D.C. Schools Battle Requests to Release Information About Sex Misconduct

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 2017
—-

Paul Kihn, D.C.’s deputy mayor for education, announced on Aug. 8 that DC Public Schools received six “substantiated” complaints of sexual misconduct involving school staff since January 2018. But when parents, led by Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Denise Krepp, asked to learn which six schools those were, Kihn declined to share the information, citing concern for the past victims, and a potential chilling effect on future victims coming forward. “We do not believe we have heard a compelling argument to release such an aggregated list, i.e. how this list will help keep students safe,” Kihn wrote to Krepp on Aug. 20.

Three days later, the D.C. Open Government Coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn the names of the six schools. The FOIA, addressed to the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office, said it was not seeking “any record of any charge, investigation, conclusions or related personnel action.” All it sought, the request said, was where the incidents happened. (The transparency coalition filed a similar request with D.C. Public Schools on Sept. 24.)

To bolster its case, the author of the FOIAs, board member Fritz Mulhauser, pointed to Kihn’s Aug. 20 letter, where he told Krepp that it’s DC Public Schools policy that “school communities are informed of such incidents as they occur.” In other words, Mulhauser said, since hundreds of students, staff, and parents at those schools were presumably informed of the incidents, per school district policy, the rest of the city is entitled to access that information, too. The courts, he added, have held that “records with information that is already public may not be withheld.”

The effort to learn this information was prompted by an incident, reported by WAMU in June, that an adult working in an after-school program at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan was arrested and charged with allegedly having sexual contact with a 13-year-old student between January and May. Parents were alarmed that they learned of the allegations a month after they were first filed, and D.C. Public Schools soon learned that the after-school program, Springboard, had not conducted a proper background check on the employee. In August, following an internal review, DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee shared that more than 30 percent of school district employees had expired background checks, and DCPS would work to improve its safety protocols going forward.

The Deputy Mayor for Education’s office doesn’t track comparable information for charter schools, which educate roughly 47,000 students in the city and are not subject to FOIA.

On Sept. 23, Gina Toppin, the FOIA Officer for the Deputy Mayor for Education, informed Mulhauser that his request for information had been denied, “because the DME does not maintain the requested records” and Mulhauser did not “name any specific individual records or key words.” On Oct. 11, Eboni Govan, the FOIA Officer for D.C. Public Schools, likewise told Mulhauser, “DCPS does not have documents that are responsive to this request.”

In other words, despite receiving 27 complaints of sexual misconduct between Jan. 1, 2018 and this past August, and concluding that six of those allegations were “substantiated,” the Deputy Mayor for Education and D.C. Public Schools said they have no records that contain the names of the schools where the aforementioned incidents took place.

“Given that the six schools have supposedly been the subject of an accusation, an investigation, and a finding that something of concern did happen, the DME’s response lacks credibility,” Mulhauser tells City Paper.

City Paper reached out to the Deputy for Mayor for Education to ask how it is possible that there are no records available with this information, and if he wants to respond to Mulhauser’s concern that despite the risks it may estimate releasing school names to the public might create, the law says the government cannot withhold information from the wider public if some people have already reviewed it.

In emailed responses, Kihn reiterated that his office “does not maintain such records” and contested the idea that the information has already been released publicly, saying, “The District has not disclosed specific names of the schools or names of any employee accused of sexual misconduct.” He did not clarify how this response aligns with his prior statement that “school communities are informed of such incidents as they occur.”

When asked to comment on his rationale for keeping the school names private, Kihn wrote that “while we are committed to being transparent in keeping families and community members informed of incidents that have been reported, we are respectful of victims’ feelings and rights, as well as of due process and employee confidentiality.”

Kihn went further, saying that they feel “a public list of schools could easily fan flames in those communities and put people on the spot. Rumors in such cases are often much worse than the substantiated claims, and we don’t feel right contributing in any way to circumstances that might negatively impact victims, o[r] lead to speculation and gossip that could be generally harmful to school communities.” Moreover, he added, “such a list might chill future complaints by victims if indeed such a spotlight is shone on schools, and creates unhelpful speculation and gossip about both victims and perpetrators.”

He referenced a 2017 order from Mayor Muriel Bowser that sexual harassment complaints and investigations be kept as confidential as possible for these reasons, among others, and says “we want to honor the spirit of the Order.”

“It’s disappointing that public officials don’t trust the public as deserving to know the facts on important subjects like student safety in school,” says Mulhauser, adding that access to public records in D.C. is governed by the Freedom of Information Act, not by individual officials using a personal risk-benefit calculus.

Danica Petroshius, a Capitol Hill Montessori parent who has been leading efforts since June to improve policies on school sexual misconduct, contends the lack of transparency not only “breeds distrust” but also sends a friendly signal to predators.

“The lack of adequate data and sharing means that predators know we have a weak system,” she wrote in a letter to Kihn, dated Sept. 7. “Data and transparency are a key part of a strong preventative system.”

In an interview with City Paper, Petroshius says she believes taking proactive, transparent steps does not inherently conflict with protecting student privacy.

“I don’t believe it at all when [Kihn] says it’s about the victims,” she says. “It’s that they don’t want to be transparent, they want to protect from lawsuits, they want to shield information because they’re terrified.”

Petroshius is now serving on a newly formed D.C. Public Schools Student Safety Task Force. It had one meeting in September, and has two more scheduled for this fall. “I do think DCPS is trying to fix this. I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think we could actually move forward,” she says. “I really worry for all of our charter parents, and I think we should have one citywide policy to cover all our kids.”

Mulhauser says the D.C. Open Government Coalition will appeal their two FOIA responses, and ask the mayor to do a more rigorous records search. “Appeals of incorrect or limited searches are among the most common topics of litigation in public records issues around the country,” he adds, suggesting that could be an option for them down the line.

Advertisements

Bernie Sanders Stood Up To Teach For America When Congress Wouldn’t

Originally published in The Intercept on October 16, 2019.
—–

IN HIS EXPANSIVE presidential education platform, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., lays out commitments to raising teacher pay, expanding teacher-training programs, and addressing the shortage in special education teacher recruitment.

His plan, though critical of many staples of education reform — like the proliferation of charter schools and tying federal funds to standardized tests — steers clear of some other controversial education topics, like Teach For America, the national organization that recruits recent college graduates and places them in public schools for two-year stints.

Sanders has a notable history on this issue, however, in that he stood up to the powerful organization when virtually no one else in Congress would.

While he has said in the past that he is a “strong supporter of programs like Teach For America” and several of his education advisers were alumni of the program, Sanders was also the sole member of the Democratic caucus to take on the group in a 2011 fight about the role noncertified teachers play in the U.S. public school system.

The senator’s fight was rooted in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which included a provision that said all students are entitled to “Highly Qualified Teachers” — a goal to ensure all educators were sufficiently prepared before running their own classroom. Under the law, teachers in core subjects were required to have bachelor’s degrees, demonstrate content knowledge, and obtain state teaching certificates or pass state licensing exams.

These rules posed a problem for Teach for America, since its uncredentialed recruits did not meet those standards, but the organization had built its reputation on the idea that its participants were ready to start immediately leading classrooms. Over several years, Teach for America lobbied to have its program participants recognized as “highly qualified” — a proposition that rankled Sanders, as well as a broad coalition of education and civil rights groups. Research showed uncertified teachers worked disproportionately in high-poverty schools, and in some states, were concentrated with English-language learners and students with disabilities.

“When we have highly qualified teachers, we don’t want all of those teachers being in upper-middle-class neighborhoods educating kids to go to Harvard and Yale,” Sanders said in 2011. “We want that, but we also want to make sure that schools that have serious problems, where kids are dropping out, kids have a lot of disabilities, we want to make sure that those schools get their fair share, an equitable distribution of ‘highly qualified’ teachers.”

