Betsy DeVos Is Helping Puerto Rico Re-Imagine Its Public School System. That Has People Worried.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 22, 2018.
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Puerto Rico, in the midst of the chaos and instability following Hurricane Maria, is moving quickly forward with plans to institute a wide swath of education reforms, with the help of the aggressively ideological federal education department, helmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Puerto Rico’s governor and education secretary have expressed openness to the concerns raised by parents, teachers and community members, and stress they are not looking to implement an extreme version of privatization. Yet at the same time, they have stoked fears by pushing forward a notably vague charter law that does little to address what people are most worried about. This “trust us” mentality has not been helped by the engagement of DeVos, nor by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s recent visit to a notorious charter chain in Philadelphia last week — a prime example of the kind of low-performing, fiscally reckless charter that school advocates warn about.

At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Ricans worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it — while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.

Puerto Rico’s public school system remains severely ravaged since Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that tore through the island in late September. “The recovery has gone very slowly,” said Aida Díaz, president of the island’s 40,000-member teachers union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico“We still have hundreds of schools without electricity, internet, and many of our teachers and students are having classes just half-day.”

Rosselló delivered a televised address in early February announcing a package of educational reforms he’d like to bring to the island – including charters, vouchers for private schools, and the first pay increase for teachers in a decade. Puerto Rico teachers earn on average $27,000 a year, and would see increases of $1,500 under the governor’s proposal. “The current educational system does not respond to what is needed to train our students to succeed in a world that’s ever more competitive and complex,” Rosselló  declared.

Rosselló’s big announcement came on the heels of a separate plan he outlined in January, to close 305 of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 public schools. Rosselló said these closures would lead to an estimated $300 million in savings by 2022 – and by extension help the island recover from Maria and its long-term debt crisis. Puerto Rican citizens have long worried the government’s interest in shuttering schools would be a first step on the road to privatization.

While Rosselló’s televised address garnered a lot of national attention, little has been paid to the 136-page bill that was introduced several days later, and the vocal debate it has sparked within the territory.

Who helped craft the bill is not entirely clear.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told The Intercept that her members played absolutely no role in drafting the proposals. “They didn’t consider us, they didn’t invite us, we didn’t participate,” she said.

Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, told The Intercept they “were not deeply involved in the bill drafting at all” but that they did have some conversations with people in Puerto Rico’s education department about charter legislation and how other states have handled certain issues. Ziebarth added that while his organization has not done a deep analysis of Puerto Rico’s bill, he thinks “it provides a good start for getting charters up and running.”

DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in “close communication” with Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blogpost published in January, Botelwrote, “We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said that a local law firm helped them craft the bill, two law firms from the mainland that had experience working with charter schools, and a team from the federal department of education. “We did have a series of technical assistance from the U.S education department,” she said. “They didn’t comment on the bill but they did help us think through it, and helped us define what we thought should be the final set of things to include.”

In November, Rosselló tweeted pictures of a meeting he and Keleher held with DeVos and her staff, noting they were “itemizing the areas that need the most attention in order to restore our education system.”

The Department of Education did not return The Intercept’s request for comment, but earlier this month DeVos told a group of reporters that she was very encouraged by Puerto Rico’s leadership for embracing school choice after the hurricane. She praised its approach for thoughtfully “meeting students needs … in a really concerted and individual way.”

In November, In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization focused on privatization and contracting, submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Education requesting all communications between Jason Botel and Julia Keleher between July 1 and mid-November, and all emails sent or received by Botel during that period that mention charter schools or Puerto Rico. The Education Department confirmed receipt of the FOIA request a week later, and granted the group’s fee waiver request on January 12. Shar Habibi, the research and policy director at In The Public Interest, told The Intercept they’re still waiting to receive the records.

ONE CONTROVERSIAL ASPECT of Puerto Rico’s proposed legislation is its language to allow multiple charter school authorizers. Authorizers are entities – such as school districts, state commissions or nonprofits – that grant charter schools the right to exist. They are also then responsible for ensuring that the schools produce sufficient academic results and comply with relevant laws and regulations. If a school fails to do so, an authorizer is supposed to revoke the school’s charter and shut them down. The quality of charter school authorizing ranges widely throughout the United States.

Section 13.04 of the bill states that either Puerto Rico’s education department or a Puerto Rican university can authorize charter schools. This language has raised concerns that Puerto Rico will open the floodgates to many charter authorizers like in Michigan – a state that has earned a reputation for having notoriously lax charter oversight. The more there are, the easier it is for bad charters to shop around for an authorizer that will let them stay open.

Karega Rausch, the interim CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told The Intercept that their group does not have a hard-and-fast rule, or even guiding data, on the number of authorizers a jurisdiction should have – but they have observed that the overall quality of a charter sector can be “diluted” in places with too many authorizers. (Places like D.C., New Jersey and Massachusetts have just one charter authorizer, while states like Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota have many.)

Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said she expects the legislation to be amended to allow for just one authorizer. “I think we’d want to stay away from having two based on what we understand as effective practice,” she said. The island’s senate is still holding public hearings on the bill.

Multiple news outlets this month reported that Puerto Rico aims to start with 14 charter schools, two in each of the island’s seven provinces.

Keleher told The Intercept that this has never been a formal plan, and her off-the-cuff remarks were interpreted by the media as something she never intended. “People were asking me how many we would have, so I was trying to answer the question and suggested maybe two per region,” she said. “The next thing I know people are asking me where I’m going to get these 14 [charter] applications. I just said that number because two per region seemed reasonable to manage, so I thought it was a number that could help calm people down.”

Keleher says the department has no plans to do what New Orleans did following Hurricane Katrina, and that it should develop a formula to limit the number of charter schools in Puerto Rico. But, she said, that formula needs to be flexible and should be handled by education department after the law is passed. “If the schools are super successful and more people want them, we should allow that up to a point,” she said.

The proposed legislation would also allow for the creation of virtual charters in Puerto Rico – a particularly contentious type of online school, evenamong school choice supporters. (DeVos is a big proponent of virtual charters, and a former investor in them herself.)

Keleher acknowledged the concerns around virtual charters, but says she remains optimistic about their potential. “I’ve taught in online classrooms,” she said. “It requires discipline and fidelity, and it may not be right for everyone.” She emphasized the importance of providing “options,” which she said could help bring new infusions of funds to the island. “If you look at what the president is prioritizing in his new budget, there’s a lot of emphasis on educational options,” she said.

In general Keleher advocates for an approach that leaves the charter law fairly vague (or as she calls, it “flexible”) so that her department can then craft regulations as it sees fit.

“We don’t want the law to be so tied to the reality of today,” she said. “We want to make it function as a lever to get the [education] department to behave in a way that we will produce strong results.” She pointed out that their last education law was incredibly detailed, “but very poorly implemented” and so this time they tried to go in the opposite direction. “We want to be sure that the system is responsive, rather than every time you want to adjust your program you have to amend your law,” she said.

The idea of creating an ambiguous law understandably has not eased much anxiety amongst Puerto Rico residents concerned about the pitfalls of school choice.

Even Ziebarth of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says it’s better to put more into the charter law than less. “We tend to try to get as much into the law as we can, and while some decisions make sense left to regulation, I think if they have a chance to pass a strong charter law that’s better,” he said. “I think we know enough about what the fundamentals should look like – particularly around flexibility, accountability and funding – that they can put that in statute now and not go back later and deal with it.”

Ziebarth adds that especially if Puerto Rico is considering going down the road of virtual charter schools, the island should include their six policy recommendations. “They should definitely not repeat the mistakes that others have made in that area,” he said.

Vouchers for private schools are included in the education reform bill, but they would likely not be implemented until after charter schools get started. Keleher told The 74 that given their budget situation, “it’s not something we can execute right now for obvious reasons.”

In 1994, back when Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, was governor, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court struck down a proposal to establish a school voucher program. Puerto Rico’s leadership believes a series of court decisions issued over the past two decades, including from the U.S. Supreme Court, have now paved the legal path for them to move forward with school vouchers.

A recent trip taken by Rosselló has exacerbated concerns that he is not seriously grappling with the risks of his proposed education reforms.

Last week he visited an ASPIRA charter school in Philadelphia, and tweeted out after his visit that it represents an “excellent charter school model.”

But just two months ago Philadelphia voted to close two ASPIRA charter schools for their low academic quality, as well as a host of financial scandals and mismanagement issues. For years there have been concerns that ASPIRA was self-dealing with public funds, and the situation was difficult to track because each ASPIRA charter is structured as an independent nonprofit, despite all sharing the same board of trustees through their parent organization. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entities, and money flowing throughout them,” said an official working in the Philadelphia School District official in 2014. A former accounts payable coordinator at ASPIRA also filed a federal whistle blower lawsuit in 2014, alleging that the charter operator misappropriated more than $1 million in federal funds. The employee charged that ASPIRA made “repeated false representations” to the U.S. and state Departments of Education “in an effort to defraud the United States of taxpayer dollars, under the guise of providing quality education to some of the nation’s neediest students.” ASPIRA dismissed the charges as politically motivated. Then in 2016 news emerged that ASPIRA’s CEO had paid a top employee $350,000 in a sexual harassment settlement. Another former senior employee filed a lawsuit claiming she had been wrongfully terminated for helping her colleague file that sexual harassment complaint.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told the Intercept that Rosselló has been unresponsive to their concerns.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Puerto Rico’s governor should be ashamed of himself. “He pretends that he’s a Democratic governor, but his playbook on schools is right out of Trump and DeVos,” she told The Intercept. “He won’t even tell the people of Puerto Rico what he’s doing as he secretly travels to an ASPIRA charter for a tour.” Weingarten says his behavior is “just baffling” and “one wonders who he is listening to.”

