” But because Grassroots Analytics takes steps to omit FEC data and sites that aggregate directly from the FEC, the attorney hired to assess their legal status determined that the company has a “legally defensible” position that its products and services do not violate federal law and that in their expert opinion, the FEC, especially with a Republican majority, is unlikely to conclude that the firm or its clients are breaking the law.

“I obviously didn’t go into tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt to get this thing going without getting extensive legal advice from multiple law firms,” said Hogenkamp. “I’m a little rash sometimes, but I’m not that stupid.”

But should donor information, even if it’s technically public, be made so easily accessible?

“They’re donor pimps, that’s all they are,” said one fundraiser. “If you don’t know people, if your staff doesn’t know people, then you actually shouldn’t run for office. You’re not actually a good candidate.”

Others shrug off the critics, saying that while the FEC and secretaries of state should work to clarify campaign finance rules in the age of the internet, including for political advertisements, right now it’s no secret that most campaigns utilize FEC data in some fashion for solicitation purposes. “Most people think it’s fine to use those lists to research people a little further, to get a better picture of their donor history, and then turn them into leads,” one senior finance director told me.

“I think part of the debate is that the folks who’ve traditionally run the finance side of our party tend to be a little older, more focused on relationships and identifying event hosts and bundlers,” said Chase, who now works for a Democratic consulting firm. “But I think from the last cycle or two, you’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift in the way our party raises money. Digital fundraising exploded, and with that came folks like Danny who said, ‘Well, maybe we can do some of this stuff better than the traditional way of just calling rich folks and trying to get nice checks.’”

The debate also stems partly from confusion over what Grassroots Analytics is or actually does. Some suspect they’re just farming out lists of rich people to clients and engaging in another disapproved practice that’s rampant in the campaign industry — taking donor data from one campaign to another. Trading rich donor contact information is also not unusual among senior finance staffers.

Hogenkamp understands the mistrust. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m so skeptical of everyone in this industry. I totally understand how very smart people would think we’re just some kids with a list of like a hundred thousand donors and that we just make money off that same list,” he said. “But it’s like, no, we have more than 14 million people.”

There is another data analytics company that bills itself as helping candidates (and nonprofits and universities) become more strategic in their fundraising efforts. RevUp, which promises to “revolutionize your fundraising,” was started in 2013 by a top Obama fundraiser and Silicon Valley investor named Steve Spinner. It’s a software company that works with both Republicans and Democrats, helping campaigns to analyze their existing social networks, like their email contacts or LinkedIn connections, to more efficiently find new prospects to hit up. (Grassroots Analytics also analyzes clients’ LinkedIn data for donor prospects.) In October, RevUp, which has won several campaign industry awards for fundraising and innovation, announced a new $7.5 million round of investment.

A key difference between RevUp and Grassroots Analytics is that the former doesn’t expand the universe of donor prospects beyond your own network — it just helps you navigate and analyze the contacts in your existing universe more efficiently. From one vantage point, that’s more respectful, and skirts the thorny questions of legality and ethics. From another, it doesn’t do much to change the problem of connected people hoarding access to connected people.

“At RevUp, we believe successful fundraising is all about respecting prospective donors,” Spinner told The Intercept. “Through our data analytics software, RevUp uniquely allows a candidate, staff, or volunteer to reach out to the right person, at the right time, with the right ask. Our mission is to expand the donor universe and grow the pie beyond the ‘low-hanging fruit’ — the 25,000 major donors that get constantly called.”

WHEN HOGENKAMP FIRST developed Grassroots Analytics, he hoped someone in the Democratic establishment would recognize the potential of this technology, buy him out, and give him the institutional support to make it grow. But despite his persistent appeals, almost no one would return his emails.

Yet while no groups would publicly associate with Grassroots Analytics, staffers for some major Democratic political organizations were discreetly referring their candidates to the company throughout the 2018 cycle. Two emails reviewed by The Intercept showed an EMILY’s List campaign operative connecting Grassroots Analytics to Sol Flores’s primary campaign in Illinois and to Veronica Escobar’s race in Texas. “Thanks again for all your work with all o[f] EMILYs List candidates,” they wrote.

Other emails showed Democratic consultants setting up deals with Grassroots Analytics, explaining that the DCCC would be the organization actually writing the check on behalf of their clients. (This was the case with Linda Coleman’s unsuccessful bid for Congress.)