Sanders ultimately lost the fight — waged at a time when Teach for America not only commanded strong allies in Congress but also had the backing of Barack Obama’s Education Department. While the relevant portion of the law was eliminated in 2015, the episode is worth examining closely as a lesser-known example of Sanders’s willingness to challenge his party and the Washington consensus.

The Sanders campaign declined to comment for this story. Joe Walsh, a spokesperson for Teach for America, told The Intercept over email that “this was an old debate about a law that does not exist anymore … [but] back when this was in place, there was overwhelming bipartisan support, in both two different Administrations and in Congress, for the highly qualified teacher rules. The law back then included those teachers who entered the teaching profession through high-quality alternative preparation programs. We supported that, as did many other education organizations. Our teachers always met the standard of highly qualified teacher.”

FEW EDUCATION GROUPS wield more political power on Capitol Hill than Teach for America. It has been a bipartisan sweetheart for more than two decades, and consequently has landed tens of millions of dollars in federal grants and earmarks. As is common in Washington, the organization’s strength with the federal government has enabled it to shape law in its favor.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, the group was enmeshed in a dispute over teacher credentialing under the No Child Left Behind Act that demonstrated its ability to marshal influence in D.C. Under the law, a school district was permitted to hire educators who did not meet the “highly qualified” bar if there were teacher shortages. Schools that did so, however, had to then inform parents if their child was taught by such a teacher, publicly disclose how many teachers in the entire school were not highly qualified, and develop a plan to reach 100 percent highly qualified teachers. The law also barred schools from disproportionately concentrating inexperienced and uncertified teachers in classrooms with low-income students and students of color. In other words, if noncertified teachers had to be hired, they also had to be fairly distributed across schools.

Teach for America and its allies in the education reform community lobbied the government, and in 2002, the Department of Education issued a regulation that said “highly qualified” teachers could now also include unlicensed teachers for up to three years if they were making progress toward their certification. This effectively resolved the problem for Teach For America, as most program recruits planned to leave the classroom at the end of their assignment anyway.

In 2007, the civil rights law firm Public Advocates filed a suit against the Department of Education over this regulation. In effect, the lawyers argued, it created an exemption that condoned the assignment of novice, inexperienced teachers to students in high-poverty schools, which are disproportionately nonwhite and low-income.

“It seemed pretty simple to us all along that you can’t have a law that requires ‘full state certification’ for teachers to be highly qualified and also say that people who are in the process of getting their certification meet that designation,” said John Affeldt, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “Those are two different states of being.”

Affedlt said there was little question as to why the 2002 regulation came about. “Teach for America applied pressure because they saw the original statute as threatening to their model and to the growth of their organization,” he said. “At some point between its founding and the mid-2000s, Teach for America had changed its belief system from ‘Every student needs fully qualified, highly effective teachers’ to ‘Every student needs us.’ TFA’s model depends on being able to concentrate their people in low-income, high-minority schools, and they thought that was a good thing. And if the law incentivized districts to hire other types of teachers ahead of TFA, well, they didn’t want that. They wanted to be seen on the same level, and some in leadership truly believe that TFA’s teachers-in-training are as good or even better qualified than certified teachers who might apply.”

Teach for America and its education allies fought back against the 2007 lawsuit. In November 2008, Teach for America lawyers submitted an amicus brief arguing that overturning the regulation would “have devastating consequences for our nation’s poorest and most at-risk students.” (The lead counsel was Jenner & Block attorney, Donald Verrelli, who would go on to become solicitor general in the Obama administration.) The brief made a number of unfounded claims, like that school districts could be forced to fire tens of thousands of teachers-in-training and replace them with substitutes. “Whatever Appellant’s motives, the relief they seek would gravely harm the public school students most in need of assistance,” the lawyers argued.

In a response brief, Affeldt and his colleagues argued that “TFA’s illogical doomsday scenario” will not come to pass if the plaintiffs prevail, as school districts will still have the right to hire noncertified teachers. They “will simply have to be reported—accurately—as non-‘highly qualified,’” the lawyers wrote. “And rather than artificially papering over the shortage, states and districts will have to make good faith efforts to provide 100% of students with teachers who are fully-prepared and to distribute equitably teachers who are not.”

While Teach for America and the defendants tried to cast the lawsuit as a referendum on alternative teacher certification programs, the judges recognized that was not what was going on, and in September 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the regulation, finding that it conflicted with the requirements laid out in No Child Left Behind.

REBUFFED BY THE courts, Teach for America instead turned to Congress, setting up a battle between the group and a vast majority of Democrats on one side, and Sanders on the other.

In December 2010, in the lame-duck session of the Democratic-controlled Congress, lawmakers inserted a rider into an unrelated spending bill that effectively nullified the Ninth Circuit ruling for at least another 2 1/2 years. Congress did this with no public debate, and legislators later claimed they were trying to prevent schools from facing major disruptions. “It has now become more important to maintain the status quo of using poor and minority schools as the training grounds for interns than enforcing teacher equity as NCLB called for and as parents are demanding,” Affeldt argued at the time.

Civil rights groups were furious about the shady rider, and in response launched the Coalition for Teaching Quality, representing more than 80 local, state, and national civil rights, disability rights, and education groups. Their mission was to get it overturned.

Jane West, an education consultant and one of the leaders of the coalition, approached Sanders, who sat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, seeking his help.

“We all knew Jessica Cardichon” — Sanders’s education counsel — “who everyone thought was fabulously and eminently thoughtful and reasonable, and we thought that Bernie Sanders was one of the few Democrats on the education committee who didn’t go around waving the flag for Teach for America,” West said. “So for that reason, we thought that would be the right office to approach.”

Cardichon herself was a Teach for America alumni, as was Sanders’s subsequent education staffer, Michael DiNapoli Jr., who worked for Sanders between November 2015 and June 2017. Both Cardichon and DiNapoli Jr. now work at the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank.

In a joint interview, they explained how their experiences in Teach for America helped inform their ideas about improving teacher quality, training, and mentorship.

“I taught for seven years and did TFA, and it did not prepare me well,” said Cardichon, who worked in a public school in the Bronx.

“I was also TFA, and felt similarly where I didn’t feel adequately prepared,” said DiNapoli Jr., who taught special education for one year in New York City.

Sanders understood these concerns, and in October 2011, he introduced two amendments, known collectively as the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, to address the problem. The measures would clarify that a “highly qualified” teacher would be someone who has completed their traditional or alternative teacher preparation program, and if they had not yet completed it, then parents had to be notified, and the teachers would need to be given additional supervision, guidance, and support.

In a Senate HELP committee hearing, Sanders emphasized that his amendments would not conflict with the goal of attracting new, bright teachers to the classroom, and said he is “a strong supporter of programs like Teach for America and other efforts to attract young people into education.” But, he stressed, it is wrong to characterize someone starting in the classroom two months after college graduation as already highly prepared.

“I think most of the people around this table would agree that doesn’t make any sense,” Sanders said. “That doesn’t make that person not a good teacher, not an inspired teacher; it simply does not make that teacher ‘highly qualified.’”

“If you had a heart condition, and you were going to go to a surgeon, you would go to a surgeon who has many surgeries successfully done,” he added. “And while another surgeon may be wonderful, a young surgeon who hasn’t yet performed his first surgery, you would probably go to the experienced [surgeon] who has already achieved a certain level of accomplishment.”

But Sanders faced great pushback in the committee from Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who had been appointed to his seat in 2009. Bennet, who had previously served as superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was one of the most education-reform friendly members of Congress, and echoed Teach for America’s talking points in the committee. (Bennet is now one of Sanders’s opponent for the Democratic nomination for president, where he is polling at 1 percent.)