Keleher, for her part, emphasized that she’s trying to be very transparent and accessible with Puerto Ricans to discuss the reforms. This week her department organized a forum and last week she met with parents from each region of the island.

“The governor appointed me and I am fully accountable to the people,” she said. “You can like my decision or not but I think I’m responsible for showing you how I got my decision, and at the end of the day I have to take the hit.”

Still, the education secretary’s engagement with the public hasn’t always gone smoothly. Last week during a union-sponsored Q&A, Keleher abruptly stormed outwhen one teacher said the education secretary should return when she’s more prepared to answer their questions.

“Before this bill we were working together, we understood each other, and we agreed on many things,” Díaz told The Intercept. “But right now communications are stopped, I don’t think [the government] wants to understand our point of view.”

Indeed the question of whether charter schools in Puerto Rico would be unionized remains an open one. The proposed legislation says nothing about it. Most states do not require charter teachers to be in unions – indeed being union-free is seen by many charter advocates as a key characteristic of the model – but a few states, including Maryland and Hawaii, require it.

Keleher told The Intercept that they are staying intentionally “silent on the union issue” though she’s “not adamantly opposed if in the context of Puerto Rico” unionized charters seem like the best way to do it. She said, though, that if charter school operators want to come and oppose doing so with a unionized staff, she “would also understand and respect that” and she’s “very much in a let’s-see-what-makes-the-most-sense” position.

The last time Puerto Rico passed major education reforms was in the 1990s, and some elements of the controversial bill have attracted support from union members. Aside from the $1,500 pay hikes, Díaz says her union also likes the new procedures outlined around making school budgeting more transparent, and creating regional education offices.

“But the rest of the bill is unacceptable to us, and we cannot support it,” she said. For now the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico will continue mobilizing against the charter and voucher proposals, and Díaz said they are also going to start more vocally championing for public schools that provide robust wraparound social services.

“These kids and their parents have been traumatized,” said Weingarten. “Let’s try to create some stability in Puerto Rico after this terrible storm.”

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Draft Legislation Suggests Trump Administration Weighing Work Requirements And Rent Increases for Subsidized Housing

Originally published in The Intercept on February 1, co-authored with Zaid Jilani.
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Draft legislation obtained by The Intercept suggests the Department of Housing and Urban Development is eyeing a proposal to overhaul the federal government’s administration of subsidized housing, through measures such as rent hikes and conditioning aid on employment.

This change would significantly impact those who rely on public housing and housing choice vouchers, often referred to as Section 8 in reference to Section 8 of the Housing Act. The news comes just weeks after the Trump administration announced that states could start imposing work requirements as a condition of Medicaid eligibility.

When asked about the document, Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesperson Brian Sullivan would not confirm its existence, but he suggested more would become clear when the Trump administration announces its budget later in February. “I think what you’re talking about is going to be expressed publicly in the budget coming up, so prior to that we would have nothing to say,” Sullivan said. He did not return multiple requests for further comment.

Document metadata reveals the name of the author of the document; she is listed as an HUD employee on a number of department web pages between 2013 and 2017.

It is unclear at this time whether the draft legislative language, dated January 17, will be proposed as a standalone bill or included within existing legislation. There are many parts of the 28-page document that are vague and even contradictory. However its text strongly suggests the administration is considering rent reform.

Under current regulations, most households that receive federal housing subsidies pay 30 percent of their adjusted income as rent. Adjusted income is a household’s gross income minus money taken out for four mandatory deductions: dependent deductions ($40 per month per dependent), elderly and disabled deductions ($400 per year), a child care deduction, and medical and disability expense deduction. This 30 percent threshold, which has been the standard for most rental programs since 1981, is based on a rule-of-thumb measure that estimates a household can devote 30 percent of its income to housing costs before it becomes “burdened.”

The draft legislation eliminates all four deductions, effectively making the changes most burdensome on households with children, the elderly, or people with medical problems.

If the draft’s proposals are enacted, those families would have to pay the higher of two figures: Either 35 percent of their household’s gross income, or 35 percent of what they earn from working 15 hours a week for four weeks at the federal minimum wage. A comment in the margins of the document notes that the latter would equal $152.25, something housing advocates say is effectively a new minimum rent floor.

Additionally, the draft legislation would allow public housing authorities to impose work requirements of up to 32 hours a week “per adult in the household who is not elderly or a person with disabilities.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult.

Diane Yentel, the president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, expressed alarm at the possible changes.

“HUD’s proposals could raise rents on millions of low-income households that receive federal rental assistance, with some of the largest rent increases for families and individuals that have the greatest difficulties affording housing,” Yentel said. “By raising rents on some of the lowest income and most vulnerable families in HUD subsidized housing, HUD would jeopardize family stability by increasing the financial burdens they face through higher rents.”

New York Times Applauds Donald Trump For A New Attempt At An Old Corporate Boondoggle

Originally published in The Intercept on January 30, 2018.
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Even as the debate over the Republican tax overhaul continues, there is general consensus that corporations and the wealthy will now enjoy huge tax cuts while the rest of America gets precious little. But, based on an article published Monday, New York Times economics reporter Jim Tankersley would have you believe that a provision buried on Page 130 of the tax bill is part of a “plan to help distressed America.”

The plan is to pump more money into “opportunity zones.”

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The problem, though, is that he glosses over years of research that show that so-called opportunity zones do next to nothing to revive distressed areas. Opportunity zones are a decades-old bipartisan idea that involves showering businesses with tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives to lure them into struggling areas, with the hope that new injections of capital will lead to community renewal and revitalization.

The opportunity zones were “never debated on the floor of the House or Senate” and were “never promoted by Republican leaders or the White House,” but according to Tankersley, their inclusion in the tax bill “is an attempt to grapple with … the fact that, in huge swaths of the country, the economic recovery has yet to arrive.” He declared the provision “the first new substantial federal attempt” to aid communities with high poverty and sluggish job growth in more than a decade. “If the zones succeed,” he wrote, “they could help revitalize neighborhoods and towns that are starved for investment.”

There’s a lot packed into that “if.”

In his attempt to shed light on the “little-noticed section in the $1.5 trillion tax cut,” Tankersley spoke to politicians, community development professionals, and venture capitalists like Sean Parker, who expressed enthusiasm for idea. There are a few glaring omissions, though. The article includes no comments from scholars who have actually studied opportunity zones, and it links to none of the many research studies done on their effectiveness. Spoiler: Research shows these schemes rarely ever help cities, and often hurt them. (The article does link to illuminating resources such as a biography of Republican Sen. Tim Scott.)

In fact, “the bottom-line effects of these kinds of tax incentives are often too small to change the locational preferences of investors,” explained Rachel Weber, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Moreover, they often create complex financial and administrative structures that consume a large portion of the tax benefit as transaction costs paid to industry professionals, leaving less for the bricks and mortar.”

Dan Immergluck, a professor in the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University, offered a similar assessment. “There is not much evidence that marginal tax breaks to incentivize capital investment or hiring by private firms works very well,” he said. Immergluck distinguished opportunity zones from what he calls “deeper incentives” like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. “The LIHTC clearly creates housing that would not exist otherwise,” he said. “But it is not a marginal incentive to move private capital around. It creates fundamentally a new form of capital. This opportunity zone program will not do that.”

Buried toward the end of Tankersley’s article is a brief acknowledgment that past research shows previous revitalization efforts haven’t worked out so well, but this history was apparently not sufficient enough to blunt the article’s decidedly sunny outlook. “Proponents say the new Opportunity Zones are designed to be more effective than earlier programs,” Tankersley wrote, offering no real explanation as to why. He also asserted that the New Markets Tax Credit — a federal tax break to spur revitalization in distressed communities launched in 2000 — has been “more successful” than previous opportunity zone efforts. But he offered no research to support that claim, either. The few studies that do exist on the New Markets Tax Credit paint a mixed picture, at best. A Government Accountability Office study published in 2014, for example, found that the the program has “become more complex and less transparent” over time, and as a result, investors potentially take home a much higher rate of return than is warranted. Also, due to data limitations, the GAO concluded that “it is not possible to determine, at this time, the NMTC project failure rate with certainty.”

Last summer, Timothy Weaver, an urban policy and politics professor at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, published an article on opportunity zones, tracing their effectiveness in both the United States and the United Kingdom — where the concept originated in the early 1980s.

