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

Originally published in The Intercept on December 26, 2017.
—-

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

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

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

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

But then Donald Trump won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

My favorite work from 2017

2017 was a big one for me. After three years, my great writing fellowship ended, and for the past four months I’ve been freelancing full-time. Over the course of the year I’ve branched out into new areas, including book reviews and reported essays. I also took up more local reporting on Washington D.C., where I’ve been working for four years and living for two; that’s been a meaningful way for me to learn more about my city.

I published more than 60 pieces this year, and in keeping with the roundup tradition from 2016 and 2015, I wanted to reflect on some of the work I’m most proud of.
—–

1. The Hour of the Attorneys General
This American Prospect magazine feature outlined the role Democratic AGs would play in the Trump-era, trying to forestall his agenda. The story was published in March and its predictions have held up pretty well so far. (See: here, here, here, and here for examples.)

2.  Desegregated, Differently
This was my final feature for The Prospect, which detailed a three decades-long battle in Hartford, Connecticut over desegregating their public schools.

3. This is the Wrong Way to Fight Inequality
I reviewed Richard Reeves’s ‘Dream Hoarders‘ for The New Republic. Spoiler: I did not like the book, and worked to explain why.

4. The Untold History of Charter Schools
I wrote an essay for Democracy Journal debunking the popular notion that charter schools are the brainchild of former American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker. This narrative is commonly championed by both teacher unions and education reform advocates, muddying the movement’s real origins.

5.  Where DC Has Failed on Adult Education, Charters Fill the Void
My first piece for Washington City Paper — and a cover story! — detailed the overlooked world of adult education in the nation’s capital. D.C has a reputation for being a ‘highly educated’ city — but nearly 60,000 adults lack high school diplomas, and an estimated 90,000 are functionally illiterate. I looked at what options are available for adult learners, and why charters now play such a big role.

6. Why ‘Pay for Success’ Could Cost Taxpayers More Than They Bargained For
This piece looked at the rise of the “Pay for Success” movement — whereby private investors put up funds for social programs with measurable outcomes, and if the goals are met, the government will pay the investors back with interest. My reporting for this story was supported by a grant through the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times.

7. Discrimination is Not De Facto
I reviewed Richard Rothstein’s ‘Color of Law’ for Slate — an important book that you should read and probably get your family to read too.

8. The Hopes and Fears Surrounding Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program
Following up on prior reporting I’ve done on the Rental Assistance Demonstration, I wrote this story for City Lab on public housing’s future in the Trump-era. I also spoke with some tenants who have had difficult experiences with the RAD program.

9. Under Trump, Liberals Rediscover School Segregation
I looked at the increased attention progressive groups and teacher unions have paid to issues of segregation and school choice since Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump came to power. I also note their earlier silence, and continued silence on matters of charter segregation.

10. Why Education is a Limited Determinant of Mobility
My first piece in The Atlantic looks at a growing body of research that suggests school quality is not the main factor impacting intergenerational mobility. This surprisingly incensed a few people so much I wrote a short follow-up to my critics 🙂

11. Parents Involved, A Decade Later
This year marked the ten-year anniversary of the last school desegregation case to reach the Supreme Court. I wrote something for The Prospect on the decision, and how the integration movement has evolved since 2007.

12. Late-Stage Abortion Provider Won’t Succumb to Protestors Who Forced Him Out of His Last Maryland Clinic
For The Intercept I wrote about LeRoy Carhart’s new abortion clinic in Bethesda, Maryland — one of just three places women can go for late-sage abortion care in the United States. He’s a 76-year-old retired Air Force surgeon and for the last seven years he has flown every week from his home in Nebraska to offer the procedure.

13. DC Charters Prize Their Autonomy. Does It Come At The Cost of Public Accountability?
This was my second cover story for Washington City Paper, and it looked at the contentious oversight landscape for D.C’s fast-growing charter sector — and how that can complicate citywide policymaking.

14. Civil Rights Groups Sue Ben Carson For Delaying Anti-Segregation Housing Reform
In August the Trump administration announced it would be blocking a policy that would allow low-income voucher holders to use their subsidy to move into higher-income neighborhoods. I was the first to report on a civil rights lawsuit challenging this move. This past week (two months after the story was published in The Intercept) a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, meaning the policy will go into effect in January.

15. Larry Hogan Can Be Beat
My hottest take of 2017 is still correct.

—–
These are just a few of the stories I wrote this year. If you’d like to read more, or receive updates in 2018, you can sign up for emails here. Otherwise thank you for reading, and happy New Year!

Spotlight on Sexual Misconduct Reopens Old Wounds at Marijuana Policy Project

Originally published in Washington City Paper on December 19, 2017.
—-

25507740_4165842431861_6405566484623828634_n.jpg

Nearly eight years ago, City Paper detailed a local sex scandal involving staffers at the Marijuana Policy Project, an influential advocacy group focused on promoting non-punitive marijuana laws.

