Education Reform Democrats Look Ahead to Life After Obama

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 26, 2016.
Lately on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has been talking about how she wants to end the “so-called education wars.” The Democratic presidential nominee wants to see the factionalism among education groups end and instead see new coalitions form to advance policies on which all can agree. Clinton took this message on the road to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers conferences earlier this month, and her campaign proffered another education olive branch to the Democrats for Education Reform on Monday in downtown Philadelphia.

Virtually every speaker lauded President Obama’s education legacy, highlighting his support for charter schools and test-based accountability at the organization’s day-long Democratic National Convention forum. Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, said he recognized that many have been feeling anxious and unsure about whether Obama’s successor will be as friendly toward their political agenda as he was.

Ann O’Leary, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, assured the school choice–supporting audience that the Democratic presidential nominee and the reformers have a “shared vision.” She said that Clinton touted “great charter schools” at both of those recent teacher union conferences. But Clinton notably did not lavish praise on charter schools when she appeared before the American Federation of Teachers last week in Minneapolis. After denouncing for-profit charters and vouchers, she said simply, “where there are public charter schools, we will learn from them.”

Kira Orange Jones, the executive director for Teach for America’s greater New Orleans region, said that she’s “profoundly concerned” that the Democratic Party may divert its attention away from protecting the rights of all children, especially the most disenfranchised. “That’s our party, that’s why I’m a Democrat,” she said.

Meanwhile, school integration also prompted a vigorous discussion among attendees. Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, made an impassioned case for a deeper focus on integration. “We cannot turn our backs on Brown [v. Board of Education],” she said. “And, yes, I do think [Democrats for Education Reform] stands to play an important role in moving that project forward.”

Others made the case for successful segregated charter schools, and questioned whether a real political will exists to pursue new desegregation efforts. Surprisingly, attendees had very little to say about Clinton’s Democratic vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, or his wife, Anne Holton. Holton, who recently stepped down as Virginia’s education secretary, was a strong supporter of school integration and had opposed the further expansion of charter schools. Her father, former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, a Republican, championed school desegregation during his time in office in the early 1970s.

Though the forum focused on the future of the Democratic Party’s educational agenda, teachers unions, a core constituency within the party, received little attention. “Unions don’t get all the seats at the table,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesperson who now heads a communications firm working toweaken teacher tenure and other job protections.

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas, a Newark parent who came down to Philadelphia for the discussions, told The American Prospect that she believed that teachers unions in Newark are “very territorial” and don’t want to collaborate. “They don’t want to even find out about what’s happening in the charter schools,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re unwilling or if traditionally they’re standoffish.”

While education reformers were clearly throwing their political weight behind Hillary Clinton—organizers passed out pins with Clinton’s picture on them to all the attendees—some audience members were still “feeling the Bern.” Kean University student Yasmine Veale, a member of the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options told the Prospect that she’s been considering becoming an independent in the next election cycle. “I’d like to see Democrats become more progressive, and not stay in the center,” she said. Like many millennial women, Veale backed Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary.

“I’m glad that some of what Bernie wanted made its way into the party platform,” she said. “But I’d still really like to see free education for all. It’s crazy that I have to work three jobs … and I’m still going to have a whole bunch of debt.”

Joy Russell, a Washington parent who serves on the advisory board of the Democrats for Education Reform’s D.C. chapter, told the Prospect that she feels confident Hillary Clinton will continue to push for the education policies that Obama has backed, but that overall, “politics have been getting in the way” of ensuring high-quality education for all kids.

Liberal Governor, Divided Government

This article appeared in the summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect.

In February, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, first-term Democratic Governor Tom Wolf readied himself for his second budget address. These were not normal times for Pennsylvania politics: The state had been operating without a budget for eight months, an unprecedented crisis as the Republican-controlled General Assembly fought with the governor’s office over issues of taxation, spending, and pension reform. As the impasse dragged on, school districts and nonprofit organizations across the state were forced to borrow money, lay off employees, and reduce social services.

“My fellow Pennsylvanians: Our Commonwealth is in crisis. A crisis that threatens our future,” Wolf declared from the podium. “This crisis is not about politics at all. This is about math.”

Wolf went on to outline the dramatic consequences he foresaw if state legislators failed to pass a budget that included sufficient spending increases. Thousands of teachers and guidance counselors would lose their jobs, he said. Classroom sizes would grow, and tens of thousands of children would lose access to early childhood education. The state would lose nearly $200 million in services for Pennsylvania’s seniors, and $180 million for those with mental illness and learning disabilities. From slashed funds for child care to shuttered domestic-violence shelters, the negative outcomes went on and on.

“This is not a threat. This is not political posturing. This is simply what the math tells us will happen if this crisis is not resolved,” Wolf stressed. “I didn’t run for this office to be party to the corner-cutting and budget gimmickry that got us into this mess. We can’t afford to play political games.”

Wolf’s speech aside, the problem facing Pennsylvania is most certainly about politics—and particularly the challenges of democratic governance in an era of deepening party polarization. While Republicans and Democrats have long staked out different positions on issues of public policy, political scientists are finding that the parties are even further apart than they’ve been in at least 50 years; this polarization has extended to the general public, too, resulting in increasingly partisan communal institutions and news media.

The story of Tom Wolf is the story of how a progressive, liberal Democrat attempts to govern in such an era, at a time when split government means something quite different than it did even a decade ago. The challenges Wolf wrestles with in Harrisburg, with the state’s most conservative legislature in modern history, in one of the most ideologically divided states in the union, are growing increasingly common across the country. They also mirror the challenges President Barack Obama faces in Washington, D.C., as he navigates a Republican-controlled Congress whose leadership has shown unprecedented determination in obstructing Obama’s initiatives and any attempts to broker compromises.

Wolf’s dilemma, then, is both a product of polarized times, and intensely personal: How can he advance a progressive agenda given the political landscape he inherited? What tools are at his disposal? What blame, if any, does he shoulder for a failure to get things done?

 governor with a margin large enough to claim a mandate. Not only was he the first person in four decades to defeat a sitting Pennsylvania governor, ousting Republican incumbent Tom Corbett, but he won by ten percentage points. And while the budget impasse has largely defined Wolf’s time in office—dragging on for nine months between July 2015 and March 2016—he also found ways to promote progressive policies amidst the stalemate.

The 67-year-old businessman from south-central Pennsylvania had never before held elected office. The way he emphasized “math” and deemphasized politics in his budget address reflected the way he often describes his vision and responsibilities—for better or for worse. On the campaign trail, Tom Wolf ran on a platform to restore cuts to education, and to do so by passing an extraction tax on natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Though angering many environmentalists and progressives, Wolf opted to embrace the booming fracking industry in his state.

Soon after taking office, Wolf expanded Medicaid, transitioning away from the complicated alternative system his Republican predecessor had implemented. Five hundred thousand beneficiaries were enrolled within his first year—in a far more streamlined and straightforward program than had existed before.

Pennsylvania is not a state that you would think of as being at the forefront of health-care issues, but now with Wolf, it is,” says Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and a longtime friend of Wolf. “He stands out among governors when it comes to making health and health access top priorities.”

Wolf also signed a series of executive orders for political appointees and state workers, banning gifts to state officials and requiring that all state contracts with private-sector providers go through a bidding process. He declared a moratorium on the death penalty, granting temporary reprieves to 180 inmates on death row as a state task force formally reviews the policy. He also raised the minimum wage—mostly for state janitorial workers and part-time clerical staff—increasing their pay from $7.25 to $10.15 per hour. And in the wake of North Carolina’s passing a law that stripped rights from gay and transgender people, Wolf issued a pair of executive orders that expanded protections against discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted “to show the world that Pennsylvania is a welcoming place for everyone.”

But as G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, points out, Wolf simply “can’t make change for 12 million Pennsylvanians on his own.” His executive actions carry symbolic power, no doubt, but in practice they yield only limited impact. “For really big change,” Madonna says, “Wolf needs the legislature.”

And that’s where he runs into problems.

 office, Wolf introduced his budget proposal, which called for more than $1 billion in new education spending, a 5 percent natural gas extraction tax, property tax relief, and an increase to the state’s sales and personal income tax.

While widely seen as “ambitious,” this type of budget proposal, Madonna says, was not actually that unusual. “Governors don’t just put out their first-year agenda, they really try to put out a four-year-agenda,” he explains. “They’re laying out what they’re really trying to do now, and that could change by the end of the first year—you might have new issues, you could have a recession in the middle of your term, any number of things. But what he did was not unusual.”

The Republicans didn’t bite. When the GOP-controlled General Assembly sent Wolf its $30.2 billion budget bill late last June, they included no new taxes, and none of Wolf’s other stated priorities. Wolf struck it down—the first time a Pennsylvania governor vetoed an entire budget in modern history.

What followed were months of debates between lawmakers and the governor’s office over reforming the state’s pension system, the future of the state’s liquor system, tax redistribution, and education spending. As the impasse dragged on, school districts were forced to borrow roughly $900 million, and nonprofits across the state had to scale back.

“People were completely stressed out, and impact on morale was severe,” says Anne Gingerich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “You had organizations with longtime staff that quit and went on to get other jobs because they couldn’t handle that instability.”

“Everyone has concerns about the state and health of our pension system—short- and long-term,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council member and strong public schools advocate. “But that’s not an excuse. … If it weren’t pensions, honestly, it would be something else. The legislature is evading a central responsibility, and they hold our kids hostage as they fail to deliver required dollars to schools.”

Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, he’s been criticized for being aloof, for not investing enough in interpersonal relationships with members of Congress. If Obama would just invite Republicans out to golf, to grab a beer, or to dine a few evenings at the White House, the thinking went, then maybe the toxic political atmosphere that seems to derail political compromise could change.

But a lack of schmoozing is certainly not Tom Wolf’s problem. From the very start of his time in office, he began hosting policy breakfasts and lunches with members of the legislature from both parties. He regularly brought people into his office, and dropped by theirs, unannounced, throughout the week.