“Enterprise zones do very little to revive urban areas,” he concluded. “At best, they divert investment from one part of the city from another, resulting in no net gain for the city as a whole. At worst, they result in tax-giveaways to firms that would have been operating anyway, thereby generating a net loss to city revenues. … The enterprise zone is a zombie policy that staggers on despite its moribund performance. It’s time to perform the last rites and bury it once and for all.”

Reached for comment on the New York Times article, Weaver told The Intercept that he “was struck by its slap-dash approach to critical engagement.” Put differently, that investors may stand to reap major windfalls does not mean that the communities themselves will be better off.

“There is no question that cities — poor areas in particular — need capital investment,” he added. “However, this is a terribly inefficient way of going about it.”

St. Paul Companies Are Spending Their Tax Breaks on Super Bowl Sponsorships. Teachers Are Crying Foul.

Originally published in The Intercept on January 26, 2018.
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With more than a million people headed to the Twin Cities over the next 10 days for the Super Bowl, local corporations, St. Paul school district officials, and civic leaders are bracing for what may be a public relations nightmare: the first teachers strike in St. Paul in over 70 years.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers, nine months into its contract negotiation, authorized a strike vote for January 31. The move comes amid the union’s unconventional strategy of linking declining school funding to corporate tax cuts and narrowing in on local companies on the Super Bowl Host Committee as a potential source of funding for the cash-strapped school system.

The argument the teachers are making in their contract negotiations is straightforward. Cuts, they say, are not the answer. The school district’s financial situation can never really improve until corporations start paying their fair share. In particular, teachers are focusing on the companies that make up the founding sponsors of the Super Bowl Host Committee – companies the union says have avoided paying $300 million in state income taxes over the last five years alone.

The companies say they have made up for some of that with donations, but the generosity has limits. According to a public records request filed by the teachers union, only seven of the 25 Super Bowl Host Committee founding partners donated to the St. Paul public school district last year – for a total of $1.1 million. All 25 companies, by contrast, paid $1.5 million to be founding Super Bowl partners.

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, stressed that the 3,700 educators in his union do not want to go strike. What they do want, he said, is to see the school district commit to supporting changes to the state tax code, under which corporations have enjoyed massive breaks in recent decades.

Last March, the St. Paul Public Schools announced that it faced a $27 million budget deficit, necessitating staff and program cuts to a district that had already been slashing art, music, and gym, with nurses, librarians, and social workers in short supply. It’s a familiar, vicious cycle – the state reduces its funding for public schools, which also lose revenue when students leave for charters, and districts suffer even more cuts and budget strain.

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December 2017 report: SACKED: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack.
Chart: St. Paul Federation of Teachers

The wealthiest Minnesotans have seen their taxes decline over the last four decades. Back in 1977, they paid 18 percent in state income taxes. Over the next 36 years, the legislature reduced that top rate to 7.85 percent. In 2013, the state legislature bumped it back up to 9.5 percent, a move strongly opposed by the state’s influential business leader coalition. With the decline in income taxes has come a drop in real per-pupil state aid, which remains “significantly below” what districts received in 2003. While some of the major local corporations make voluntary philanthropic donations to public schools, the teachers union says those contributions have never come close to the amount the businesses have saved in reduced taxes.

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Chart: North Star Policy Institute

To try and shift the conversation around public education, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has been highlighting tax havens, loopholes, corporate subsidies, and executive compensation. For example, in a report it published in December, the union noted that 3M – a technology company headquartered in St. Paul – holds $1.4 billion in offshore tax havens, including in places like Hong Kong, Panama, and Switzerland. Likewise, the union said, UnitedHealth keeps over $700 million in overseas havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, citing a 2017 report by the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy.

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December 2017 report: SACKED: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack.
 Chart: St. Paul Federation of Teachers

Kathryn Wegner, an education studies professor at Carleton College and a parent of a student who attends Groveland Park Elementary in St. Paul, has been active in supporting the union’s efforts to highlight corporate tax avoidance. She has joined teachers for rallies outside of banks downtown and been educating other families and community groups about the fiscal situation.

“At my kid’s school, we lost the kindergarten teacher aides, then a librarian, then the music teacher, and our four kindergarten classes went down to three, bumping up class sizes,” she told The Intercept. “Parents are getting upset and wondering how to make sense of it, and understanding the historical context around corporate tax rates has been really useful to grasp the disinvestment.”

The teachers union has been asking corporate leaders to meet with them since October, and finally last week, they had the chance to sit down with representatives from EcoLab and U.S. Bank. At those meetings, the union asked for the companies’ partnership in pressuring state lawmakers to adequately support public education – specifically the state’s unfunded special education mandates.

“They said no,” said Faber. “The only way the state could really close the gaps would be to tax them more.”

U.S Bank did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

Mesa Denny, an Ecolab spokesperson, told The Intercept that the company does not consider the situation “to be a dispute,” and it is “merely trying to correct the inaccurate and untrue information” promulgated by the teachers union.

“Ecolab believes that strong public schools are vital to a healthy community, and that’s why we have supported the St. Paul Public School System for more than 30 years,” Denny said. “Over the last five years, the Ecolab Foundation has provided more than $3.6 million to the St. Paul Public Schools, supporting strategic imperatives outlined by the school district leadership. Given that we are headquartered in St. Paul and many of our headquarters employees live in St. Paul, we are happy to devote our foundation dollars to these efforts.”

But those donations, Faber said, are not enough to bridge the school funding gap that was created in part by tax cuts. “Given how much school funding has declined, philanthropy just can’t have a real transformative change when we’re so underfunded on a basic level,” he said. “We can’t just accept little grants from corporations; we have to start thinking differently.”

The teachers want the school district to join them in pressuring local corporations to pay more. So far, they say, district officials have refused. Laurin Cathey, human resources director for St. Paul Public Schools, did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

To address the budget deficit, the school district has proposed that teachers agree to applying to “Q Comp” – a voluntary state program established in 2005 that theoretically could bring up to $9 million to St. Paul schools. But even if St. Paul did apply, the state already distributes all the money it has allocated for the program, so no money would flow to St. Paul unless the legislature decided to appropriate more money. And even if the state did bump up funding, 22 Minnesota charter schools and school districts are ahead of St. Paul in line for the money.

Tyler Livingston, acting director of school support at the Minnesota Department of Education, told The Intercept that St. Paul would not be allowed to jump ahead of the other districts waiting for money if it applied for Q Comp. “The law says explicitly that applications are treated in the order they’re received,” he said.

The union says it is not holding its breath that the state will increase Q Comp funding, especially not during an election year. “The money just isn’t there,” said Faber, “and even if it were, Minneapolis is a Q Comp district and they have a budget shortfall about the same as ours or greater, so obviously Q Comp isn’t going to really address this problem.”

In addition to corporations, the union wants to see wealthy nonprofits, like local colleges and hospitals, pay their fair share in taxes. According to St. Paul’s mayor, a third of the city’s properties are exempt from property tax.

One option is to establish a so-called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program – something that exists in more than 200 cities, towns, school districts, and counties across 28 states. PILOTs are essentially initiatives to induce tax-exempt institutions to make voluntary payments to the cities in which they’re based. A civic task force formed last year to explore the idea and released a report in September, emphasizing that PILOTs “cannot – and should not – be viewed as a ‘solution’ to St. Paul’s significant budget gaps or long-term financial challenges.” A representative from Citizens League, the Twin Cities public policy group that published the report, did not return a request for comment.

“It’s really frustrating to our members that while HealthPartners” — a local health care provider and insurance company — “avoids taxes and doesn’t want to talk to us about PILOTs, they’re charging us through the roof for our health insurance,” said Faber.

The potential upcoming teachers strike would be the first since 1946, when the St. Paul Federation of Teachers went on strike for six weeks – the first organized teachers strike in U.S. history. The union also voted to strike in 1989, but ended up reaching a last-minute agreement that mooted the strike.

The St. Paul teachers union is considered among the most progressive teacher locals in the nation. Since 2013, it has joined with other progressive unions to organize under the banner of “Bargaining for the Common Good.” Inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012, unions like St. Paul’s have taken a different approach to their contract negotiations, partnering with local organizations to bring a wider range of community-oriented demands to the bargaining table.

Last spring, the union released a report to evaluate how much progress it had made toward reaching the goals it set for itself in 2013. While highlighting some real accomplishments — including reducing student-teacher ratios for low-income students and expanding full-day pre-K programming — the SPFT acknowledged that without more sources of revenue, it would be impossible to really tackle its agenda.

The report helped form the demands the union has since been pushing for in its contract negotiations. The union’s very first proposal is in line with its pre-Super Bowl campaign: a commitment from the school district to push major local corporations and nonprofits to increase revenue for St. Paul Public Schools and support “changes in state tax policy to make these contributions sustainable over time.”

“We’re hoping to see some movement from the school district so we don’t have to take the next step,” said Faber, meaning the strike. Faber says the district can continue to accept corporate charity, but it needs to push them to also “be better neighbors.”

That’s a very different kind of pressure, he said, “and that’s hard work, but I don’t think we have any other choice.”

How Labor Is Thinking Ahead to a Post-Trump World

Originally published in The Intercept on January 21, 2018.
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The American labor movement, over the past four decades, has had two golden opportunities to shift the balance of power between workers and bosses — first in 1978, with unified Democratic control of Washington, and again in 2009. Both times, the unions came close and fell short, leading, in no small part, to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today.

