Evictions are life-altering — and preventable

Originally published in Vox on June 14, 2022.
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When Susan Brewer’s wife lost her job during the pandemic, her family, living on the South Side of Chicago, fell behind on rent. Brewer had been supplementing her wife’s salary with the disability income she received from Social Security, but on its own it wasn’t enough to pay their bills.

In December 2021, Chicago opened up a new round of applications for renters needing emergency aid. But Brewer’s landlord — who was then threatening them with eviction —wasn’t interested. Normally, that would have been the end of it: If a landlord refuses to participate in a government program, their tenants won’t get help. But in this case, Brewer was able to apply for and receive the money directly. She picked up her check from City Hall, paid off all her outstanding rental debt, and her wife eventually got her job back.

“Becoming homeless was one of my greatest fears,” she recalled. “I’m 64 years old. I can’t be out in the streets. I’m still struggling to get the weight back I lost from all that stress.”

Brewer was able to stay in her home because, about a year before she got her aid, the federal government had taken an unprecedented step: It decided to help people at risk of eviction stay in their homes. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program — or ERAP — marked a fundamental departure from virtually all previous housing aid programs. Tenants could get money directly, the eligibility process was streamlined, and the categories of people who qualified were intentionally broad.

Nearly 1 million people are evicted in the US each year, mostly for nonpayment of rent. Between 2000 and 2016, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, one in 40 American renter households was evicted, and more than twice that share were threatened with it. The experience of losing one’s home to eviction has been linked to all sorts of adverse consequences, including higher job lossdebtsuicide, and reduced credit access.

Many evicted families are forced to relocate to lower-quality homes in neighborhoods with more crime. Evicted children experience higher food insecurity and lower academic achievement than other low-income kids living in rental housing, partly as a result of having to shuffle between schools and their parents’ declining mental health.

But even as research mounted on the prevalence and harms of eviction, the federal government did little to help families avoid it. “Before the pandemic, evictions were happening and there was a crisis, but we weren’t thinking about federal intervention in that space in a real way,” acknowledged Peggy Bailey, the senior adviser on rental assistance at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal government would sometimes take action if the eviction violated the Fair Housing Act, but not otherwise.

The situation changed only when the pandemic hit, and orders to “stay at home” grew louder and more urgent. You can’t stay at home if you lose your home.

Initially plagued by bureaucratic hurdles, the rental assistance program eventually succeeded in reducing evictions. Although twice as many renters reported being behind on rent in mid-2021 compared to pre-pandemic times, eviction levels remained well below historic averages by the end of the year. They did not rebound to expected levels even after the Supreme Court struck down the CDC’s federal eviction moratorium. The money also largely reached the vulnerable tenants it was intended to help. Among those renters, researchers have found, the experiment was associated with a host of benefits, including less debt and physical stress.

But now, as federal ERAP dollars dry up, evictions are beginning to climb again.

The country faces a pivotal choice to build on what communities have learned. Before the pandemic, almost 8 million renters spent more than half of their incomes on housing. With more funding, the government could create a permanent program to help those who, living paycheck to paycheck, might need emergency assistance to cover temporary shortfalls on rent. A bipartisan bill in the Senate would do just that.

“What we know now from ERAP is that we can play a role in preventing evictions due to nonpayment of rent,” Bailey said. “Just a little bit of housing assistance can go a long way to saving money and a lot of aggravation for families.”

“We put a lot of effort into building the [rental assistance] plane while we were flying,” added Dave Thomas, the president of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. “And now that it’s built, we have to figure out: Does it last, or was it a lot of energy for nothing?”


The federal CARES Act from March 2020 included money that states and cities could use to assist renters. But it was in December 2020 that Congress authorized $25 billion for its first initiative dedicated exclusively to helping renters stay in their homes. A second round of funding in March 2021 brought Congress’s total ERAP spending to $46.5 billion.

The money was directed to states and localities to distribute to newly created rental assistance programs. These built-from-scratch, decentralized programs, which number over 500 today, had varying rules and requirements for tenants and landlords to apply. Natasha Leonard, a housing specialist with the National League of Cities, said much of her work during the pandemic was spent trying to spread awareness about what other cities were doing for rental assistance. For months, the program was blasted for administrative hangups, shifting and confusing guidelines, and sending money to renters too slowly.

ERAP was administered by the Treasury Department, not the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has more experience developing targeted funding formulas, but Treasury has experience sending money out quickly. It also exists outside of the traditional federal housing bureaucracy, so some leaders felt it was better positioned to innovate and take risks.

Over time, Treasury did innovate. It loosened ERAP rules and clarified its expectations. Jurisdictions scrambled for new technology and staff and for nonprofit partners to help spread awareness among eligible renters.

In 2021, 3.8 million payments were distributed to eligible households. By April of this year, per a Treasury spokesperson, that number had reached 5.7 million. In all, more than $30 billion in assistance has been distributed or obligated, and the remaining money is expected to be spent in the next few months. Activists and reporters are now warning of the funds running out too quickly.

Researchers have found that, by and large, the funds went primarily to communities hit hardest by the economic impacts of the pandemic — places with steeper job losses, higher shares of renter households, and more residents of color. Treasury data published in late February reported that over 80 percent of program funds went to very low-income households, defined as those earning 50 percent or less of area median income, and primarily reached Black, Latino, and female-headed households.

“It was unlike anything — and at a scale unlike anything — we’ve seen in our lifetime,” said Greg Heller, a former Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation official who helped lead the aid distribution for his city.

Claudia Aiken, a policy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has already found clear results from Philadelphia. Receiving emergency rental assistance was associated with a lower likelihood of incurring debt, a lower share of tenants reporting that they worried frequently, and a significant decrease in the amount of rent owed among those behind on payments. Other studies on preliminary impacts in Atlanta and Baltimore have found receiving rental aid is associated with reduced risk of homelessness and lower debt.


As states and cities cobbled together their rental assistance programs, policymakers quickly ran into several issues. Landlords weren’t always eager to participate because accepting the money sometimes came with requirements to forgive past penalties, interest, and court costs; or because participating barred landlords from chasing payments for anything outstanding in the months they received aid. Some states capped available rental assistance so low that many landlords saw accepting it as consenting to de facto rent cancellation while they were dealing with their own cash flow problems.

Some programs tried to grease the wheels to induce more participation. A Pennsylvania rental assistance program in place before ERAP launched had a monthly cap of $750, regardless of what rent was owed. But only 44 percent of landlords participated, so Philadelphia policymakers decided to pair state aid with CARES money to offer landlords up to $1,500 per month. This boosted Philadelphia participation to 63 percent.

Still, many landlords just wouldn’t bite. In a national survey of rental assistance programs conducted in spring 2021, 44 percent of program administrators said landlord responsiveness was a challenge. That number rose to 67 percent in summer 2021, and 74 percent in late 2021. As one ERAP administrator explained, “many landlords are not looking to keep unreliable tenants; some refuse to work with us; [and] others are not willing to renew leases.”

Landlord resistance is nothing new in federal housing policy. But to address the issue, Treasury took an unprecedented step. It said that programs must send money directly to tenants when their landlords don’t cooperate, and clarified that programs can even provide direct assistance to tenants before trying to engage the landlord. Not all programs embraced the idea, but many did.

“ERAP operated under the idea that we should help everyone who has a need, and that’s just a radical departure and mindset from our other existing housing programs,” said Aiken.

ERAP’s goal to assist needy tenants was so explicit, and so unlike any past federal program, that Treasury officials even clarified that aid should be delivered to anyone experiencing hardship during the pandemic, not just due to Covid-19.

Federal policymakers have contemplated the idea of distributing rent money directly to tenants, but they’ve only really tried it once before, via a small program that ran in a dozen cities in the 1970s.

“Tenants are the program’s primary beneficiaries,” explained Noel Poyo, the deputy assistant secretary for community economic development at Treasury, who led the department’s implementation of ERAP. “It is a low-income household that meets these tests. The program doesn’t exclude tenants with landlords who don’t want to participate.”

Another defining characteristic of the program was its gradual embrace of unusual strategies to get money out the door. In distributing public funds, governments have an obligation to ensure that the dollars really get to those who need them. But fraud mitigation can go too far, requiring so many bureaucratic hurdles that the aid never reaches those it was meant to help.

Some ERAP programs took dramatic steps to cut down on paperwork. Instead of submitting official records, people could simply affirm, under penalty of perjury, details of their personal circumstances, like their income or address. Administrators were also allowed to verify income by cross-referencing applicants’ statements with other population-level data in the same geographic region.

Others embraced “categorical eligibility”: the idea that if you qualify for one existing welfare program, and that program verified your personal details, then you should be considered automatically eligible for another. Researchers found that programs with fewer and more flexible requirements were able to distribute their rental assistance funds faster.

Watchdogs have thus far produced little evidence of fraud. Eight months into California’s pandemic rental assistance program, housing officials identified 1,800 fraudulent applications out of nearly 500,000 — or 0.0036 percent — and none of those applications were paid. California officials explained they had learned a lot about detecting fraud after the state’s costly unemployment fraud debacle. Other states that disclosed data — such as Utah, Arizona, and New York — reported virtually no rental assistance abuse, either. In Montgomery County, Maryland, auditors wrote in October, “We ultimately found no specific instances of fraud,” though they acknowledged that self-attestation made it difficult for them to discern who might be lying.

In February, federal auditors with the Government Accountability Office warned Congress that they did not think Treasury had implemented enough monitoring controls for its ERAP program, and stressed fraud was a risk. A spokesperson for Treasury said all ERAP grantees must have in place procedures to prevent, investigate, and address fraud. Rich Delmar, deputy inspector general of the Department of the Treasury, the division responsible for oversight, could not provide specifics on ERAP fraud allegations, but said when they receive tips of abuse through their hotline, they investigate them.

Even with Treasury’s encouragement, some local administrators resisted easing up on their program requirements, fearful of the potential for scandal or backlash.

But Poyo, from Treasury, said that ERAP demonstrated governments could reduce unnecessary barriers to aid while still using identity verification tools to evaluate applications. “It is not a zero-sum game between supporting access for vulnerable populations and ensuring strong program integrity,” he said.


ERAP was clunky at times. Local program leaders said the continually shifting Treasury guidance made distributing money more challenging, as did the IT demands and lack of qualified staff and volunteers. It took time to build up coordination with local court systems that handled evictions, too.

“There was a perception at first that if you just dump loads and loads of money that local governments should have some way of getting it out,” said Heller. “But to get hundreds of millions of dollars — in Philadelphia, we had over $250 million — requires a huge amount of infrastructure, a lot of IT backbone, a lot of training.”

While the program overall did a good job reaching needy areas, some struggled more than others. Elizabeth Kneebone, the research director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, has been studying communities that were more readily able to deploy this federal assistance, which tended to be denser urban areas. Suburbs and rural communities — with fewer nonprofits, diminished or nonexistent local media, and less institutional capacity in their local governments — tended to have a harder time, even as the need for help persisted.

“With the suburbanization of poverty, we need to ask, how do we make these areas more flexible and responsive to the ways needs can change?” Kneebone said.

Experts and policymakers say they are not exactly sure what happens now. Federal funds are drying up and most programs are no longer accepting new applicants. Researchers are continuing to publish new reports on ERAP lessons learned.

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There is a consensus among housing leaders that the next year will be critical in determining whether all this pandemic-era knowledge is sustained and expanded upon, or buried and forgotten.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group, is focusing on rising eviction rates and the need to establish a permanent emergency rental assistance program, said Sarah Gallagher, the group’s senior project director. “We need it both for individuals in emergency situations because of personal crisis, as well as to prepare for another pandemic,” she said.

If Congress was planning to reallocate new dollars, then local officials would work to invest in infrastructure and staff, just like they do for other permanent housing programs. But at this point, communities don’t know if they’ll be using their ERAP systems again, or be forced to dismantle them.

Meanwhile, HUD is now considering an eviction prevention strategy and is beginning to think through how to start tracking eviction data nationally. In recent federal appropriations acts, Congress tasked the housing agency with considering the feasibility of developing some sort of national eviction database, and three bills have been introduced to increase federal analysis of evictions.

“I think you can make an extremely strong defense that investing in eviction prevention provides a positive economic and social return to the country,” said Gene Sperling, the American Rescue Plan coordinator for the Biden administration. “So even on that hard-headed basis, eviction strategy is the type of wise investment that people think of like quality preschool — especially when you consider the economic scarring, emotional trauma, and heartbreak these policies can prevent.”

The uncertainty surrounding future funding makes this all particularly confusing for local housing leaders. Right now, some communities are still distributing their ERAP funding, which doesn’t expire until September 2025. Localities are also tapping into remaining state and local recovery funds to help sustain their programs.

But these funding streams will, eventually, be gone. On the congressional level, there’s a bill to establish a permanent Emergency Assistance Program. While its proposed $3 billion in annual funding is fairly low, housing advocates say passing the legislation would be an important seed that could help motivate HUD to continue building on ERAP lessons. For now, though, passage looks unlikely.

In the meantime, activists are fighting to press for broader reforms to the housing market.

Gallagher suggested making ERAP recipients automatically eligible for other programs through categorical eligibility. “Some of the households that received ERAP are in need of longer-term subsidies, and now that households have been engaged, we don’t just want to walk away,” she said. “We’ve already deemed them eligible, there should be a way to transition those folks to additional resources, using self-attestation.”

Bailey, from HUD, noted it was her agency that first encouraged Treasury to consider self-attestation as a strategy because HUD knew from experience how hard it can be for homeless populations to receive government assistance when they lack certain documents. She acknowledged, though, that currently no HUD programs, including even its own homeless assistance programs, allow for that flexibility.

Some communities, like Philadelphia and Chicago, have used their ERAP dollars to bolster adjacent housing assistance efforts, like expanding access to lawyers for low-income tenants and encouraging alternatives to eviction through so-called court diversion programs. The White House is encouraging these kinds of efforts and held a summit on court diversion in the summer of 2021, something Sperling said was done partly to accelerate a conversation around long-term eviction reform.

While federal funds certainly enabled Philadelphia and Chicago to run more successful diversion programs (landlords are much more likely to agree to an eviction alternative if there is money available to pay them rent) local leaders say they don’t plan to abandon their diversion efforts even if ERAP dollars dry up. “As our resources have diminished, we’ve tried to be a little more intentional … and do a little more targeting,” said Thomas, of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.

“We used $8 million of our ERAP funds to launch a right-to-counsel pilot because we want this to be not a one-time emergency measure, but to help create infrastructure that can be lasting,” said Daniel Kay Hertz, the director of policy with the Chicago Department of Housing.

“The primary crisis we have now is how many people continue to need assistance, and not having enough money for them,” he added. “But the secondary crisis is that Chicago and dozens or hundreds of jurisdictions gained an enormous amount of administrative capacity to do a direct relief program, and we aren’t sure yet what that will mean.”

A program that helps millions of hungry kids is about to expire

Originally published in Vox.com on June 1, 2022.
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One of the most fundamental and intuitive facts about learning is that it’s hard to focus, or really do much of anything, if you’re hungry. There’s a hierarchy of needs, and stomachs come out on top.

Yet youth advocates are staring down a chilling deadline. June 30 is the last day for Congress to reauthorize a series of waivers that have allowed public schools to creatively deliver meals to students during the pandemic.

Originally passed in March 2020, the waivers granted schools the flexibility to navigate not only the challenges of remote learning and Covid-19, but also the supply chain crisis, the school labor shortage, and steep inflation at the grocery store. The waivers also expanded eligibility for school meals, enabling an additional 10 million students to access free breakfast and lunch each day.

Education leaders assumed Congress would re-extend the meal flexibility for one more year. The waivers, which expire at the end of June, were extended twice before on a bipartisan basis. In February, Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Suzanne Bonamici and Republican Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick and John Katko introduced the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act to extend them one last time through June 2023, but when Congress passed its $1.5 trillion spending bill in March, the language for school meals was missing. Advocates were stunned, and say this decision alone has already jeopardized access to summer meals for nearly 7 million children.