“I’ve never seen a governor who did so much reaching out to all the members of the legislature,” says State Representative Dan Frankel, the Democratic Caucus chair in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

T.J. Rooney, the former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and a former member of the Pennsylvania House, says that Wolf and Obama are similar in that they are both progressive intellectuals. “But Governor Wolf’s approach with the legislature—and I say this in an endearing way—Tom’s approach was much more aggressive than the president’s approach,” he says. “I mean, literally, he spent weeks upon his inauguration walking from office to office to rank-and-file legislators to introduce himself and get to know them.” While Rooney acknowledges these entreaties have not yet “paid off in a big way,” he thinks that, over time, such gestures are not lost and forgotten.

But Stephen Miskin, the spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, views Wolf’s outreach as “absolutely insincere engagement.” While he admits that Wolf has gone and met with Republican and Democratic legislators more than Miskin has ever seen since he started in state politics in 1984, he argues that the governor’s courteousness and kindness just does not make up for doing “everything he can to undermine” Republicans.

As the stalemate stretched on, some pundits criticized Wolf, saying he was too beholden to unions and other progressive constituencies that helped elect him to office. Wolf certainly was no fan of the GOP’s proposals for pension reform. But by November, Wolf made clear that he would sign a pension-reform bill that included a traditional defined benefit plan for future state and public school employees combined with a 401(k)-style plan. The compromise framework also included large increases in education funding and made headway on restoring prior cuts to social services. The Senate passed this framework budget deal in December.

But Republican House leaders did not even let the bill come up for a vote. Mike Turzai, the House speaker—the same man who said that voter-ID laws would “allow” Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in 2012—canceled sessions twice before Christmas, and sent everyone home.

“We have legislation waiting for us to vote on. Yet, the House speaker decided not to hold session,” State Representative Ed Gainey, a Democrat, told thePittsburgh Post-Gazette in December. “It’s bewildering to me, especially when the impasse is wreaking havoc on social services, and schools are considering keeping their doors closed after the holidays. This is the height of irresponsibility.”

The unions had signaled that they would back the Senate budget framework, despite its pension-reform provisions. “SEIU members supported the overall budget framework reached by the governor and legislative leaders last year … despite strong reservations about some aspects of it, because it included significant investments in education and other priorities that are vital for our state’s future,” says Neal Bisno, the president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

Turzai and his allies claimed they didn’t bring the budget up for a vote because it wasn’t clear how the spending bill would be funded. In fact, the leaders generally understood where the revenues would come from; they just didn’t like it. Still, with no final bill to sign, Wolf was forced to pass a stop-gap budget, as the talks dragged on.

Meeting with the governor in April, I asked him what has most surprised him about his time in office so far. “I was surprised when I thought we had a deal back in December,” Wolf told me. “I understood that when I wrote my first budget, … it was very ‘ambitious’—as the Republicans kept reminding me. I understood I wasn’t going to get all that. But when I got to the fall and I had gotten what I thought was a good compromise—I had made concessions and they had made some good concessions themselves—and it passed the Senate 43–7, I was surprised when the leadership pulled the plug and said, ‘We’re going to go home.’ Yeah, that was a surprise.”

The nine-month impasse finally ended in March, when Wolf allowed a budget to pass into law without his signature—a budget he said that adds to the deficit, and underfunds key programs throughout the state. “I cannot in good conscience attach my name to a budget that simply does not add up,” Wolf said at a press conference. “But to allow us to move on to face budget challenges of 2016-17, I am going to allow [it] to become law.”

Wolf’s problem is not only that he’s dealing with large Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but also with legislators who are markedly more conservative than the Republicans who preceded them. 

“Wolf can work with the Senate, there’s still sanity there—but the inability to deliver in the House is the biggest impediment that he faces,” says Rooney.

“I’m becoming particularly pessimistic that we’re going to get a budget that deals with the structural deficit,” says Frankel, the House Democratic Caucus chair. “I just don’t see Republicans cooperating to get a sustainable fix. I think we’ll get a smoke and mirrors budget.”

Indeed, while the General Assembly ultimately avoided another long budget impasse—House and Senate leaders came together to pass a budget that Wolf signed into law earlier this month—many of the state’s long-term fiscal issues remain unaddressed. While Wolf had initially proposed a $2.7 billion budget that would have reduced the state’s structural deficit, lawmakers ultimately approved a budget of just $1.3 billion, though it did include a new $1-per-pack cigarette tax, something few had expected to pass in an election year.


BORN AND RAISED IN York County, Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf grew up in a world of comfort. His wealthy family was well known locally: They ran a successful kitchen-cabinet business, regularly fundraised for political candidates, and donated often to charitable causes.

Wolf has a reputation for being an avid reader and a serious intellectual (when I met him, he was finishing up Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). He sees himself as a “curious human being” and believes books help him ask better questions.

He went to Dartmouth for his undergraduate education, though he took some time off to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Orissa, India. He went to the University of London for his master’s, where he met Frances, his wife of 40 years. Next, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate in political science, where he wrote a national-award-winning dissertation on the structural change in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his love for learning, friends say it would be a mistake to think he just holed himself up in the library. “Tom was a revered graduate student, such a wonderful human, and so nice,” says Drew Altman, a fellow grad student from MIT who played intramural sports with Wolf. “He just had such a winning personality. It was sometimes even a little bit annoying to people.”

After graduate school, to the surprise of many of his academic colleagues, Wolf headed back to York to help run his family’s business. Seven years after his return, he and two cousins bought the company, WOLF, from Wolf’s retiring father, and over the next two decades the profitable business continued to expand—employing some 600 workers, who, as a consequence of the company’s unusually conscientious profit-sharing program, reaped between 20 percent and 30 percent of its profits. The company grew to become the largest supplier of kitchen and bath cabinets in the United States, and on the campaign trail, Wolf cited his successful business record and his generous management style as proof of his leadership credentials.

“Although he’s a very wealthy fellow, he really does not bring to the table some of the far-right-wing positions that wealthy Pennsylvanians and wealthy Americans tend to,” says David Fillman, the executive director of AFS-CME Council 13. “Governor Wolf is very labor-friendly, and it’s just been very refreshing.”

Friends and colleagues talk about Wolf’s “strong moral compass.” Raised in a household that taught him that his privilege obligates him to give back and work for the greater good, Wolf donates his entire government salary to charity. He speaks excitedly about democracy, and calls public servants “stewards of a grand democratic tradition.” He prioritizes ethics reforms like gift bans, increased government transparency, and campaign-finance overhauls. While he won every county in the Democratic primary, Wolf acknowledges that turnout of eligible voters was extremely low. His ultimate goal, he says, is to restore trust in government so more people will exercise their fundamental responsibility of citizenship.

In 2015, InsideGov, a government research organization, ranked Tom Wolf as the most liberal governor in America, based on a review of his public statements, press releases, campaign platforms, and voting records. But if you talk to Wolf, he doesn’t see himself as very ideological at all. He insists that his progressive values are just outgrowths of his pragmatic character, shaped by his years at MIT and in the private sector. Being a progressive, he says, is really just about doing the “smart” thing.

He cites his recent nondiscrimination executive order as an example. “That’s not a dogmatic thing; that’s just something that makes common sense,” he tells me. “When I’m in business and I want good talent in my company, why would I want to limit the talent pool by saying I’m only going to look at people who, say, look like me? You don’t do that. You want the best possible people you can [get]. If they work hard, they’re willing to take risks, you want that person.”

There’s a political logic to Wolf’s attempts to position himself as non-ideological, rather than as a liberal progressive. While Pennsylvania leans slightly Democratic, the western part of the state tends to be more culturally Midwestern and politically conservative. And, as Madonna explains, there are also a handful of Democrats in the southwestern region of Pennsylvania who represent districts that have been trending Republican over the past decade. These Democrats are not just conservative on social issues like guns and abortion, but increasingly on fiscal issues as well. Many of these constituents would have been in an uproar if their leaders backed the general tax hikes that Wolf put forth.

But sometimes Wolf’s claims of being above partisanship and ideology have felt grating, even insensitive. He regularly uses phrases like “let’s be honest with ourselves” and urges legislators to do the “right thing”—meaning the thing he thinks needs to be done. He describes his job as “helping people understand” the mathematical issues at hand. He tells me his international hero is Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, because he really “took that idea of pragmatism, of goodness.”

“We have a governor who literally believes he is an emperor,” says Miskin, the GOP spokesperson. “He issues decrees and gets upset when people don’t agree with him.”

WHEN I ASKED WOLF if there were things he’d like to get done while in office in order to feel like his time there was a success, he said yes, but “done the right way.” For him, “transactional politics”—which he defines as the day-to-day work of being in office—are less important to him. “I care more about making lives better, making my home state a lot better, and taking advantage of all the great things we have here, than I do about whether this moves bills forward at this pace. I care more about making sure we do it right, and the math adds up.”

He looks at his margin of victory as evidence that the voters also want him to lead in this way. “It’s liberating. I can do what I think is right, and I think people voted for me because they thought that’s the kind of person I am,” Wolf says. “I’m not as concerned with what people think about me as I’m concerned if I’m doing the right thing—whether my daughters and my wife respect me after I make a decision. Those things are a lot more important to me.”

But not everyone is so pleased with Wolf’s confidence to move at his own pace. Cynthia Figueroa, the president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia, a multi-service organization located in the poorest ZIP code in the state, witnessed firsthand how difficult it was to provide social services during the budget impasse. Figueroa’s organization had to furlough staff, reduce programming, and delay the start of other initiatives that normally would have been funded at the start of the fiscal cycle. Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Philadelphia has been around for nearly 40 years, and Figueroa says that while she spoke out and pushed state leaders to take action, a lot of other organizations “were suffering in silence” because they didn’t want to scare off their individual donor base, and worried their government contracts might be transferred to other people if they made an outcry.

When I asked her if she felt like leaders in Harrisburg really understood the ramifications of their failure to pass a budget, she said absolutely not. “It was a lot of men digging their heels in, a lot of ego,” she says. “It really felt like it was playing poker with poor people’s lives.”