Just over 10 percent of workers are unionized, down from 35 percent in the mid 1950s. Potentially, though, a wave of Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 could give labor groups one last chance to turn things around. With an eye toward that moment, labor’s leading strategists are coming together to build a program that avoids the mistakes of the last two rounds.

Strike One: 1978

The National Labor Relations Act — a foundational law that guarantees the rights of private sector employees to unionize — was passed in 1935, and more than 40 years later, President Jimmy Carter, urged on by the AFL-CIO, came out in support of federal labor law reform. “The purpose of this [proposed] legislation is to make the laws which govern labor-management relations work more efficiently, quickly, and equitably and to ensure that our labor laws fulfill the promise made to employees and employers,” Carter said at the time.

The law would have addressed a number of issues that still remain on labor’s agenda today, such as faster union elections and tougher penalties for employers who refuse to bargain and violate labor law. “We didn’t try for revolutionary things; we pushed for things we thought we could get broad support for,” said Ray Marshall, who had served as labor secretary in the Carter administration. But with 59 votes in the Senate, a 44-year-old freshman Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch, had filibustered the law, and it failed.

One of the revolutionary things the administration did not try for was the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill, which guaranteed a federal job to anybody who wanted one. It represented the height of labor’s aspirations coming out of the Great Society and what liberals (at least the ones who had not turned toward the free market as the answer) saw as one of the final legs of the stool. Carter was having none of it, and a much-weakened version went through instead. Anger at Carter’s inability to deliver for labor led many unions to back the primary challenge launched by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Despite Carter’s reputation as a progressive and the good work he has done since leaving office, his presidency is not remembered fondly in many union households.

Strike Two: 2009

The labor movement had another rare opportunity in 2009. Barack Obama had won the presidency, and Democrats not only took over Congress, but also seized an unexpected 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Labor wasted no time vocalizing its demand for the passage of the Employer Free Choice Act, a law known as EFCA that would have given workers the right to join a union as soon as a majority of employees signed cards in support of the move. The legislation also would have stiffened penalties on employers who violated labor laws and forced recalcitrant employers to negotiate contracts with new unions.

The unifying idea behind these three reforms was that policies were needed to make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain contracts once they did. Research at the time showed a steep rise in the illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s, and the National Labor Relations Board election process — to certify or decertify a union as a unit’s bargaining representative — was widely seen as tilted toward anti-union employers. Even when workers did vote for union representation through NLRB elections, many employers then refused to bargain, with only 38 percent of unions securing a contract within a year of certification.

Unions started discussions around EFCA in 2003, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. In 2007, Kennedy and Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Peter King, R-N.Y., introduced the bill, which passed in the House 241-185 — including 13 votes from Republicans. Though EFCA also had majority support in the Senate, it was blocked by a Republican filibuster.

So when Democrats took control in 2008, with a filibuster-proof majority to boot, the prospect of EFCA’s passage was tantalizing.

In 2009, progressives believed the odds were in their favor — all it would take was getting the votes of all 59 Democrats and independents, and hanging on to Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who co-sponsored the 2007 bill. Unions predicted they could add at least 5 million members to their rolls in just a few years if EFCA were to pass.

The business community hated EFCA, correctly recognizing that it would have shifted power relations between workers and employers. “This will be Armageddon,” the vice president for labor policy at the Chamber of Commerce complained. Before his inauguration, Obama told the Washington Post he knew the business community saw EFCA as “the devil incarnate.”

But the politics ended up being far more treacherous than labor anticipated — or perhaps more than the movement allowed itself to see.

“We never had 60 votes for EFCA, we just didn’t,” said Sharon Block, who worked as senior labor counsel for Kennedy on the Senate committee on Health, Education Labor, and Pensions in 2008. “We didn’t have all the Dems, even though we were closer than we had been before.”

Though EFCA tackled several areas, the provision that remains most memorable is “card check,” which would have allowed workers to form a union once a majority signed pro-union cards. (Labor organizers prefer the term “majority sign-up,” but card check is what stuck.)

The proposal was deeply controversial, in part because unions found it tough to explain why they were discouraging NLRB elections, in which workers could vote by secret ballot. Suddenly, Democrats and unions found themselves on the defensive, pushing back against arguments that they were anti-democratic. EFCA opponents argued they were merely trying to protect workers from coercive employee pressure — a talking point that resonated even as they expressed no similar concern regarding the similar, well-documented pressure coming from employers.

“There was a lot of not terribly sexy, but good reforms in EFCA to shape public opinion along the lines of fairness and stopping intimidation, but instead the conversation was about fattening the coffers of union bosses through anti-democratic methods, that unions don’t want you to have the right to vote,” recalled Louis Nayman, who worked then as a director of organization at the American Federation of Teachers. “Opponents even got George McGovern, the darling of the left, to do a 60-second anti-EFCA ad paid for by [anti-union activist] Rick Berman.”

Labor leaders still disagree about the reasons for EFCA’s failure.

Some say it’s the fault of moderate Democrats — like former Sen. Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas — who said she’d only vote for the bill if the card check provision was removed. (Lincoln lost her re-election bid to a Republican in 2010.)

Others blame Obama for not prioritizing the legislation, instead putting his energies and political capital behind health care reform.

And some say it had to do with a weak ground game from the labor movement and progressives, who never really mobilized the public enough to hold Congress and the president accountable. “There was this ‘Hey we just got you elected and now you owe us’ way of thinking about the world,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Obama at some point said, ‘You’ll have to make me do it,’ and that was not taken seriously to the degree it needed to be. To do something that will significantly shift power relations in the U.S. cannot be done quietly as a negotiated deal, it cannot happen without a loud clamor for it. It needs to be big enough and presented in ways people can understand.”

Block, the former lawyer to Kennedy in the Senate, doesn’t think Obama’s lackluster advocacy really made much of a difference. In fact, she said, some version of EFCA probably would have gotten through, but the final blow came when Senate Democrats lost 60 votes following Kennedy’s death. When the Massachusetts Democrat died of brain cancer in August 2009, he was succeeded by Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and the filibuster majority was no more, and EFCA never came up for a vote again.

The cost of losing EFCA was devastating, said Block. “We had put all of our eggs in that legislative basket and we didn’t win. And we really haven’t seen fundamental labor law reform since then.”

Carrie Gleason, who directs the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, said EFCA would have generated momentum to do even more, but after it failed, “the labor movement lost steam on a broader agenda.”

Though it was unsuccessful, Nayman, who is now retired, thinks the movement to pass EFCA alarmed and energized mainstream Republicans, who were suddenly fearful that unions might dramatically boost their membership, thereby increasing Democratic power throughout the United States.

“Right-wing funders capitalized on that and said, ‘Let’s never be put in this position again, let’s go after their money,’” said Nayman, who draws links between EFCA’s failure and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s subsequent rise to power, which came in part as a result of his focus on weakening public sector unions.  “When you aim to shoot the king, you better kill him, and with EFCA that didn’t happen,” Nayman said. “Every action has a reaction.”

“During the EFCA fight, I think there was a lot more energy on the business side, it felt like there were more people being brought in to canvass against it than there was union rank-and-file being brought to pressure Congress,” reflected Lawrence Mishel, who led the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in D.C., for decades until his retirement in December.

One consequence of failing to pass anything major on the federal level was a shift to state and local labor organizing — turning to city councils, legislatures, and ballot initiatives. The Fight for $15, for example, took off in 2012 and over the next five years, led to a wave of successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, pass fair scheduling bills, paid sick days, and paid family leave.

“A lot of us looked at the Fight for $15 in the beginning and thought they were out of their minds,” said Jacobs. “But they ended up changing the whole debate, in part by going out with clear, bold demands everyone could understand.”

But one result of all those local gains has been a push by Republicans in states to pass “preemption” laws, which prohibit local governments from passing laws on certain issues, effectively blocking cities from passing progressive legislation. “We’ve made tremendous gains, but with Republicans pushing for national preemption, everything is at risk if we don’t organize and build power in Congress,” said Gleason.

A Better Deal and Beyond

In 2017, a group of prominent congressional Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, unveiled a package of labor reforms, under the banner “A Better Deal for American Workers.” The package includes ideas to strengthen the right to strike (by banning the permanent replacement of striking workers), push for mechanisms to ensure employers negotiate a first contract with unions (similar to what was proposed in EFCA), and ban so-called right-to-work laws, which have allowed workers to shirk paying fees to unions that represent them.

Mishel, the recently retired economist, called the Better Deal ideas “seriously bold” and Jacobs of UC Berkeley agreed, adding that the proposals seem to reflect “a much deeper understanding” among Democratic leadership and Democratic thinkers of what ultimately needs to be done. (Card check is notably not included in the list of Better Deal proposals.)

Also on the table is a bill called the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy Act, backed by the labor federation AFL-CIO. The WAGE Act would make it easier for workers to organize, stiffen penalties against employers who violate labor law, and give workers the right to file discrimination lawsuits if they’re punished for union activity.