“There is no urgency and political appetite to even have this conversation,” said Jillien Meier, director of the No Kid Hungry campaign. “Frankly this is not a priority for Congress and the White House. People are really focused on having a ‘return to normal’ … folks aren’t talking about it and they have no clue that this crisis that is looming.”

Many people would certainly like to see the waiver authorizing universal free meals made permanent, reducing the stigma for children and administrative burdens on parents and school districts. But advocates say that’s not what this fight is about. Instead, they’re seeking just one more year of flexibility to help schools weather the inflation and supply chain crises, and to contact the millions of families who have not filled out school meal application forms for the last 2.5 years.

“Usually that outreach starts in the fall and you get the sign-ups going for the following school year,” said Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, which works with large school districts. “How do you educate these millions of families that that needs to be done again, and over the summer? It just won’t happen.”

Decades of research have shown how child nutrition programs aid academic achievementschool attendance, and student health outcomes. But the consequences of not extending the waivers will not be limited to families penalized by paperwork. Schools will also have less money to meet rising food prices and will face steeper financial penalties for not meeting all federal nutrition requirements, a challenge amid widespread product shortages. Some schools may decide to cut back on food offerings and even stop providing meals altogether. Others may slash budgets for their classrooms.

School lunches are not immune to the supply chain and inflation crisis

In normal times, the federal nutrition standards serve as important guidelines to ensure healthy options are available to students. Schools can only be fully reimbursed for the meals they serve if said meals meet those quality standards.

But these are not normal times, and school nutrition directors nationwide say they’ve never had so much difficulty stocking their cafeterias with basics like milk, meat, and vegetables. It’s become common for food orders to simply not arrive, or to be only partially filled.

A survey from the US Department of Agriculture released in March found 92 percent of School Food Authorities reported supply chain challenges, with products like chicken and bread among the most difficult products to procure. Nearly three-quarters of SFAs also reported staffing challenges, with acute shortages of cooks, drivers, and food prep employees.

Nutrition directors have had to get creative in finding emergency substitutes, including making shopping trips at 4 am to Costco and Kroger. Other school districts have cut back to one meal option, instead of the three or four they used to have. Without the federal waivers, schools could face financial penalties for all these decisions, if they opt to continue providing food at all, and would be under more pressure to hound families for unpaid school lunch debt.

Thanks to the waivers, the federal government has covered more of the cost of school meals than usual. This reimbursement flexibility has still just barely allowed school districts to tread water. “Ninety percent of schools are using the waivers and only 75 percent of them are breaking even,” Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary, told the Washington Post in March.

Without an extension, the average reimbursement could drop by nearly 40 percent. And this drop would occur as schools continue to face higher costs for food and labor. Grocery prices were 10.8 percent higher year-over-year than in April 2021, and are expected to increase substantially this year.

“We literally believe we’re going to go off a cliff June 30,” said Wilson. “And we simply don’t have the labor to go back to doing what we did [pre-pandemic]. We have school districts that are missing hundreds of people, so to expect them to account for every kid and what their family income is ridiculous.”

Congress could extend the waivers easily

Hundreds of advocacy groups, school districts, and elected officials have urged Congress to reauthorize the waivers for the next school year, at a price tag of roughly $11 billion.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told Politico that the last-minute opposition to including school meal waivers in their March spending bill came from Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A few weeks following this surprise, Stabenow introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act to extend the waivers, but so far, it has formal backing only from Democrats, plus Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. Even moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema support the extension.

But Republican support might be higher than co-sponsorship suggests. Senate Agriculture Ranking Member John Boozman told Vox that he’s been meeting with school nutrition professionals, child hunger advocates, and other leaders about ensuring access to healthy meals at school. “Both sides of the aisle in the Senate want that outcome, and we remain engaged in good-faith talks about the best path forward,” he said, adding that he appreciates “the frequent input I receive from those on the front lines working tirelessly to feed children in need.”

McConnell has declined to comment publicly on the issue, and his office did not return Vox’s request for comment. But a GOP leadership aide told Politico that they do not see pandemic-era flexibilities as necessary anymore, and blamed the Biden administration for failing to include an extension of the meal waivers in its formal Covid spending bill request and 2023 budget request. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he had been personally pressing Congress to extend the waivers for one more year.

Some child hunger activists suspect a crisis is being orchestrated to hurt Democrats in the midterms.

“It’s political. [Republicans] know this is going to explode in the summer, and there’s an election in November,” said Wilson. “So people are going to get outraged, families are going to have huge lunch debt, and they’re going to blame the legislators. No one is going to know Senator Stabenow submitted a bill to avoid this; they’re going to want to know why their kids are starving.”

Summer meal programs have already been affected

The federal summer meals program, established in 1975, operates in places where at least 50 percent of children in a geographical area have family incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the regular school year. As the American Prospect noted, this program was designed with concentrated urban poverty in mind, and has always been less accessible to low-income children living in rural areas.

But the pandemic waivers exempted meal providers from this density requirement. Even in urban communities, the waivers have allowed providers to distribute summer meals to families in bulk, sparing parents from having to make daily trips to pick up food for their kids.

Thousands of sites that distributed federally subsidized meals last summer have already backed out from participating in the coming months, due to Congress’s dithering on extending the waivers.

“Many, many small, particularly faith-based organizations have said, no, we’re not going to go from ‘feed all children until June 1’ and then after that say now we need to know your family’s income to serve you,” said Wilson. “If the groups have to start identifying kids, that’s a nightmare.”

According to USDA data, there were 67,224 open sites providing summer meals in 2021. The No Kid Hungry campaign estimates that 1 out of every 5 of those sites will be unable to serve meals to all kids this coming summer, jeopardizing access for nearly 7 million children.

“Congress could fix this through so many avenues,” said Meier. “They don’t need a big relief package like Build Back Better. Congress can increase the flow of food to families and right now is just refusing to pull those levers.”

Are active shooter drills worth it?

Originally published in Vox.com on May 28, 2022.
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When one Robb Elementary teacher heard gunfire explode down the hall, she shouted for her kids to get under the desks as she sprinted to lock the classroom door. “They’ve been practicing for this day for years,” the teacher told NBC. “They knew this wasn’t a drill. We knew we had to be quiet or else we were going to give ourselves away.”

Lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) have become standard fare in American public schools, used in more than 95 percent of schools and mandated in more than 40 states. But despite their ubiquity, there’s no federal guidance on exactly how these drills should run, creating significant variation — and controversy — across the country.

For-profit companies with big marketing budgets sell their own preparedness programs to schools, despite limited evidence for the effectiveness of these companies’ approach. Some students have reported feeling traumatized after the drills, though others say it gives them a relative sense of empowerment. In recent years, anecdotes have emerged of overzealous tactics, like shooting teachers with plastic pellets, simulating gunfire, and using fake blood.

While reporters continue to stitch together the specifics of what went down at Robb Elementary, it’s clear that the school went into lockdown — teachers locked classroom doors, turned out lights, and moved the class out of sight from the hallway and remained quiet.

In the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, all schools use the Standard Response Protocol for lockdowns, a set of clear instructions promoted by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, which parents launched in 2006 after their daughter was killed in a Colorado school shooting. The protocol instructs teachers to lock doors and ensure students stay out of sight and stay quiet.

A fourth grader who survived the shooting told the CBS affiliate KENS of San Antonio that when he heard the shooting, he urged his friend to hide under something. “I was hiding hard,” the child said. “And I was telling my friend to not talk because [the shooter] is going to hear us.”

These experiences suggest the lockdown drills really did help students and staff respond effectively. Evidence so far suggests children and educators in Uvalde followed their lockdown training well, and it was local police who failed to follow protocol. For now, most experts say if we’re stuck living in a society where school shootings are threats communities must deal with, then schools should plan for drills but be more conscious of how they’re executed, and take steps to mitigate needless harm.

The case for lockdown drills

More schools began practicing lockdown drills after the 1999 high school massacre in Columbine, Colorado, but the number ticked up quickly following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Even though youth homicides are far less likely to occur in schools than other locations, school leaders and politicians face immense pressure to proactively respond to these frightening incidents.

Research has suggested that lockdown drills are important tools, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies school lockdown drills. One reason is that the more a school practices, the better students and staff get at remembering to execute all the steps.

“This is particularly important as [emergency] drills … are designed to build muscle memory, which allows a person to perform certain functions in chaotic situations, such as an active attacker, when their mind is still trying to process what is taking place,” she wrote in a 2020 paper. Other research has found disaster trainings help students develop skills, and the National Association of School Psychologists has also endorsed lockdown drills as a way to prepare for emergencies.

Schildkraut’s findings indicate that staff and students who participate in lockdown drills feel more prepared and more empowered for an emergency. The trade-off, she found, is that students also felt less safe in school — potentially as a result of having to think about the risk they might one day face.

Some critics have said it’s not necessary to subject young students to the drills when they could just listen to their teachers’ instructions in the event of an emergency. A common comparison is flying on an airplane; passengers are directed on where to turn for information if there is a crisis, but they are not required to practice the emergency protocols before their flight takes off.

Schildkraut said a difference is that teachers are often the first people to be killed in a school shooting. “You can’t remove the only people with the information and then expect anyone else to do it,” she told me. “Everyone has to have the tools to stay safe in the moment.”

Supporters of lockdown preparedness also point to the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018, where students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had received no active shooter training and the school had no established lockdown procedures.

This lack of training, experts say, was one reason teachers and students on the third floor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas had evacuated their classrooms when they heard a fire alarm. (The alarm had been set off by discharge coming from the shooter’s gun.) When the shooter reached the third floor, he murdered five students in the hallway and one teacher who was holding their classroom door open.

But little federal guidance exists on best practices for lockdown drills, despite repeated calls for such assistance. In 2013, federal agencies endorsed a controversial practice known as “Run, Hide, Fight,” encouraging school staff unable to hide or run in an active shooter incident to try to “incapacitate” the perpetrator with “aggressive force” or nearby items like fire extinguishers. The federal training did not clarify how and if educators should practice such tactics.

In the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety established after Parkland, the authors recommended federal agencies develop guidelines for active shooter trainings, but to date those have not materialized. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not return request for comment; a spokesperson for the Department of Education provided links to guidance on active shooter and emergency events, but not to drills specifically.

A suite of companies and consultants have stepped into the breach, touting so-called “options-based” approaches they claim are superior to traditional drills. These include training staff in more tactics, like barricading doors or even actively confronting an armed shooter. The most recognized player in this space is Alice, the largest for-profit provider of active shooting training in the US. Armed with big marketing budgets, the company can travel across the country to promote its model, even with limited research available to support it.

“There’s no requirement on what model to use, and right now it’s everyone trying to figure it out,” Schildkraut said.

How lockdown drills can cause harm

Given the steady stream of anecdotal news stories about active shooter drills inspiring child fear and even employee injury lawsuits, advocates have urged more attention on whether lockdown drills provoke trauma or are even necessary. Psychologists say establishing drill standards is especially important for children, whose brains and coping strategies are still developing. Others urge more focus on preventive safety strategies, like improving mental health supports and developing anonymous tip lines for students.

Scant high-quality research exists on the mental health risks of lockdown drills, though in 2021, Georgia Tech researchers, in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, published a study analyzing social media posts before and after the drills in 114 schools across 33 states.

The researchers found the drills associated with increases in depression, stress, anxiety, and physiological health problems for students, teachers, and parents, and suggested leaders rethink schools’ reliance on them. “We provide the first empirical evidence that school shooter drills — in their current, unregulated state — negatively impact the psychological well-being of entire school communities,” the authors wrote.

Other experts say the drills may even be counterproductive, given that most school shooters tend to be current or former students of those schools. The drills might spark “socially contagious” behavior, some critics warn, or deter school leaders from making other proactive safety investments.

Alice’s methods, which include alarming simulations, have drawn particular scrutiny. But in December 2021, when a shooter murdered four students at Oxford High School in Michigan, leaders noted they had prepared for such an attack using an Alice drill two months prior. The CEO of Alice claimed Oxford would have seen dozens more deaths without the training.

One study published in 2020, led by a criminal justice professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, found roughly one in 10 students reported experiencing a negative psychological outcome following an Alice training, but over 85 percent of students said they either had no change in feeling or felt more prepared, confident, or safe. The professor who led that research — Cheryl Lero Jonson — published a study in 2018 arguing that “options-based” approaches like Alice were “more effective civilian response[s]” to active shooter incidents than traditional school lockdown drills. Critics note Lero Jonson is a certified Alice instructor and say her findings were not sufficiently independent.

Schildkraut, who primarily studies the Standard Response Protocol method, told me she would not feel comfortable saying if one model is better or worse, but that she does feel advocates of Alice-like approaches mislead the public when they suggest traditional lockdown drills don’t involve choices.

“When we train students, we don’t say this is your only option. If you’re in an open area or by an exit door, your best option is to get out of the building,” she said. “The reason why there’s a heavier focus on the lockdown as an option [and the ‘L’ in Alice stands for lockdown] is because kids remember things in a very linear fashion, and the best thing a student can do is shut the door and get out of the way.”

How to mitigate drill harm

To reduce the risk of trauma, a growing number of experts and advocates have stepped up to issue recommendations for lockdown drills.

In August 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its opposition to high-intensity active shooter drills, issuing recommendations including to eliminate deception in the exercises, and to incorporate student input in their design. The AAP recommended making accommodations for students who may have had prior traumatic experiences or are otherwise at higher risk for negative reaction.

A month later, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Everytown for Gun Safety issued their own recommendations for school safety drills, including removing students from them altogether. If students do have to participate, the teachers unions and Everytown suggest giving parents notice, eliminating simulations that mimic an actual shooting, and using age-appropriate language developed in partnership with school-based mental health staff.

In May 2021, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of School Resource Officers, and Safe and Sound Schools released their own new guidance on school lockdown drills, recommending, among other things, getting parental permission and training staff to recognize trauma signs.

And this year, partly motivated by the new Georgia Tech research, lawmakers in Washington state passed a bill prohibiting school lockdown drills from involving lifelike simulations or reenactments that are not “trauma-informed and age and developmentally appropriate.” The law takes effect in June.

Researchers say more high-quality studies are needed to understand the long-term impacts of lockdown drills and to develop more standardized approaches that could minimize risk. More leadership from the federal government would help.

Pandemic school reopenings were not just about politics

Originally published in Vox.com on May 23, 2022.
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Almost as soon as some schools reopened for in-person learning in the fall of 2020, research was suggesting a tidy, albeit dark, conclusion about why they did: politics. Early analyses indicated that Covid-19 health factors had virtually nothing to do with reopening decisions, and partisan politics could explain nearly all the variation.

There were early signs that this narrative didn’t explain the full story. If allegiance to former President Donald Trump (in schools that opened) or teacher unions (in those that stayed closed) were all that mattered, why did support for reopening schools also drop among Republican voters over the summer? And what about the conflicting recommendations coming from federal health and education departments at that time? Nevertheless, the idea that Covid-19 was not a real factor was repeated by some of the nation’s most influential journalists and media outlets, and framed as though the question was generally settled.

This is typical in policy research: Initial waves of data often attract lots of attention, and can quickly ossify into conventional wisdom. When subsequent, often deeper inquiry reveals alternative or more nuanced explanations, it tends to receive far less notice.

That’s what’s been happening with research into school closures. More recent studies have found that, far from being irrelevant, Covid-19 indicators were among central factors predicting whether schools would reopen.

Researchers say they also still haven’t fully understood how other factors — like school governance and parent preferences — influenced Covid-19 school decisions. A new study, published recently by two education researchers from George Mason University, replicates some earlier findings and explores new potential variables. All in all, it continues adding to a picture that’s more complex than the early analyses suggested.