Samantha Balbier, the executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, a coalition of 420 nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania, says that they found that nonprofits that were not Medicaid-reimbursable, with budgets less than $10 million, were hit particularly hard by the impasse—organizations such as senior-care service providers, domestic-violence shelters, and some drug and alcohol facilities. While Balbier’s organization is encouraged that Wolf recognizes both the importance of restoring human-services funding and how the impasse cost nonprofits money, she says there’s still a lot of concern that “there could be a precedent set where the budget is just never passed on time, and where Pennsylvania politics emulate what happens on the federal level.”

IN HIS FINAL STATE OF the Union address, President Obama issued a call to end gerrymandering. “We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he declared.

Pennsylvania is considered one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union. After the 2010 elections, Keystone State Republicans helped redraw the lines around competitive areas to make them swing more easily in their favor. In 2012, Republicans took nearly 75 percent of the state’s congressional seats—13 out of 18—though more than half of all votes cast in the state during that election for the U.S. House were for Democrats.

“Due to gerrymandering, our districts are not competitive, and so the legislatures are unaccountable—especially the leadership,” says Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “They don’t feel the voters anymore. They know they will get re-elected, and they can be as ideologically pure as they want and refuse to negotiate.”

Common Cause Pennsylvania is part of a statewide coalition of civic groups advocating for redistricting reform. Their long-term goal is to establish an independent redistricting commission, which will prevent sitting legislators from drawing district lines for political gain. “We want it to be people who don’t have a specific dog in the fight, and who will ensure the districts are equal in population, compact, and contiguous,” says Kauffman. Creating more-competitive elections, advocates say, will lead to greater accountability.

The two states with model independent commissions are Arizona and California, and in both cases, voters won this reform through statewide initiatives. Since Pennsylvania has no such process, advocates anticipate a much longer, and tougher, fight.

Still, there is reason to think that Pennsylvania’s new era of polarization is rooted in factors that extend beyond gerrymandering. Democratic legislators in the southwestern part of the state, after all, have grown more conservative because their constituents have grown more conservative. Political scientists have measured the ideological position of congressional members and found that representatives in gerrymandered districts are not more extreme than those in others.

Today, there are 19 other states like Pennsylvania where control of the governorship, state Senate, and state House is split between the two parties. Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches in 23 states, compared with just seven Democratic-controlled states. The states that are entirely GOP-controlled have moved their policies sharply rightward; states like California and Oregon, which are controlled by Democrats, have grown far more liberal.

“Redistricting couldn’t hurt, creating more moderate districts would help, but I think more political scientists see this as a problem of where the voters in the two parties are geographically located,” says Paul Pierson, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Even if districts were redrawn, there’s reason to assume that many districts would still lean heavily Democratic and heavily Republican given where these voters tend to live.

So what is to be done? The challenges facing Wolf in Pennsylvania look a lot like the challenges facing the president in Washington, D.C. And on the federal level, there are various tools at legislators’ disposal, like the filibuster, that can make gridlock even more likely. Where possible, Obama has effectively opted to work without Congress during his second term, issuing presidential orders and letting the courts weigh in on whether his actions were appropriate uses of executive power.

“I’ve learned a lot from Obama,” Wolf tells me. “I think the executive order is something that I have the right to do, and I can exercise my veto pen.” Unlike the president, the governor can also use his line-item veto power to pick and choose which parts of the budget he likes. “The governor is not afraid to avail himself of the constitutional provisions of his office,” says Rooney.

Historically, American political parties were more ideologically diverse and diffuse; it was not uncommon to find more conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in their ranks. “Now, the parties act much more like coherent teams, and they all take the same positions and back the same people and oppose the other side,” says Pierson. “It’s really hard to figure out how you get this process to go in reverse. A lot of political scientists are asking what would shift this and I haven’t heard a lot of good ideas.”

In January, seven months into the budget impasse, a Franklin & Marshall College poll found that two out of three Pennsylvania voters felt their state was on the wrong track. According to an analysis conducted by a local newspaper, this marked the highest voter dissatisfaction rate in the 21 years that F&M had conducted this poll. Poll respondents placed more blame on the state House and Senate for failing to pass a budget, rather than the governor. The legislature received a 15 percent voter approval rate, compared with Wolf’s 33 percent.

But a Quinnipiac University poll released in April found Wolf earning his worst approval ratings since he first took office. Among Republicans, 75 percent said they disapproved of Wolf’s job performance, and so did 49 percent of independents. Among Democrats, 59 percent approved of his performance. Whether the gridlock will weaken him to the point that he will face a serious challenge in 2018 remains to be seen.

Overall, these broad political dynamics do not bode well for liberals. The more that citizens think the system is rigged—either that their votes don’t really count because of gerrymandering or that nothing will ever get done because of gridlock—the greater is the likelihood that voters will disengage entirely, creating a downward spiral of popular engagement.

The effect of “this kind of dysfunction is not neutral between the parties,” says Pierson. “If I become alienated and think government is not working, on balance, I think that would be more advantageous to the anti-government party.”

Tom Wolf is caught in a hard place, in a tough moment for national, state, and local politics. But he says he’s enjoyed every minute of the time he’s been in office. It’s important to do more than “make the trains run on time,” he tells me, in a reference to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. “You’ve got to make the trains run on times in the democratic context. You’ve got to do it right. I think we politicians today lose sight of that second dimension. We’re stewards of a grand democratic tradition.”


Indiana Court Overturns Purvi Patel’s Feticide Conviction

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 25, 2016.

The Indiana Court of Appeals last week overturned the 20-year prison sentence for Purvi Patel, the first woman in the United States to be convicted under a feticide law for having an abortion. The 3-0 decision marks a victory for reproductive rights advocates, who argued that using feticide laws to convict women who end their pregnancies sets a dangerous precedent for abortion rights and criminalizing the procedure.

Legal experts warned that if the conviction were upheld pregnant women would be prosecuted for all sorts of things—from self-inducing an abortion to smoking cigarettes, or even slipping down the stairs. Feticide laws are on the books in 38 states, and were originally passed to protect pregnant women who were victims of domestic violence.

Indiana strengthened its feticide law in 2009, after a pregnant Indianapolis bank teller was shot during a bank robbery, and lost the twin girls she was carrying. In the appeals decision, the judges wrote, “We hold that the legislature did not intend for the feticide statute to apply to illegal abortions or to be used to prosecute women for their own abortions.” They called Patel’s conviction under a feticide statute “an abrupt departure” from earlier cases.

However, while Patel’s Class A felony charge was vacated, the judges did not drop the second charge in the case. She is still left with a neglect conviction—a felony offense—though the court said it should be reduced from a Class A neglect charge to a Class D one. The minimum sentence for a Class D neglect felony is six months, and the maximum is three years. Patel has already been sitting in jail for more than a year.

Attorneys for both sides continue to review the decision; neither has indicated whether they planned to appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

Kate Jack, an Indiana-based attorney who has provided legal advice to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Indianapolis Star that while the issue is not entirely closed, she does think the decision “will really give pause” to anyone considering bringing future feticide charges against pregnant women.

The decision comes on the heels of the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump picked Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. Reproductive rights groups have already been organizing against Trump’s incendiary rhetoric around women and abortion rights, and the selection of Pence as his vice president has only angered advocates further.

Aside from being the chief executive of the only state to convict a woman who ended a pregnancy under a feticide statute, Pence has also achieved notoriety for supporting other reproductive health-care limitations. While serving in the U.S. House of Representatives he backed an unsuccessful 2011 federal effort to defund Planned Parenthood. When Pence became governor of Indiana in 2013, he continued to attack the organization. By 2014, state funding for Planned Parenthood had been reduced by nearly half of its 2005 funding levels: Nearly a decade of cuts forced the closure of five clinics.

In March, Pence went even further, signing an omnibus bill that included some of the strictest abortion measures in the country, including a ban on women who wish to end their pregnancy if their fetus has genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. The law also called for prosecuting doctors who provided abortion services to women suspected of wanting to terminate a pregnancy based on genetic problems. A federal judge blocked this law from taking effect last month, saying it was likely unconstitutional.

While reproductive rights groups say they are heartened that the court reversed Patel’s feticide conviction, they disagree with the judges’ decision not to drop the neglect conviction. Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, issued a statement saying that the court’s new decision does not go far enough to restore full justice. By allowing the prosecutors’ argument that Patel could have prevented the death of her child to stand, Hernandez says, the judges have rejected “both medical science and compassion for a woman who needed medical care, not to be sent to prison.” She argued that ultimately people of color will “bear the brunt of unscientific laws and misplaced moral outrage.”

Patel remains in prison for now, and advocates are continuing to call for her release. Reproaction, a group focused on abortion access and reproductive justice, released a statement calling upon Mike Pence “to be pro-life for real and release her immediately.” They add that the state of Indiana “owes Purvi Patel a profound apology.”

Clinton Reframes Education Message, Attacks Trump

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 19, 2016.


Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Hillary Clinton took advantage of a speech to the American Federation of Teachers this week to test out her party’s retooled K-12 education platform, and to hammer home important themes of her presidential campaign.

Clinton’s speech to more than 3,000 AFT delegates gathered for the group’s national convention in Minneapolis on Monday took place against the backdrop of a GOP convention centered heavily on anti-Clinton attacks. It was one of several campaign stops that Clinton is making this week, including an Ohio speech earlier on Monday to the NAACP, and an address to government workers scheduled for Wednesday.

Clinton’s Minnesota speech differed noticeably from a National Education Association address she gave in Washington, D.C., less than two weeks ago, in which she had stated early on that we should pay attention to “great schools,” including public charter schools. These comments had produced the loudest boos for Clinton at the NEA, prompting her to quickly pivot to denouncing for-profit charter schools.

At the AFT, Clinton actually opened her charter school discussion by condemning for-profit charters, then denouncing vouchers “that drain resources from public schools.” (Clinton had not mentioned private school vouchers at the NEA’s conference.) Following these comments, she merely told the AFT, “Where there are public charter schools, we will learn from them.” Nobody booed.

It was Clinton’s first education speech since party operatives last week made several substantive changes to the Democratic platform around K-12 education, beefing up some union demands and toning down some of the education reform rhetoric of an earlier platform draft. The changes prompted Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, to issue a statement saying the platform had been “hijacked” and now constitutes an “unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy.”