“I strongly object to this amendment,” Bennet said after Sanders finished speaking. “If this amendment were to pass, the federal government would in one fell swoop basically dismantle alternative certification programs, render it impossible for local districts and schools to hire alternatively-licensed teachers that they want to hire. … Adoption of this amendment would kill Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and any other alternative certification constructs built on the idea that a program participant is a teacher of record while participating.”

Both amendments failed by large margins, though Sanders’s office continued to promote the issue and held a federal briefing on teacher quality the next month.

Cardichon, Sanders’s former education counsel, said despite their best efforts to show that this wasn’t some thinly veiled attack on Teach for America or alternative certification programs, opponents successfully leveraged their power to frame it that way. “TFA’s concern was that schools wouldn’t want to have to notify parents if teachers weren’t highly qualified, so there would be less of an incentive to hire them,” she said. “But you don’t then make them something they’re not to address that concern.”

Many on the HELP committee simply deferred to Bennet, given his experience as a superintendent, and other senators and senate staff were just sympathetic to TFA, seeing it as harmless at worst. Teach for America had also landed a $50 million federal Education Department grant to scale up its operations only a year earlier.

The Coalition for Teaching Quality continued its fight to overturn the 2010 rider, but it did so in the face of strong lobbying resistance from education reform organizations, even as more studies emerged showing that low-income students and students of color were more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers.

In 2012, over the coalition’s objections, a House subcommittee voted to allow teachers-in-training to still be considered “highly qualified” until the end of the 2013-2014 school year. The House members were lobbied not only by Teach for America, but also by a number of other powerful education groups and donors. In one letter sent to House of Representative leaders, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, the vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, prominent charter school networks like the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and others joined Teach for America in arguing falsely that if the highly qualified loophole were not extended then “hundreds of thousands of tremendously gifted teachers who have a significant impact on students will not be able to continue to teach.”

That same year, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, in response to advocacy by the Coalition for Teaching Quality, got Congress to ask the U.S. Department of Education to study how many students with disabilities, English-language learners, rural students, and low-income students are taught by teachers who have not yet completed their alternative certification programs. The study, whose results were released in June 2015, looked at data for the 2013-14 school year reported by 49 states and jurisdictions, and estimated over 800,000 students were taught by teachers-in-training. The findings confirmed advocates’ fears about the inequitable distribution of not-yet-certified teachers.

When Congress reauthorized No Child Left Behind, now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, in December 2015, lawmakers scrapped the “highly qualified teacher” designation altogether. Few Democrats wanted to fight for it, and some Republicans, particularly Sen. Lamar Alexander, actively sought to reduce as much federal control over education as possible. Now it’s up to states to determine teacher certification and licensure requirements, though they still have to report to the federal government how they are working to ensure that low-income and minority students are not served disproportionately by “ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers.”

“The mood with ESSA was we’re going to undo the controls and the tight dictates of No Child Left Behind,” said Affeldt, the civil rights attorney. “It was essentially a Republican approach of looser standards.”

West, one of the leaders of the civil rights coalition, said the teacher quality situation has grown even more dire since ESSA was passed, noting that it’s no longer federal law for teachers to even hold bachelor’s degrees.

Education reform organizations were less concerned. One leading proponent for evaluating teachers based partly on student standardized test scores told Education Week in 2016, “We’re not holding a funeral over here,” about the end of the “highly qualified” designation.

“Each state has teacher certification and licensure policies to determine who is qualified to teach in their schools, and they make the determination as to who is qualified to teach in classrooms in their state, as was the case for all the years prior to NCLB,” Walsh from Teach for America said in an email. “Our teachers continue to meet those standards.”

But to West, the entire controversy just “boiled down to politics.”

Ohio Progressive Morgan Harper Raised $323,000 In First Quarter of House Race

Originally published in The Intercept on October 9, 2019.
—-

MORGAN HARPER, the 36-year-old progressive running for Congress in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District raised a remarkable $323,000 during the first quarter of her campaign, setting her up for a potent primary challenge to 69-year-old Rep. Joyce Beatty, a four-term incumbent.

Harper, a first-time candidate, is running on the idea that Congress needs a new generation of leaders and is coming at Beatty from the left. Her platform consists of universal child care, tuition-free public college, Medicare for All, reparations, affordable housing, and a Green New Deal. In July, she told The Intercept that she sees freshman lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib as role models. “I most closely identify with the women who are pushing for the bold policies that we’re going to need to make sure people are OK, and we build a United States that works for everyone,” she said.

Beatty, a longtime official with Ohio State University, entered politics in 1999, taking over her husband’s seat in the Ohio state House, where he had served the previous two decades. There she became Democratic leader and the first woman to hold that position in the chamber’s history. She was then elected to Congress in 2012, serving on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, often aligning herself with financial interests.

Harper’s first-quarter haul came from approximately 2,670 individual donors from all 50 states, though the majority came from Ohio, according to figures provided by her campaign. Residents of 90 percent of the ZIP codes represented in the Ohio district, which includes most of Columbus, were among the donors, said Harper. The average donation to the campaign was $85, with 90 percent of donations standing at $100 or less.

donations-by-zip-1570581621

Like other progressive challengers, Harper has sworn off money from corporate political action committees, lobbyists, and the fossil fuel industry. Beyond that, Harper has also said she will not accept donations from payday lenders and firearms manufacturers. But Harper’s time spent working at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C., as well as her degrees from Tufts, Stanford, and Princeton, also give her a network to tap for bigger contributions than many challengers are able to muster.

Harper’s campaign has raised the fourth-largest amount of money among any first-time congressional primary challenger in the initial quarter of their campaign, according to data provided by Data for Progress. Her haul trails Tim Canova, who raised roughly $537,000 in the first quarter of his ultimately unsuccessful 2016 bid; Suraj Patel, who raised more than $525,000 his first quarter against New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney in 2018; and Ayanna Pressley, who raised $364,000 against Michael Capuano that same cycle. (Patel narrowly lost his 2018 primary bid, and he recently announced that he will be launching a second challenge. Pressley won her race and now represents Massachusetts’ 7th District.)

Harper’s campaign fundraising prowess was made possible by a strong ground operation, she told The Intercept. “We have at this point a solid group of folks who are consistently canvassing every week,” she said. “People stop in, we’re out speaking at different events and supporting different progressive movements that are underway. We are feeling very optimistic. The biggest challenge is just overcoming the privileges that come with incumbency. But once we get to people, they’re really excited.”

Three recent incidents put Harper’s campaign on the national map, giving her a boost among out-of-state donors, Harper said: an endorsement in early August from Justice Democrats, an appearance on the Young Turks, and “the Jonathan Weisman thing” — referring to a Twitter controversy initiated by then-New York Times Deputy Washington Editor Jonathan Weisman. On August 7, he noted that Justice Democrats had endorsed a challenger to Beatty, “an African-American Democrat.”

Harper then quote-tweeted Weisman, saying, “I am also black.”

Harper’s tweet went viral, elevated in part by prominent figures like Roxane Gay, who tweeted, “Any time you think you’re unqualified for a job remember that this guy, telling a black woman she isn’t black because he looked at a picture and can’t see, has one of the most prestigious jobs in America.”

The episode escalated when Weisman emailed Gay, her assistant, and her book publisher to demand Gay apologize for her tweets, arguing that she had “willfully or mistakenly” misconstrued his remarks.

The drama resulted in Weisman getting demoted, and he hasn’t tweeted since that day.

“All those things just amplified awareness nationally and really increased the number of small donors,” Harper told The Intercept.