Certain facts are undisputed: In early August 2009, Rob Kampia left an employee happy hour at Union Pub on Capitol Hill with a female subordinate. Kampia was the organization’s co-founder and executive director; the woman had, days earlier, broken up with her boyfriend, who was also an MPP employee. The woman was behind the wheel, but halfway through Kampia asked to drive, worried she was too drunk. He then took her back to his house in Columbia Heights, where they had sex.

Within two weeks, seven employees, including the woman, resigned from the organization. All MPP department heads joined together to unanimously call on the board to remove Kampia as executive director.

Kampia was well-known for making sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace, but after the August incident, according to several people who worked there at the time, the office felt not just creepy, but predatory.

City Paper’s 2010 article details the struggle within MPP over the incident—particularly the role of Alison Green, Kampia’s chief of staff and MPP’s unofficial head of HR. Green was also a longtime friend of Kampia. While she originally aligned herself with the department heads calling for Kampia’s removal, Kampia told her that MPP’s largest funder would pull out if he stepped down.

Soon Green said she was “no longer sure where I personally stand on the department heads’ recommendation.” Four days later, she told the managers that “after some rest and thought” she “no longer believe[s] it’s in the best interest of MPP for Rob to step down.” All complaints about Kampia’s behavior were still to go through Green, and she promised to relay them to the board. Many employees were deeply upset with Green’s about-face.

In the end, the board voted to keep Kampia on. One board member, Mitch Earleywine, resigned as a result. “It was a difficult decision and not what I thought I was going to do until that very moment,” he says. “I had to do it, but the fact that I had to do still brings me a lot of sadness.”

Following the incident staffers were required to attend sexual harassment training, and MPP implemented its first sexual harassment policy. (Employees had long requested one.)

Five months later, the press got wind of what happened, and Kampia then announced he would take a three-month break from the organization to seek therapy. “I just think I’m hypersexualized,” he told The Washington Post at the time. Kampia returned to lead the organization in April, and Green then resigned.

In the seven-and-a-half years since, the episode has been mostly forgotten. Kampia stayed on as executive director.

As for Green, her career has soared: She started Ask a Manager, a workplace advice blog in 2007. By 2010 she realized she was getting enough traffic to start making a living from management advice and consulting. Today, Ask a Manager gets nearly 3 million visits per month, and Green receives about 60 questions per day. She has become something of a national expert on navigating complicated workplace issues—including sexual misconduct. She also writes a weekly advice column for New York Magazine and has a book coming out next year on workplace problems.

But not everyone has moved past what happened in 2009, or is convinced MPP ever really addressed the problem. For some, the present wave of alarm over sexual abuse has reopened old wounds.

***

Late last month, Kampia finally stepped down from his executive director position, assuming a new role at MPP. He’ll be doing more fundraising but no longer managing staff. (Kampia describes it as a “lateral promotion” that he’d sought, where he’ll make “the same amount of money but for half the workload.”)

A number of cannabis industry leaders wondered if this abrupt change was a sign that Kampia’s past had caught up with him, and MPP’s board was racing to get ahead of a story in 2017’s climate of heightened vigilance over harassment.

MPP spokesperson Morgan Fox says no, and he says that there have been “no sexual misconduct allegations against any MPP employee since 2009 that I’m aware of.”

City Paper hears a different account from one former employee, Eric Smith, who worked as MPP’s director of IT. He says he left the organization after voicing concerns to a board member about an alleged incident involving Kampia and an intoxicated female employee at Kampia’s home the night of MPP’s 2014 holiday party. At the time of this party, Smith had submitted his resignation and given his 30-day notice; he was still working at MPP. After the holiday party, he told a board member he “would be willing to stay if action were taken.” He had worked at MPP long enough to weather the 2009 upset, but had told the board he would leave if anything of that nature happened again.

“When people leave a decent paying job with nothing else even lined up yet, they’re not leaving because they’re just ready to try something new,” says Smith. “They’re leaving because they’re pissed … I left without another job lined up because I realized the board was never going to take action.”

In a written statement submitted to City Paper, Kampia said, “No employees have alleged they were harassed at any holiday parties or elsewhere in 2014. As recently as December 17, 2017, MPP board members have unanimously stated they’ve received no complaints about harassment from affected parties or third parties since 2010. As for me personally, no MPP employees harassed me at any holiday parties in 2014, nor did I harass any employees, consultants, independent contractors, or others. Because our board of directors has received zero complaints, the board hasn’t even needed to deliberate harassment claims since 2010.”

Kampia also disputes allegations of misconduct in 2009, insisting the night he spent with the employee was consensual. “It was a relationship dispute,” he tells me in an interview. “[T]he colleague who wanted to hook up with me, she had just gotten out of a relationship with another colleague of ours. And that relationship ended I think four days previously.”