This debate might seem moot: Schools have been back to in-person learning this school year, and parents largely report satisfaction with their child’s progress. But the consequences of these decisions continue to linger. Many educators say things have not yet returned to normalEmpirical research suggests some of the most negative academic effects were experienced disproportionately by low-income students and students of color. Moreover, future pandemics remain a threat, and district leaders may one day again be charged with navigating similar circumstances.

A new study reinforces that school opening decisions were complicated

The narrative that school reopening decisions were all about politics coalesced early. One of the first pieces of evidence came from a Brookings Institution blog post published in July 2020, where senior fellow Jon Valant found “no relationship” between school districts’ reopening plans and their per-capita Covid-19 cases, but a strong one between districts’ plans and county-level support for Trump in the 2016 election. The implication was that communities that take their cues from then-President Trump were more willing to resume in-person instruction.

Additional research emerged in the following months reiterating that health concerns were not a significant factor. “We find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making,” concluded political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger in an October 2020 analysis.

But as time passed, and more schools reopened, the picture grew more complicated. A July 2021 analysis compared fall 2020 reopening factors to those in spring 2021. Tulane economists Douglas Harris and Daniel Oliver found Covid-19 rates were one significant predictor of fall school reopening. Over time, the role of both politics and health factors declined, Harris and Oliver observed, while the demographics of a given community remained a strong predictor throughout the year. (This was knotty, they note, given the “close interplay between demographics, parental work situations, and COVID health risks.”)

The latest addition to the research literature was published this month by two George Mason professors, Matthew Steinberg and David Houston. Their working paper — which has not yet been peer-reviewed — affirmed some of the core findings of earlier studies: Higher rates of in-person instruction during fall 2020 occurred in areas with weaker unions and that leaned Republican, and rates of Covid-19 were correlated with reopening decisions.

The new paper looks at how factors predicting in-person schooling changed over the course of the 2021-21 academic year. Covid-19 case and death rates, political partisanship, and teacher union strength became “less potent predictors” over time. As the year stretched on, Steinberg and Houston also observed that communities with a history of higher standardized test scores grew significantly more likely to reopen school buildings than their lower-achieving counterparts.

“This pattern may help us understand the widening test score gaps that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic,” they write.

Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University who was involved in a study that found local school district decisions were heavily tied to political partisanship and union strength, called Houston and Steinberg’s study “great” — and noted the importance of replication in policy research.

While her own research found school reopening to be less tied to Covid-19 severity, she said there was still a relationship to Covid-19 rates observed in some aspects of their model.

Harris told Vox he agreed with the new working paper’s conclusions — that reopening was about more than just politics — which largely mirrored his prior research. He also praised the new study for tracking how factors that seemed to drive in-person instruction changed over time. “That was novel and interesting and important,” Harris said.

Steinberg and Houston’s study leveraged county-level data from a private firm, Burbio, which tracked in-person and virtual learning for nearly half of all public school students during the pandemic. Covid-19 case and death rates, and partisanship measured by presidential vote share, are also all reported at the county level. Most counties, however, contain multiple school districts, which is why other researchers have preferred a school district-level analysis.

“There are a lot of analytic choices that go into descriptive analyses of imperfect data, and we do not have a strong bone to pick with the other studies,” Steinberg told Vox, but emphasized that many of these minor choices can have “nontrivial implications” for interpreting results.

Brad Marianno, an education policy researcher at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told Vox he is skeptical of Burbio’s ability to accurately capture in-person instruction rates, and thought a school district-level analysis (like one he published earlier this year) would have been better than a county-level approach. Still, he praised the new paper, including for performing its analysis over time. “We need multiple efforts at the question, especially efforts that employ similar and different datasets and measures, to really triangulate a data-driven answer,” he said.

Sarah Cohodes, a Columbia University economist who has studied pandemic differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, said there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to measuring by county or school-district levels. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she told me, though she reiterated that it depends on the research question.

Local support for teachers may have made it easier to reopen schools

One of the most novel elements of Steinberg and Houston’s study is their suggestion of a previously unexplored factor predicting in-person instruction: local support for teachers. Using multiple surveys with different sampling strategies and question wordings, the George Mason professors found that pre-pandemic support for increases in educator pay was consistently associated with higher rates of in-person instruction during the pandemic. In other words, areas where the public was more supportive of raises for teachers were also more likely to have in-person learning.

Other education policy scholars told Vox they’d need more time to consider that connection. Reckhow called it “a really intriguing result” but one that left her with “many questions” about the underlying mechanisms that might explain the finding. “Without more information, it’s hard for me to develop a fully satisfactory explanation,” she said.

Steinberg stressed that what he sees as so “revelatory” about this finding, which was based on data from two different nationally representative surveys, is that it suggests to him there was something about communities that valued their teachers more highly that potentially made it easier for schools to open for in-person learning.

“Some of these little p-politics in communities matter, and whether or not there is preexisting trust could make the logistical complexity of reopening manageable for leaders or unmanageable,” he said.

As time marches on, it can be easy to forget just how acute the uncertainty was for school administrators during the 2020-21 school year, particularly before vaccines were available. Everything looks crisper in hindsight. But given the tremendous implications for students, schools, and families — and that administrators may one day again find themselves in similar positions — researchers will likely study those decisions for years to come.

Breaking the Cycle

Originally published in Suffolk University Magazine‘s spring 2022 issue.

When Boston’s new mayor Michelle Wu announced in early December her decision to move people living in tent encampments at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard into nearby transitional housing, she stressed the city would deploy a “public health and housing-first approach.” The goal: Develop a sustainable strategy so that those living in tents would no longer need to return. As many as 140 people were living in the encampment, most of them contending with addiction, mental illness, or both.

Over the next few weeks, city teams vacated individuals from the area—an effort blasted by some homeless advocates as intimidating and reckless, and praised by others who felt the city had to take humane action before winter arrived. Meanwhile, an interdisciplinary team of Suffolk University faculty—all women, and experts in law, policy, sociology, criminal justice, and related disciplines—and several likeminded researchers and social workers were following the mayor’s moves closely. The group had first joined forces in early 2021 under the banner of the Women and Incarceration Project (WIP) to oppose construction of a new women’s prison in Massachusetts. This time, the group came out in support of Wu’s Mass and Cass plan, as the first of many steps needed to break the cycle that places so many women who lack housing at increased risk for incarceration. What was needed, the group argued, is an approach that addresses the fundamental human rights issues that underlie homelessness and incarceration.

WIP members met with public officials. They wrote op-eds. They published resources outlining what a safe move from the encampment could look like. Any housing plan, they argued, must include more than just a roof overhead. It must also provide the support needed to rebuild relationships, manage healthcare, and pursue educational and work goals. Above all, the Suffolk professors stressed, the formerly homeless need to know they’re not one small mistake away from eviction.

LIVING ON A KNIFE’S EDGE

Susan Sered, chair of Suffolk’s Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, understands how minor missteps can cascade into catastrophic outcomes—particularly for women.

Consider the case, she says, of a woman living in transitional housing who has no car but must travel miles to meet with her probation officer. Should she beg a ride from her abusive ex-partner who is still using opioids, putting her safety and sobriety at risk? Perhaps she’ll be forced to trade sexual favors for the bus fare that amounts to almost one-tenth of her monthly disability income. Or she could skip the meeting, triggering an automatic revocation of her parole. Any of these options could erase the progress she’s made to get her life and family relationships back in order, and send her back into the vortex of the criminal justice system.

Sered says these kinds of impossible choices are so common among the women she studies that whenever she provides an incentive for involvement, they always request the same thing: a transit pass. Such a basic need is easily overlooked, but addressing it is key to helping those who live on the knife’s edge between independence and institutionalization.

“On the face of it, the tent encampment at Mass and Cass is not a women and incarceration issue,” Sered says. “But when you dig a little deeper, you find out that many of those women have standing warrants and open cases. So in the process of moving them out, some of them were actually whisked off to the counties in which they have open cases.”

Sered is one of the co-founders of the Women and Incarceration Project, which seeks to educate policymakers, journalists, and the general public on issues affecting the 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women jumped by more than 700% nationally, according to The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based think tank.

“We believe that empirical research is a powerful tool for opposing the U.S. epidemic of incarceration,” the group states on its website.

APPLYING A HUMAN RIGHTS FRAMEWORK

WIP is housed at Suffolk’s Center for Women’s Health & Human Rights, which was founded in 2003 by Amy Agigian, an associate professor of sociology and the center’s director. When viewed through a health and human rights framework, she says, seemingly intractable policy issues like homelessness and women’s incarceration can yield very different approaches and solutions. “We look at the failure of the state to fulfill people’s human rights as a fundamental cause of a lot of the problems,” she explains.

For Agigian, these human rights include not only familiar freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution but also things like access to healthcare, housing, and poverty relief. Many incarcerated women, she adds, are mothers. “So when they get sent away,” she says, “that has a profound impact on children.”

While many more men are imprisoned nationwide, how women experience incarceration often differs from men, and so helping those women often necessitates different strategies. For example, a higher percentage of incarcerated women struggle with substance use than men (potentially related to the fact that women are more likely to receive prescription medication). Indeed, drug-related arrests of women increased 216% over the past decade, compared to a 48% increase for men. Incarcerated women also report significantly higher rates of abuse, chronic illness, and mental health challenges than incarcerated men and nonincarcerated women. “What people find most surprising is that almost all incarcerated women have been victims of violence in their lives,” Sered says. “And for women, the strongest predictor of incarceration later in life is to have been a victim of childhood sexual abuse.”

WIP includes transgender women in its research, Agigian says, “because trans women go through the same kinds of life experiences as any other women, and may be even more likely to have traumatic experiences and be victimized than other women.”

AN INCARCERATION ‘POLICY WINDOW’

Massachusetts is an interesting state for a project like this to launch: While the growth rate for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980, over the last decade the Bay State has seen a steady decline in the number of incarcerated women. As of 2019, Massachusetts had the lowest incarceration rate of females in the country.

But Massachusetts is also home to MCI-Framingham, the second-oldest women’s prison in the U.S. When it opened in 1877, MCI-Framingham was regarded as a pioneering improvement over the carceral status quo, in which women who were jailed alongside men regularly faced violence and sexual abuse. Its early champions included feminist leaders like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross. But nearly 150 years later, the facility stands in disrepair, and in early 2020 the Massachusetts Department of Correction announced it would close the prison by 2024. State officials said they would build a new “trauma-informed” and “therapeutic” prison for women, at an estimated cost of $50 million—even though fewer than 200 women are currently incarcerated at MCI-Framingham.

WIP researchers saw this moment as an opportunity to lend their multidisciplinary expertise, and began advocating against the construction of a new women’s prison. Local activists with Families for Justice as Healing, a Boston-based grassroots organization, were already fighting back against the state’s proposed plan, holding rallies and filing transparency complaints.

Central to WIP’s case is the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of prison-based mental health or trauma treatment programs. Instead, the researchers argue that for a fraction of the cost both to incarcerate women annually and to construct a new facility, lawmakers could redirect resources to strategies actually proven to help, such as secure housing. They have also advocated for strategies that would release a large majority of the over 160 women currently held at MCI-Framingham under existing state policies, and for several pending bills in the Legislature that could decarcerate the state even further.

Rachael Cobb, chair of the Political Science & Legal Studies Department, and a political scientist involved in the project, calls this moment an incarceration “policy window” because so many people and institutions are talking about criminal justice from different perspectives—from police commissioners raising alarms about crime, to Black Lives Matter activists calling out patterns of systemic racism, to progressive district attorneys advocating for bail reform.

“We have an opportunity to get out there, because this is a time when op-eds can make a big difference,” Cobb says. “I think people are receptive to the kind of public airing of ideas and sharing of information about incarceration in a way they might not have been a few years ago.”

COMMUNITY-BASED, COMMUNITY-INSPIRED SOLUTIONS

Many Americans have spent little time thinking about incarcerated women, beyond watching Netflix’s award-winning comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black. WIP scholars say a lot of their time is spent trying to simply educate the public and correct misconceptions. “Women who have criminal records really, really struggle to get jobs,” says Sered, who has been following the same cohort of women released from MCI-Framingham for more than a decade.

While men with criminal records face barriers to employment too, they typically find success in jobs, such as furniture moving, that don’t involve client-facing work. Child care, education, and working with the sick and elderly are all typically female-dominated professions, but can be very hard for women with criminal records to access or re-enter.

Over the next year, WIP plans to disseminate its research further, and expand its work with more local community organizations, activists, and legislators. Some ideas they suggest to reduce incarceration include decriminalizing pain-reducing substances and sex work, and having well-trained and resourced medics and social workers on mobile crisis-intervention teams, instead of police, respond to mental health emergency calls.

Suffolk University Law School Professor Erin Braatz, who works in the areas of criminal law and penal reform, says one goal of the WIP effort is to expand the conversation about what exactly punishment should look like in the 21st century. “To even have a hearing in front of the legislature where people are invited to share their ideas on that question would be a success,” she says. What makes the Women and Incarceration Project both unique and valuable, Braatz says, is that it’s “based in the community, and attempting to reckon with a problem that can only truly be addressed through learning from and collaborating with members of that community.”

Then again, she adds, working together on a local level to respond to the needs of the community has long been a Suffolk strength. “I truly believe that real criminal justice reform can only be achieved through these types of local-level projects,” Braatz says. “For that reason, Suffolk is ideally positioned to play a role in shaping these debates and conversations and moving them forward.”

The leaders involved in the effort say they feel lucky to work for a university that values this kind of public engagement, and that encourages scholarly activity beyond the realm of academic publishing. “This work is actually respected at Suffolk,” Sered says. “Nothing that I write is just for academic journals alone. We’re all really committed to getting this research out into the world.”

The abortion provider that Republicans are struggling to stop

Originally published in Vox on May 7, 2022.
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In 2018, more than two decades after Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts first became an activist to deliver abortion pills around the world, she turned to the United States. For years she had dedicated her life to working in countries where the procedure was illegal, and was firm in her refusal to avoid the US, where safe, legalized access was still available. “I think this is a problem the US has to solve itself,” she explained in 2014.

But following the election of President Donald Trump, the desperate requests she received from Americans went up, and the cost barriers in the US were glaring.

So Gomperts launched a new nonprofit organization based in Austria — Aid Access — with the goal of providing affordable and accessible abortion services to people in the US.

Over the past four years, Aid Access says it has delivered abortion medication — mifepristone and misoprostol — to more than 30,000 Americans across all 50 states, including the 19 conservative states that currently ban telemedicine abortion.

The organization plays a unique role in the US reproductive rights ecosystem by successfully exploiting legal loopholes that make it easier for an overseas doctor to care for American patients in restrictive states — a role that could become even more key if Roe v. Wade is struck down.

If the right to an abortion does get overturned, Aid Access staff say they feel confident their services could continue, in the same way they’ve been able to operate in red states that have barred other abortion groups.

So what’s the catch?

For now, the biggest one may be the big tech platforms. Aid Access needs to spread awareness about its services, and quickly. The pills, when shipped from overseas, can take two to three weeks to arrive, and Aid Access prescribes the two medications up to the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. But because it operates outside the formal US health care system, Aid Access says it has been penalized by search engines and social media giants that have tried to tackle the spread of Covid-19 misinformation.

Aid Access still pops up on Google if you search the organization’s name, but most users had come to the site while searching for terms like “abortion by mail” and “abortion pills.” Following a series of algorithm updates beginning in May 2020, Aid Access says it no longer shows up in top results for general medication abortion searches — and that ads from its sister organization, Women on Web, which serves countries all over the world, are frequently removed or rejected from Facebook and Instagram for dubious reasons, like “language … that is likely to offend users.”

Republicans might not be able to stop Aid Access right now, but it appears that Silicon Valley can.

How Aid Access works

The Aid Access model goes like this: If you need an abortion, you fill out an online consultation form. If you’re early enough in your pregnancy and deemed eligible, then you’re referred to a provider. People living in the country’s more liberal states and Washington, DC, are referred to a US-based provider who fills prescriptions that ship typically in two or three days. For women living in the 31 states that Aid Access counts as having tighter abortion restrictions, Gomperts sends the prescriptions to a pharmacist in India, who then mails the pills directly to patients in the US. (Aid Access chooses India in part because the country produces regulated, high-quality generics, Gomperts has said.)