Harper’s fundraising news comes on the heels of a successful quarter for Jessica Cisneros, a progressive challenger running against Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th District. In the last quarter, Cisnersos raised $310,000 — a significant boost, likely aided in part by Sen. Elizabeth Warren throwing her weight behind the candidate in September. Marie Newman, a progressive running against incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski in Ilinois’s 3rd Congressional District likewise saw a successful quarter. Campaign manager Ben Hardin told The Intercept that Newman raised $350,000 in the most recent fundraising period. Newman, who came close to defeating Lipinski in a primary challenge last year, has been endorsed by Warren and Ocasio-Cortez.

Both Cisneros and Newman have also sworn off corporate PAC and lobbyist money.

“These are pretty astounding numbers,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress. “The fact that we are having this number of primary challengers hitting these numbers — and I suspect there will be more to come — is telling and really a sign that the idea that primary challengers are somehow abnormal or somehow malignant is wrong.”

“If I were an incumbent, I would be scared shitless,” McElwee continued. “Right now, if you were a member of Congress who thought, ‘Oh, only Capuano or Crowley or white guys in majority POC districts need to be worried,’ what candidates like Morgan Harper and Jessica Cisneros are saying is that any Democratic representing a safe Democratic district should be put on watch.”

California Allows Child Care Workers to Unionize

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 4, 2019.
—-

This week, after a 16-year battle in California, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation granting collective-bargaining rights to more than 40,000 child care providers. California now joins 11 other states—New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island—in allowing child care providers to negotiate with the state over wages, health care, and other job protections.

“I was at the bill signing, and it was so wonderful,” says Charlotte Neal, a Sacramento-based child care provider of almost 19 years. “It’s such an awesome feeling to see the work that you put in actually happen, and happen before your eyes.”

The legislation, Assembly Bill 378, applies to the roughly 40,000 child care workers in California who provide services to families on government subsidy. The workers will now be able to bargain with California like other public employees, although they will not become state workers themselves. The legislation also allows unions to attend orientation meetings organized by the state, where they can make their case to the workers for becoming union members.

For Neal, who runs a 24-hour child care center out of her home, getting to negotiate finances with the state is her top priority. “We need to get resources for providers so we can continue to give quality care,” she says. “I know for myself we struggle just to make ends meet.”

Providers say they want to sit down with the state to talk about child care fees, quality programming, professional development, and confusing regulations. A 2018 survey of state child care providers found low wages was the top challenge to keeping centers open, with many providers saying supports like a network of substitutes, access to paid sick days, and cost-of-living increases would make their lives a lot easier.

Patricia Moran, who runs her own home-based child care in San Jose, says access to health insurance would benefit not only her but also the children she cares for. “We will have more focus on the job, and be able to have peace of mind,” she says. Moran believes providers like herself would also go to more professional-development trainings if they didn’t have to be frequently adding extra jobs to pay the bills.

Beverly Yu, assistant legislative director for the United Domestic Workers/AFSCME Local 3930, says providers have been able to share some thoughts about their jobs in quarterly meetings with the California Department of Education and the California Department of Social Services. But these meetings, Yu points out, have really been held only due to the state’s goodwill, not because state officials are required to listen to workers.

“Winning collective bargaining is truly a game changer,” she says. “Not only do providers now have a voice to cover issues like wages, they now also have the ability to negotiate a union-sponsored trust fund for health care benefits and they have tools now in front of them to be able to effectuate real change at the table.”

The majority of child care providers in California are women of color and tend to be older than women in the state workforce writ large. They are also more linguistically diverse than the California adult population, and nearly two-thirds of them work alone.

One key aspect of the new legislation is the requirement that states must give unions contact information for the tens of thousands of home care providers who work with children on subsidy. This will make it much easier for UDW/AFSCME and SEIU to reach out to workers, and potentially organize them into unions. (UDW/AFSCME and SEIU have divided up jurisdiction of the state, so child care providers in 39 counties would join the former, and those in the other 19 counties would be in SEIU. They all will be part of the same bargaining unit under the banner of Child Care Providers United, or CCPU.) Absent the years of organizing and lobbying by the unions, it’s unlikely that the child care providers could have persuaded the legislature—or any governor—to grant them collective-bargaining rights.

Union advocates are calling this both the largest current organizing effort in the country to move working women out of poverty, and the largest organizing effort going on in the country, period.

Currently about 2,500 California child care providers are union members, and according to Jono Shaffer, a California SEIU organizer who helped lead the Child Care Providers United campaign, thousands more have already signed union cards calling for an election.

“The state has never had a full list of child care providers receiving subsidy,” he tells The American Prospect. “The state knows how much it spends, and it sends money to agencies all over, and those agencies pay out to providers, but the state itself doesn’t know who the providers are. Now as part of the law the state has to develop a list.”

Moran, the San Jose child care provider, says as she went canvassing to build up support for collective bargaining, she found some providers who just were too doubtful to believe it could ever happen, based on the failure to bring about real change for so many years.

“Now skeptical providers will see it’s possible,” Moran says.

Neal agrees that finally winning collective-bargaining rights will make it a lot easier to convince those who were previously on the fence.

It’s been a long journey for California child care providers, who have been trying to win these rights for the last 16 years.

Gray Davis, a Democrat, was serving as governor in the early 2000s, and “the feeling was we’d be able to move this child care legislation and Gray would sign it,” says Shaffer. But then Davis got recalled, and he was replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who proceeded to veto the legislation repeatedly over his eight years in office.

“Schwarzenegger would say all these nice things, and the child care providers would meet with him and he never wanted to seem like a bad guy, but then at the eleventh hour he would always veto the bill,” Shaffer explained.

Then Jerry Brown, a Democrat, was elected governor, and child care providers thought their chances looked good again, especially since one of Brown’s first acts as governor in the 1970s was to extend collective-bargaining rights to California farmworkers.

“People thought we were good, but then the bill got reintroduced and he vetoed it,” says Shaffer. Brown explained that given the state’s budget challenges, he was “reluctant to embark on a program of this magnitude and potential cost.”

“What folks have told me is that this was during the heart of the recession, the state was in deep financial trouble, and he was just unwilling to have another group of workers that would be bargaining with the state,” says Shaffer.

The big differences this time around were twofold. First, California’s macroeconomy is booming, creating a surplus of $21 billion in this year’s state budget. Second, Brown was succeeded as governor this year by fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom, who was elected in 2018 and has emphasized that boosting early child care in California would be a top priority. To that end, the 2019-2020 state budget includes a $2.3 billion increase for early-childhood programs and supports.

“Newsom is a father of young children, and I think he’s much more personally connected to these issues than past leaders,” says Shaffer, noting that former Governor Jerry Brown had no kids. “Workers need to organize, struggle, and create the environment,” he adds, but Newsom “is an example of how elected leaders can really lead. They need to be able to take risks around some of these critical pieces, and Newsom has shown he’s willing to do that.”

One thing Newsom and union advocates agree on is that making more investments in the early-childhood workforce can bring about positive changes not just for providers, but also for parents, children, and ultimately, the state’s economy.

Newsom and the legislature increased spending because they concluded that the current level was too low to meet the needs of families and too low to retain high-quality workers. Public subsidies also do not go far enough: According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, approximately 1.6 million children in California are eligible for a subsidy but cannot obtain one.

The number of home-based child care programs has declined sharply since 2008, as California’s investments have focused on center-based care. But home-based programs can offer more flexible hours for working parents, and when there are fewer available spots for children, more parents are forced to drop out of the labor market altogether.

Advocates looked to research on Washington D.C.’s preschool expansion, which found that the increased enrollment in early-childhood education led to a 10 percentage point increase in mothers’ labor force participation. For low-income mothers, it was a 15 percentage point increase.