The DCCC and EMILY’s List did not return multiple requests for comment. When the DNC rolled out its “I Will Run” program in April 2018, which was essentially a list of vetted technology companies they recommended campaigns to hire, DNC Tech Manager Sally Marx announced the committee had “surveyed the progressive tech ecosystem looking for tools that campaigns and state parties can use to upgrade their work.” Their list, the DNC said, was a “curated compilation of the best-in-class tools currently used by campaigns.”

RevUp was on there for recommended fundraising companies, but Grassroots Analytics was not. The DNC declined to make Marx available for comment, but in a statement provided by a spokesperson, the party committee claimed Grassroots Analytics “was not on our radar until recently. As we head into this cycle, we look forward to re-evaluating and potentially adding new vendors to our I Will Run marketplace.”

Spokespersons for Our Revolution and Justice Democrats also confirmed that they do not have relationships with Grassroots Analytics and have not referred their candidates to the company.

One person who did show an early interest and helped Hogenkamp break into the field was Molly Allen, a political consultant who runs the political action committee for Blue Dog Democrats. She met with him in 2017 and referred Grassroots to their first three clients.

“I’ve only met Danny a few times and haven’t formally worked with them more than a short-term one-off, so I can’t speak to their work in details, but Danny seems great and I respect his start-up idea and success!” wrote Allen in an email.

I asked Hogenkamp how he felt about his company breaking out by representing Blue Dogs, when they had envisioned being a fix to the barriers blocking progressives from running for office.

“It was weird, but I was desperate,” he said.

Over the course of the last two years, though, Grassroots Analytics has decided to work with anyone running in the Democratic caucus, a decision Hogenkamp says was made to avoid pitting themselves as arbiters of the left. (This could also just be a handy rationale to bolster their client lists and profit margins.) But Grassroots Analytics, Hogenkamp adds, does have some red lines for clients, saying they turned down someone last year who they felt had too strong of ties to charter school backers.

BUT IF THIS all could be started by a young person with barely any political experience, why hadn’t it been done before?

Multiple people interviewed for this article chalked the problem up to monopoly in the political industry and the disincentives to innovate that come with monopolies.

Sean Adler, a New York-based software engineer, said he ran into this problem when he tried to insert some innovation into campaigning four years ago. A friend of Adler’s had mounted a bid for Congress in New Jersey, and Adler, then 23 years old, started developing phone banking tools for the campaign’s volunteers. He ended up co-founding a company to sell the technology and called it Partic.

“I wrote the whole thing from scratch. We took the whole data file of voters, and it would distribute lists and show a script and do all sorts of custom assignments,” he explained. “But one thing that ended up being a bummer was the DCCC had their own thing they forced campaigns to use, so we ended up only getting the real scrappy campaigns, the real mega-underdogs.” Adler was referring to VAN, an omnipresent software company that provides what they describe as “an integrated platform of the best fundraising, compliance, field, organizing, digital, and social networking products.”

Adler built a host of new design features and capabilities to make phone banking more useable and successful than he found VAN’s technology offered. Partic worked with eight campaigns in the 2016 cycle, but has since ceased operations, citing the enormous barriers new companies face to compete effectively.

“No one can enter this market without a lot of connections, and that’s fair, but the customer base of this market also completely goes away every two years, so the only people who can sustain that are people who are already in it,” Adler told The Intercept. “I think I was too much of an idealistic liberal,” he continued. “I thought, ‘Oh sure, the Democratic Party might not be as technologically advanced as Google, but they certainly wouldn’t try to shut out people with better ideas and products in order to protect their friends.’ For the state of the world to change, people like Danny have to succeed. The establishment monopoly not only screws over local candidates no one has ever heard of, but it also screws over candidates at the very top.”

Ultimately, Hogenkamp says he wouldn’t mind being put out of business, citing the new bill introduced in the House this month for publicly financed elections.

“I sort of stumbled into this. I think the whole campaign fundraising system is stupid, and you know, if our country gets serious about publicly funded elections, I would so gladly shut down the business and go work in the State Department like I had planned,” he said. “I don’t care enough about this; the whole campaign finance system needs to be completely overhauled, but until that happens, the only way you’re ever going to do it is helping Democrats raise money to win competitive elections.”