The new platform articulates support for parents who opt their children out of standardized tests, and opposes the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and administrators. The platform also is more conditional in its support for charter schools—stating that they must “accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners,” and that charters must not “replace or destabilize traditional public schools.”

This last point acknowledges the concerns of groups that are working in cities across the country to end or slow the expansion of charter schools. Critics argue that rapid charter growth is placing undue fiscal strain on traditional schools, destabilizing their finances and hurting their students. The platform’s new language largely seems to reject the argument that any destabilization districts face is due to the financial mismanagement of district officials alone.

Clinton’s AFT speech also took a knock at Donald Trump’s recent vice presidential pick, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who is notorious among teachers’ unions for pushing market-focused education policies, raking in money from for-profit charter chains, and advocating for charters and voucher programs across his state. Over the course of the primary season, many more liberal education reform groups—those that promote test-based accountability and charter schools—have largely sought to distance themselves from the incendiary GOP nominee. Trump’s selection of a second-in-command who is so vocally supportive of their reform agenda, however, presents an interesting new challenge for these advocates. The American Federation of Children, a more conservative education reform group that promotes charters and vouchers, has already lauded Trump’s VP choice.

Clinton opened her AFT speech with declarations of support for both African Americans recently killed by police officers and for the officers recently shot and killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

“We cannot let this madness continue,” Clinton said. “This violence cannot stand.” When she started to speak about Philando Castile, the 32-year-old school cafeteria worker who was killed earlier this month by police in suburban Saint Paul, not far from the Minneapolis convention center, local protestors marched into the plenary hall shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” One activist repeatedly shouted, “Stop the deportations!” The audience sought to drown the disrupters out, chanting, “Hillary! Hillary!” until the protestors were quickly escorted out of the room. Clinton had met with Castile’s mother, sister, and two of his uncles earlier that day.

Clinton weaved references to police violence throughout her speech. Midway through her address, she referenced remarks made earlier this month by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who said that society has placed too much on the shoulders of police.

Brown had said at the time: “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve,” from mental health funding to drug addiction to school failure to single parenting. Brown concluded: “That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems.” Clinton told her AFT audience that teachers face many of the same challenges.

“We ask you to help right wrongs, from poverty and homelessness, to the legacy of racial inequities stretching back centuries,” Clinton said. We ask so much of you and we don’t give you enough in return.”

Clinton also devoted significant time to attacking Trump and Pence. “If you want to look at what kind of president Donald Trump will be just look at who he’s chosen as his running mate,” she told the teachers union, calling Pence “one of the most hostile public officials when it comes to public education.” She referenced the Indiana governor’s decision to slash funding for higher education, and to refuse tens of millions of federal dollars for expanding pre-K education. “Neither Mike Pence nor Donald Trump should be anywhere near our children’s education,” she said.

Following Clinton’s speech, AFT president Randi Weingarten commented on both the Democrats’ newly redrafted education platform, and on how Clinton’s Monday speech reflected those changes.

“I think that what she did today was a tremendous defense of public education and public services,” Weingarten told the Prospect. “In the platform itself, what happened was … the four corners of the platform were there, but we put more meat on the bones. Like when the platform before said ‘charters should have transparency and accountability’—we talked about how.”

Asked what she thought of the Democrats for Education Reform statement that the platform had been hijacked, Weingarten responded:

“I think that DFER better look at itself. When they think that saying that charters should not displace or replace public schools, or that charters should have, and take the same kids as other public schools, and they think that’s hijacked? They’re actually sending a big neon sign that they don’t care about public education.” She added that the platform is “leveling the playing field for charters and other public schools.”

The AFT was the first labor union in the country to endorse Clinton, months before other unions came out with their own endorsements. While there are strong Bernie Sanders supporters among the AFT’s rank and file, many of whom were angered by their union’s early primary endorsement, the convention crowd’s loud cheers demonstrated that the AFT is definitely getting “Ready for Hillary.”


Q&A: The Abortion Battle’s Next Phase

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 12, 2016.

In a landmark ruling last month, the Supreme Court struck down a package of Texas abortion restrictions known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws. Such laws, which have proliferated around the country, typically restrict abortion access by imposing rigid and expensive hospital-style mandates on clinics. The Court’s ruling in the case, known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, found that the restrictive Texas TRAP laws were unconstitutional because they placed an “undue burden” on women, and marked a major victory for the reproductive rights movement. The American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen spoke with Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which helped lead the challenge to the Texas TRAP laws, to ask about the ruling’s implications for abortion access and for the upcoming election. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Rachel Cohen: Now that the Supreme Court has struck down TRAP laws, what’s next on the agenda for anti-choice opponents?

Ilyse Hogue: Over the years, [abortion opponents] have realized that honesty can only get them so far in terms of achieving their goal of ending legal abortion. TRAP laws were really a way to deceive the public, cloaking their efforts around the idea of protecting women’s health. The Supreme Court just eviscerated the anti-choice posturing that TRAP laws are in any way about women’s health.

So one of their favorite tools just got taken away from them. They are reeling, but they are not the type to take their ball and go home. We’re anticipating them pushing forward on a number of different fronts. I think they will step up their harassment at clinics—harassing patients and doctors. And we’ve seen some really insidious things from state legislatures, like recently an effort in Missouri to force clinics to turn over their private medical records to the state. I think we’re going to see anti-choice opponents continue to pour resources into crisis pregnancy centers, which are just another way to deceive women.

How will the reproductive rights movement respond?

We are pushing back on their crisis pregnancy center efforts. In California last year, legislators passed the Reproductive FACT Act, which sets a national model for requiring all crisis pregnancy centers to be really clear with their patients about what they do and don’t do. Other states are looking at California’s law, and I think it’s very much at the top of legislators’ minds for the beginning of 2017.

We’ve also seen states where pro-choice legislators are filing to appeal TRAP laws that are already on the books, like Daylin Leach, a Democratic state senator, in Pennsylvania. And we’re working as a movement to step up litigation and public education to repeal the rest of those laws around the country. Importantly, we’re really moving to a position where we will not just fight anti-choice lies and deception, but where we can actively push for legislation that expands access to abortion. For example, a number of states are looking at medical abortion, and allowing nurse practitioners to provide abortion services. California already has that and other states are looking at it.

On top of this, we’ve got two pieces of federal legislation that are picking up momentum. The Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enforce and protect the right of a woman to decide for herself whether to continue or end a pregnancy, and the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Woman Act, which would repeal the Hyde Amendment and ensure that abortion services could be covered under federal health insurance.

NARAL recently released a statement calling the Democratic Party platform “the strongest platform for reproductive freedom we have ever seen.” What’s so significant about it?

The platform is a symbolic statement of values, as well as a navigation tool for what kinds of legislative and public policy remedies there are for the issues that we face. So the fact that it explicitly calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, as well as the Helms Amendment, [which restricts U.S. foreign aid from paying for abortion services] is huge. It acknowledges that there have been discriminatory practices both here and abroad against women who want to control our own reproductive destiny.

The reproductive justice movement deserves an enormous amount of credit for getting us here. Reproductive freedom in the 21st century is acknowledging that we are whole beings. There is not one group of women who gets abortions, and others who go on to be parents. We are just the same women at different times in our lives, making the decisions that are best for us and our families. That the platform takes a step towards acknowledging that is a real testament to the economic and reproductive movements that have come together.

How long will it take Texas and the other states with TRAP-style restrictions to restore abortion access to women?

I’m really glad you asked that question. The answer is too long and it varies state by state. Texas is five times the size of other states, so it will take longer there. But what’s important in answering that question is acknowledging that in the minds of the extreme anti-choice minority, this was a scorched-earth strategy. They always knew they could lose at the Supreme Court, but the amount of damage they were able to do in the meantime, in terms of clinics on the ground, in terms of women who could not access services—that’s significant damage that can never be fully undone.

While it’s important to win, we can’t actually let them gain such ground in the future. We can’t just depend on Supreme Court strategies when it comes to ensuring women access to our basic rights.

That brings us to the election. What role do you expect abortion and reproductive health to play in state and federal races?

We have to be very focused, not only on getting our champion into the White House, but on the down-ballot races, because the harm is coming disproportionately from state legislatures.

We’ve been doing a lot to hold incumbents accountable for the unbelievable amount of times they’ve tried to restrict access to abortion. Their constituents did not elect them to do that, especially at the expense of all the important business that has not gotten done. In both the federal election and for local and state races, we’re making sure voters have the information to hold their officials accountable.

This is a long-term project. We’ve got to make gains in 2016, and come 2020 and 2022, I think we’re going to start seeing some of these state legislatures really shifting on these issues.

In the 2012 election, Todd Akin, a Republican candidate from Missouri lost his race, in large part because of his outrageous comments about “legitimate rape.” Are we seeing similar types of remarks from Republicans this year?

I think people have been trained to be more careful, because when they speak their truth they find themselves at odds with the majority of their constituents. These anti-choice candidates don’t want to talk about their position once they get to a general election because they know they’re on the wrong side, and they don’t win elections if they do. We saw that so clearly in 2014 when Scott Walker, three weeks before his Wisconsin election, ran an ad saying he supports legislation to provide women with more information and to leave the final decision to a woman and her doctor. This is coming from a man who had done more to legislate abortion out of existence than every previous governor before him.

But I think what’s changed between 2012 and 2016 is that back then, the pro-choice movement was able to leverage those off-the-cuff Republican statements. But we’re not going to wait for them now. We’re going straight to the voters to remind them about their officials’ records. We did that really recently in New Hampshire with an  ad campaign targeting Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, reminding her constituents about all the anti-choice work she spent her time working on, when they didn’t want her to.

What about Donald Trump? He went so far as to say that women should be punished for getting abortions, but then quickly walked it back.