At AFL-CIO’s convention in October, the union passed a resolution pledging to protect workers’ right to organize, heighten employer penalties, make negotiating first contracts easier, and protect immigrant workers from exploitation and retaliation.

Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel at AFL-CIO, told The Intercept that the group’s immediate strategy is to focus on those four planks and push for the WAGE Act, ultimately launching a longer-term conversation about what more fundamental change is needed.

The looming question is whether these ideas are enough to confront the challenges faced by working people in 2018. Most labor experts agree that if these proposals had passed back in 1978, when Hatch famously filibustered attempts at reform, economic inequality could look very different today. But what about now?

Larry Cohen, Our Revolution board chair and former president of the Communications Workers of America, said labor should aim higher, since no Republican would vote for any of the Better Deal ideas anyway. “If our frame is collective bargaining, how does that look in the rest of the world, and why do we come up short?” Cohen asked, noting that it’s much harder to bargain collectively in the United States compared to many other democratic countries. “Everyone lectures us about the global economy, and we need to lecture back,” he said.

In the meantime, labor is sliding backward. The Supreme Court will issue a decision later this year that could severely weaken public sector unions, and President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board is doing its very best to overturn critical pro-worker decisions issued during the Obama era. And, because the basic structure of the National Labor Relations Act hasn’t changed much since it was first established in 1935, employers have had decades to develop new legal strategies to weaken the law; their strategies include forced arbitration and misclassifying workers as independent contractors.

A number of creative proposals have been floated recently — and might attract attention from progressive legislators looking for ways to stand out in a competitive 2020 primary.

Among these ideas include a push to end at-will firing, and a call for workers to demand their rights be treated as constitutional rights. “I think this frame is very helpful to talk about the core of what it means to have more of a say at your job,” said Gleason. “The right to free speech at work, the idea that your employer can’t just fire you because they don’t like you or because you spoke up about your beliefs. … I think people in America don’t really realize how powerless they are at their jobs until it’s too late.”

Other ideas include exploring so-called sectoral labor standards — where workers across entire industries, such as all finance workers or all retail workers, bargain collectively. Sectoral bargaining has been an important lever for workers in countries like France, Germany, and Brazil. Right now in the United States, workers collectively bargain with their individual employers, but sectoral bargaining would mean negotiations could take place industry-wide.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Fight for $15 and a union is that the need for real transformative demands are important,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice. “People want demands that are worth the risk.” Gupta’s group is exploring proposals like the idea of universal family care and “co-enforcement,” under which community-based organizations would partner with workers to help enforce progressive labor laws.

Jacobs said pushing for joint-employer liability, meaning pushing legislators to end corporations’ ability to shirk legal responsibility through franchising, also needs to be on the table. While the NLRB under Obama started to address this issue through a critical decision issued in 2015, the NLRB reversed the ruling last month, making it once again extremely difficult to hold corporations liable.

Nayman hopes to see a greater willingness among progressives to reach out to moderate Democrats on labor reform. “I would not start my conversation with Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown, I would start with the Blue Dogs, because you’re going to need them too,” he said. “Rather than treating moderates as enemies and sellouts, recognize that we’ll need them on board for this.”

“The lesson [from EFCA] is you don’t wait until the wave hits, you begin to work when times look tough,” added Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at AFL-CIO. “So we’ll begin drafting and introducing legislation, which we’ve done in terms of the WAGE Act, and we’re going to work on getting support from members and candidates.”

Unions should precondition endorsements for candidates on a commitment to support the WAGE Act, he added. “The lesson is get to work, regardless of the political environment you’re in, build support, awareness, and be ready.”

The Fight for the Suburbs

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of The New Republic.
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Due in no small part to his praise for white supremacists, his calls to deport immigrants, and his push to ban Muslims, Donald Trump has spurred Americans to protect racial minorities and work toward a more just society. That fight is playing out not just in sanctuary cities like New Haven and Los Angeles, or in the streets of Charlottesville. It is also being waged in Washington, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

One of HUD’s central responsibilities is to implement the Fair Housing Act, the landmark anti-discrimination law that turns 50 years old in 2018. While efforts to desegregate inner cities continue at a frustratingly slow pace, fair housing advocates did win significant victories during the Obama years. In 2015, HUD issued a rule that provided local governments with new data tools to identify segregated living patterns and meet their legal obligations to promote integration. “These actions won’t make every community perfect,” Barack Obama said at the time. “But they will help make our communities stronger and more vibrant.” A year later, the administration issued another regulation to help families move out of poor, segregated neighborhoods—in part by increasing the purchasing power of their housing vouchers.

But Trump’s administration threatens to undercut these gains. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has criticized the Obama-era rules as “mandated social engineering” and promised his agency would “reinterpret” them. Over the summer, the department announced it would be suspending the rule to help poor families relocate to more affluent neighborhoods, prompting the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups to file a lawsuit in response.

But the struggle for fair housing is not simply a series of legal fights over regulations and subsidy formulas. It involves much larger battles—ones that take aim at Americans’ basic living patterns and the country’s history of government-sponsored segregation. And as the racial makeup of our cities and suburbs continues to shift, this conflict could profoundly impact U.S. electoral politics. Indeed, civil rights advocates maintain, a successful push for fair housing could transform not only the demographics of our country but even its political future.

The Fair Housing Act was born out of racial violence. Following the urban riots that exploded across the country in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the unrest. In February 1968, the commission pointed to insidious racial segregation as the cause, having created “two societies, one white, one black.” That month, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Edward Brooke—the only African American in the Senate—introduced the Fair Housing Act. The law would help create “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” Mondale said.

Critics argued that making it easier for black families to move into white neighborhoods would trample their property rights and constitute “discrimination in reverse.” Still, as racial strife grew more pronounced, and as Martin Luther King Jr. traveled the country calling for an elimination of the nation’s slums, pressure to address segregated housing continued to mount.

King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 finally pushed fair housing through an otherwise recalcitrant Congress. The day after King’s death, Mondale took to the Senate floor and implored his colleagues to uphold King’s legacy by immediately passing the bill. Johnson signed the legislation into law six days later.

The Fair Housing Act has grown stronger over the years. Its protections now cover seven classes: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and families with children. In 1988, Congress also beefed up the law’s enforcement mechanisms and increased the penalties associated with violating it.

Yet even with these gains, many urban areas still exhibit apartheid levels of segregation. In 2015, Mondale called integration the “unfinished business” of his fair housing law. “When high-income black families cannot qualify for a prime loan and are steered away from white suburbs, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled,” he said. “When the federal and state governments will pay to build new suburban highways, streets, sewers, schools, and parks, but then allow these communities to exclude affordable housing and nonwhite citizens, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled.” In many ways, the country remains divided into two societies—one white, one black.

Exploiting the country’s racial divisions has been a feature of modern American politics since at least Richard Nixon’s adoption of the Southern Strategy. Over the past half-century, Democrats have consolidated support in cities, while Republicans have increasingly targeted rural areas. Since Trump’s victory, these trends have fueled the argument that Democrats must win more white, working-class voters if they are to reclaim political power.

But this tidy framing of cities versus rural America overlooks today’s true electoral battleground: the suburbs. Following World War II, as affluent whites fled the inner cities, suburbs became a central pillar of support for the Republican Party. In 1980, 78 percent of suburban census tracts were predominantly white. That fell to 42 percent by 2009, and diverse suburbs jumped from 16 percent to 37 percent over the same period. Suburban areas, in other words, no longer resemble the Leave It to Beaver landscape of yesteryear. Today, more than 60 percent of suburbanites live in integrated or predominantly nonwhite areas.

These shifts present problems for the Republican Party—which has historically relied on the suburbs as bulwarks against blue cities—and opportunities for Democrats, as evidenced most recently by the gubernatorial election in Virginia. In 2016, though Trump won more suburban votes than Hillary Clinton, he was still the third Republican presidential candidate in a row to fail to win 50 percent of the suburban vote. Trump lost not only inner-ring suburbs around Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, but also places like Cobb County, Georgia—which The New York Times once referred to as the “suburban Eden where the right rules.”

Fair housing has always been partly political in its aim. “The existence of segregated residential patterns helps politicians draw safe districts for white voters,” says Elizabeth Julian, a former HUD official and founder of the Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas-based fair housing group. She argues that breaking down the racial, ethnic, and economic barriers that prevent people from living where they’d like to is not only good policy, but could also defuse some of the explosive dynamics that gave rise to Trump, and bolster the Democratic coalition in the process. “The political potential of integration is an overlooked benefit of integration,” Julian says.

Policies that promote desegregation could, of course, invite backlash. White suburban voters could retreat further into the fast-growing, right-leaning exurbs. And those who stay put could grow even more conservative if they feel a greater sense that their neighborhoods are being threatened by newcomers who don’t look like them. Still, those who worry about what Trump represents would do well to explore the possibilities of integrated, inclusive communities as a way to deny racial demagogues easy political footing. The Fair Housing Act was passed to spare America from what seemed to be a looming collapse. Now, at 50, it may yet do so.

Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it

Originally published in The Washington Post on January 8, 2018 (!)
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Baltimore students made national headlines last week, with news of children across the city stuck in freezing classrooms, quivering in hats, gloves and winter coats. Four Baltimore schools never opened due to broken heaters, and several others sent students home early.

While schools all over the East Coast later shut down for the “bomb cyclone” that brought snow, hail and devastating wind, Baltimore’s situation was notable in part because the weather that day wasn’t actually that inclement. It was cold, but nothing that extraordinary for January in Maryland. Inside the school buildings though, boiler systems failed, and some classrooms never warmed beyond 40 degrees. A graduate of Baltimore public schools has since launched a GoFundMe, raising more than $75,000 for space heaters and outerwear.

Problems associated with inadequate school buildings are not exclusive to high-poverty cities. There were also reports this week that schools in Montgomery County, Md. — one of the most affluent areas in the country — had malfunctioning boilers, with students confined to chilly classrooms. U.S. school buildings are 45 years old on average. But these problems disproportionately impact poor communities. In older cities, particularly industrial ones, schools average closer to 60-70 years old. Nearly half of Baltimore’s schools were built in the 1960s or earlier, and just since 3 percent were built since 1985.

School facility issues generally receive less attention from education policy experts, despite direct links between the condition of schools and a school’s ability to educate. Research has shown how factors like poor temperature control, indoor air quality and lighting can negatively affect student learning. Other research has suggested that improving school facilities could boost teacher retention as much as, if not greater than, raising teacher salaries.

We’ve known about the school infrastructure crisis for a long time. More than two decades ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that as many as 28 million students attended schools with significant structural problems, including 15,000 schools with unsafe indoor air quality. By 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public schools a “D+” grade on its national report card. One 2016 report estimated it would cost roughly $145 billion annually to maintain and modernize school buildings so all students could learn in safe environments.

Yet when it comes to our national infrastructure debate, railroads, bridges and highways generally get more attention — and command a more formidable lobbying presence in Washington. Groups like the National Council on School Facilities have been trying to organize support for this issue. But the task is too great to fall on them alone.

Two years after the GAO report, President Bill Clinton declared, “We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down.” He went on to say that with student population at an all-time high, and record numbers of schools falling into disrepair, “this has now become a serious national concern.”

Except the feds then didn’t do much of anything, and the burden has fallen on the backs of local communities, which currently pay more than 80 percent of school capital costs. States cover only 19 percent of the capital spending on average, and in 2015, 12 states provided no school capital funding at all.

Low-wealth jurisdictions like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit face far greater challenges borrowing money and accessing capital investment, making it even harder to address needed repairs. And when repairs are deferred, the costs increase. As a result, students in affluent communities can enjoy higher-quality school buildings than those in lower-income districts.

And even with signs that the economy is on the upswing, one shouldn’t suspect that equitable investments in schools will simply trickle down to the neediest areas. The economy grew quickly in the decade following the GAO report, but even then the nation’s most disadvantaged students received about half the funding for their school buildings than students in affluent areas. The 21st Century School Fund, a national nonprofit that advocates for improved school buildings, found that poorer schools were more likely to use their limited funds for basic repairs like new roofs or asbestos removal. Wealthier schools, by contrast, could invest their capital dollars in upgrades like new science labs and performing arts centers.

The last time Congress debated school infrastructure spending was in 2009, as part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus deal. But Sen. Susan Collins (Me.) — one of three Republicans needed by Democrats to vote for the bill’s passage — argued that school facilities are a local responsibility, and the feds shouldn’t be involved. Billions of dollars in school funding were scrapped from the bill as a result. Even today some moderate Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), voice skepticism about the feds’ role in funding school buildings.

But increasing federal aid for struggling school districts does not mean Congress will then take over textbooks, teachers and curriculum. Education will remain a local issue, just as it did following the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt distributed more than $1 billion for school building and repair.

The feds can help schools meet the fast-growing costs of construction and maintenance, while also providing needed boosts to areas that lack wealthy tax bases. Mary Filardo, the director of the 21st Century School Fund, suggests school districts should also be able to leverage up to 10 percent of their Title I funds for capital expenses — currently, the federal money distributed to high-poverty districts can only go toward operating costs.

Schools are more than just educational institutions. They also serve as pillars for communities — strengthening civic life, attracting families and jobs. We can’t depend on GoFundMe campaigns to keep our water fountains lead-free, our schools cool in the summer, our roofs sturdy and our windows intact. We need to take this problem seriously, and advocate strong and safe schools for all.

Different Regulations Govern D.C.’s Publicly Funded Pre-K Programs

Originally published in Washington City Paper on January 3rd, 2018.
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Before Kate Judson pulled her 3-year-old twins out of Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter’s pre-K program, she says she noticed some troubling signs.

“We never had to sign our kids in or out, and the school was leaving their door propped open in the morning,” she says. “That seemed like a really scary safety concern.”

The last straw came in October, when Judson received a call from a teacher letting her know that her son Will had been crying all morning. Judson took her son to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with a dislocated elbow—a common injury for toddlers. The doctor quickly put it back into place.

After further investigation, Judson learned her son’s injury came from his teacher grabbing his arm. He had cried for more than two hours before another teacher noticed and called home. The teacher who grabbed him had been working alone that day, managing 17 2- and 3-year olds on her own because the classroom co-teacher was absent.

Will’s parents set up a meeting with the school’s early childhood coordinator, Claude McKay, to discuss what happened. McKay told them that though the school’s policy is to have a 9:1 student-teacher ratio, they had failed to adhere to their policy that day. He apologized, and later that day, according to emails obtained by City Paper, wrote to Judson that “disciplinary action” had been taken and promised the school would do better going forward.

Judson says another teacher she spoke with following the incident told her this wasn’t the first time a teacher had called out sick and the school did not bring in a substitute. “We’re now paying for a private school, which is amazing—it’s safe, it’s secure—but the unsettling thing is we’re lucky that we have the means to do that,” says Judson.

Kim DaCosta-Azar pulled her daughter Olivia out of Mary McLeod Bethune this fall, too. She says she had early concerns about her daughter’s teachers, who arrived late to their first meeting and seemed to respond dismissively to DaCosta-Azar’s questions. In late September, when her husband arrived to pick Olivia up from aftercare, he found her standing by herself, crying with wet pants. He says one teacher was sitting on a nearby picnic bench not paying attention, while another was inside, tending to a group of children. The next day, Olivia’s dad found her again crying alone with wet pants.

DaCosta-Azar sent her concerns about supervision and student-teacher ratios to McKay. By early October, she decided to remove her child altogether and Olivia now also attends a private school. In an email sent to the charter’s board of directors, as well as the DC Public Charter School Board, DaCosta-Azar wrote that “the level of neglect, lack of safety, and disregard by all others needs to be addressed at the highest level.”

McKay did not return City Paper’s multiple requests for comment. PCSB’s spokesperson, Tomeika Bowden, says that that while they do not generally comment on individual complaints, they handle concerns through their Community Complaint Policy, a set of procedures that govern how the PCSB addresses allegations.

Over the course of dealing with their issues, Judson and DaCosta-Azar began to realize that different pre-K programs across the city are governed by different rules and standards, and in turn, regulated by different agencies. Who sets the standards? Who holds who accountable?

D.C. is widely considered a national leader when it comes to early childhood education. In 2016, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research, 81 percent of District 4-year-olds and 70 percent of District 3-year-olds were enrolled in publicly-funded programs. These rates exceeded those of all states.

Like most states offering pre-K, the District employs a “mixed-delivery” system for publicly-funded early childhood education; parents can choose DCPS programs, privately-run programs, or charter school programs.

But these three sectors are not all governed by the same regulations, and are subject to differing levels of oversight. All three must comply with the city’s sanitation, building, and fire codes, but in other management areas there are differences.

Privately-run programs, also referred to as community-based organizations, are regulated by D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education. These programs all must be licensedas “child development centers,” meaning they all must comply with OSSE’s rules on child supervision, student-teacher ratios, and other safety and management standards. A parent who has an issue with a privately-run program can make a complaint to OSSE, and an OSSE official will investigate.

DCPS programs are not regulated by OSSE, and are not required to be licensed as child development centers. The DCPS Office of Elementary Schools and the federal Office of Head Start are tasked with monitoring DCPS programs, and most are regulated by federal Head Start standards. If a program were found to be out of compliance with Head Start rules, federal officials would work with DCPS leadership to develop a resolution. If the problem persisted, the feds could cut off funding.

Early childhood educators working in community-based organizations are required to be paid on parity with DCPS teachers. “That’s something we feel really strongly about,” says Elizabeth Groginsky, OSSE’s assistant superintendent for early learning.

By contrast, charter schools have more discretion not only over teacher salaries, but also over curriculum, health and safety standards, and teacher-student ratios. Charter leaders aim to regulate quality using the PCSB’s performance management framework, a guide for holding programs accountable for student outcomes.

For example, Mary McLeod Bethune can set its own class sizes and student-teacher ratios. Judson’s son was among 18 3-year-olds in a class with a 9:1 student-teacher ratio. For both OSSE-regulated and Head Start-regulated programs, however, 3-year-olds must be in classrooms with 8:1 student-teacher ratios and a maximum of 16 students.