“She and I were going to start dating,” he says. But then, her ex-boyfriend “freaked out and quit, because apparently he wanted to possess her body, or something.” Kampia continues: “I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for him quite frankly because I didn’t really talk to him … There’s something on his mind that caused him to be upset and quit, and I’m guessing it was because the relationship was still too raw … Then he leaves, his friends leave, and now she feels like a jerk, so she leaves.”

I asked Kampia why his therapy sabbatical came several months after the alleged incident. “When two single people are hooking up that’s not particularly interesting, but when the press starts talking about it, now it starts to look like it’s really bad,” he says. “The reason the break happened in January was not because of the incident per se, but because of the press around it.”

***

City Paper also reached out to Green. Until now, despite working as a management guru who advises women on things like handling creepy men in the office, she had not addressed charges that she had enabled a boss’ inappropriate behavior.

Now Green says that she couldn’t say this at the time, but that she thinks “Rob Kampia is a serial sexual harasser who has been allowed to stay in his position of power because he’s good at his work.” She calls standing behind him in 2009 “the biggest regret” of her career.

“It was just the wrong call, and it’s haunted me for years. I would do anything to be able to go back and redo it,” she says. “I just made a lot of mistakes in that situation, and frankly I didn’t have any experience in how to handle a situation like that … so I tried to do what made sense to me, which was just to tell him over and over to stop. I really regret that I didn’t leave sooner, and that I did not explicitly support those calling for him to be fired.”

I asked her if and how this has affected her work as an advice columnist.

“I have a far better understanding than I want of how these issues end up being allowed to fester in organizations,” Green says, adding that she has “a really strong commitment now to naming [harassment] when I see it” and educating managers on how to respond, including urging them to leave when it appears an employer won’t change their ways.

And for others, the distress still lingers. City Paper spoke with multiple former MPP staffers, and found many still unhappy about the resolution of the 2009 episode. Some voiced frustration with how the board handled it, and others expressed unease with Green’s consulting career.

“She enabled a sexual predator for years,” says Salem Pearce, MPP’s former membership director who resigned in the wake of the 2009 incident. “It makes my stomach sick to see her out there giving advice.”

Max Socol, who started working at MPP in October 2009, less than two months after the incident, says he was hired completely unaware of what had just happened, or why there were so many open positions. “I was 23. I didn’t ask why the last person left, but Rob and Alison made no mention of anything in my interview,” he says. “They really actively concealed that anything had happened—anything out of the ordinary. What was so consistently gross and frightening about my job at MPP, which was one of the most miserable years of my life, was how clear it was how many wealthy, well-connected people were totally willing to let Rob behave as he wanted because he could get results.”

For her part, Green says she can’t remember all the details but that “it would have been crazy” to not brief new hires on the situation. Kampia says that even though the press hadn’t picked up the story yet, “you’d have to be an idiot not to know” given the size of the organization. “If you hire someone and they go into an office with 33 people who just saw the shenanigans happening a few weeks ago, it’s not like Rob’s going to be able to hide it,” says Kampia, speaking in the third person. “That’s just asinine that someone would try to claim I was not telling people what had just happened.”

Emily Stevenson, who worked at MPP between June of 2009 and May 2010, says six months after leaving “it really began to crystallize for me how horrific everything was.” Though a fan of Ask a Manager, Stevenson says that when it came to Kampia, Green seemed blinded by her personal relationship. “I think she knew the right thing to do, and when she talks about it she gives the right advice, but when it comes to Rob, she was just unable to see him.”

When I spoke to Green, she agreed, explaining that their friendship “muddled” her thinking “because I was more willing to believe the best of him.”

Smith, the former employee who handled IT, says he felt much more frustrated with Green back in 2009, but over the following half-decade, grew “significantly more sympathetic” to the position she was in, given his own interactions with the board.

Earleywine, the board member who quit, says “Alison had a big mess to clean up and I think she did a good job in a hellish situation.” Still, Earleywine says that despite the circulating rumor, it never seemed true to him that MPP would lose its biggest funder if Rob were removed as ED.

Kampia now holds the title “Director of Strategic Development” at MPP.

Green says that in the midst of this new cultural moment, she’s optimistic about women feeling more empowered to speak up and out. “But I am not sure that I’m feeling really optimistic about organizations listening to them,” she acknowledges. “Unless they’re forced to in some way.”

Q&A: Getting Millennials Off That Treadmill

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 6, 2017.
——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should parents or schools be doing differently?

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

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

What about kids? Can they be doing anything differently?

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

What is your ultimate hope for the book?

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

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

Will America’s Schools Ever Be Desegregated?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on December 5, 2017, co-authored with Will Stancil.
——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 30, 2017.
——

24176659_4146795715705_3238145441863932998_n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What spurred the DC Prep vote reversals?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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