Donald Trump is not playing by the anti-choice or the GOP rulebook in any way, and we know that. One thing that’s super important to me from where I sit at NARAL, but also as an American, and as a mom, is just the way he’s giving voice and credibility to deeply-held misogynistic ideas. I think he will do tremendous damage whether he wins or not, because he has given permission to this very dark underbelly that does not represent what we need to be or what we can be. This is especially true when it comes to his misogyny, and his willingness to dehumanize women. I think particularly because he is facing a woman opponent we’re going to see a new wave of misogynistic activists who feel like they have the high ground.

How has Obama been on reproductive rights? NARAL endorsed Hillary Clinton in January. Might Hillary be different from him?

Obama has been a great backstop against the endless assault by the anti-choice majority in Congress. He has vetoed every bill we’ve needed him to veto in no uncertain terms. But what we need now is a leader in the White House who centralizes these ideas about reproductive freedom as human rights, integral to the health and security of women and families in America. That’s not really been the center of his presidency, and I think it will be the center of Hillary Clinton’s.

Hillary on Charters: Yes and No

Originally published in the The American Prospect on July 6, 2016.

On Tuesday morning, as the FBI issued a recommendation to not indict Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server while secretary of state, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee came before more than 7,500 delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., and praised public charter schools—to the audible dismay of some of the delegates—while condemning for-profit ones.

The moment of tension emerged when Clinton started to discuss replicating the success of “great schools”—including public charter schools. She noted there had been too much focus on so-called “failing” schools.

Though Clinton has been a long-time supporter of school choice, and her husband helped to catapult charters to the national stage when he was president, she took heat from charter school advocates in November when she remarked that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Although an adviser emphasized shortly thereafter that Clinton remains a “strong supporter” of public charter schools, many reformers remained leery of her commitment.

But on Tuesday, Clinton gave charters a shout-out, resulting in the loudest boos she received the entire morning. “We’ve got no time for these education wars!” Clinton told the crowd. Facing the evidently anti-charter audience, Clinton quickly pivoted to denouncing for-profit charter schools, saying, “We will not stand for [them].”

The Representative Assembly is the annual conference for the NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, which gathers each summer to set its political agenda for the coming year. The union, with its nearly three million members, endorsed Clinton in October, following the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed her last July. Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s ideas around public education have been much debated, with self-proclaimed reformers worried she would be hostile to their policies, while many rank-and-file teachers remained skeptical that Clinton would stand up for unions and fight efforts to privatize public schools. 

Despite these concerns, the mood in the plenary hall on Tuesday was overwhelmingly enthusiastic; members wore “Educators for Hillary” T-shirts, waved signs in support, and cheered with excitement.

“I want to say right from the outset that I’m with you,” Clinton told the audience early on in her speech. She promised that if elected, educators will “have a partner at the White House” and that they’ll “always have a seat at the table.”

Clinton framed her education policy proposals around the slogan of “TLC,” or teaching, learning, and community. She threw out a lot of ideas that met eager applause, from raising teacher salaries to reducing the role of standardized testing, to creating universal preschool for every child. She discussed “repairing crumbling schools” and making general investments in school facilities and technology.

Clinton’s rhetoric on charters mirrors language in the recently released Democratic Party platform, which says the party is committed to providing parents with “high-quality public school options” and expanding such options—namely neighborhood schools and charters—for low-income children. The platform comes out against for-profit charter schools, which it says are “focused on making a profit off public resources.”

According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a charter advocacy group, just under 13 percent of charters are run by for-profit companies, though in cities like Detroit, more than 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profits. However, the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is often messier than groups like NAPCS readily admit: Nonprofit charters can still hire for-profit management companies to run their schools.

Some states have begun banning for-profit charter schools, or passing laws that make opening them more difficult. Last year, California legislators tried to ban for-profit charter schools from operating in their state, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying he did not “believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.” The momentum against for-profit schools has clearly grown more pronounced since then, and also reflects growing divisions within the education reform coalition, between those who champion market-based reforms, and those who push for greater accountability.

In her speech, Clinton also denounced her likely opponent, Donald Trump, who enthusiastically endorsed charter schools during a March primary debate and has said he opposes Common Core standards and “may cut the Department of Education.”

The NEA carries formidable political weight. According to the union, its members represent one out of every 58 general election voters. Rallying those teachers who preferred Senator Bernie Sanders for president to not only vote for Clinton in November but also help campaign for her will be a pressing priority for the union’s leadership.

Following the speech, the union released a statement saying that Clinton’s remarks “held no punches in articulating a clear and inspiring vision of opportunity for every student in America, regardless of ZIP code.”

Education Reformers Reflect at 25

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 29th, 2016.

It’s been a quarter-century since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, prompting many self-proclaimed reformers to step back and reflect on their movement’s progress. Charters educated 2.5 million students this past year, in 6,700 schools across 43 states. Programs enabling students to attend private schools with vouchers are expanding. And in February, Teach for America celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a summit in Washington, D.C.—noting that of their 50,000 teachers and alumni, 40,000 are still under 40.

But challenges loom for the movement—politically and philosophically. Some tensions can be chalked up to growing pains: a nationwide bipartisan coalition is bound to disagree at times, and certainly policy implementation can be far more contentious than passing legislation. Transforming the public education system, reformers have found, turns out to be hard, messy work.

But the problems run deeper than that. Internally, two main camps of reformers—market-driven advocates and accountability hawks—have been butting heads increasingly over goals and political priorities. For a long time, these two groups seemed to be one and the same—“choice and accountability” have always been buzzwords for the movement. But over time, the divisions between Team Choice and Team Accountability have grown more apparent. Today, some veteran choice advocates, those who have been pushing market-driven reforms for the last 25 years, have expressed feelings of being hemmed in, and in some cases crowded out, by others who are demanding formal checks and balances.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, is one such frustrated choice advocate. “Reformers have become our own worst enemy,” she declared at an event at the National Press Club earlier this month. Her group organized the event to release its new manifesto, outlining challenges Allen sees within education reform, and steps allies must take to get their movement back on track. “If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts to drive change have hit a wall,” she said. In Allen’s view, reformers saw more progress during their first nine years, than over the last 16.

Her manifesto cites a declining interest in Teach for America, decreasing enthusiasm for the education technology sector, and slower overall charter school growth. She says that officials who authorize charters have grown too overbearing, stifling flexibility and innovation. And she calls on the reform movement to get back on offense—to focus on “opportunity and upward mobility”—so they can begin rebuilding momentum.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus at the right-of-center Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform think tank, tells me he thinks Allen is correct to note that reformers have not looked ahead to the future enough. He worries that the current partisanship in the country threatens to splinter the reform coalition. But he says he thinks certain gains and accomplishments—like judging schools on whether students are learning, improved graduation rates, better tests, and more rigorous standards—are ones to be proud of. “She doesn’t really give them enough credit,” he says.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, tells me that while he felt many of Allen’s observations were accurate, the overall tone of her manifesto was too cynical and pessimistic. “In the places where we have a lot of charter schools, they won’t disappear,” he says. “The fight now is how many more are there going to be, and what are the regulations around them going to look like.”

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Still, fairly stark divisions have emerged within education reform over what role “the market” should play in determining what kinds of public schools should exist and expand.

Some groups, like the Center for Education Reform, remain committed to the idea that parents should be able to choose the schools they think best meets the needs of their child. While all reformers still generally use this type of rhetoric, many have actually moved away from the more corporate “parents as customers” language that leaders like Allen still regularly employ. From the perspective of the Center for Education Reform, if a parent is satisfied with a school, then that is reason enough to assume it’s successful and working. If enough parents want to leave a school, and have the freedom to do so, the thinking goes, then bad schools will be inevitably shut down, just as bad businesses close if they can’t sustain demand for their products.

In her manifesto, Allen says that while charter authorizers have a role to play in terms of opening schools, it should be parental choice that determines whether or not schools close. “No accrediting agency has more of an incentive to keep kids out of bad schools than mothers and fathers,” she writes.

“Well, we just fundamentally disagree with that,” Richmond tells me.

Chester E. Finn Jr. says he’s also less willing to leave school accountability up to parents, and believes student outcomes have to be part of the conversation. “Jeanne is a little more willing to settle for a market test, and I want something else besides that. I’m also pretty fussy about achievement.”

Nowhere is this divide more evident than within the ongoing debates surrounding virtual charter schools, which more than 180,000 students attend full-time in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Last fall, multiple research studies found that virtual charter schools yield significantly worse academic results than traditional public schools. Building on those findings, this month, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (Richmond’s group), and 50Can, an education reform advocacy group, jointly released a report with recommendations for states to hold virtual charters more accountable for student performance. “It is increasingly clear that full-time virtual charter schools are not a good fit for many children and that solely relying on self-selection in the enrollment process isn’t working,” their report said.

As Matt Barnum, an education policy writer for The 74 observed, that reform groups opted to say ‘self-selection’ –rather than “choice”—highlights some of the tensions of this particular moment. For so long, reform advocates argued that schools should be measured on the basis of whether parents choose them. (Or “self-select” them.) But now more groups are saying that perhaps unfettered choice is not the best policy after all.

“What most of the folks in the charter world realized after ten years was that having an unfettered market produced some great schools, but also a lot of bad ones,” Richmond says. He notes that groups like the Walton Family Foundation used to be very generous in terms of who they would fund. “There was a period of time where it was as if almost anyone who wanted to open a charter school could get a grant of $100,000 from the Waltons. It ran like that for a number of years, until eventually they looked at the results and decided this wasn’t working.”

“As supportive as I am about entrepreneurialism and private sector engagement,” says Finn, “there’s also been a lot of greedy behavior—a lot of ‘to the heck with the kids’—and we reformers didn’t really pay enough attention to that.”

The Center for Education Reform issued a statement sharply critical of the three groups’ report, saying it “exemplifies precisely why the education reform movement is at risk—its conclusions endanger the ideals of opportunity and innovation that are so desperately needed in education today.” At the National Press Club, Allen went further, saying there’s been a “death march” around research studies, with too many reports and academics critiquing various aspects of reform, which then inhibits a culture of risk and innovation.

Efforts to transform public education aren’t going away, but what shape they will take going forward remains unclear. A growing number of people, including both school choice advocates and education reform opponents, say there’s little evidence that standardized test score gains in math and reading lead to improved long-term life outcomes. This has further fueled debates over how students should be tested, and how schools should be held accountable for test scores. There are also growing disputes among reformers over the role of for-profit companies, and what type of regulation and accountability a choice-based system really needs.