Gomperts and the women she prescribes pills for operate in something of a legal gray area. As a result of being registered to practice medicine in Austria, she is subject to Austrian law, and therefore exempt from specific rules and regulations affecting doctors in the US, like state requirements for ultrasounds or 72-hour waiting periods. And while personal imports of drugs from other countries are usually against US law, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said it generally avoids going after individuals who bring medicines in for personal use.

It’s a model Gomperts developed first in 2005 with Aid Access’s older sister organization. Since its founding, Women on Web says it has delivered abortion pills to more than 100,000 women across the world, reaching pregnant patients in countries with restrictive laws, like Sudan, Hungary, and Brazil. In 2018, Gomperts set up Aid Access under a separate corporate structure, to serve the US while protecting Women on Web from the aggressive US anti-abortion movement.

Activists note that medication abortion is far safer than many painkillers easily purchased over the counter, and the World Health Organization maintains that individuals can self-administer the drugs without direct supervision of a health care provider during their first trimester. New Lancet research published in February affirmed the safety of the Aid Access model, which also provides the medication at significantly lower cost than in-person surgical abortions or even the new crop of US startups like Hey JaneAbortion on Demand, and Carafem.

Aid Access says its work will continue in a post-Roe environment, and that requests for pills and information tripled in the wake of Monday’s leaked Roe opinion draft.

Christie Pitney, a midwife who fills prescriptions for Aid Access patients in California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and DC, said that while patients in some states with trigger bans may have to switch from US-based providers like Pitney to Gomperts, Aid Access will keep serving them. “We’ll still be here,” she said.

“We’re pretty nonplussed, to be honest,” Pitney told Vox. “I don’t see a route [to stopping us]. It’s not to say that it’s impossible, I just don’t see a route for politicians to eliminate access to Aid Access; they just don’t have the jurisdiction to criminalize an international doctor.”

Other international doctors could also join Aid Access if Roe were struck down to help Gomperts prescribe the abortion pills, though she told Vox that thus far she has not been approached by any physicians.

A struggle for internet traffic

Despite the unique strategy Aid Access and Women on Web deploy, over the past two years, the organizations say they have been fighting against search engine algorithms that deprioritize their services, and opaque social media policies that limit or block their posts.

Earlier this year, in an interview with the New York Review of Books, Gomperts said that “the algorithms of Google are suddenly becoming the de facto gatekeeper to access to safe abortion services in the US.” When Google set out to correct Covid-19 misinformation and started elevating more health sites that were officially government-sanctioned, Gomperts said it had the side effect of demoting sites like hers.

Searches like “abortion by mail” and “online abortion” no longer led users to Gomperts’s groups, she says. Women on Web, for example, says it saw a 90 percent drop in daily global traffic after Google rolled out a new update on May 4, 2020. A subsequent update brought back some of what had disappeared, doubling its now-minuscule traffic, but then a third algorithmic update six months later took 40 percent of what remained. “We’re back to pretty low,” said Venny Ala-Siurua, the executive director.

Ala-Siurua told Vox that deprioritization in internet search results remains one of their biggest barriers. Google “keep[s] pushing up traditional health providers, brick-and-mortar clinics, but they’re missing what’s happening in the digital world today,” she said. “The algorithm is not neutral. It was built and written usually by white men in the Bay Area who might not really be in tune with what the needs are here.”

Aid Access isn’t alleging Google is intentionally restricting access to its site specifically, but Gomperts told the New York Review of Books that they might eventually launch a lawsuit over this. “The algorithms are making it much harder to find the places where you can obtain these medicines,” she said. “That is what people don’t realize: It’s Google that is filtering people’s access to information.”

Lara Levin, a Google spokesperson, told Vox that their search ranking systems “are designed to return relevant results from the most reliable sources, and on critical topics related to health matters, we place an even greater emphasis on signals of reliability.” Levin added that no update is made to benefit or penalize any one site. “We give site owners and content producers ample notice of relevant updates along with actionable guidance,” she said.

The Facebook and Instagram accounts for Women on Web have had spending restrictions placed on them for more than a year, after their ads were flagged or hidden by other users who oppose their work or who found their content “to be offensive … violent, [or] about a sensitive topic.” Some of their ads for medication abortion have also been rejected, with rationales like “Ads must not promote the sale or use of unsafe supplements, as determined by Facebook in its sole discretion.” One Women on Web Instagram post that read, “You can now order abortion pills BEFORE you are pregnant,” and included a link for advanced provision was taken down for not following “community guidelines.”

A Women on Web Instagram post that was taken down this spring for not following “community guidelines.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on the Women on Web ads specifically, but pointed Vox to company policies from Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) including ad prohibitions for direct sales of prescription drugs, and for ads promoting reproductive health products or services to people under age 18. In November 2021, Facebook also announced it would remove ad targeting options for topics people may perceive as “sensitive” — including health-related causes.

But at least one of the examples Women on Web showed Vox — the one about ordering pills before you’re pregnant — wasn’t an ad. It was a regular post to the group’s Instagram profile that they didn’t pay to amplify or target.

The algorithmic battles playing out reflect broader challenges faced by tech companies, which are under pressure to crack down on misinformation and propaganda and to take clearer stands on polarized political issues that users may be researching. The last few years have also brought greater attention to the ways in which machine learning and AI more broadly can reflect bias and discrimination, even while purporting to be objective and neutral.

“We have to be careful not to frame questions as one of adapting to technology,” said David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University who has studied anti-vaccination communities online. “The technology is out in the world, so we should ask how to remake technology so we can achieve goals that are of best benefit to society.”

Aid Access has withstood legal challenges, so far

Aid Access has faced one regulatory challenge, in 2019, when the FDA sent the group a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that its generic mifepristone drug represented a “misbranded and unapproved” drug that posed risk to consumers. (The FDA approved one brand of mifepristone, Mifeprex, in 2000, and in 2019 approved a generic version.)

Aid Access, in turn, sued the FDA, alleging the agency was impeding Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion and that its drugs were, in fact, approved. Aid Access also maintained that the FDA had no legal jurisdiction over Gomperts. The case was dismissed in part because the FDA never took action following its letter.

The Biden administration has taken a friendly stance toward medication abortion, but a change in the White House in 2024 or beyond could mean new challenges from the FDA or other agencies. Legal threats against Aid Access without the constitutional protection of Roe might make things even more complicated.

Anti-abortion activists and lawmakers have been ramping up their efforts to crack down on abortion pills, an unsurprising development given that medication abortion accounted for 54 percent of all US abortions in 2020. In 2022 alone, according to the Guttmacher Institute, lawmakers in 22 states have introduced new legislation to restrict the drugs.

Rather than punish those who seek abortions, the slew of anti-abortion laws introduced over the past decade has targeted physicians, clinics, and anyone else who helps to “aid and abet” someone who has an abortion, as Texas’s recent ban put it. Abortion activists have worried about the criminalization of patients, but so far efforts have been limited and largely unsuccessful.

Whether any of these new laws could affect Aid Access’s operations or the patients who seek out its services remains an outstanding question. It’s hard to know what abortion access in the US will look like in a year, or five.

But for Americans seeking to end their pregnancies now — whether they live in red states with heavy abortion restrictions or in blue states with more liberal laws but heavy financial barriers — Aid Access represents a lifeline. If they can find it.

Can the expanded child tax credit come back from the dead?

Originally published in Vox on April 28, 2022.
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Advocates for an expanded child tax credit (CTC) did not expect to be in this situation.

A year ago, when Congress passed an expanded version of the policy that’s been around with bipartisan backing since 1997, some 35 million parents across the US began to see hundreds of dollars land in their bank accounts every month — money that they could spend however they saw fit.

Economists and policy experts hailed the program, which, passed as part of Biden’s pandemic relief package, gave families the resources to buy household essentials like food, gas, and educational supplies. Researchers found little evidence that the new payments had discouraged parents from working, a perennial concern from opponents of welfare assistance. Within just six months, researchers estimated the expanded CTC payments had reduced the child poverty rate by 30 percent.

The new policy wasn’t perfect — even the expanded program wasn’t reaching America’s poorest parents, and about 1 million people opted out to avoid a smaller refund or higher tax bill come April. But the more robust CTC nevertheless led to a stunning drop in poverty, a long-term crisis that leaders often describe as intractable.

Yet, as Senate Democrats debated President Joe Biden’s $1.8 trillion spending package, the Build Back Better Act, December came and went, and with it the deadline to extend the expanded CTC. By January, the monthly payments expired, just as inflation was inching up. Though the CTC was only funded for one year, Democrats had been optimistic that if they could just seed the generous program, then they would amass the kind of political support that makes a popular subsidy hard to repeal.

“We were shocked,” said Otis Rolley, a senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, who has been leading a coalition of groups to support the policy. “We really did think as American families were getting this credit, we really thought that December would come around and, based on the desire of their constituents, this would be made permanent.”

Democratic leadership could not reach a compromise with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) that would address his concerns about the child tax credit. Moreover, Democrats weren’t willing to separate the CTC from Build Back Better to negotiate it independently, seeing it as important leverage to the broader package. BBB talks collapsed in December; the White House’s disconnect with Manchin overextending the CTC played a major role.

Now, four months later, the window to save the expanded CTC has narrowed. Manchin seems to be souring on a Democrats-only bill passed through the budget reconciliation process. And there are competing priorities on the congressional to-do list — including more Ukraine assistance and a China competition bill — to get through before summer recess and the midterm elections.

Among CTC advocates both outside and within Congress, there’s a quiet, almost paralyzing crisis playing out these days behind the scenes: Should they keep pushing for an expansion that meets all their top criteria, and fight for every child, or do they make clear what they’d be willing to compromise on and hopefully get something through reconciliation or on a bipartisan basis?

In the fall and winter, advocates took a hard line — there was no appetite to negotiate over a less ambitious CTC. One leader involved in a large coalition of groups mobilizing for the CTC, who requested anonymity for fear of getting his organization booted from the coalition, told Vox their fellow activists erred, making “a giant miscalculation that we had nothing to lose if we held out for more.”

“Because we couldn’t help everybody at once, we’re helping nobody,” they added.

In addition to the practical time constraints, congressional leaders, Biden, and even CTC advocates are now struggling to act, or even grapple with how political conditions have changed since December. Republicans, for their part, have little interest in helping Democrats ahead of the midterms, and as much as Democrats and activists say the expiration of the CTC payments presents an urgent political crisis, they also face incentives that encourage them to do nothing.

To insist their hands are tied and it’s all Manchin’s fault, it turns out, is the path of least resistance.

Can CTC advocates pivot?

It’s worth understanding how negotiations over the important program broke down last year because many of the dynamics haven’t changed.

In November 2021, the House of Representatives passed Biden’s $1.8 trillion BBB package, which included a one-year expansion of the CTC. But in the Senate, Manchin raised three main objections that held up the legislation.

The first: The West Virginia senator opposed the number of affluent families who could claim the credit (an upper income limit of $400,000 set originally by Republicans). He also disliked the one-year extension proposal, rightfully suspecting many of its backers wanted to make the CTC permanent down the road, and he worried about that cost. Perhaps most significantly, Manchin made clear that he wanted to reinstate a work requirement for the CTC, something hotly opposed by many Democrats who recognized this would once again exclude some of the poorest households from claiming the credit’s full value.

Coming back from the winter holiday, leading Senate supporters of the expanded child tax credit vowed to keep fighting, insisting a path through reconciliation was still there. Yet it was clear the fight, at the very least, had changed. Manchin previously indicated he was open to a deal on BBB between $1.5 trillion and $1.8 trillion, but since he opposed including temporary provisions, Democrats had to wrestle with the fact that a decade expansion of the CTC could eat up at least $1.4 trillion of their wiggle room.

Biden began signaling that his hopes had dimmed on Congress passing a CTC extension through reconciliation, which would require all 50 Democrats to pass. In a January press conference, the president said he was confident “we can get pieces — big chunks — of the Build Back Better” package signed into law, but conspicuously omitted mention of the CTC as one of those pieces.

Yet Biden resisted declaring his CTC vision dead. This has allowed many advocates to cling to the belief that it’s in fact alive. In some ways it’s a shrewd tactic from the president; if Biden did come out and say what most experts believe at this point to be true, he could face intense criticism from his base for giving up or failing.

Indeed, there have been dozens of state, local, and national groups organizing for the expanded child tax credit — some through coalitions like the aforementioned Rockefeller-led one, and through another called the ABC Coalition, led by the national Children’s Defense Fund. For the last year these umbrella groups have largely adopted the same strategy: Hold the line on maximal inclusion for poor and non-working families, spread awareness about the research studies showing the CTC reforms made a meaningful difference in 2021, and ramp up pressure tactics on Manchin, like highlighting how many children — including some 50,000 from West Virginia — could slip into poverty without the extension.

Plus, new polls were coming out that showed not reinstating the payments could hurt Democrats politically. One Morning Consult/Politico poll, released in February, found that 75 percent of voters who received the expanded credit said the halted payments affected their financial security. Another survey released by the left-leaning Data for Progress and Groundwork Collaborative found that likely voters had lost trust in Democrats to support families with children when they heard the expanded CTC had expired.

Armed with all this data, advocates maintained, Manchin would surely come around. But as April nears its end, negotiations over a new reconciliation bill have yet to even start. Within the advocacy coalitions, some have started to quietly grumble that maybe it’s time to rethink their strategy for the first time in over a year.

But groups that break from the consensus position do so at their own risk. In early February, Patrick Gaspard, the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, published a memo where he dared to say the quiet part out loud: “It is abundantly clear that the Build Back Better Act that passed the House has no path to becoming law,” he wrote. Still, Gaspard argued, it’s not too late to get something meaningful through, and he outlined three areas — lowering health care costs, tackling the climate crisis, and lowering child care expenses through investments like universal pre-K — as places where lawmakers could likely agree to a deal. The CTC was notably not listed. “Let’s be disciplined, pass a package where there is a way forward,” Gaspard wrote.

While the Center for American Progress had been an active member of the ABC Coalition for the last year, following Gaspard’s memo, the coalition voted to boot the think tank from their group. In a March email reviewed by Vox, their steering committee wrote “while members are free to advocate for outside priorities and even alternative child allowance proposals, we determined that CAP’s decision to put their full weight behind a legislative plan that forecloses the possibility of extending the CTC violated this coalition’s working agreement.”

The ABC Coalition did not return requests for comment, but Seth Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me they didn’t mean to say they should stop fighting for a child tax credit. “The purpose of the memo was the sharpen Democrats’ focus and essentially say don’t fumble this opportunity that exists,” he said.

Chuck Marr, the vice president for Federal Tax Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, another liberal think tank, told me advocates like him should stay focused on a potential Senate reconciliation bill to pass some type of expanded CTC. “Making laws is always uncertain,” Marr said. “You want to explore any possible path to provide this crucial support that will help low-income families … [and] first, you should pursue the immediate path as aggressively as you can. If you don’t get it then look at other strategies.”

It’s ultimately about elected leadership, not activists

If advocates really want to pass reforms to the child tax credit, some within the CTC coalitions have quietly suggested their groups clarify what compromises they’d be willing to accept, and make clear to lawmakers that they’d publicly support those who fought for such compromises.

These were lessons learned by environmental and health care advocates who came close to passing universal health coverage under President Bill Clinton and cap-and-trade under President Barack Obama, only for it to end in a massive defeat. One CTC advocate, speaking on the condition of anonymity, observed that since the broad “care coalition” that has mobilized over the last few years for policies including the CTC, universal home care, universal pre-K, and paid family leave has never really experienced a comparable legislative defeat, they’ve never had to critically reflect on their strategy.