“An increase of this magnitude among women with young children in California could potentially result in hundreds of thousands of additional workers joining the labor force,” stated authors of a UC Berkeley Labor Center report released in May. While not all mothers want to participate in the workforce, surveys suggest many would choose to if they could afford it. One recent poll found half of all female homemakers said they would look for a job if they could secure affordable child care.

The law takes effect on January 1, and California Child Care Providers United will be filing for an election in 2020 to become a certified bargaining representative with the state. If they win, collective bargaining could start soon after that.

“I am fired up,” says Neal. “I am ready to go to the next step.”

Nina Turner, Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Chair, Led Charge for Education Reform As Ohio Legislator

Originally published in The Intercept on September 30, 2019.
—-

IN A RECENT Facebook video, Nina Turner, co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, touted a key component of the senator’s education platform: ending the for-profit charter school industry.

“Unregulated charter school growth is damaging communities and what we are not talking about are our children with disabilities,” she said. “While the original idea of charter schools was designed to bring more equality to our system, modern-day charter schools have often been corrupted by profit motive and deep lack of accountability. Wall Street executives, Silicon Valley CEOs, and billionaires like [Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos and the Walton family have been using charter schools as a way to siphon public money out of public schools, privatize the public education system, and bust teachers unions.”

Turner’s remarks represent a sharp shift for the former Ohio politician who helped build her political career by promoting education reform in Cleveland.

As an Ohio state senator in 2012, Turner played a leading role in shepherding a package of policies through the legislature to bring Cleveland schools under a more robust system of mayoral control, to expand charter schools in the city, and to weaken teacher job protections. The so-called Cleveland Plan was styled off the portfolio-model of school reform pioneered in New Orleans, Denver, and Hartford, Connecticut, and had the backing of business leaders and philanthropic organizations. Both for-profit and nonprofit charters can operate in Ohio.

Over the next several years, Turner would launch an unsuccessful bid for Ohio secretary of state and become a close political ally of the Clintons. Former President Bill Clinton endorsed Turner’s 2014 race, and in early 2015, she headlined a “Ready for Hillary” fundraiser. But Turner shocked the political establishment in November of that year by endorsing Sanders, citing his positions on voting rights and wages. She became a prominent Sanders surrogate and was tapped this past February for a top position in his 2020 campaign. In that role, she helped craft Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, a wide-ranging set of proposals that includes ideas such as setting a $60,000 minimum teacher salary and requiring charter employment practices to match those at neighboring traditional schools. Turner told The Intercept that she’s “definitely evolved” since her time in the state Senate.

Most Democrats who embraced education reform just a decade ago have been “evolving” too, as the politics around the ideas have shifted rapidly. When Barack Obama was elected to the White House, he came in as a proud charter school supporter, and his administration pressured states to adopt reforms like tying teacher evaluations to test scores. But today, nearly all Democratic presidential candidates have distanced themselves from the charter school movement to varying degrees, a reality stemming in part from the substantial drop in support for charters among white voters and increased public support for unions. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who praises Boston’s charter schools but voted against a statewide ballot initiative to expand them, has said she would not support additional federal funding for charters if elected president. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who otherwise aligns himself very closely with Obama, didn’t mention charters in his education plan, and recently criticized the schools for siphoning money from traditional public schools. Sen. Cory Booker, who supported not only charters but also private school vouchers, has also recently renounced those too. “The evidence has become clear that vouchers do not help — and in fact, hurt — the cause of educational equity,” he told the Washington Post.

Still, Turner remains proud of the Cleveland Plan, which she told The Intercept was “a way to allow the Cleveland schools to be a little more creative,” at a time when the city was in need of “transformational” changes to the school system. “We had to do some things to help guarantee that the residents would get a big change, and it was kind of hot at first, but at the end all the parties came together,” she said. “The unions were not happy at first, but everyone came together for the betterment of the children, and we ultimately succeeded.”

THE ORIGINAL VERSION of the Cleveland Plan, which Turner introduced in the state Senate, included a provision to gut existing union contracts and renegotiate everything from scratch. The “fresh start” provision, as it was known, would have also given the school district the power to unilaterally impose a contract if the two sides failed to reach an agreement.

Cleveland’s school district had been greatly struggling for years, and there were rumblings that without dramatic improvement, the Republican-controlled state legislature might just take control of the city’s schools. “We as a union were faced with a choice about whether to try to make a horrible piece of legislation less horrible, or do we just say no and let the state take us over and let the chips fall where they may?” said David Quolke, who has been president of the Cleveland Teachers Union since 2008.

Backers of the Cleveland Plan eventually dropped the polarizing “fresh start” provision but along the way pressured the union to agree to a number of other reforms like ending seniority-based layoffs and tying teacher compensation to student test scores. Teachers were “stunned” by Turner’s leadership on the Cleveland Plan, Quolke said, especially since she had played a major role in opposing a statewide bill to weaken public-sector  collective bargaining, which had been overturned by Ohio voters on the ballot only months earlier. “She tried to characterize [the Cleveland Plan] as she pulled the union together, but she wouldn’t even talk to us,” said Quolke, who described Turner as “absolutely unapologetic” and said his union has “a horrible relationship” with her to this day.

Quolke praised the Democratic House sponsor of the legislation, then-state Rep. Sandra Williams, for at least working with the teachers. “Sandra Williams was the only one of the original co-sponsors who said, I will not support the bill if it has ‘fresh start,’” he said.

Another controversial measure included in Turner’s bill was a provision to allow charter schools to share in funds raised by local school levies. As the Plain Dealer reported at the time, “In a matter of six months, state Sen. Nina Turner has evolved from a heroine of organized labor in Ohio to becoming embroiled in a bitter fight with one of the state’s largest teachers unions.” The Ohio Federation of Teachers objected to the unusual provision, which, as OFT President Melissa Cropper said, would set a “precedent of local levy money going to support charter schools.” The political fight escalated, to the point where Turner “lashed out” at the union and “accus[ed] them of threatening her political career.” The bill ended up passing with the charter measure included.

Quolke agrees with Turner that voters were unlikely to approve a new school levy without the city making some changes to its schools. Cleveland schools were in desperate need of more funds; the last time Cleveland voters had approved a school levy was in 1996, and before that, 1983.

Michael Charney, a union activist and Cleveland public school teacher who retired in 2005, spoke highly of Turner. “I think Nina’s moved really away from those [reform] positions given her being co-chair of the Bernie Sanders campaign and his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education,” he said. Charney and his wife, C.J. Prentiss — who also served in the Ohio state Senate — are both Sanders supporters and served among his delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

TURNER WAS LAUDED by charter and voucher advocates for her work passing the Cleveland Plan. In June 2012, School Choice Ohio, a statewide advocacy group, gave Turner the Fannie M. Lewis Courage Award, named after a longtime city council member who helped establish Cleveland’s private school voucher program, the second of its kind in the nation. The controversial program, which allowed public dollars to flow to private and religious schools, launched in 1996 and was narrowly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. Nearly 7,500 Cleveland students used private school vouchers in the 2018-19 school year.

“It doesn’t matter whether our young people go to public, private, religious schools — it is all about choice, and it is all about high quality,” Turner said in her award acceptance speech. “We should demand high-quality schools, no matter how they come. … And to the parents, I want to salute you, because choice is something that God almighty has given us as human beings.”

Turner also praised the proposed school levy that had angered the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “God bless you Ohio Choice … and if you live in the city of Cleveland, you vote for this levy that we are going to have to put on the ballot and make sure the model that we are using in the city of Cleveland, thank goodness … is to make sure that high-performing charter schools are part of the equation in educating our children. We don’t run, we don’t run, we don’t run from doing the right thing in the city of Cleveland. We want to continue to be a city and not a cemetery.” (The levy passed that fall).