“I don’t feel that charters are going to go away, but I do believe they will become so hamstrung they will become like the traditional school system,” said Donald Hense, the founder of one of D.C.’s largest charter networks, at the National Press Club earlier this month. Richmond tells me that while he whole-heartedly agrees some authorizers have gone too far in regulating charter schools, many don’t go far enough.

In late May, Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, penned a provocative post warning of a narrowing space for conservatives within education reform; its “increasingly aggressive” social justice rhetoric, he said, has served to marginalize Republicans and conservative ideas. A fellow conservative, Fredrick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, followed up, lamenting what he described as growing “groupthink” within the movement. “It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas,” Hess said. “It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy.” These and other critiques have sparked a flurry of internal discussion and debate about the future of the coalition—a fairly healthy conversation as reformers work to grow a more diverse movement, but one that has also left people divided over just how existential these problems really are.

As education policy devolves back to the states, as it’s set to do through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in December, we’re likely to see much more school variation across states and communities. Teacher unions and market-driven reformers have cheered these developments, but many civil rights groupsand accountability hawks worry about what a decreased federal role will mean for struggling students. As reformers continue to mobilize, so do their critics. The discussion around school integration has grown louder over the past two years, and more community advocates are exploring models like full-service community schools as ways to boost student success.

Needless to say, the next quarter-century will require close attention.


Under Armour’s Slam-Dunk Deal

Originally published in Slate on June 20th, 2016.

It’s been a lucrative couple of years for Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, the country’s second-largest maker of sports apparel. His company’s revenue has grown by more than 20 percent for 24 consecutive quarters, and its savvy sponsorship deals—with NBA MVP Steph Curry, pro golfer Jordan Spieth, and ballet dancer Misty Copeland—have turned the brand into a powerhouse that now can plausibly be mentioned in the same breath as Nike and Adidas. Under Armour’s expansion into health and fitness technology has even placed it in competition with the likes of Apple and Google.

Just as ambitious are Plank’s efforts in Baltimore, where Under Armour’s headquarters have been stationed since 1998. As part of an effort to grow the company’s HQ staff—from its current headcount of about 2,000 employees to 10,000—Plank is seeking to redevelop some 260 acres of mostly empty industrial land on the south Baltimore peninsula. In addition to a new Under Armour headquarters, Plank hopes to create what would amount to an entire new waterfront neighborhood, complete with shopping, dining, office space, parks, and nearly 14,000 residential units. It’s a real estate development project that could transform the city.

The area Plank has his eyes on, known as Port Covington, has been an underused eyesore for decades. But while many in Baltimore’s political class are cheering the project’s potential to create new jobs and stimulate the local economy, there’s good reason to worry that if the plan goes forward, it could end up leaving the city’s most vulnerable residents worse off than they already are, all while saddling the city with risk it can’t afford.

The problem is that Plank, despite being a self-made billionaire, wants a lot of help to make his vision for Port Covington a reality. To that end, his real estate firm, Sagamore, has asked the city of Baltimore for a record-breaking $535 million in so-called tax increment financing. TIFs, as these types of loans are known, are used to fund infrastructure by selling municipal bonds to private investors, and then property taxes generated by the new development are used to pay them back. Though beloved by titans of commercial real estate, TIFs tend to draw scrutiny because they divert so much money away from a city’s general fund. MuniCap, a consulting firm that Sagamore hired to analyze its TIF application, projects that Plank’s development would not yield property tax revenue for Baltimore’s coffers until about 2040, even as the site would require substantial city resources in the interim.

The size of the TIF that Plank has requested is unprecedented for Baltimore. At more than half a billion dollars, it would be the third-largest TIF deal for a private company in U.S. history. And though the money it would raise would go toward funding improvements like parks, roadways, and bike paths, rather than Under Armour’s new headquarters, Sagamore’s project in Baltimore must also be understood as a tool that would help fuel Under Armour’s continued growth.

At a time when Baltimore is still reeling from the mass unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last year, the deal—as it’s currently structured—strikes many locals as a handout to the well-heeled. They have a point.

“[We are] outraged that, one year after the world bore witness to the decades of disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, city leaders would respond by bending over backwards to back a $535 million playground for the rich,” Charly Carter, the executive director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political advocacy group, says. “This is the new Jim Crow—black and brown families subsidizing wealthy developers while our own neighborhoods crumble.”

Baltimore has a long record of inequitable public investment, with political leaders financing flashy projects in mostly white areas and profits rarely trickling back into the poor, black communities that need funding most. The fear now being expressed by local progressive organizations, housing activists, and labor unions is that, for all the prosperity it will bring Kevin Plank and Under Armour, Sagamore’s TIF plan may turn out to be just another chapter in Baltimore’s history of bad development deals.

                                                                       *   *    *

The campaign to remake Port Covington has been aggressive and well-funded. Sagamore has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing the development to the public, and its forceful slogan—“#WeWill build it”—suggests that the project is a fait accompli.

Which isn’t far off the mark. The Baltimore Development Corp., a public-private agency, approved Plank’s $535 million TIF request in March, and the city’s Board of Finance backed it in April. Now all it needs is the Baltimore City Council’s final approval, which could come as early as August. Activists have urged the council to postpone its vote to give the public more time to comb through the 545-page proposal. But according to Councilman Carl Stokes, who heads the body’s economic development committee, Sagamore wants the deal approved by the end of the summer.

Tom Geddes, the CEO of Plank Industries, which serves as Plank’s private-investment vehicle, denies that Sagamore’s TIF request is anything more than a loan from outside investors to fund public infrastructure. “Some have mischaracterized the TIF as a ‘subsidy’ or a tax break. It is anything but,” he tells me. “There are no tax breaks for developers involved. There are no subsidies. There are no handouts.”

That’s semantics. There’s little question that Sagamore would benefit from the deal—MuniCap reported that Plank and his investors would earn $400 million more on the development with TIF financing than they would without. On top of the TIF money, the Port Covington project would be eligible for more than $760 million in additional tax breaks. As Barbara Samuels, a fair housing lawyer with the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, has said, the idea that Sagamore is asking for anything but a subsidy is an insult to the public’s intelligence. “They claim it’s not a tax break, but it most assuredly is a tax break,” says Stokes.

Subsidies are meant to generate benefits for cities and are usually reserved for projects that would be too difficult to fund absent government financing. But right now, it’s not at all clear that Baltimore would benefit enough from the Port Covington deal to warrant such a massive public investment.

There’s no doubt the city needs more jobs. Nearly 7 percent of Baltimoreans are unemployed, and for young black men, that figure is 37 percent. The city certainly feels indebted to Kevin Plank and Under Armour, too—few other esteemed companies offer comparable employment opportunities for locals. Yet according to Sagamore’s own TIF application, after it’s built, Baltimore residents are expected to fill just a third of the nearly 35,000 permanent full- and part-time jobs projected for Port Covington; the rest of the new employees would live outside the city. And there’s no guarantee, under Plank’s current terms, that they would even earn a living wage. Baltimore’s minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour and is supposed to hit $10.10 by 2018. A living wage in the city for a childless adult is $12.42 per hour.

Community activists also worry that the proposed Port Covington plan would exacerbate racial segregation and do nothing to address Baltimore’s affordable-housing crisis. While Sagamore has touted its (nonbinding) goal of making 10 percent of its residential units affordable, the company defines its market for affordable housing as families earning 80 percent of the area median income of $86,700 per year. Baltimore City’s median income, though, is $42,000. Carol Ott, the director of the Baltimore-based Housing Policy Watch, says if Sagamore is serious about making its units affordable, it needs to use numbers that actually reflect the city’s population.

There’s also the matter of how the TIF deal could impact state funding for city schools. The Baltimore Sun reported that the city’s rapid economic growth spurred by local tax breaks and smaller-scale TIFs led to an automatic $24 million cut in state aid to public schools over the past year. This happened because the state assumes Baltimore’s wealth has gone up—based on property values and resident income—but because many of these valuable buildings pay no property tax, little new revenue actually goes into the city’s coffers. Since the Port Covington TIF is far larger than any other project Baltimore has undertaken before, the risk of severe fiscal drain looms large. For now, the state has agreed to not reduce education funding for three years as the Maryland State Department of Education reviews its school funding formula.

“The problem is, in three years the state could very well say, ‘Hey local jurisdictions, this is on you. You get no break.’ Or, ‘You get only a partial break, since you decided this TIF project was in your interest,’ ” says Melissa Schober, whose daughter attends an elementary school in the city. “As a parent, I don’t know what we would do except move, the cut would be so severe and substantial.”

There’s another reason to be skeptical. Port Covington would be Sagamore’s first major undertaking in the world of commercial real estate. Besides the ongoing construction of a new hotel and the transformation of an old garage into office space, Plank’s real estate firm lacks a track record in development. “This is a brand new developer, we don’t know what they’re capable of,” says Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University. “I don’t know why the city would feel comfortable giving so much of its development future to one entity like this.”

* * *

If Sagamore gets its way, its nearly 600-page TIF application would be approved in just a few weeks—well before the next round of political leadership takes office in January. But local activists and labor unions want to see the plan slowed down, to ensure their concerns about quality jobs, affordable housing, and public education are properly addressed.

If local officials insist on moving forward, says Maryland Working Families director Charly Carter, advocates will demand a transparent process; a plan to help struggling neighborhoods near the development; and a “good jobs guarantee” with local hiring, full benefits, and living wages. “Most importantly,” she adds, advocates want a “clawback provision”—a contractual agreement with Sagamore—ensuring that “if the development falls through, our poorest residents aren’t left holding the bag.” (For example, if the expected jobs don’t pan out, or the property tax generated is lower than anticipated, or the developer walks away—local governments would still have to ensure that they don’t default on their bond payments and that Sagamore retains some responsibility.)