“Defeat sharpens the mind,” they said. “Rather than figure out how to do a work requirement that was tiny enough that you could get the most amount of families covered, they’ve instead insisted on doing pressure tactics that we’ve seen do not work with Manchin.” The advocate said this dynamic speaks to progressives’ “obsession with getting the language perfect rather than getting the policy changed.” Allowing Manchin to tell his largely conservative constituents that he was restoring a work requirement, for example, could give Democrats room to then craft the tiniest work requirement possible.

Most organizations say it’s simply not their job to advocate a compromise — that they should push for the most inclusive policy for as long as they can. And to an extent, it certainly makes sense why predominantly progressive groups would not be willing to entertain, let alone craft, a settlement deal.

While most compromise proposals would keep the new monthly payments for at least 80 percent of beneficiaries, the families with the lowest incomes that likely would have been hit are largely represented by these advocacy organizations.

Activists are completely right that it’s the job of elected officials to negotiate an agreement, though the reality is that Democrats will face less backlash from advocacy groups if they don’t reach a deal with Manchin than if they do. Any pared-down deal will inevitably be blasted by allies, and the message senators are hearing from activists is to hold the line.

One of the few advocacy groups that have been pushing for a compromise has been Humanity Forward, founded as an offshoot of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign.

Greg Nasif, the group’s political director, told me he thinks that while lawmakers who negotiate a compromise would at first “face resistance” from activists and members within their party, “in the long term they would be celebrated for finding a way to get this program restarted.”

It’s also possible that it’s too late for a deal to be struck through reconciliation. Though Samantha Runyon, a spokesperson for Manchin, told me her boss “continues to support policies that reward hard-working families as the effects of costly inflation taxes strain their budgets,” she also said Manchin believes “any change to our social safety nets should move through regular order.” On Monday, Manchin met with Republicans to discuss a bipartisan energy package, raising new questions of whether a Democratic social spending bill remains on the table at all.

I asked four of the leading Democratic CTC champions in the Senate — Michael Bennet of Colorado, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — if they were prepared to push for compromises with Manchin to reach a deal, and what such compromises might look like if so.

Wyden was the clearest in saying yes, though he declined to get into details, citing sensitivities of the negotiations. “I’ve said since December that I would be willing to make changes to get Senator Manchin on board,” he told me. “We need his vote. There’s no way around it. There have been many conversations along those lines in an effort to make progress.”

Brown reiterated to me the importance of extending the CTC expansion to cope with rising costs. “I’ll keep working with all of my colleagues until an extension of the expanded CTC is signed into law,” he said.

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Warnock’s office didn’t return a request for comment, though the senator had publicly refused the notion of a work requirement for a CTC deal back in February.

Bennet’s position — if you read between the lines — was the most revealing. While he has indicated multiple times that he’s open to lowering the CTC’s upper income threshold (one of Manchin’s priorities, and one that would mean an effective tax increase on the wealthiest beneficiaries), Bennet has continued to distance himself from Manchin’s top demand for a work requirement, and cast the West Virginia senator as the sole obstacle to an extension.

“Nothing would make me happier than doing the right thing and passing a reconciliation bill that lifts millions of children out of poverty, ” he told me. “There is an opportunity in reconciliation, but whether there are 50 votes is a real question. It is likely given that recalcitrance of some people in the caucus — or maybe one person in the caucus — that the path for a permanent solution is going to have to be bipartisan, and I’ve been having good discussions about that over many months.”

Yet a work requirement is a top condition for virtually the entire Republican caucus.

How realistic is a bipartisan deal?

Convincing just one Democrat to get on board through reconciliation seems easier than striking a deal with at least 10 or 11 Republicans, but calls to look across the aisle have grown louder in recent weeks as negotiations for a social spending bill stall. This case was made most prominently in the New York Times earlier this month by Samuel Hammond, the director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank. Hammond argued that working on a bipartisan basis was “the most viable path forward” and that there are “plenty of reasons to believe” the bipartisanship demonstrated around the infrastructure bill could be replicated for the CTC.

Any compromise, he wrote, would need to balance Republicans’ commitment to having some connection to work and earnings with Democrats’ commitment to maximal inclusion for low-income people.

Hammond floated the idea of providing an unconditional monthly benefit to parents of young children — those parents with higher poverty rates and upfront expenses — along with a larger credit tied to work for parents of school-age children. “An unconditional child benefit for infants is unlikely to face serious Republican opposition,” he predicted.

Part of the case for bipartisan compromise is rooted in how much movement there’s been within the Republican Party on family policy over the last five years. Back in 2017, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) drew scorn from conservatives when he threatened to vote against the Trump tax bill if his party wouldn’t agree to an amendment he sponsored with Mike Lee to increase the child tax credit.

“I think people really forget the resistance to the CTC expansion in 2017,” said Wells King, the research director at American Compass, a center-right think tank. “Just go back and see what the Wall Street Journal editorial board was posting at the time, all these arguments about why we shouldn’t have specific tax breaks for families.” Wells recalled one WSJ op-ed in particular that mocked the Rubio-Lee proposal derisively, suggesting Republicans instead pursue a canine tax credit to woo millennials. “I can’t fathom that kind of piece being written in today’s political environment,” King said.

Since 2017, two more GOP family policy proposals have been introduced — from Mitt Romney and from Josh Hawley. The Republican Party has also spent much of the last year mobilizing in response to Democrats’ expanded CTC, stressing how their ideas to help families — which link benefits to work — are better than Democrats’.

Even Romney, the one Republican who made waves last year for opposing a work requirement, has changed his tune.

King says Republicans’ positions are backed by public opinion research. American Compass found white, college-educated Democrats were the only demographic that expressed majority support for maintaining the expanded credit with no connection to work. Focus group research of working-class parents in southeastern Ohio, Atlanta, and San Antonio yielded similar results.

Even with this kind of data, many Democrats would be loath to agree to a work requirement that could exclude the poorest, and advocacy groups would no doubt fight against one. As a result, odds are increasing that Democrats will just wait until after the midterms, when they can blame the passage of a work requirement on Republicans taking control of Congress.

The political cost of inaction

Not being able to reach a deal on the child tax credit before the midterms could make an already grim-looking situation for Democrats worse. A survey released in early April found that among parents who received the expanded CTC, 46 percent were more likely to vote for a Republican in November, compared to 43 percent likely to back a Democrat. This divide stands in stark contrast to December, before the payments expired, when Democrats held a 12-point lead among those parents.

Even among those who do think there is room for bipartisan agreement, some experts suspect it’s unlikely to happen before November.

“I know there is an appetite to see if a deal could be struck, but I’m not sure this is the right political environment with the midterms coming up,” said King, of American Compass. Another advocate with knowledge of the CTC negotiations in Congress told me Republicans are unlikely to work on any child tax credit deal until they believe that Democrats’ reconciliation efforts are dead.

Still, Hammond argued, if Biden called a Rose Garden press conference to urge Congress to pursue a bipartisan path forward on the CTC, inviting Romney and Manchin and others to stand beside him, that would certainly add pressure to lawmakers in his party. There are political tactics the president, or congressional leaders, could still try.

For now, the legislative clock is ticking, and the easiest thing for Biden and other Democrats to do might be to insist their hands are tied because of Manchin. That’s certainly the approach Biden took last Friday when, speaking at a press conference in Auburn, Washington, he said of the child tax credit — “We lack one Democrat and 50 Republicans from keeping it from passing this time around.”

This sigh-and-blame-Manchin strategy is unlikely to face blowback from the CTC advocacy community, but families struggling with rising costs may find it aggravating to see Biden and Democrats with congressional majorities effectively giving up.

A spokesperson for the White House pointed me to Biden’s remarks from January: “The president said at his press conference that he would fight for every piece of his agenda, including what may not make it into the bill, for his whole time in office.”

How to fight the affordable housing and climate crises at once

Originally published in Vox on April 17, 2022.
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Alicia Cruz was homeless before she and her four daughters moved into a newly vacant apartment in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, about three years ago. As she stood in the kitchen and watched dirty water clog up the sink, the landlord promised he’d have it fixed before they moved in.

But it was just the beginning. The ceiling of her apartment was cracked; the heating was inadequate, so she and her daughters are usually freezing; due to water damage, they regularly deal with roaches. She’s tried to leave but couldn’t find suitable alternatives she could afford.

“If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have ran out the door and stayed homeless a little longer,” Cruz testified to Pennsylvania state lawmakers in December, later adding: “To this day, the landlord won’t fix this place, but he wants to collect my rent money. It’s just really sad.”

The nation’s affordable housing crisis has gotten some semblance of attention — with journalists writing stories on the rising cost of rent, the scarce supply of new housing, the looming threat of eviction — but one aspect of the crisis has gone consistently overlooked. On top of the severe housing shortage that currently exists, nearly 6 million homes nationwide have moderate to serious home health hazards. They require repairs that, if left ignored, will make them uninhabitable, and eventually they’ll disappear from the market altogether.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a research and advocacy group, estimates a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units for low-income renters, but those figures don’t account for all the existing affordable units that stand at risk of demolition.

Issues like lead paint, leaky roofs, and knob-and-tube wiring don’t just leave tenants and homeowners in substandard, unsafe housing. They also leave families — mostly poor families — shut out from energy efficiency programs the federal government already funds to upgrade homes. Due to inflexible program restrictions, homes with outstanding repairs aren’t eligible for existing weatherization subsidies, despite those families arguably needing them the most. Addressing this problem could help solve both the affordable housing and the climate crisis at once.

Low-income households in particular have a lot to gain from the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which provides funds to repair or replace heating and cooling systems, treat windows, or make any of the other upgrades that can not only reduce home energy use but also substantially reduce utility bills. But as it stands now, it’s people living in homes with no mold, asbestos, or structural issues who can access those WAP funds. Low-income homeowners and renters must first find the resources to fix their units, with some repairs running as high as $50,000.

The sheer number of homes barred from weatherization due to outstanding health and safety issues is immense. In Connecticut, for example, between 2017 and 2019, nearly 25 percent of income-eligible homes were barred from weatherization upgrades. Steve Luxton, who heads a nonprofit focused on helping Philadelphians weatherize their homes, told me 55 to 65 percent of those in his city who apply for WAP assistance are denied because of structural issues. And nationally, according to a recently published E4TheFuture analysis, 10 to 30 percent of income-eligible clients are deferred from weatherization upgrades each year for health and safety problems, with those deferrals on the rise.

Not being able to weatherize homes doesn’t just present cost burdens for low-income households, it also has a direct impact on the climate crisis. The energy required to cool, heat, and provide electricity to residential buildings accounts for 20 percent of annual energy use in the US, with older homes emitting more carbon.

Included in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed in November was a $3.5 billion investment in the federal weatherization program, with the stated goal to increase energy efficiency, increase health and safety, and reduce annual energy costs for low-income households. A 2015 Department of Energy evaluation of WAP found the energy efficiency upgrades it subsidized led to households saving an average of $283 per year on their bills.

The Biden administration estimates the new infusion of funds from the infrastructure bill will allow the government to help 450,000 households weatherize over a decade. But low-income homeowners and tenants will remain shut out from the new money if they aren’t able to make the repairs they need.

“There will always be a tension, saying, ‘Okay, should I spend a thousand dollars to fix that roof when I could weatherize someone else’s house now?” said Charlie Harak, senior attorney for energy and utilities issues at the National Consumer Law Center. “But I’d go so far as to say that often the houses most in need of weatherization get walked away from.”

It’s certainly not easy to come up with money for those repairs. If you’re a low-income homeowner, you would likely struggle to get an affordable home improvement loan from a bank. You may have less than optimal credit, and depending on where your house is located, the house itself may have low equity. If you’re a renter, your landlord probably feels little pressure to make your unit energy efficient, given that it’s tenants, not the property owners, who typically shoulder the electricity and gas bills.

According to US census data, low-income households spent an average of 8.1 percent of their income on energy costs, compared to 2.3 percent for wealthier households. It’s not uncommon for poor families to pull back on other expenses, like medicine, groceries, or child care to cover their energy bills.

Jeff Genzer, who has served as counsel for the National Association of State Energy Officials since 1986, told me the intersection of housing and energy issues is one of the most difficult problems he’s worked on in his career. Steve Cowell, executive director of E4TheFuture and a longtime energy efficiency advocate, said the problem originates from treating health and safety issues as a footnote.

“The whole energy efficiency world that developed over the last 30 years was focused on pieces of the puzzle, and primarily the costs and benefits of energy on an economic dollar basis,” he said. “The health, safety, and conditions of a home has just been seen in the background, a side deal.”

Experts like Cowell have been trying to urge attention on the so-called “non-energy impacts” of weatherization, such as reduced asthma, reduced missed days of work, and fewer home fires. One evaluation published in 2016 assessed that each weatherized Massachusetts housing unit yielded an estimated $1,381 in combined savings to the individual household and society, with some of those savings coming from literally preventing deaths.

The climate crisis has made this harder to ignore

When the energy efficiency movement got its start in the 1970s following the oil crisis, talk of reducing carbon emissions was simply not a salient consideration for policymakers and practitioners, and wouldn’t become one for years.

But as the stakes of the climate crisis have grown clearer, the last 10 years have marked a sea change for the energy efficiency movement. While in prior decades policymakers could ignore home upgrades when they deemed weatherization not “cost-effective,” today they have to wrestle with the fact that the low-income renters living in subsidized apartments are using even more energy than other households, typically because their units are older and built with less efficient tech.

One study published in 2019 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that making energy upgrades — including to residential buildings — could cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. Upgrades to homes and buildings could save 30 percent on average for most buildings, ACEEE wrote, while installing sensors, automated controls, and other smart software could reduce energy use by another 15 percent.

The carbon emissions produced by old, decrepit housing are not the only environmental threat. A warming planet also threatens to put more homes into disrepair or wipe them out from the existing housing stock altogether, exacerbating our housing shortage. For example, if a fire or natural disaster doesn’t completely destroy a unit, the owner has to decide whether to then repair or demolish it. Affordable rental units are more likely to be demolished than rebuilt, given the tight profit margins they operate on.

Upgrading home energy systems won’t make those homes more capable of withstanding the effects of climate change. As Carlos Martín, the director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, told me, energy efficiency upgrades are climate mitigation steps; they would help reduce future emissions to make the crisis less severe. But addressing home repairs, like fixing broken roofs, floors, and windows — those investments would strengthen existing housing stock to better withstand more frequent storms, flooding, and heat.

The growing affordable housing crisis has brought increased pressure to this situation. Depreciation is one of the top three threats to preserving existing affordable housing. It’s a hard issue to mobilize around though, because, like global warming, it’s a crisis we’re hurtling toward but haven’t yet reached. Weatherizing affordable homes could help avoid that fate; lowering maintenance costs can improve a property’s cash flow, which can then be used to reinvest in other capital needs.

More than a quarter of American households in 2020 reported difficulty paying their energy bills. Harak, from the National Consumer Law Center, noted that failure to pay utility bills is considered a breach of the lease in most subsidized housing, leaving the renter highly vulnerable to eviction.

“It’s a significant issue from an aspect of equity,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “If these people are priced out, where would they actually go?”

A first-of-its-kind legislative fix

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are exploring a legislative solution to this problem, through a first-of-its-kind bill in the nation. Introduced in March by Democratic state Sen. Nikil Saval, the Whole-Home Repairs Act would provide eligible residents with grants up to $50,000 to make needed home repairs, and small landlords could apply for the same amount in forgivable loans. The bill would also aim to ramp up investments in workforce development, to address the growing shortage of qualified workers able to address the repairs.

By finally fixing up the homes, tenants like Alicia Cruz would not only be able to live in safer and healthier environments, they’d also be finally positioned to access weatherization dollars. More than 280,000 occupied homes across Pennsylvania are estimated to have moderate to severe physical issues, ranging from exposed wiring to failed plumbing and leaky windows. Environmental justice activists note that making the housing repairs would also help those being targeted with offers by property developers, and help more seniors age in their own homes, a strong preference for many elderly families who live on fixed incomes.