A few months later, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Turner participated in a panel sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter group, in which she talked about how she dealt with upset teachers unions as she promoted the mayor’s school reform plan. Following the event, DFER’s Washington state director, Lisa Macfarlane, published an effusive post describing Turner as her “new crush.”

“Ms. Turner is a ferocious and articulate advocate for school reform,” wrote Macfarlane. “And there was nothing I could agree with more than her prediction for the next 4 years. She thinks President Obama will be even bolder on education reform in his second term.”

The following month, in October 2012, Turner would be one of roughly 100 candidates nationwide to receive a political endorsement from the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy group that promotes private school vouchers. DeVos long funded the group and previously served as its chair until she stepped down in 2016 to join the Trump administration. The organization acknowledged Turner as “an outspoken voice for school reform in her hometown of Cleveland.”

When asked if she thought the kinds of reforms implemented under the Cleveland Plan would work elsewhere, Turner said she wasn’t sure. She defended Cleveland’s existence under mayoral control, an education reform strategy in which power is concentrated in the executive branch and generally stripped away from elected school boards. Supporters of mayoral control argue that it can increase political accountability for struggling school districts by making mayors more singularly responsible for the success or failure of schools. Turner noted that while the state placed Cleveland schools under mayoral control in 1998, residents voted to keep it that way in 2002. “So when you ask me would that work somewhere else, it depends on the uniqueness of that area and, ultimately, the residents of the city to decide,” she said. “I applaud the way that residents ultimately got to weigh in on [mayoral control] aye or nay.”

Turner would not directly answer if she still supported the Cleveland private school voucher program, but she noted that Lewis — the city council member who helped fight for the original program — had been a mentor. “The schools were failing and [Lewis] fought really, really hard, speaking to the pain that some parents were feeling,” said Turner. “There was a lot of suffering and that’s why she really bucked the system.”

Turner referred to herself as “a public schools person through and through” and said that since public schools educate the vast majority of students, that’s where political energies should be focused. But she stressed the need to understand what motivates parents, grandparents, and other caregivers to want to put their kids in different systems of schooling. “From the vantage of someone elected to serve all children, I tried my best not to minimize those concerns,” she said.

On the question of charters, Turner emphasized that the publicly funded, privately managed schools should be held accountable, and said that the current system in Cleveland is working pretty well. Outside of Cleveland, in Ohio and across the country, Turner said “the vast majority” are not working well, but she pointed to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone as an example of school reform she does support. “That community needed to do something different, and that different thing is working for those children,” she said. “In education, you’ve got to be open to those opportunities, but you have to hold those schools accountable for learning, development, and growth.”

How a Next President Could Boost Home Care and Childcare Without Congress

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s fall 2019 magazine
—–

A future president can leverage their executive authority to improve the working conditions of millions of home care and child care workers in the United States—low-paying, critical fields where more than 90 percent of workers are women. The easiest, and perhaps most straightforward, action the next president can take is restoring the union rights of over 800,000 home care workers. With a total of 14.7 million unionized workers in the U.S. in 2018, this single move is likely to generate a tangible increase in union density.

Home care workers provide support to elderly or ill patients in their own home. They include certified nursing assistants, personal health aides, and in some states family caregivers and companions. In addition to responsibilities like administering the proper dosage of medication, they assist with everyday tasks like bathing, meal preparation, and cleaning the home. Most of these workers are paid through their patients’ Medicaid coverage.

Home care is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. economy. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects demand for home care workers will increase by 41 percent between 2016 and 2026 as more baby boomers head into retirement. And it’s also a notoriously low-paying profession, with median annual pay of just $24,000. Union protections can give these workers a voice on the job and bargaining leverage with states.

More than 500,000 home care workers are unionized through the Service Employees International Union. In 2014, the Obama administration facilitated this with the “Provider Payment Reassignment” rule, authorizing unions to automatically deduct dues from their Medicaid-funded wages. Automatic dues deduction—also known as dues checkoff—makes it easier for workers to be union members, as they can permit their dues to be taken out of their wages directly, rather than deal with the hassle and chaos of sending their union individual checks each month.

Republicans correctly recognize that if they can make it harder to pay union dues, fewer workers will. Indeed, they have waged a long war on this checkoff provision, first at the state and more recently at the federal level. Conservative activists have sought to nationalize what Republicans achieved in Michigan in 2013, by barring dues checkoff for home care workers in the state. Over the last six years, this has led to an 84 percent drop in SEIU Healthcare Michigan membership and a 74 percent drop in union revenue.

This attack on home care workers came on top of Michigan’s passage of right-to-work, which the U.S. Supreme Court effectively expanded for all public-sector workers in 2018 in the Janus ruling. Michigan activists, led by the right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy, have argued disingenuously that automatic union payments for home care workers amounts to exploitation and so-called “dues skimming.”

After successfully making home care dues checkoff illegal in Michigan, Republicans soon realized that getting other union-dense states to follow suit would be politically difficult, with their more labor-friendly lawmakers. So conservatives turned their attention to the federal government to hasten their anti-union agenda. The Koch-funded State Policy Network said their goal would be to get an administrative rule passed at Health and Human Services under Trump, and bragged on a private donor call that they were “the only group that’s driving this effort at a national level.”

In May 2019, conservatives reached their goal, as the Trump administration’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a new final rule barring home health care workers from automatically deducting union dues. The rule is currently being challenged in court, led by five state attorneys general and eight unionized home care workers. The plaintiffs argue that the Trump administration has illegally reinterpreted federal law “in service of anti-union objectives.” While it remains to be seen if the courts will block the rule, a next president can restore workers’ union rights.

A future president could commit to immediately reversing this highly damaging decision, by scrapping the CMS rule. Doing so is within a president’s executive power, and does not require congressional approval.

While this would not overturn Michigan’s prohibition, which would still need its own state-level fix, the stakes remain high, not only for the current home care workforce but also for the workforce of the near future. Potentially millions of home care staff would have an easier path to union membership if the Trump administration rule were eliminated, enabling workers to band together for higher pay, retirement benefits, and better working conditions.

An organized home care sector can also spur action on the looming long-term care crisis. In April, Washington state passed the nation’s first publicly funded long-term care benefit, a hard-fought victory by advocates including SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 home care workers in Washington and Montana. The law is poised to become a model for other states, but without strong labor backing, its prospects are dim.

The fight for a living wage goes right through the home care industry, and raising wages for the female-dominated profession would go a long way toward boosting pay equity nationwide. It also would be the most direct way to improve the fortunes of the labor movement, whose decline has accompanied setbacks for workers across the economy. In this sense, restoring dues checkoff for home care workers could positively impact even non-union worker wages.

A next president can also demonstrate their commitment to home care workers by using discretionary dollars from the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to fund demonstration programs assessing the impact of home care aides as key members of a patient’s health care team. Robyn Stone, the senior vice president of research at LeadingAge, a membership group of 6,000 nonprofits focused on elder care services, says that despite a recognition that home care aides deliver between 60 and 80 percent of all long-term care services, evidence of their actual impact on health care outcomes is overwhelmingly scant, which then makes it easier to devalue them as professionals delivering critical care.

The lack of research evidence is largely a reflection of society’s disregard for these workers more generally. A next president could begin rectifying this wrong by funding research to build the evidence base showing the importance of high-quality home care aides for the elderly, which could help estimate home care workers’ compensation value.

Child care workers perform the critical work of caring for infants and toddlers. Many people across the country are still not well versed in the research evidence that shows the bulk of brain development happens in a child’s earliest years, and greater investments in our youngest learners can help close the achievement gap, and help more students graduate from high school and avoid the criminal justice system. A next president can use the power of the White House to elevate the issue of properly investing in young children.