City Paper described Judson and DaCosta-Azar’s experiences to BB Otero, a veteran expert on pre-K in the District. For 25 years Otero directed CentroNía, a D.C. early childhood organization, and she worked on preschool issues while serving as deputy mayor for health and human services under Mayor Vince Gray.

“In order to be a licensed community-based program, you have to have strict ratios, requirements around sign-in and sign-out, and so on,” says Otero. “Those parents likely came into that charter school with expectations from prior experiences. A parent without any formal experience may not have found all those things unusual.” Prior to coming to Mary McLeod Bethune, Judson and DaCosta-Azar’s children had attended OSSE-regulated private daycare.

When parents choose early childhood programs for their children, are they aware of the different standards and regulations? Is it clear to them how violations of school policy are handled differently in different programs? For Judson and DaCosta-Azar, the answer was no.

Otero says she’s never been shy about saying that D.C. “should have a more standardized way to regulate early childhood education, keeping child safety and quality at the forefront.”

Groginsky, of OSSE, points to the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an evaluative tool which applies to all D.C. pre-K classrooms, and resources like My School DCMy Child Care DC, and DC Child Care Connections. She says OSSE’s “goal is to get parents consumer information they can readily access.”

“I worry about the parent who is trying to manage multiple children, going to multiple schools, who may have multiple jobs, may be lower-income and not have transportation,” says Otero. “Is their ability to make these choices not hampered? Is it really equitable? Available to all?”

“There have been some really significant attempts at improvement but there’s still a lot more to go,” she adds. “We’ve got to continually think about the user-end of all of this.”

 

Court Forces Ben Carson To Be a Civil Rights Champion For a Day

Originally published in The Intercept on January 2, 2018.
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Ben Carson will soon deliver a major victory for civil rights activists on behalf of the Trump administration, implementing a new rule that will give more than 200,000 low-income families in 24 cities significantly improved access to housing in high-income neighborhoods.

Carson, however, has not suddenly become a champion of civil rights now that he is secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The rule was crafted by the Obama administration and a court ordered the Trump administration to enforce it.

The policy attempts to resolve a seeming defect in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing voucher program: that vouchers are worth the same amount across an entire region. That means most voucher holders can’t afford to move into wealthier neighborhoods because their subsidy isn’t large enough to cover rent. Landlords in poor neighborhoods can, in turn, price gouge voucher holders, who have nowhere else to go. The new rule requires public housing authorities to alter the way they calculate rent subsidies, effectively making vouchers worth more in affluent areas and worth less in poorer communities.

At the time of filing, HUD had offered little explanation for suspending the rule. It abruptly made its announcement in an August letter to public housing authorities, and when The Intercept asked for further comment in October, HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan said there had been “no change in policy.” He pointed to an August 25 blog post drafted by Acting General Deputy Assistant Secretary Todd Richardson, which said the decision was “informed by research” and that it would be beneficial to delay the rule’s implementation to allow for further study.

On December 1, HUD offered more detail. In court filings, the federal agency argued its actions fell under its broad discretionary power and therefore, were not subject to judicial review. HUD also released a previously undisclosed August 10 memo from Carson, outlining the agency’s rationale for the rule’s delay. Carson’s memorandum relied heavily on findings from an interim report, which found that of five areas selected to pilot the Small-Area Fair Market Rents, the total number of available units went down. HUD lawyers argued that these findings “fully and independently justif[y]” the suspension.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell disagreed. In her 47-page decision, she granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction and outlined why HUD’s legal authority is more circumscribed than the agency purported. She also noted that the interim report upon which HUD was relying was based on five areas selected for criteria totally unrelated to the 24 metropolitan areas picked to be subjected to the rule. “This is really apples and oranges, isn’t it?” she asked Johnny Walker, a U.S attorney representing HUD in court.

Sasha Samberg-Champion, the attorney who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs at the December 19 hearing, told The Intercept that he and his colleagues were heartened and impressed by how well Howell understood the issues. “She was just phenomenally well-prepared, not only having read the parties’ briefing papers, but she also really dove into the documents presented,” he said. “I think HUD was just not prepared to answer questions at the level of specificity that she was asking.”

For example, when Howell asked HUD’s counsel if any of the 24 metropolitan areas had “formally, or even informally” requested that the federal government suspend its implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rents rule, both Walker and HUD’s trial attorney David Sahli said they weren’t sure. Sahli eventually admitted that to his knowledge, no such request had been made. This was notable, because the final rule indicated that a suspension could occur at the request of a public housing authority.

One of the plaintiffs’ main arguments was that HUD violated the Administrative Procedure Act, an important federal statute that imposes specific limitations on the process of agency rule-making, including a requirement that agencies collect and respond to public comments. “HUD’s main argument was that there’s a regulatory provision that gives the secretary carte blanche to suspend the rule at any time for any reason, and the judge clearly was skeptical of that,” said Samberg-Champion.

Perhaps foreseeing Howell’s skepticism, HUD announced in early December that it would open up a 30-day period to solicit public comment about suspending the Small-Area Fair Market Rents rule. That 30 days began December 11.

HUD claimed that by opening up a month for public comment, it had rendered the plaintiffs’ procedural claims moot. “This argument is meritless,” wrote the plaintiffs in a reply brief filed in December. “If anything, HUD’s belated notice simply confirms the illegality of its suspension.”

“Procedurally, this is totally irrelevant because the Administrative Procedure Act doesn’t allow you to solicit comments belatedly,” explained Samberg-Champion. “But for whatever reason, atmospherically, HUD felt they needed to do this.”

It’s not clear whether HUD will appeal Howell’s decision. Sullivan, the HUD spokesperson, did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

“I’m not going to make any predictions about what HUD will or won’t do, but I hope they will now carry out the laws they’re supposed to,” said Samberg-Champion. “They have the right to appeal should they choose, but I hope they don’t do that. All they’d be doing is frankly stalling, and they would lose that as well.”

Ajmel Quereshi, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, another civil rights group participating in the lawsuit, told The Intercept that at a minimum, HUD has an obligation to “immediately begin working” with local housing agencies to implement the rule, so the new payment standards can take effect as soon as possible.

“We expect they’ll comply with the court order,” he said, “and we look forward to working with HUD to see positive results for thousands of families.”

How a Gay Friendly and “Very Pro-Choice” Trump Created the most Anti-Choice, Anti-LGBT Administration

Originally published in The Intercept on December 26, 2017.
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Maggie Wynne’s career began as a foot-soldier in the anti-abortion movement began in Congress, where throughout much of the 1990s she was a staffer for the so-called Pro-Life Caucus. When George W. Bush took the White House, she moved to the Department of Health and Human Services to work in the office that connected Congress and the agency.

A few years later, in 2005, she became a special assistant within HHS. But as the administration neared its end, Wynne pulled off a bureaucratic move known as “burrowing,” in which an appointed official becomes a career government employee, with all the job protections that entails.

So when Barack Obama’s HHS team arrived, Wynne was there waiting for them at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, continuing to wage her bureaucratic battles on behalf of the unborn. Career staff are famously difficult to fire, but they can be marginalized so that they can’t stall an agenda. In 2011, HHS got her out of the agency temporarily by “detailing” her to the staff of the House Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the most zealous right-to-lifer in the House and co-chair of the Pro-Life Caucus. The reassignment was part of an effort to keep her away from the bidding process for federal funding for anti-trafficking work, as Wynne was known to favor the U.S. bishops who fought a new Obama-era requirement to offer victims access to abortion services.

She managed to involve herself in the process regardless, and, in 2015, Wynne’s department was reorganized to strip most of her authority; she was left directing a relatively small trafficking office, helping to determine whether foreign-born victims qualified for public services. Less than a year later, with the punditry convinced Hillary Clinton would become the next president, Wynne finally called it quits. For the next several months, she went to work for the Knights of Columbus and was the pilgrimage director at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington.

But then Donald Trump won.

Wynne quickly came back to public service, becoming an early and influential member of the HHS transition team. A woman who’d just recently been a low-level functionary within the agency now had influence over staffing it at the highest levels, and, until the new director arrived, she was effectively running ORR. She got herself named Counselor for Human Services Policy, one of the most powerful positions within the department.

“The Counselor is the point person for the secretary and the agency on all major policy and program decisions,” explained Jeff Hild, who served under Obama as chief of staff for HHS’s Administration for Children & Families. “It’s a crucial position, and pretty under-the-radar as it’s not public-facing. But the people who have held that job are some of the most experienced and respected in the field of human services. During the Obama administration, the Counselors had decades of experience prior to taking on the role, including as senior staff in Congress and leaders at prominent think tanks.”

Wynne is none of that. But she does have one critical qualification: She is zealously opposed to abortion — and a slew of her allies in the movement soon poured into the building.

Wynne, in many ways, is the story of the Trump administration: a fringe operative who fought her battles far from the center of power, suddenly washed into a position of extraordinary authority. Across the administration, officials like her have been leaving their marks, but in the Health and Human Services Department, the lurch toward the evangelical, right-to-life movement has elevated what were once sleepy bureaucratic backwaters into prominent culture war battlefields.