Genzer, of the National Association of State Energy Officials, told me he thinks Saval’s proposal is an “excellent bill” but that the $50,000 price tag for repairs “tells you a lot” about how difficult this problem can be politically.

Still, it’s not a long shot. Though Saval is a left-wing Philly Democrat, his bill has captured support from some heavyweight Republican legislators in Harrisburg, including Republican Sen. Pat Browne, chair of the state appropriations committee. Another is Sen. Dave Argall, chair of the state government committee, who has worked on blight issues for more than a decade.

“I represent a lot of struggling old mining communities where most of the coal mining stopped in the 1940s and 1950s,” Argall told me. “What I liked about Sen. Saval’s bill is if we help fix up the housing before they completely go to rot, that’s better for the people living in the homes, better for the next-door neighbor, and better for the taxpayer if they don’t have to fund millions and millions in demolition costs.”

Argall said he thinks the bill has “a very good chance” of passage in this year’s budget cycle, though the precise dollar amount is still being negotiated. Saval is pointing to the state’s $6 billion budget surplus and unspent Covid-19 relief dollars as strong sources to seed the new program.

Saval campaigned on affordable housing issues, but his office said data released last spring by the progressive polling firm Data for Progress was particularly instrumental in shaping some of their thinking around the politics. A survey of likely voters across Pennsylvania found 87 percent of respondents supported weatherizing homes to make them more energy efficient, including 83 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of independents.

While the home repairs bill would not itself go toward making energy efficiency upgrades, it would position more homes to be able to access the WAP funds. “We’re trying to make that federal money work more effectively,” Saval told me.

On the federal level, the Department of Energy has been slow to take this problem seriously, though advocates say conversations are starting to happen. The pandemic also elevated the conversation around staying home, indoor air quality, and respiratory illness.

“There’s some new efforts to think through this,” said Cowell, of E4TheFuture. “But they still struggle to decide if weatherization should go beyond just the straight economic savings.” The federal agency still doesn’t require states to report the number of homes deferred from the weatherization program for repairs, and not all states track those “weatherization walkaways” consistently.

Some states can dedicate a portion of their Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds for weatherization, a pot of money that tends to have a bit more flexibility than WAP funds in how it can be spent. Still, spending patterns for LIHEAP vary dramatically across states, and most of the money still goes for its primary purpose — helping poor families defray the cost of their energy bills. In 2015, less than 10 percent of total federal LIHEAP funds were used on weatherization.

In Congress, weatherization has bipartisan support, but there’s been less momentum to address the home repair issues that prevent energy upgrades. Still, Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans, who represents Pennsylvania’s Third Congressional District, including parts of Philadelphia, told me he thinks Saval’s Whole-Home Repairs Act could become a national model. After all, Pennsylvania is showing how blight issues can bring collaboration across the aisle. And a Data for Progress poll from January found investing in energy efficiency for buildings to be one of the most popular climate policies nationally, especially given high energy prices.

“I think this program has great potential — it can be a vital part of the federal, state, and local investment that we need,” Evans said. “I’ve supported and voted for increased federal investments in affordable housing, and this would fit well with that.”



At a Pivotal Moment, Democrats Failed to Modernize Elections

Originally published in The Intercept on April 1, 2022.
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THROUGHOUT 2020, as then-President Donald Trump issued baseless claims of voter fraud, local election officials called on the federal government to spend more to ensure a secure election season. Turnout was expected to break records; the pandemic had upended voting plans and safety protocols; and cybersecurity threats mounted. Leaders were acutely aware of the vulnerabilities in their aging election technology: Thousands of counties, for example, still ran their voting machines on Windows 7, an operating system so old it no longer receives routine security updates.

Congress did authorize $400 million to run elections in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, with funds permitted for expenses like buying personal protective equipment and hiring temporary staff to process the increase in absentee ballots. But those funds ran out quickly amid the costly primaries. Election officials, national security experts, and business leaders nationwide sent Congress letters throughout the spring and summer stressing why that figure could only represent a down payment ahead of the November election. A study of swing states conducted by the right-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank R Street Institute found that the election support afforded by the CARES Act provided just a small fraction — 10 to 18 percent — of what was needed.

But Congress didn’t budge. And so in an unprecedented move, private philanthropy stepped forward to plug the holes. A Chicago-based nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life administered nearly $350 million in philanthropic grants during the 2020 cycle, reaching almost 2,500 counties across 49 states. A majority of that funding was donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and every eligible election department that applied for funding was approved, according to the group. “Despite election officials basically begging our federal government for assistance, that money never came through,” Liz Howard, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, said weeks after the election. “Congress really failed our election officials.”

Fortunately for democracy, soon after Democrats took control of Congress and the White House, the party was laying plans to provide robust funding for election infrastructure.

But now, more than a year later, the politics that surround election funding have changed dramatically, though the need for modernizing and securing election systems has not. Conservatives, angry and suspicious that Facebook and Silicon Valley tilted the scales to help Democrats, have moved to ban future philanthropic donations for elections. In Wisconsin, a special counsel appointed by Republicans released an interim report accusing Zuckerberg of breaking bribery laws with the grants. More than a dozen Republican-controlled states, including GeorgiaFlorida and Arizona, have passed new restrictions on private donations to election offices since November 2020, and more states are currently drafting similar legislation. Absent new sources of government funding, these bans could yield cuts to election locations and election workers in the midterms.

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In its recently passed $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill, Congress included just $75 million for election security. That’s a fraction of what lawmakers authorized in 2020 and an amount experts say is nowhere near sufficient to address the needs ahead of the next election.

At the center of this failure is the Brennan Center, an influential liberal think tank and advocacy organization. Based in New York City, the Brennan Center rarely gets public scrutiny, but it plays an outsize role in the strategic direction of the movement pushing for voting rights and election reform. That flows partly from its massive war chest, which has skyrocketed over the last decade: Between 2010 and 2020, its net earnings grew from $196,000 to $58 million. Its assets jumped from $8 million to $90 million.

That financial firepower, coupled with the credibility in Washington that it has built over the years, gives the Brennan Center effective veto power over the voting rights advocacy coalition it leads. In Congress, revisions to election and voting laws are often met with the question, “What does the Brennan Center think?”

THE LEGISLATIVE DANCE has always involved inside players and outside pressure, but two interlocking trends have significantly walled off outsider influence and consolidated insider power. Partisan polarization means that there are few rogue bipartisan gangs to be pulled together, and the consolidation of power by congressional leaders has muted the influence of rank-and-file members and even committee chairs. K Street has rushed to fill that void — but so too have a select handful of major nonprofits, whose deliberations and strategic decisions have taken on exponential importance.

This made the Brennan Center’s decision to pull back on the effort to fund elections all the more consequential. Its political attention and lobbying shifted to passing the Free­dom to Vote Act, the Democrats’ comprehensive voting rights bill that would, among other things, expand voter registration, ban partisan gerrymandering, weaken state-level voter ID requirements, and restore preclearance, a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Brennan Center played a key role in crafting the omnibus legislation, including its earlier iterations like the “For the People Act.”

In a letter sent to congressional leadership in late July, a coalition of 19 national advocacy groups, including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Mi Familia Vota, urged Congress to allocate $20 billion for election infrastructure, citing the hundreds of local election officials, mayors, and secretaries of state who had begged for that amount earlier in the month. “As the individuals and leaders closest to the administration of fair and secure elections, they have collectively called for federal support in meeting the immense needs they face,” the national groups wrote. “We write to add our voices to that important ask.”

The Brennan Center declined to sign.

“It was one of the most jaw-dropping moments of my professional life,” said one election reform lobbyist whose organization signed the letter and who requested anonymity to describe the coalition’s private discussions.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, said his organization “felt that the dollar amount that the letter was asking for did not make sense based on our expertise and research and policy analysis … that it was too much,” though he could not say what a better figure would be. “My colleagues on this who are aligned certainly thought it was too much, and we thought the dollar amount was too high to be asking for at that time,” he added.

The timing of the ask also didn’t strike them as appropriate, Waldman said. “It was in the heat of the fight for the [For the People] Act, which we regard as the most important voting rights legislation in half a century. … I thought that [the request] was a distraction and a detour from the very hard fight needed to pass voting rights legislation.”

His comments about the size of the request for election funding reflected a departure from the Brennan Center’s previous public statements, a fact noticed by both this reporter and the organization’s press shop. The following day, a Brennan Center spokesperson, Alexandra Ringe, who had been listening in on our interview, called to ask if I would consider taking Waldman’s statements about the size of the election funding request off the record, saying they would not go over well with their coalition partners. I declined.

In a subsequent email, Ringe wrote that Waldman had “misremembered the decision-making related to the sign-on letter” and that fear of distracting from the Freedom to Vote Act was the sole factor in the Brennan Center’s decision not to sign. Waldman himself followed up to say that he had misspoken in our previous conversation, reiterating that the organization chose not to sign the letter “because of our concerns … that it would distract from the final push for voting rights legislation.”

BECAUSE OF THE wildly varying ways that counties tabulate their costs, the precise amount of funding election officials need is not clear. “What we do know from three years of surveys of local elections officials nationwide is that consistent and reliable funding is the most commonly mentioned issue,” Paul Gronke, the founder of the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College, told me. “We all recognize that what we are currently spending is far too low and funding is too irregular. … But hard numbers are difficult to obtain because of the diverse ways that budgets are managed.”

The last major federal investment in election funding was the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which authorized $3.5 billion for state upgrades. But it took years for that funding to get appropriated, and the costs and threats to elections have only gone up since then. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study recently estimated that the “current level of spending puts elections at near the bottom of spending for public services, ranking approximately the same levels as spending by local governments to maintain parking facilities.”

Advocates for more funding say that reliable appropriations can go toward things like bolstering election audit systems, patching cybersecurity vulnerabilities, upgrading voter registration databases, and investing in equipment like ballot sorters and envelope stuffers. The advent of election official retirements expected before the 2024 cycle is adding even more pressure, as hiring and training new staff will get more expensive.

The Election Infrastructure Initiative, a project of the Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, puts the tab to fully modernize U.S. elections at $53 billion over the next 10 years. The initiative has called on Congress to allocate less than half of that, $20 billion. That ask has been endorsed in letters by secretaries of statemayors, and election administrators. In a February poll by Data for Progress, nearly three-quarters of respondents supported congressional spending to upgrade state and local voting equipment and security systems.

Many local election leaders have struggled to understand why the Brennan Center — a group with the ear of influential Democrats in Congress — dropped prioritization of election funding over the last year, particularly after helping elevate their concerns during the pandemic. Moreover, while the Freedom to Vote Act would push many election reforms that are needed and overdue, those changes would not come cheap. Advocates worried that chaos could come from a slew of new unfunded mandates.

Jessica Huseman, one of the country’s leading voting rights journalists, detailed many of these concerns publicly last spring in a Daily Beast op-ed. The For the People Act “was written with apparently no consultation with election administrators, and it shows,” Huseman wrote, noting that it was packed with deadlines and obligations that would be impossible for election officials to meet. “The sections of the bill related to voting systems … show remarkably little understanding of the problems the authors apply alarmingly prescriptive solutions to.”

The Brennan Center quickly issued a defense of the bill it had helped draft, publishing a response to Huseman’s piece on its website. The center defended the amount authorized in funding for upgrades and maintenance. But “there have been millions in authorized funding that has never been appropriated,” Huseman, who currently serves as editorial director of Votebeat, told me. “Looking specifically to voting, the funding promised in the Help America Vote Act took 15 years to actually become appropriated, even though the states were on the hook for the requirements long before this. This is the origin of the anxiety for state election administrators, and I think it’s a well-founded concern.”

“Brennan Center gets way over their skis on election policy,” said one national election reformer who has partnered with the organization on research and requested anonymity because their organization shares some of the same funders as the Brennan Center. “They’ve been great [at] fleshing out the more liberal position on voting rights, but when it comes to election administration … they are not that connected to the election officials community … and they haven’t really wrestled with the implications of what they advocate for.”

“The charitable answer is they didn’t want to have a fight about money until after the bill had passed, but you can easily pass the bill and not win the money,” said the election lobbyist, who was shocked that the center didn’t join the July letter. “There’s a few folks who work there like Larry Norden [the senior director of Brennan’s Elections and Government Program] who have done good work on these issues, but they couldn’t get it through to their higher-ups.”

FOR THOSE HOPING that 2021 would yield new federal commitments for election funding, things took a turn for the worse late last summer.

Throughout July, as Senate Democrats prepared their $3.5 trillion social spending request, lawmakers assured state and local election officials that their proposal would include billions for election funding. A Politico story published just four days before the package was unveiled confirmed that lawmakers were eyeing as much as $15 to $20 billion for that purpose and felt confident that they could deliver, even as their voting rights bill remained stalled.

But at the eleventh hour the funding was pulled, at the urging of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had “abruptly” changed her mind, as Huseman reported in a detailed ticktock of the negotiations. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the author of the For the People Act, had convinced Pelosi that authorizing election funding would reduce their leverage to pass his bill, the same argument the Brennan Center used to justify not signing the coalition letter.

Leading negotiations in the Senate, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was angry. She felt blindsided by Pelosi’s move, per Huseman’s sources, even as spokespersons for both House leaders defended the last-minute cuts. The spokespersons told Huseman that election funding would require more “safeguards” to ensure it couldn’t be used for voter suppression, but top federal elections experts say there is no history of misspending those funds. “After all,” Huseman wrote, “it costs far less money to close polling locations and remove drop boxes, and state legislatures across the country have been doing this without any additional spending since the 2020 election.” (Klobuchar, Pelosi, and Sarbanes did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment for this story.)

“All of the money that’s been released has been for specific purposes,” Kathleen Hale, a political scientist who directs the Election Administration Initiative at Auburn University, told The Intercept. “It’s all been audited; I’ve been doing this for the last 15 years, and there’s absolutely nothing going on like that.”

While it was becoming too late in the negotiations process to pivot to funding elections in the infrastructure deal, the Democrats’ Freedom to Vote Act was looking increasingly doomed in the Senate. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., made it clear that she was not willing to gut the filibuster — a legislative move that would have been required to ensure the bill’s passage. A Punchbowl News survey of senior congressional staffers found that even among Democratic staff, just 12 percent thought the bill had a shot.

Some leaders urged Congress to push forward with a narrower bill, abandoning demands like public financing of elections, to which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ala., had expressed strong opposition. Others within the voting rights coalition faced immense pressure to stay quiet when they raised concerns about technical language in the statute, saying the Brennan Center in particular warned that even private deliberations could derail passage of the bill itself.

Noticing the deadlock on Capitol Hill, some groups began to discuss alternatives. In January, for example, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report in collaboration with the centrist and right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, Issue One, R Street Institute, and Unite America.

Their proposals recommend federal funding to states that meet a series of minimum voting standards but eschew federal mandates, in the hopes of garnering GOP support. The coalition urged steady, annual funding for elections but left the door open on exactly how to determine the formula.

Others had been pushing a narrower bill since last spring. In March 2021, professor of law and political science Rick Hasen published an op-ed in the Washington Post urging for legislation to protect voting rights directly and abandonment of the “wish list of progressive proposals” that stood little shot of survival in the Senate. “At the moment, it seems more likely that nothing will become law before the 2022 elections than that H.R. 1 will,” Hasen wrote, referencing the For the People Act. Edward Foley, the director of the Election Law program at the Ohio State University, wrote another Post op-ed two weeks later, arguing that the “priority should be ensuring passage of what’s absolutely essential for securing federal elections that enable voters to choose the officeholders who get to exercise power.”

And still others noted that the For the People Act would do little to actually stop the most immediate threat to elections that arose from the 2020 cycle: subversion. The New York Times editorial board made this point in June, writing that “Democrats in Congress have crafted an election bill, H.R. 1, that is poorly matched to the moment.” The For the People Act, the Times board said, ”attempts to accomplish more than is currently feasible, while failing to address some of the clearest threats to democracy, especially the prospect that state officials will seek to overturn the will of voters.”