In 2018, local elected officials in Washington, D.C., passed the most progressive legislation in the nation on this front. A key piece of the comprehensive bill is to raise the wages of early-childhood workers, a largely female and immigrant workforce. While a president would need Congress to pass similar legislation on the federal level, they could begin elevating the importance of the issue by championing the District’s Birth-to-Three for All DC Act.

“State leaders must embrace their youngest constituents and share in the investment if we are to address this national need,” says Patricia Cole, senior director of federal policy at ZERO TO THREE. “But federal leadership is also essential. I would call on the president to convene a summit with the nation’s governors to underscore the high stakes for our future in solving the child care conundrum.”

Lastly, a next president must commit to prioritizing the scarcity of child care in the U.S. by ensuring that all candidates and administrators for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are committed to expanding access to early-childhood learning, and by extension direct some existing federal funding streams—such as through Head Start and the Every Student Succeeds Act—to professional development for early-childhood workers. Without a strong push from the federal level, the dearth of available child care opportunities will likely grow more severe.

Ending GM’s Two-Tiered Labor System is UAW Members’ Top Demand — And Part of a Bigger Fight Against Worker Classification

Originally published in The Intercept on September 26, 2019.
——

Since last week, nearly 50,000 GM workers have been on strike, in part against a two-tiered system enforced by the auto giant that leaves “temporary” workers doing the same jobs as permanent staff for substantially less pay and fewer benefits.

The striking workers, represented by the United Automobile Workers union, or UAW, are demanding a defined path to “permanent seniority” for GM’s temporary workers — who make up about 7 percent of GM’s U.S. workforce. GM has also entrenched inequality in its ranks by contracting out some jobs, like custodial work, that were traditionally staff roles.

“I work right across from a temporary employee who’s been there for two and a half years,” Chaz Akers, a Michigan-based autoworker who has worked at GM for 3 1/2 years told Reuters. “I install the passenger side headlight. He installs the driver side headlight. I make more money than he does. I have better health insurance than he does. It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. If you’re going to pay people to do a job, pay them all the same.”

The workers’ demands are part of a broader push against worker misclassification, a tactic used by employers to lessen their labor costs. The fight has been playing out most aggressively in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a sweeping bill last week to transform the lives of workers in his state. The law — known as AB5 — sets strict limits on who can be classified as an independent contractor, rather than an employee, and is the most serious legislative threat to the gig economy in years. The law also provides new momentum for advocates considering similar reforms in other states.

Coming to an agreement on temporary workers has become the most difficult issue in the GM-UAW negotiations, according to the Detroit Free Press. Both sides are reportedly holding strong to their positions. The Free Press also reported that resolving questions around temp workers was union members’ top request when UAW leadership surveyed them last year.

Protests of temporary workers by the UAW is “not a brand-new development” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “What Unions No Longer Do.” “But it does seem really foregrounded now in the union’s complaints, and that seems new. These classification disputes, from my perspective, seem to be growing and tracks on to the same battles over classification in California with Uber and Lyft.”

GM, like Uber and Lyft, is pushing back against the workers’ demands by claiming that such “flexible” workers are necessary for its business model. Right now, GM is trying to convince permanent, full-time workers to accept raises and more job security in exchange for freedoms around temps.

For example, GM has reportedly proposed a boost to the company’s profit-sharing formula, financial gains that would only go to permanent, full-time employees. GM workers typically earn about $1,000 for every billion in GM’s North American pretax profits. In 2018, eligible employees earned payments up to $10,750.

Temporary workers, who often do the same work as traditional employees, are paid less, entitled to fewer benefits, and are easier to get rid of. “That’s a trend that we’re seeing all over the economy as companies try to shed conventional, full-time employees in favor of independent contractors, subcontracted workers, or franchised employees,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. “The difference with the auto manufacturers is that their temporary workers are covered by the UAW and its contracts, unlike in most other sectors of the economy.”

In 2007, under pressure from the financial crisis, UAW leaders agreed to a two-tiered contract, in which new GM hires would be paid at lower rates than workers hired before. To get out of this arrangement, widely deemed unfair, the union negotiated a new contract in 2015, in which new hires would still have lower starting salaries, at $15 an hour, but could “grow into” the full UAW hourly wage of roughly $30 an hour after eight years. Union leaders — citing GM’s clear improved financial position with billions of dollars in profit — now want to shorten that process, under the basic principle of equal pay for equal work. GM and the UAW did not return requests for comment.

GM’s current arrangement with temporary workers is one of several ways that employers have managed to fissure their workplaces over the last few decades, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara. Another example is by spinning off portions of their companies, like in the 1990s, when GM spun off its parts factory, Delphi. “What that meant was all of a sudden, Delphi was competing with lots of other non-union companies and went bankrupt [in 2005] and so then, of course, in the bankruptcy proceedings, you manage to transition to lower wages,” Lichtenstein said. Another way is by contracting out custodial staff who used to be company employees.

“In the auto industry, janitors used to be employed by the auto companies and got the same wages as autoworkers,” he said. “In fact, autoworkers would often become janitors as they got older because it was easier labor and still good pay,” said Lichtenstein. “Eventually, all the companies said, ‘OK, janitorial work is not part of our core business — we’ll just outsource it.’”

In general, there has been an upward trend in companies like GM moving toward temporary workers. In 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42 percent of all temp workers in the U.S. were in clerical positions, compared with 28 percent of temp workers in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. But by 2000, just a decade later, 47 percent of all U.S. temp workers would be working in the manufacturing and industrial sectors.

The UAW, for its part, has a record dating back to the early 1980s of negotiating concessions around labor costs if economic conditions sour, with the understanding that if the company’s fortunes improve, those concessions would be phased back out, Lichtenstein said.

GM, Ford, and Chrysler all say that they may need to increase their use of temporary workers in the future, pointing to the fact that they’re competing with non-union foreign manufacturers that have more temporary workers and lower labor costs. In June, the Los Angeles Times reported that workers at rival auto plants run by Toyota, Nissan, and Honda make $50 an hour in wages and benefits, while GM workers cost $63 an hour. Temporary workers make up about 20 percent of the Japanese automakers’ plants.

A former GM temp worker, now in a skilled trades apprentice program, told Michigan’s public radio station last week that being a temp was one of the worst times of her life. “They have a way of pitting you against a permanent employee where you feel like, if you go the extra mile, if you work a little bit more than your union brother or sister, that will give you an opportunity to eventually get hired in full time and that’s not the case,” she told the radio station.

Lichtenstein believes it’s clear that these two-tiered systems are weakening labor organizations. “And it’s not just a humanism or good-feeling thing,” he said. “It’s also a recognition that this is going to divide and then destroy the union.”

The Environmental Left Is Softening On Carbon-Capture Technology. Maybe That’s OK.

Originally published in The Intercept on September 20, 2019.
——-

At the start of this year, more than 600 environmental groups — including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Sunrise Movement — sent a letter to Congress saying they will “vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage.

Congress was not chastened. This past July, tucked in the Senate’s $287 billion highway reauthorization bill, was a bipartisan measure to support carbon-capture research and development. The measure — the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies, or USE IT, Act — was also included in the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, an omnibus package passed a month earlier. It has not yet passed the House, but last year, Congress passed a separate measure to expand a tax credit — known as 45Q — projected to generate $1 billion in investment in carbon-capture projects by 2024.

Neither have been the most outspoken advocates of a Green New Deal. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, unveiled the landmark resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in February, and has been one of its leading advocates since. He has drawn a centrist primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy, and has been backed by the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez. He’s comfortable with carbon-capture, and supported it in his 2009 climate bill, Waxman-Markey, the last time Congress made a serious effort to tackle the crisis.