TRUMP’S HEALTH AND Human Services Department has been quietly stocked with a host of anti-choice and anti-LGBT ideologues. There’s Charmaine Yoest, the former president of Americans United for Life, who now serves in a top communications post, and Valerie Huber, an abstinence education champion who works as chief of staff for the Office of Assistant Secretary. There’s Teresa Manning, a former National Right to Life Committee lobbyist who is overseeing federal family planning services, and Tom Price, who led the Department up until October and boasted about as anti-choice a record as a legislator could.

And then there’s Scott Lloyd, another objectively unqualified appointee leading the Office of Refugee Resettlement. He formerly worked as an attorney for Knights of Columbus, a leading anti-abortion group, and once argued that “contraceptives are the cause of abortion.” Wynne, who spent seven years toiling in ORR, overlapped with Lloyd at Knights of Columbus before coming back to join Trump’s transition team.

It was the Office of Refugee Resettlement that made international news by attempting to block a 17-year-old immigrant in its custody from getting an abortion. In late October, after being barred for a month by Lloyd, the unaccompanied minor — known in court filings as Jane Doe — was finally able to end her unwanted pregnancy. She was detained in a privately run shelter funded by ORR – which had implemented a new policy forbidding shelters from “facilitating” abortions. Except Jane Doe wasn’t relying on the shelter to pay for the procedure, or even to transport her there. She just needed permission to leave temporarily.

In court filings, the administration wrote that it has “strong and constitutionally legitimate interests in promoting childbirth, in refusing to facilitate abortion, and in not providing incentives for pregnant minors to illegal cross the border to obtain elective abortions while in federal custody.” As Jane Doe waited for her abortion, government agencies forced her to obtain counseling from a Christian-affiliated crisis pregnancy center and to look at an ultrasound.

The American Civil Liberties Union ultimately prevailed in court for Jane Doe, but the underlying ORR policy remains in place, and in mid-December the ACLU filed suit on behalf of two more undocumented minors – Jane Roe and Jane Poe. A federal judge ruled in their favor last week. In court filings several days later, Lloyd argued that ORR shouldn’t let even a minor impregnated through rape end her unwanted pregnancy because perhaps she’d experience “additional trauma” as a result.

Brigitte Amiri, an ACLU attorney representing the minors, told The Intercept that ORR started to interfere with abortion access in March by working aggressively to dissuade teenagers, giving them unwanted religious counseling, and even contacting their parents against their express wishes. “When all that fails, as it did with Jane Doe, then they just say you can’t get an abortion,” she said.

These problems, Amiri emphasized, didn’t all start with Trump. “Under Obama, millions of dollars flowed to shelters that had objections to abortion, and if the minor asked for one, they could say well you can’t stay here but we’ll contact the federal government and they’ll transfer you somewhere else,” Amiri said. “It was totally stigmatizing, it delayed access to abortion, and it made the procedure more risky. I had meetings with ORR’s directors – Eskinder Negash in the early years and Bob Carey towards the end – and I said you need to overhaul these policies. But they would not budge, so we sued them.”

This is, in many ways, the defining contrast between the last administration and the current one. The Obama administration, sometimes to its credit, other times to its great discredit, tried to walk a fraught middle ground. In the case of HHS, it meant partnering with faith-based groups in ways that sometimes made accessing reproductive health care more difficult for youth and victims. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has abandoned all pretense of compromise.

“They just flout the law and the Constitution,” said Amiri. “They’re utterly, utterly brazen.”

Under the Obama administration, former ORR director Robert Carey said, the office had a deliberate process for crafting policy that involved convening stakeholders, drafting revisions, and providing opportunities for feedback. That process had been inherited from the Bush administration, and every administration before it, since the advent of the modern bureaucracy. Under Trump, new ORR policies — including the rule banning grantees from “facilitating” abortion — have been issued through hastily drafted emails and memos.

The new rules are issued with such speed that nobody, apparently, even reviews them for grammar. According to court filings, on March 30, two days after becoming ORR director, Lloyd emailed his team announcing that ORR-funded shelters “should not be supporting abortion services pre or post-release. Only pregnancy services and life-affirming options counseling.” Another email dated March 4 and sent by then ORR-Acting Director Kenneth Tota said that if unaccompanied minors “may be involved in an abortion” then ORR-funded shelters were “prohibited from taking any action that facilitates an abortion without direction and approval from the Director of ORR.”

When she first learned the federal government was prohibiting Jane Doe from leaving her shelter to access an abortion, Amiri, the ACLU lawyer, thought, “No way, they can’t do that.” But then, she told The Intercept, “I realized, oh, they can do it, and they will do it, until a court stops them.”

Aside from appointments, many advocates have raised concerns with specific actions HHS has taken over the past year – actions signaling that vulnerable populations, including undocumented immigrants, victims of trafficking, and LGBTQ individuals – may be subject to further discrimination. Indeed, “vulnerable” is one of the Centers for Disease Control’s newly banned words.

When the HHS published its draft strategic plan for FY2018-2022 this past fall, it removed all mentions of LGBTQ individuals and ethnic minorities that had appeared in the Obama-era version. The Trump draft plan also rewrote the federal government’s definition of life, emphasizing that life begins “at conception.”

Then, in early October, the Trump administration issued new rules rolling back the Obama-era mandate that employers include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. (A judge issued a nationwide injunction against this in mid-December, and second judge issued a preliminary injunction last week.)

The Trump administration also announced in October it would be soliciting public comment on ways to potentially reduce HHS regulations governing faith-based groups – a bright red flag for those worried about discrimination.“Agency regulations already contain religious exemptions that are too expensive,” wrote the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination in a letter sent to HHS dated November 24.

In response to its solicitation, HHS received nearly 11,000 comments. But it has only made 80 of them public, those that largely reflect support for anti-abortion policies and disapproval for rules requiring groups to serve transgender individuals. “HHS should not solicit comments for rule-making from thousands of child welfare experts, health experts, and everyday Americans and then hide those comments from public view,” said Julie Kruse, a federal policy advocate at Family Equality Council.

In 2015, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith-based groups protested ORR for its new rule designed to prevent, detect, and respond to unaccompanied children who suffered sexual abuse. Rather than worry if the level of protection offered to minors was adequate, the groups charged that ORR had fallen short of “protecting existing and prospective grantees, contractors, subgrantees and subcontractors with religious or moral objections.” Specifically, they protested requirements to offer victims access to emergency contraception and abortion, even through referrals.

Put differently, two years ago, some faith-based groups called on the federal government to exempt them from providing victims with comprehensive reproductive services. Today, the government itself is led by officials like Wynne and Lloyd who forbid grantees from providing youth with comprehensive reproductive services, even when those grantees have noreligious or moral objection to doing so.

As the Supreme Court currently reviews a case that could make it easier for states, businesses, and organizations to discriminate based on religious or moral objections, the stakes for LGBTQ individuals are particularly high.

Earlier this year when HHS released its annual national survey on older adults, it announced it would no longer be asking questions about gender identity — effectively preventing transgender adults from identifying as a subgroup on the questionnaire.

“We know the history of HIV and AIDS, we know what happens when the government is not willing to name a group of people who are most affected by a public health issue,” said Harper Jean Tobin, the director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “For years we have been trying to document and address the serious health disparities transgender people face, and we can’t do that when the government refuses to name them as a population.”

On December 15, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published an open letter rejecting the legitimacy of transgender identities. “We come together to join our voices on a more fundamental precept of our shared existence, namely, that human beings are male or female and that the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female,” the letter reads.

Not to be outdone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is under the authority of HHS, made global news itself that day with reports that it had developed a new list of verboten words. Along with “vulnerable,” words such as “evidence-based,” “transgender” and “fetus” no longer exist, as far as the agency is concerned.

What the department does or does not do influences others across the country. “It’s really important to us that HHS send a signal to the states that federally funded agencies need to serve all youth,” said Kruse of the Family Equality Council. According to the group’s data, 19 percent of foster youth over the age of 12 identify as LGBTQ, and same-sex couples foster at four times the rate and adopt at six times the rate of opposite-sex couples. Despite 111,000 foster children waiting to be adopted annually, and an opioid epidemic that has exploded that population, seven states have passed bills that allow adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ youth and prospective parents. Three of those bills passed in 2017.

“We’re very concerned about placement of LGBTQ youth into non-affirming homes or into faith-based group homes where they might be subjected to conversion therapy,” said Kruse.

And it’s not just youth. HHS currently requires all medical facilities receiving Medicaid and Medicare to honor the visitation preferences of their patients, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. HHS may soon decide to allow federally-funded hospitals and health clinics to turn away LGBT patients or their loved ones. “State and local housing agencies that administer programs, like housing vouchers or loans to assist with purchasing a home, could [also] refuse to offer those services to LGBT older adults and older same-sex couples,” warned a new report from the Movement Advancement Project.

A Manhattan playboy, who campaigned as friendly to the LGBTQ community and has dubbed himself “very pro-choice,” is now leading the most extreme anti-choice, transphobic, and anti-gay administration in modern history. The movement’s prayers have been answered.