The Brennan Center rebuffed criticisms that the For the People Act was too big. The scope of the legislation, Waldman stressed, was what gave it its power. “It enabled a movement to form of diversity and breadth that we have not seen on this issue in my 40 years working on democracy issues,” he told me. “This was the most important civil rights legislation in half a century … [and it] doesn’t always succeed on the first try.”

Narrower bills have narrower constituencies of support, Waldman wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last spring. He dismissed both Hasen and Foley as “some pundits” and said that keeping the legislation his organization helped craft together was the best way to ensure its chances of becoming law. While Waldman noted proudly that the bill claimed support of “civil rights groups, good government groups, labor unions, many election officials, and others,” it was not clear who among those left-leaning constituencies he thought might disclaim backing if Congress had decided to pare it down.

But the Brennan Center’s stance on the savviness of avoiding compromise and standing in coalition with partners stood in tension with its reticence to make big funding asks, including for election security. The Brennan Center discouraged Congress from whittling down the voting rights legislation, even as experts warned of unfunded mandates that could create new security and logistical threats for election workers.

ADVOCATES FOR NEW infusions of election funding have turned their sights to the White House, in the hopes that President Joe Biden can pressure Congress to act quickly before the midterms.

In mid-December, a coalition of 14 secretaries of state — including from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona — sent a letter to Biden requesting that he include $5 billion for election infrastructure in his fiscal year 2023 budget, as part of a commitment of $20 billion over 10 years. (Last year Biden did not include funding for elections in his administration’s budget.)

In February, members of Congress joined in. Democratic Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Colin Allred of Texas, and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona led 43 of their colleagues in a letter to Biden requesting that he include $5 billion in his next budget. Thirty-three Democratic senators, led by Klobuchar and Richard Durbin of Illinois, followed suit two weeks later. Advocates also pressed Biden to mention election funding in his State of the Union address, to no avail.

Advocates were heard, sort of. On Monday, Biden released his 2023 budget and called for $10 billion over the next decade for election infrastructure upgrades — half of what activists requested. While hailed as a positive step, it offers no guarantees: Congress often ignores presidential budget asks.

Meanwhile, as the voting rights package remains in limbo, the new year has brought momentum to the issue of addressing election subversion, or the threat that the true winner of an election will not be declared the winner. While many defenses against election subversion happen at the state and local level, from a federal standpoint lawmakers could make tweaks to an 1887 statute known as the Electoral Count Act, which governs the end stages of a presidential election. At present, the Electoral Count Act could allow Congress to object to counting votes from a state, and it is also vague on the responsibilities of a vice president in counting electoral votes. McConnell has suggested that he’s open to tweaking the law, and a bipartisan group of senators have been meeting to discuss a path forward.

Election funding and election subversion are not unrelated issues. While immediate fears about subversion have been tied to rogue election clerks and state legislators, poorly funding elections heightens risk too. “Inadequately funded elections can lead to foreign or domestic actors tampering with our voting technology, voter registration databases, or machines that count ballots,” said Hasen. “And when funding is inadequate it creates opportunities for mistakes to happen and creates opportunities for people to try to manipulate things without oversight.”

The Brennan Center, for its part, hasn’t abandoned the election funding issue. In January, Gowri Ramachandran, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, testified before the House subcommittee on cybersecurity about election risks and suggested that Congress could also provide support for the physical safety and security of elections personnel and elections offices, though she did not suggest a specific figure. Earlier this month, the Brennan Center published a resource estimating the cost of preventing insider election threats over the next five years to be about $316 million.

But the clock is ticking for more serious investments. Following the recent passage of the House budget on March 9, the Election Infrastructure Initiative issued a critical statement, blasting it for insufficiently funding physical and cybersecurity measures for local election departments. The $75 million that lawmakers approved was also far less than the $500 million the House included in its original spending proposal. The Brennan Center did not issue a statement on Congress’s allocation for election funding, though individual leaders, including Norden and Derek Tisler, an attorney for Brennan’s Democracy Program, criticized the $75 million amount as too small.

Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center, maintains that the organization took the right approach last year and will look for “every opportunity” it can this year to pass strong voter protections, “with eyes wide open about the challenges.”

“There’s this ‘Big Lie’ movement out there trying to undermine American democracy that is scary and alarming, but I think there is a democracy movement that has been formed in response … that is vibrant and diverse and angry,” Waldman added. “This movement is not done and this issue is not done. We push forward.”

Why Teachers Are Afraid to Teach History

Originally published in the April issue of the New Republic magazine, and online March 28.
————-

For a decade, Jonathan Greenberg, a social studies teacher at the Center School in Seattle, taught an advanced placement course for high schoolers called Citizenship and Social Justice. A broad-shouldered man with penetrating eyes and a warm manner, Greenberg brought in speakers to talk about their experiences of racism and invited his students to share, too. Sometimes, he separated them by race so they could consider questions more privately. In an exercise known as “affinity-based caucusing,” he might ask white students, “What’s the role of a white person in fighting racism at school?” Students of color, meanwhile, might share how they cope with discrimination they’ve faced.

Greenberg shaped his curriculum according to guidelines developed by Courageous Conversation, a group founded in 1992 to help teachers facilitate dialogues about race. The organization intends its discussions to be structured by four agreements: to stay engaged, to expect discomfort, to tell the truth, and to accept a lack of closure. Frank talk about encounters with racism, Greenberg believed, would help bring attention to the struggles of underrepresented populations at his majority-white public school, and help all his students link their present lives with the historical realities of race.

In December 2012, the parents of a white student in Greenberg’s class filed a complaint with the principal. Greenberg, they alleged, had not only created “an emotionally-charged classroom environment” and a “climate of fear,” he had fomented “racial hatred and prejudice.” The complaint made its way to the school district, and, within a month, Seattle Public Schools launched an HR investigation and told Greenberg that he could not teach the racism curriculum or a planned unit about gender before the investigation concluded. Besides the teen whose parents initiated the complaint, officials interviewed no students about their experience in the class. By mid-February, the superintendent wrote Greenberg that his lessons had created an “intimidating” atmosphere for the student and “disrupted the educational environment” for others. Students began circulating a petition demanding that the curriculum inspired by Courageous Conversation be reinstated; ultimately, they gathered more than 1,000 signatures. One day, as another teacher supervised Greenberg’s class, some students signed the petition. The parents who’d originally objected filed a second complaint, this time for harassment. Within months, the district transferred Greenberg to another school.

Nine years later, as states rush to pass laws banning “critical race theory,” a term that in popular usage on the right has come to mean nearly any curriculum that refers to systemic or structural racism, teachers around the country are wondering whether they’ll meet similar fates. By the end of January, more than 35 states had introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict classroom discussions of race and gender, and at least 14 had passed laws or directives. The content of the laws varies somewhat from place to place. In Tennessee, for example, legislators banned 11 “concepts” from public school instruction. Educators aren’t allowed to promote “division between, or resentment of, a race” or suggest that individuals should feel “discomfort,” “guilt,” or “anguish” because of their race. In Iowa, lawmakers prohibit describing the state or the country as “systemically racist or sexist.”

For teachers, one of the most concerning aspects of the bills is their vagueness. Oklahoma’s law, for example, bans teaching the concept that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, but lawmakers declined to clarify how educators can teach about individuals who subscribed to these supremacist views. Texas’s law says any controversial issue must be taught “in a manner free from political bias” but doesn’t define what counts as controversial. Violating the new rules can bring about steep consequences: Teachers may be fired or lose their licensure; schools’ funding may be cut. Doubtless because the bills offer scant clarity about how one might comply, teachers have already begun self-censoring their lessons out of fear.

Their anxieties are not unfounded. In New Hampshire, the state’s education department created an online form to assist parents and students in filing complaints. The conservative group Moms for Liberty even pledged to pay $500 to the first person who “successfully catches” a New Hampshire teacher breaking the state’s new statute. Incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin announced 10 days into his job that Virginia would offer a tip service for parents “to send us reports and observations” of teachers they believe are misbehaving. A group called Save Texas Kids—dedicated to “fighting CRT and any other form of woke politics”—emailed Dallas teachers asking for names of colleagues promoting critical race theory or “gender fluidity.” In December, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed a bill that would allow parents to sue school districts that permit lessons allegedly rooted in critical race theory, and collect attorney fees for doing so.

For years, the school culture wars were waged over God and prayer, and how and whether to teach evolution and sex. But over the last decade, the fights have turned more toward how we frame our nation’s past, particularly how we characterize America’s histories of racism and colonization, and their relevance to today. In many ways, these debates are much harder to adjudicate; the law provides more clarity on the separation of church and state than on history curricula, and evolutionary theory offers more certainties than the vagaries of historical interpretation. For example, how should educators describe U.S. expansion of the West? Were the settlers bigoted imperialists or courageous pioneers? And is it possible for schools committed to anti-racism to embrace “color blindness,” or is that a contradiction in terms?

Public school theorists have long worried about the consequences of bringing heated matters into class. As far back as 1844, the famed educator Horace Mann warned against it. “If the day ever arrives when the school room shall become a cauldron for the fermentation of all the hot and virulent opinions, in politics and religion, that now agitate our community, that day the fate of our glorious public school system will be sealed, and speedy ruin will overwhelm it,” he wrote. Indeed, if there’s been one constant in the history of U.S. schooling, it’s the suspicion with which local communities respond when their teachers tackle controversial issues.

Parents’ fears notwithstanding, administrators stress that critical race theory is not taught in public schools; they are technically correct. As an academic field, CRT is a relatively obscure discipline that examines how laws and institutions harm or benefit people according to their race and relative power; its study is largely reserved to graduate programs. Yet parents who sense that change is afoot are also not wrong. Certain longstanding assumptions about identity and opportunity are being contested in K-12 classrooms around the nation—the same assumptions contested today in workplaces, in media organizations, and in the halls of Congress. The way these struggles shake out will have everything to do with how much control certain parents are able to exert in school districts and how well teachers can protect their autonomy.

Progressive groups and teacher unions have largely responded to critical race theory attacks with pleas that the public should trust educators to teach honest and accurate history. The appeal sounds reasonable enough, but what it means in practice is far from clear. Should teachers teach all perspectives on every issue? Is such a thing remotely possible within the constraints of a school year? What do young people need to know to thrive in a diverse, globalized, and democratic society? And who should get to decide?


On a Saturday morning in mid-November, just weeks after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election by campaigning on “parents’ rights” in education, an earnest and avuncular Colorado Springs high school history teacher named Anton Schulzki addressed a group of fellow teachers at the one hundred and first annual National Council for the Social Studies conference. Schulzki, the president of the council, acknowledged that the social studies curriculum has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, particularly since The New York Times Magazine’s publication of The 1619 Project, a compilation of articles and essays asserting the centrality of slavery to any accurate story of the nation’s founding. “Time and time again,” Schulzki said, “teachers, administrators, and school boards have been accused of somehow indoctrinating their students.”

He noted the irony of history curricula dominating public debate around K-12 schooling when the hours of class time actually afforded to it—particularly at the elementary and middle school levels—have decreased precipitously over the last two decades. The primary result of the new rules passed by states and school boards, Schulzki argued, has been that teachers avoid certain topics altogether. But, he implored, they should try very hard not to. It is a time “for us to stand together in solidarity for social studies,” he said, “to use our collective voices in solidarity against ignorance, injustice, and indifference.”

The pressures around critical race theory shaped many other panel discussions throughout the weeklong virtual conference. One presentation—“Decentering Whiteness: One School District’s Approach”—explored the changes the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota, is making to the history curriculum to reflect the needs of its changing population. Like many other suburban areas, Anoka-Hennepin, which serves a large geographic region just north of Minneapolis that includes liberal inner-ring suburbs, conservative exurbs, and rural countryside, has grown markedly more diverse over the last 15 years; nonwhite students now represent a third of its student body. Some pockets of the district voted for Trump in 2020, others leaned toward Biden. Both the leftist Ilhan Omar and the far-right Tom Emmer represent parents from this area in Congress.

Dan Bordwell, the thick-bearded teaching and learning specialist in his mid-thirties who led the “Decentering Whiteness” presentation, described the work educators have done in his district since 2017 to incorporate more diverse voices into their social studies lessons. When students learn about Brown v. Board of Education, Bordwell asked, do they also learn about Linda Brown, the student who inspired the case, and her family? When they learn about the antebellum period, do they hear perspectives from Black lesbians? With the help of Keith Mayes, a historian of African American studies at the University of Minnesota, Anoka-Hennepin teachers worked to identify where they could “infuse” new discussions of race and racism into their curriculum, while still following Minnesota’s social studies standards, last updated in 2013. Anoka-Hennepin also established an honors-level Black history elective and ramped up professional development aimed at helping teachers incorporate narratives from underrepresented populations. It’s about “telling a more complete picture,” Bordwell explained.

Helping students see themselves in the curriculum, leaders in a growing number of school districts say, will lead to higher academic achievement and deeper learning for all. In 2019, Anoka-Hennepin issued an Equity and Achievement Plan, lending more support to the work its social studies department was already doing to bring perspectives of underrepresented groups to the forefront.

But not all families saw these changes as developments in the right direction. And over the last two years, as parents began mobilizing against the specter of critical race theory, much has changed in the district. In the Anoka-Hennepin Better Together Facebook group, which has more than 550 members, parents fulminate against excessively “woke” teacher trainings and other aspects of student learning. Krissy Erickson, the founder of the Facebook group, told me she started it after the principal of her kindergarten-age son’s school signed a “Good Trouble” pledge with other school principals in the Twin Cities metro. The pledge committed to “de-centering Whiteness” and “dismantling practices that reinforce White academic superiority,” such as tracking students. Erickson, who had never been involved in parent activism before, joked that “the mama bear just recently came out.” At a school board meeting in late August, she announced that she and her fellow parents were “done being bullied into silence” and criticized the “CRT-related ideologies” that have been presented to staff and “directly trickle down into students’ assignments.” Erickson stood “in full support of teachers,” she said, but insisted that “the only real privilege we need to reflect on is the privilege we all have to live here in the United States of America.”

Thousands of other, mostly white, parents across Minnesota have similarly been protesting proposed state social studies standards that for the first time would include ethnic studies as a core component for all students. The standards—which would take effect in 2026—reflect “a relentless fixation with Native American history” and replace “objective historical knowledge … with a fixation on ‘dominant and non-dominant narratives’ and ‘absent voices,’” according to a petition led by the Center of the American Experiment, a local conservative think tank. This past November, Anoka-Hennepin residents elected a school board member, Matt Audette, who ran on a fiercely anti-CRT platform.

Bordwell, whose emails have been subject to FOIA requests by suspicious members of his community, has felt the increased pressure acutely. He submitted the idea for his “Decentering Whiteness” panel in February 2020; had he crafted the pitch a year later, he said, he would likely have proposed a different name for his presentation. “We have teachers who are walking on eggshells worried that they’re going to have a picture taken by a student or parent, that they are going to be unfairly targeted for the work that they’re doing.”

At my request, Erickson asked other parents in her Facebook group what they make of teachers’ fears about retaliation. Some teachers, she told me, are “obvious activists who will stop at nothing to promote their own OPINION.” But she believed that most parents would be satisfied so long as educators are “presenting facts and multiple viewpoints.” Members of her group, she explained, feel that issues of race, sex, and gender have “been thrown at our children from every angle”; they want “to simplify things and get back to education and academia.” As a compromise, Erickson proposed making certain subjects elective, or providing families with a heads-up about unit discussions and allowing them to opt out if they disapprove. In this, she echoed a call common among the anti-CRT cohort, who argue that teachers should alert parents of any plans to include controversial subjects in their curriculum, and even let them review teaching material ahead of time.