City leaders are discussing clawback provisions and other safeguards to protect Baltimore taxpayers if Port Covington goes belly up or underperforms, but at this point it’s not really clear what teeth these protections would have. In other municipalities, TIFs have left taxpayers with unanticipated shortfalls or have been used fraudulently by politicians with little oversight. In Chicago, nearly half of the $1.3 billion in TIF funds spent by the Rahm Emanuel administration between 2011 and 2014 went toward downtown gentrifying neighborhoods while blighted communities received little to no investment and saw decreased tax revenue for schools and public services. While those specific TIF funds may never have gone toward needy neighborhoods, these acts of financial engineering, which can place extra burdens on cities and on strained budgets, tend to only benefit the kinds of projects that make developers very rich.

“I think it’s being fast-tracked, it’s unfair to the taxpayer, and proper due diligence cannot be made so quickly on such a complex piece of legislation,” says Councilman Stokes. “It’s quite frankly unethical and doesn’t allow us to do any independent market analysis. We’re not facing a legal deadline, but we’re under a lot of pressure from the developer.”

Sagamore, which recently started a petition in support of its project, obviously doesn’t see it that way. “We have received tremendous and enthusiastic support from stakeholders across the city,” says Geddes, the Plank Industries CEO.“We’re excited to be a part of building something great in this city and proud that Baltimore is home to one of the largest urban renewal projects in America right now, a redevelopment that will bring tens of thousands of jobs at a time when the city needs a major economic boost.”

When I ask why the project is barreling forward so quickly, Sagamore’s president, Marc Weller, says that if Sagamore’s TIF is not approved as soon as possible, the city “may miss out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars that require TIF approval.” Specifically, he cites federal grant programs, like the Department of Transportation’s FASTLANE grant, which require cities to make local matching contributions in order to access funds.

But Weller made clear that government subsidies aren’t the only reason for the rush and that Under Armour’s growth is of pressing concern. The company, he says, “has simply outgrown its space” and therefore needs to “aggressively move forward with the construction of a new campus.”

Asked if the company will leave the city if the TIF deal falls though, Geddes answered, “the primary purpose of the Port Covington redevelopment is to allow Under Armour to grow in Baltimore City, and to keep the many direct and related jobs in Baltimore.” #WeWill see.



Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2016.

This week, the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a new bargaining agreement with UTLA, the city’s teachers union. Local community organizations—like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, InnerCity Struggle, and the Advancement Project—hailed the “groundbreaking” agreement for directing more resources towards students in high-needs schools. Some specific items UTLA bargained for included hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size. Union members voted overwhelmingly in support of this new contract a week earlier.

“We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color,” said John Kim, the Advancement Project’s executive director, in a statement.

UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said in an interview that his union sees collective bargaining as an important tool available to fight for equity and justice. “A lot of people consider teacher union contract negotiations to be about narrower issues like salaries, benefits, and work rules—and all of those are important and we deal with those—but we’re using these agreements to expand what the union goes to the table for.” Caputo-Pearl says UTLA can ultimately be a vehicle to push for collaborative policy alongside community organizations. “We’re bargaining for the common good,” he declared.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

But now, partly because of the historic action the Chicago Teachers Union took in 2012, when its members went on strike not just for themselves, but also for increased public services for the broader community, more and more unions have started to reconsider their fundamental roles and responsibilities. By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.

“I think there’s a growing feeling that if you operate within the confines of the law, you restrict the things that potentially give you power,” says Lerner. “We have to be willing to go beyond what the law allows.”

In 2014, leaders from public sector unions and community organizations gathered at Georgetown University for a national conference, entitled “Bargaining for the Common Good,” aimed at charting this new path forward. Writing in Dissent, Joseph A. McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown, said that three distinct priorities emerged from the proceedings: using the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; working with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognizing militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.

A burst of activity followed the Georgetown conference. “It’s been amazing to see how many unions, community groups, and people have adopted the ‘bargaining for common good’ frame and language,” says Lerner.

This past December in Minneapolis, a coalition of unions and community groups brought 2,000 people together to craft a collective agenda for social justice. “Participants highlighted the immense control wielded by a dozen huge corporations, including U.S. Bank, Target, and Wells Fargo, over Minnesota’s economy,” wrote McCartin, and “agreed to collaborate on an array of interlocking campaigns and direct actions in 2016.” Since then, the groups have already successfully pushed for paid sick leave in Minneapolis, and similar ordinances are on the horizon in Saint Paul and Duluth. Groups that can endorse candidates are also working together “with an eye toward building independent political power and wielding greater influence in state elections,” says Dan McGrath of TakeAction Minnesota.

Last summer in Seattle, teachers went on strike for five days—their first strike against the district in 30 years—winning not only cost-of-living increases, but also a guarantee for daily recess for all elementary school students, and the creation of “equity committees” to address the disproportionate discipline of black and brown students.

In Saint Paul, the teachers union began to rethink collective bargaining as far back as 2013, convening regular meetings with parents and community members to formulate a shared vision. When the school district refused to negotiate with the union over their community-driven proposals, insisting that teachers could only bargain on matters related to wages and benefits, the union stood its ground.

Teachers held “walk-ins,” launched social media campaigns, and threatened to go on strike. In the end, teachers won expanded preschool programming, reduced class sizes, reduced testing, and established more equitable access to nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the [union],” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the former Saint Paul teachers union president. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

Ricker now serves as executive vice-president for the American Federation of Teachers, but the work she started in Saint Paul continues. This year the union negotiated a new contract, filled with more community-oriented provisions, such as increased funding for alternatives to punitive discipline policies.

“For too many years we just dealt with the problems we saw from within the walls of our classroom, but now we understand that our contract is the most powerful document we have to improve the learning conditions for our students,” says Denise Rodriguez, the current Saint Paul local president, in an interview.

Caputo-Pearl cites the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network that formed in 2014 comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as a key factor helping to drive this labor shift. “They’ve helped us reframe the conversation around bargaining and move this process forward,” he says.

Indeed, the effort is growing.

Last month, the NEA and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers organized a two-day conference for teacher union locals across the Northeast region, focused on bargaining for the common good. It was the first geographic gathering of its kind. Participants explored how to bargain for issues like adequate nutrition for children, strong public libraries, longer recess, and smaller class sizes. A host of community organizations came, as well as representatives from the Seattle and Chicago teachers locals, who spoke about their own “common good” organizing.

“The members loved hearing about unions being on the offense, rather than the defense,” says Lerner.

“We offered locals a chance to think more deeply about their upcoming contract negotiations,” says Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing. “We’re really watching these ‘a ha’ light bulb moments happen for members when they realize that bargaining can once again be a powerful tool for the issues most prevalent in our lives.”

Charter and Traditional Public Schools Fight Over Money

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 6, 2016.

Last month, a teachers union-funded study in Los Angeles sparked a furor when it reported that the city’s charter sector—which educates 16 percent of L.A.’s public school students—drains upwards of $500 million a year from the district’s school budget.

In a brief accompanying the report, the teachers union and its allies charged that L.A.’s charter school explosion “limits educational opportunities” for more than 500,000 public school students, and “imperils the financial stability” of the district. Education reform advocate Peter Cunningham shot back in a blog post that the study’s premise that charters siphon money from traditional public schools “is like arguing that a younger child deprives an older child of parental attention.”

Such school budget fights are not just happening in Los Angeles. In cities all over the country—from Massachusetts, to Missouri, from Florida to Pennsylvania, from Washington state to Maryland—charters and local school districts are clashing fiercely over who gets what funding. Districts say charters steal their money, leaving them unable to properly educate the students who remain at their schools—very often those who are the most expensive to educate, like children with disabilities.

Charter advocates counter that districts’ financial woes began long before charters came on the scene, and students who seek alternatives shouldn’t have to suffer just because districts and unions face budget and organizational crises. Money should “follow the child” school choice supporters say, meaning per-pupil tax dollars should be directed towards whichever school system a student wishes to attend.

Charter school policy discussions often devolve into political battles that pit advocates armed with competing research studies against one another in arguments over academic impact. In some cities, like Boston and New Orleans, students attending charter schools have demonstrated significant test score gains. In others, the academic results have been no better than those in traditional public schools. And in some cases, charters have yielded worse results than the district schools.

The research examining charter schools’ academic effectiveness will continue indefinitely, but it is concerns about their fiscal impact that are becoming increasingly charged. As the pressure to expand charter schools continues to mount, and the budgetary health of local districts continues to decline, teachers, administrators, parents, and activists on both sides of the charter school divide are facing off over a dwindling resource: money.

Intensifying the heated political clash between charter schools and traditional school districts is that overall spending on public education, for all schools, has fallen. In 2015, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, found most states provide less financial support for public schools than they did before the Great Recession, and in some cases, much less.

“Even as we’ve come out of the recession, heels are dug in, and nobody is really considering putting in additional funds,” says Bruce Baker, an expert on school finance.

Funds are not only shrinking, but districts are hard pressed to manage costs that are “fixed” or “stranded” when students leave to attend charter schools, experts warn. Charter advocates say that as money follows the child, districts should figure out how to adjust to new fiscal realities. But it’s not always so easy to reduce certain expenses, at least right away, say researchers who have studied education funding. The cost of heating a building, for example, is the same for a classroom of 15 students as it would be for one of 18 students.

Similarly, a district that has lost only a few students from each grade can find it difficult to reduce the number of school employees. In 2013, Moody’s Investor Service, a bond credit rating agency, released a report which concluded that a small but growing number of school districts face severe financial stress as charter schools proliferate, specifically because these districts can’t reduce their costs as quickly as they lose revenue. This has forced already struggling districts to make further cuts to programs and services, and in some cases, to shut down schools entirely.

In 2014, education policy experts Robert Bifulco and Randall Reback co-authored a paper on the fiscal impact of charter schools, noting a dearth in existing research on the topic. They looked at Buffalo and Albany, two cities with relatively large concentrations of charter schools, and with public school districts facing stagnant, and shrinking student enrollments. The two concluded that charter school expansion produces negative fiscal impacts for school districts, yet that such harm can be somewhat mitigated by better coordination between charters, districts, and states. Bifulco and Reback found that, in general, closing schools can be the most effective way to manage some of the fiscal strain produced by charter growth, but that such closures are “politically contentious undertakings.”