If the members of Erickson’s group—and similar parents—are to be taken at their word that they would support the inclusion of multiple viewpoints, they should be reassured by the work of some nonprofit education groups aiming to help teachers tackle controversial issues. One such group is Close Up. Founded in 1971 initially to bring high school students on trips to Washington, D.C., Close Up encourages “deliberation” on heated policy questions as a way of helping students build consensus. A study of its model, published this past summer by professors at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, found that high school students felt more respected in classroom political discussions designed as deliberation rather than debate.

A class using Close Up’s approach might ask, for instance, what policies, if any, are needed to reform police practices. Students would read about the disparities between Black Americans’ encounters with the police when compared to other groups, explore different policy proposals to address the issue—banning the use of neck restraints, for example—and review the arguments supporters and opponents make for each idea. At the end, students would be asked to write about which proposals they favor, which they would change, and which they would reject, and could suggest other proposals.

At least in theory, it’s possible to imagine such an approach satisfying people across the political spectrum. But on certain deeply polarizing issues, such as rights for undocumented immigrants or the place for transgender students in school sports, some on the left have argued that it’s harmful even to have those discussions; normalizing certain perspectives, the thinking goes, can be destructive to the vulnerable people they’re about. And on the right as well, many parents find certain points of view too dangerous to debate; talking about transgender athletes, for example, legitimizes the gender categories these parents patently reject and believe could corrupt their children. Sante Mastriana, a curriculum design manager for Close Up, said the group doesn’t support deliberating on everything; certain topics, like white supremacy or the efficacy of fascism, are off limits. “There are certain arguments which we are not going to entertain as valid,” he told me. Of course, if some subjects are out of bounds, it’s impossible to claim that ideology doesn’t, at some level, govern the choice of study; some administrator somewhere is choosing what to include and what not to. Mastriana said that Close Up’s solution is to rely on multipartisan resources and facts. “Unless it’s the sort of argument that just categorically makes a supposition about the nature of things without actually providing any grounding,” he said, “then it is something probably worth addressing.”

Chris McDuffie, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Heathwood Hall, a private school in South Carolina, uses Close Up materials in his classroom. He likes their “fact-based, middle of the road” format. “I tell kids to wait at least three days, check at least three sources, and to enter a conversation with three pieces of information or three questions before they form an opinion about a current event,” he told me. “No one knows where I fall politically, and I pride myself on that.” But McDuffie, who has been teaching for 21 years, including 12 in public schools, acknowledged that it’s easier to tackle political issues in a private school, where he’s afforded a great deal of autonomy over lessons. When he worked at a public school, some administrators, wary of backlash, didn’t even support teaching current events.

Like the nonprofits, some state school board associations have been encouraging local school districts to better support educators teaching contentious issues, a risky move given the intense politicization of the National School Boards Association in 2021. Last year, the national group compared parents protesting critical race theory at school board meetings to “domestic terrorism,” which led 21 mostly GOP-controlled states to withdraw membership, participation, or dues from the organization. Nevertheless, in late November, in Loudoun County, the northern Virginia region that became a national epicenter of parents’ protesting CRT, school administrators recommended that their school board adopt a policy called “Teaching About Controversial and Sensitive Issues,” based on a model promoted by the Virginia School Boards Association.

Examples of such controversial topics, said Ashley Ellis, Loudoun County’s deputy superintendent for instruction, are slavery, colonization, immigration, and the Holocaust. “Schools are under more scrutiny for what they’re teaching,” Loudoun Now, a local paper, quoted Ellis as saying. “Our teachers have asked for support in how to approach these topics with confidence.” A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the proposal.

Teacher unions, too, have been exploring ways to support educators who tackle controversial issues. The three million-plus–member National Education Association has been organizing to pass a model school board policy that affirms the value of Black and other ethnic studies courses and pledges to defend teachers who use materials “that incorporate diverse perspectives.” The unions have also been organizing to back candidates in school board elections. “We are preparing and training our educators to be involved in elections of those who have the power and authority to make the decisions,” Becky Pringle, the president of the NEA, told me.

But parents opposed to CRT have likewise stepped up their school board efforts. In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC, a national right-wing group, formed to elect school board members who are committed to “abolishing” critical race theory and The 1619 Project from public school curricula. The group backed 57 candidates across seven states, 41 of whom won. In 2022, its sights are set on 200 additional races.


Some of the current disputes over curricula can be traced to the beginning of the Obama period. The election of the nation’s first Black president led to new cultural and political backlash, including fights over how to teach about American identity in schools. As the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman has observed, critics began labeling ethnic studies courses as “divisive” and “un-American,” and by 2014, groups were lobbying against the College Board’s revised A.P. U.S. history course, which opponents alleged cast U.S. history in too harsh a light. For example, the revised guidelines described the idea of manifest destiny—the nineteenth-century doctrine that said the expansion of the United States throughout North America was both justified and inevitable—as “built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.” The Republican National Committee passed a resolution that year blasting the framework for its reduced focus on the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and U.S. military victories. The framework “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” the RNC said. (A year later, the College Board issued yet another revised framework, filled with edits that successfully quelled its conservative critics.)

Last spring, after state lawmakers began introducing bills banning critical race theory, the left-leaning Zinn Education Project sponsored a Teach the Truth pledge, garnering thousands of signatures from teachers. The National Education Association has its own Pledge to Support Honesty in Education. Both groups argue that CRT critics want teachers to avoid addressing topics like slavery and redlining, but conservatives insist that charge is a lie. Regardless, mainstream history textbooks do cover the nation’s disturbing history of racial violence better than they used to. A content analysis led by education historian Jeffrey Snyder found that leading contemporary texts depict in detail “everything from slave whippings and lynchings to race riots and church bombings.” According to Snyder, “it is not uncommon for textbooks to include even the most grisly of images, such as a photograph of the charred body of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916.”

Perhaps the fiercest debate is over whether to teach that the United States has overcome its dark legacy of racial discrimination, or whether, as The 1619 Project suggests, slavery’s harms continue to oppress Black Americans in the present. “White supremacy affects every element of the U.S. education system,” argues Learning for Justice, a national social justice nonprofit that provides free resources to educators and school districts, on the cover of its spring 2021 magazine. In a sponsored session at the National Council for the Social Studies conference—entitled “Teaching Honest History Through Critical Inquiry”—Learning for Justice facilitators asked participants, “How comfortable are you teaching about American enslavement, including the idea that it shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness?” They encouraged educators to avoid interpreting historical texts through a “white, Eurocentric” lens that would perpetuate stereotypes, and instead to teach students “resistant” readings, which in their definition lend themselves to anti-racist interpretation and challenge dominant cultural beliefs.

Part of what makes the fights over how to teach history and social studies so tricky is that, while virtually everyone says they oppose racism, enormous disagreement exists, within the broad left as well as between left and right, about what an ­anti-racist education should look like. Ibram X. Kendi, one of the most influential writers on anti-racism, argues against standardized tests, calling them “the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds.” Others see testing as a key tool for leveling the playing field for marginalized students, allowing them to access opportunity and compete on merit, and they view moves away as discriminatory against Asians, who tend to perform better on the exams. Still others see the very ideas of competition and meritocracy as by-products of white supremacy. Tema Okun, a popular consultant on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes “a sense of urgency,” “perfectionism,” and “individualism” as values inherent to white supremacist culture. In Learning for Justice’s spring issue, an educator describing anti-racist teaching voiced a similar opinion: She sees white supremacy wherever there’s a “sense of urgency to meet particular deadlines that don’t necessarily speak to actual student growth.”

The Seattle parents who complained about Courageous Conversation, the curriculum Jonathan Greenberg was punished for incorporating, were not the last family to object to the ideas it encouraged. And even people who broadly agree with including discussions of racism in the classroom might object to certain arguments of Courageous Conversation’s founder, Glenn Singleton. One New York Times Magazine article, for instance, quoted Singleton as saying that valuing writing over other forms of communication is “a hallmark of whiteness” that harms Black students. (Brooke Gregory, the president of Courageous Conversation, argued that most critics of the program haven’t participated and misunderstand its goals. The point, she said, “is not to demonize anyone, it is not to create good and bad or right and wrong, it is to say that all of these voices have a need to be heard and understood.”)

Most parents organizing against critical race theory have been white, but not exclusively. Last spring, Shawntel Cooper, a Black mother of two, testified at a Loudoun County school board meeting that was picked up by national news, and has since spoken out in the media about teacher training materials she finds offensive, like one obtained via FOIA that contrasted “White Individualism” with “Color Group Collectivism.” Cooper said she did not identify with the values ascribed to the “Color Group” side, which didn’t include things like private property and independence. The trainings also asserted that “culturally competent professionals” do not embrace color blindness, and they “accept responsibility” for their own racism and sexism. “I don’t understand how you would not want to ban anything that is this divisive and divides each other because of color,” Cooper said.

When I asked Jalaya Liles Dunn, the director of Learning for Justice, how her group is contending with the possibility that educators will face political backlash if they incorporate their more radical resources, she said her members have been talking with teachers about how to develop materials that won’t get them in trouble. “We’re being really practical about what teachers can and can’t say, and can and can’t do,” she said. “We don’t create a finished product and say ‘This is what teachers need’…. They know what they need, they’re on the front lines.”


The claims of parents in Erickson’s Facebook group notwithstanding, the idea that concerned communities might be satisfied by teachers presenting multiple viewpoints on thorny subjects is not borne out by history. Even before the wave of anti–critical race theory bills, most public schools throughout our nation’s past have shied away from teaching controversial issues. In The Case for Contention (2017), co-authors Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, a philosopher of education, note that, in general, communities have not wanted their schools to present “both sides” of an issue, much preferring teachers to reinforce local norms. Indeed, “the most significant restriction” on public school teachers tackling controversial issues, Zimmerman and Robertson conclude, has always been the public itself. Educators, who keenly feel this distrust, have generally chosen to stick to topics they believe will agitate no one.

The law offers K-12 teachers who do suffer backlash little protection. It’s been more than 50 years since the high point for teachers’ free speech. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision concluding that loyalty oaths, including anti-communist pledges, violated educators’ First Amendment rights. In 1968, the court ruled in favor of Marvin Pickering, a teacher who had written a letter to his local paper opposing a tax levy decision made by his school board and criticizing the board’s tendency to allocate funds to sports over academics. The board fired Pickering, but since his letter didn’t criticize the school employees with whom he worked on a daily basis and pertained to a matter of public concern, the court said his speech should be protected. And in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in its famous Tinker v. Des Moines decision that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Since then, however, the courts have largely retreated from protecting teacher free speech at the K-12 level, both inside and outside the classroom. In 2006, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that when public employees speak in the context of their jobs, they’re “not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes,” and thus should not be insulated from employer discipline. Less than a year later, the Seventh Circuit upheld the firing of an Indiana schoolteacher who told her class that she had honked in response to a HONK FOR PEACE sign protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and she believed in peaceful solutions to conflict. “The school system does not ‘regulate’ teachers’ speech as much as it hires that speech,” the court ruled, asserting that she could not cover topics or advocate perspectives in class that depart from what the local school board approves.

There are nearly 14,000 K-12 public school districts across the United States, and almost all are governed by locally elected school boards. Turnout in these elections is notoriously low, often just 5 or 10 percent of eligible voters. Nonetheless, these representatives are legally empowered to set policy on virtually everything related to their schools, from budgets and bus schedules to curriculum and enrollment boundaries. The major limitation on their authority comes from state lawmakers, who can impose obligations on local districts to do with school vaccinations, standardized testing, or, of course, new rules curtailing discussions of race.

“The fact of the matter is we work with a captive audience,” said Steven Cullison, a high school economics teacher, in a National Council for the Social Studies presentation he led about free speech. “That is, the law requires students to come to school, and what’s more, we require the community to pay for it. That means that the community has a right to far greater say in what occurs in a public K-12 school than, say, in a college or in a private school.” Speaking this fall on a podcast, Alice O’Brien, the general counsel for the National Education Association, told educators that if they work in a state that passes a law against teaching that the United States is systemically racist, they must be particularly careful about how they craft curricula and answer student questions. “I wish I didn’t have to say that,” she said. “But the fact is we do have members who have gotten in trouble for appearing to promote a viewpoint in their classroom that is at odds with that prohibition.”

If educators cannot deny the stake lawmakers, parents, and other community members have in shaping school curriculum, political leaders certainly question parents’ interest at their peril, as Terry McAuliffe discovered this past fall in his failed Virginia gubernatorial bid. In a late September campaign debate, McAuliffe said a few words he would never live down. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” he announced. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In the closing weeks of the race, Youngkin’s campaign made those remarks a centerpiece, running ads and circulating petitions proclaiming that “Parents Matter.” Post-election public opinion research showed that McAuliffe’s comments were highly influential, including among Biden voters who cast their ballots for Youngkin.

Though the fact often gets lost in contemporary media coverage, it’s never been only conservative parents who have disputed what’s taught in schools. Throughout the twentieth century, Black parents, with the assistance of the National Urban League and the NAACP, challenged school boards and book publishers about racist passages that they found in textbooks. The advent of ethnic studies courses, too, was driven by families pressuring their local leaders for more equitable representation in the classroom.

Perhaps surprisingly, not just parents think parents should have a say in curricula. In November, in a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of district administrators and teachers, 63 percent of respondents said local parents should be involved in selecting the curriculum and materials, even though just 31 percent said parents are involved. And while it may be because they are so eager to avoid fights and criticism, more than 50 percent of educators said they supported letting parents opt their children out of classes, curricula, or units they disapprove of; 25 percent even said they “completely support” the idea.


In 2013, following the news that Greenberg would be transferred to another Seattle school, fellow teachers and former and current students rallied to his defense, shocked by how quickly administrators had caved to the grievances of a single family. More than 100 of his supporters showed up to a Seattle school board meeting decked out in green clothes, and at the school’s graduation ceremony that year, a senior delivered a speech demanding Greenberg’s reinstatement, after which his peers opened their gowns to reveal shirts with the letter “G” on chest plates. Although Greenberg was forced to spend the next year working at a middle school, an arbitrator eventually ruled that the school district had inappropriately used a transfer to punish him, and permitted him to return to his old job.

Greenberg, who still teaches high school civics in Seattle, has noticed changes in his two-plus decades in the classroom. “Students are so much more aware of systemic oppression than they used to be,” he remarked. When he used to ask his classes why people were poor, teens tended to invoke individual choice. “Now there’s a reluctancy to even mention individual choices,” he said. “I credit Black Lives Matter with so much of that. Back in the day, I might have just been happy to even discuss the concept of ‘white privilege’ with my class—now I feel like it’s not even a debate.”

Few teachers today, though, feel confident that they’d get their jobs back if they got on a parent’s bad side, and Greenberg himself suspects that his own race and gender played a role in the community’s defense of him. “I certainly feel like educators of color who get persecuted don’t get that showing of support,” he told me.

Keith Mayes, the University of Minnesota historian who helped Anoka-Hennepin social studies teachers include more Black history, sees community backlash to critical race theory as just a “foot in the door,” the first step in a project to eventually go after ethnic studies courses, racial equity initiatives, and broader discussions of racism. While he recognizes that the fear educators experience is real, Mayes thinks that what is most needed is backbone. “The real question will be how well-meaning white teachers and administrators stand up to this opposition,” he said. “That’s the fundamental question, and I’m always watching that.” Teachers, after all, are members of their communities, too; they can elect candidates for school board, testify at meetings, and advocate collectively for their interests.

In the end, as communities continue to spar, it will be students who pay the price for the laws, rules, and cultural pressures that deter educators from tackling so-called divisive subjects. A wealth of research, from both nationally representative samples of schools and individual schools, has shown that students who are encouraged to discuss controversial issues are more likely to develop civic tolerance, political interests, a sense of civic duty, and expectations of voting than their peers without similar classroom experiences. Teachers “cannot simply be mouthpieces for the state nor conduits for the majority beliefs in the local community,” Zimmerman and Robertson argue. But are we willing, on the left or the right, for teachers to be anything else?