Still, given that research shows money matters a great deal in education, many charter critics believe it is neither wise nor ethical to gamble that cost cuts will wind up improving student learning.

Still other academics suggest tight budgets may actually help boost student achievement. Ron Zimmer, an education researcher at Vanderbilt University, has said it’s possible that fiscal strain on district budgets could spur competition, potentially helping all students. Still, given that research shows money matters a great deal in education, many charter critics believe it is neither wise nor ethical to gamble that cost cuts will wind up improving student learning.

When the charter school expansion first started to take off, some states freed up transitional funds to help school districts cope with declining enrollments and fiscal fallout as students left for charters. Such transitional aid began “as a sort of compromise” between charters and district schools says Reback. Yet many of these compromise measures were reduced or eliminated once the recession hit.

For example, in Illinois, state law once provided a three-year, declining payment to districts to help them manage their budgets as charter enrollment grew. According to Kasia Kalata, the external affairs manager at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, the state offered impact aid to support school districts with declining enrollments, but phased out the policy in 2009.

Similarly, in 2007, Michigan began to provide some categorical funding to districts with declining enrollments. But these allocations were never fully funded, and by 2012, the state eliminated them altogether. Michigan also lifted its charter school cap in 2011, leading to rapid charter growth.

“Right now you could open a charter school, for almost any reason, in any location, regardless of what that will do to district schools,” says Peter Joseph Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. He says Michigan’s charter law, and the elimination of the state’s charter cap, has just been “devastating” to traditional public school finances. While the categorical grants that Michigan once offered provided some help, Hammer says even those measures were always “very small relative to the need” and mostly enacted to quiet critics.

Pennsylvania used to reimburse local districts up to 30 percent of their charter school costs, but in 2011, the state’s Republican governor eliminated these partial reimbursements. This was a loss of more than $240 million across the state, including over $110 million for Philadelphia alone.

Laws governing pension participation for charter school employees vary from state to state. Charters, though, have generally not been around long enough to accumulate their own unfunded pension liabilities. The question now is: do charters share responsibility to help pay down the pension legacy costs of area school districts?

Monique Morrissey, a pension expert at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, says there is no reason to exempt charter schools from paying unfunded liabilities that are no more the public schools’ fault than they are the charters’. “In fact, I would say that even if charter schools are allowed to opt out of a pension system, they should be required to help pay down the legacy costs to maintain a level playing field,” she says. “Otherwise it creates a downward spiral, where every public school has an incentive to convert to a charter and/or every family has an incentive to choose a better-funded charter school, leaving fewer and fewer students—and less and less funding—in the regular school system to cover the legacy costs.”

In Morrissey’s view, the legacy costs are owed by taxpayers, not students in either regular public schools or charter schools. Thus, she says, “if funding is supposed to follow the students, legacy costs should be taken out of the equation and considered part of the overall budget, not something owed by certain schools and not others. Otherwise, students in regular public schools are effectively provided with less education funding than those in charter schools.”

There have always been disagreements between charters and traditional district schools, but Susan Spicka, the interim director of the advocacy group Education Voters of PA, says that losing those charter reimbursements in 2011 greatly exacerbated tensions between the two sectors. “We support the charter reimbursement and we think it’s a valid argument that, yes, you do have some costs you can’t get rid of right away just because you have fewer children,” Spicka says. “There should be some type of compensation [for districts] to handle those costs.”

Not everyone agrees. Such academics as Marguerite Roza and Jon Fullerton say that policies designed to help districts cope with the effects of shifting student enrollments “weaken the incentives that should drive change and adaptation.” Roza and Fullerton question the idea that schools have all these “fixed costs,” and argue that districts should think more seriously about cheaper alternatives like online schooling, defined-contribution plans, and modified tenure systems. Only by “adopting more nimble expenditure structures,” they have written, can districts feasibly adapt to a changing landscape.

Other “fixed costs” that tend to receive far less attention in conversations about the fiscal impact of charters are the billions of dollars owed by states and districts in pension obligations—and what effect the expansion of charter schools means for local districts saddled with these payments.

Unfunded pension liabilities are the estimated value of benefits earned by employees minus the assets set aside to pay them. Unfunded liabilities can arise because required contributions have not been made in full, or because actuarial assumptions have not been met. States and districts with large unfunded liabilities are now scrambling to find the dollars to pay up, resulting in painful cuts in other areas, including salary reductions for current teachers.

While some unfunded pension liabilities are due to market fluctuations, including sharp stock market declines in 2002 and 2008, leading economists say the most severe cases are due to politicians’ failure to keep up with employers’ share of pension payments over many years (most public-sector workers also contribute toward their own pensions). Instead of setting aside money for future retirees, political leaders opted to defer their responsibilities, borrowing against the next generation of public school students and taxpayers.

Though some education reform advocates have dismissed the idea that districts can’t sufficiently downsize when students leave for charters—they chalk the problem up to bureaucratic recalcitrance—many people acknowledge that such expenses as pension commitments simply cannot be scaled back when student enrollment shifts. “Lifetime health benefits and defined-benefit pensions, sometimes guaranteed decades ago, have created ongoing costs for districts that are unconnected to revenues and enrollment and cannot be easily reduced,” Roza and Fullerton write.

Others disagree.

“The approach of the incumbents—the unions, the administrators—is to chain new teachers to the Titanic because they don’t want to let anyone escape,” says Michael Podgursky, a school finance researcher at the University of Missouri. “These young teachers, charter school teachers, TFA teachers, are cross-subsidizing the pension plans, so [the incumbents] don’t want to let anyone escape.”

He acknowledges that leaving districts to handle those costs alone as charters expand might make things more difficult for traditional school districts. But he says charters “didn’t make this mess.”

Josh McGee, a prominent pension reform advocate at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, also thinks it would be wrong to ask charters to help pay down legacy costs, though he says it’s true it could be “cumbersome” if local districts have to pay the bulk of those pension liabilities alone. “But charter schools didn’t contribute to that legacy debt, nor can they raise funds from local taxpayers,” McGee says. “Charging charters for the unfunded liabilities that they weren’t around for is just a way to tax them and reduce their state aid.”

McGee says there is an argument to be made that local taxpayers should bear some of the pension costs, but suggests that states pick up the bills in order to mitigate any financial harm to school districts. Currently, according to Keith Brainard, the research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, the source of the employer contribution varies across the country, ranging from local districts paying the full cost, to states paying the full cost, to “everything in between.”

Still, Brainard says, it would be fairly unusual for states that don’t currently pay the employer contribution to absorb those costs back from districts, as McGee suggests, though they could increase aid in other ways. In some places where states do currently pay the pension costs, like in Illinois, legislators are even trying to unload their pension obligations right back onto the backs of local districts. (The only district Illinois does not pay the pension contributions for is Chicago Public Schools.)

Some charter operators have begun to explore how they might extricate themselves from their state pension plans. “Charter schools are a cash cow for the pension plans, and once you’re in, it can be hard to get out—which is what a lot of operators face now,” says Podgursky. “As the costs are going up and up and up, many are saying ‘hey, we want out of here’—though generally escaping is hard.” In an effort to avoid adverse selection, pension plans do not typically allow individual schools to opt out.

As a result, some charter operators are turning to the courts. In 2013, charters in Georgia argued to the state supreme court that they shouldn’t be responsible to help pay down debt they didn’t create. Georgia’s high court agreed, and ruled that charters cannot be asked to share in the burden of paying down unfunded pension liabilities.

To complicate things still further, the question of whether charter employees should be eligible to participate in state pension plans remains unsettled. “They’re private employees for some things, like collective bargaining, but public for other things, like pensions,” notes Podgursky. Since 2011, the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department have been scrutinizing this issue, and working to determine whether private charter teachers are “governmental” enough to participate in state plans. Asked to check on the status of this guidance, the IRS told The American Prospect that, five years later, it still has not been finalized.

For districts saddled with pension payments, the consequences can be severe.

“If the total payroll of the pension plan is slower than expected, by virtue of slow growth in the number of employees or slower growth in salaries, then there are fewer dollars available to fund the plan,” explains Brainard. Essentially, if charter schools do not participate in their state plan, either by not contributing to it as employees or not helping to pay down legacy costs, then there are fewer available dollars to pay down existing debts—obligations that cannot be “downsized” through layoffs or school closures.

In the absence of increased state and federal funding, tense battles over school spending are likely to be handled in piecemeal—and controversial—fashion. In 2015, for example, the Philadelphia School Partnership, a local philanthropic education reform group, offered to pay the Philadelphia School District $25 million in order to take the issue of stranded costs “off the table.” Partnership leaders wanted to push for more charter schools, without having to contend with school district worries about their fiscal impact. But the school district said the group’s offer was too low—generous, but insufficient to cover the yearly stranded costs they’d bear if more students were to leave for charters. Local advocates also protested the organization’s offer on democratic grounds.

“It would be a terrible mistake to take the money,” Susan Gobreski, the former executive director of the Education Voters of PA, told Newsworks at the time. “We cannot let benefactors make decisions like that. I’m very concerned about how much pressure is being put on the district to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the district or most of the kids in Philadelphia, and certainly not in the interest of Philadelphia as a community. This is ideology gone wild.

Tensions surrounding funding for the charter and traditional public school systems are not going away, and indeed are likely to grow more serious over time. While Bifulco and Reback offer some policy suggestions for ways to help mitigate financial stress as charter schools expand—such as constraining when students may enroll in charters in order to help districts plan their budgets more systematically—right now ideological divisions have left the two sectors at a stalemate. Charters market themselves as ways to “escape” failed school districts, touting their autonomy and independence. Traditional school districts resent charters for wooing away their students, and now fear charters are hollowing out their budgets. The bitter divide between education sectors has blocked cooperation and solutions. As the bickering over money continues, more and more public school students will likely cram into overcrowded classrooms, studying in schools without basic resources like textbooks, computers, teachers, and guidance counselors. With fewer and fewer dollars to go around, the price for policymakers’ impasse will invariably be paid by students.