“I have personally spoken to Senator Markey after the Green New Deal was introduced, and he said carbon capture is in,” said Brad Crabtree, co-director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a group of roughly 60 companies, unions, research institutes, and energy groups that support carbon-capture technology. “I asked him directly, and he was pretty categorical, and immediately then talked about what he tried to do for carbon capture in Waxman-Markey.” A Markey spokesperson said the senator “has not advocated for specific energy approaches, nor advocated against any” and believes all proposals “should be on the table.” The spokesperson also noted that the Green New Deal resolution — while “policy agnostic”— calls for reductions in emissions as much as is “technologically feasible.”

Rachel Ventura is running a Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Bill Foster, a business-friendly congressman in Illinois, a decision she told The Intercept she made after he announced that he would not support a Green New Deal. A progressive member of a county board, one of Ventura’s highest-profile efforts is a massive carbon-capture project to stem emissions and produce energy from a local landfill — a project she describes as putting the Green New Deal in action at the local level.

In April, the left-wing People’s Policy Project released a report on the Green New Deal that included support for new federal investments in direct-air capture. “I support all the carbon-capture technologies in the abstract, but when it comes to the question of what the federal government should be investing in, it seems like the carbon-negative CCS is the one where it is uniquely needed,” said Matt Bruenig, founder of the think tank, using an acronym for carbon-capture storage. “Industry can figure out its own point-source stuff.”

And there is even evidence that some groups on the left are willing to moderate their maximalist opposition to carbon-capture, having recently signaled more willingness to compromise than they expressed in their letter sent to Congress earlier this year.

“Sunrise Movement does not support carbon capture for fossil fuel plants,” said Evan Weber, the group’s political director. “There’s no good justification for doing carbon capture for oil, gas, and coal power other than to keep an industry alive that has not been good for the planet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valid uses for it, and there are some — like in the industrial sector, heavy industry, where we don’t have a clear path forward yet. There I do think we should continue to do more research and development because ultimately we do need to decarbonize every sector of our economy.”

John Noël, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace, echoed Weber. “We don’t have a lot of issues with capturing emissions from industrial sources,” he said. Quietly, but unmistakably, carbon capture, long loathed by the left, is moving back into the conversation.

The decades-long effort by fossil companies to sow doubt about the science of climate change has shaped the way activists and policymakers talk about it. One unintended consequence of the rejection of the scientific consensus has been the advent of the mantra “believe the science.” That puts the IPCC, or the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a powerful position when it comes to setting the terms of the debate. To disagree with the IPCC is to disagree with the science.

That dynamic, however, can leave the environmental left boxed in when it disagrees with the IPCC. That’s the case with carbon capture, which the IPCC says is necessary to hit carbon-concentration targets absent rapid reforestation and major changes to global diets and energy consumption.

“Those changes would be positive, but I’d rather not rely on them manifesting at global scale to stabilize the climate,” said James Mulligan, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

A number of factors have driven renewed attention to carbon-capture technology, most notably the growing agreement among scientists that keeping average global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius will require not only reducing future emissions, but also removing some of the carbon dioxide that’s already been released. Modeling by the International Energy Agency suggests that nearly 15 percent of all emissions reduction must come from carbon capture by midcentury. There’s also’s greater recognition among climate experts that emissions from the industrial sector — like those associated with aviation fuel, cement, and steel — can’t be easily reduced with renewable sources. Nearly 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from industry.

The opposition to carbon-capture is rooted largely in politics, as opponents argue that it is merely being put forward cynically by a fossil fuel industry intent on its own survival at the expense of the planet’s. Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his recently released climate change plan, came out against carbon-capture technology, calling it a “false solution.” Noël, of Greenpeace, who stipulated support for carbon-capture in an industrial scenario, drew the line at power plants. “If you’re building new power plants with the intent to put carbon capture, we don’t think that’s a good use of money, especially federal subsidies, and we think it further entrenches the extractive mindset and the fossil fuel’s political grip which thwarts meaningful action,” he said.

Activists on the environmental left view financial support for carbon-capture as yet another misguided subsidy for polluters and a barrier to transitioning away from fossil fuels once and for all.

But if political concerns are driving opposition to carbon capture, there are important political reasons to support it, too. Opponents currently lack a political strategy to deal with the fact that nearly all of organized labor (and not just the building trades) is committed to advancing the technology. Unions will be a key constituency to organize in the fight to pass any sort of Green New Deal.

“I don’t see labor supporting any climate policy that doesn’t include support for carbon capture and storage,” said Brad Markell, executive director for the Industrial Union Council at the AFL-CIO. “You can very safely say that.”

Some Democratic legislators who support a Green New Deal, like Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz, have backed recent carbon-capture bills.

Union representatives support investments in carbon-capture technology because, they say, it will help preserve the high-paying, unionized jobs in the fossil fuel industry, while also taking steps to tackle a warming planet that scientists say is necessary. Unions argue that the most important priority is to reduce emissions and decarbonize the economy, not necessarily to move off fossil fuels as fast as possible. “Some groups have a strain of thought to leave everything in the ground, and that’s a difficult discussion for labor,” Markell of the AFL-CIO said.

Earlier this summer, the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of eight large labor unions and six national environmental groups released a plan for tackling inequality and climate change that included support for carbon-capture tech. Environmental groups in the BlueGreen Alliance include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters, collectively known in environmental circles as “big green.” These groups declined to sign the letter outlining opposition to carbon capture sent by other green groups to Congress earlier this year.

The BlueGreen Alliance includes a number of building trade unions, as well as unions that represent industries that won’t necessarily be directly impacted by investments in carbon capture, like the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Communications Workers of America. SEIU was also the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution.

“I think about carbon capture every day. It’s more than just useful — it’s indispensable for addressing climate change,” said Lee Anderson, director of governmental affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America. “Even if we close every coal fire plant in America — which I don’t think we’re going to do for a while — but even if we did that, it doesn’t change the basic fact that if you believe and follow the science, carbon capture is a thing we must do globally at scale or we won’t make it.”

Anderson thinks there’s a fundamental misconception about labor’s motives. “There’s this idea that we want to save coal and natural gas and petroleum for its own sake because we love those things,” he said. “What we love is the things associated with them, which is cheap and abundant energy and really good jobs that support the economy. It’s about combatting emissions, saving jobs and the communities around those places that rely on those jobs. It’s about not driving people out of middle-class jobs that are almost impossible to replace. Why would we not support it?”

“It’s about economic stability, not just job preservation,” emphasized Cecile Conroy, director of government affairs for the International Brotherhood of Boilmakers. “We’re not just being selfish here. The Boilmakers, the IBEW, the Utility Workers — you unload our jobs, what’s going to happen to our multimillion-dollar health care and pension plans on Wall Street? Surely people don’t want to see those things collapse. There’s a whole thread of this that’s for economic and social stability and the tax base and making sure communities have jobs to go to.”

Cost remains significant barrier for carbon-capture technology — but supporters say if the government backed it like it did for wind and solar, we’d see similarly steep drops in price. One study published in 2018 suggested that direct-air capture — ­a carbon-capture method that sucks CO2 from the atmosphere — could cost between $94 and $232 per metric ton, a significant reduction from a 2011 study that estimated the price at more than $600 per metric ton.

The most economical form of carbon-capture technology right now is through enhanced oil recovery, in which companies capture carbon dioxide, store it geologically, and then use that CO2 injection for producing additional oil. According to the International Energy Agency, using carbon capture yields a 37 percent reduction in emissions per barrel of oil compared to conventional oil production.

There’s certainly growing scientific momentum behind investing in the technology, and a study published in Nature Communications this past summer used computer modeling to show that a “massive” rollout of direct-air capture technology could help bring down climate mitigation costs.

Though opponents of carbon capture usually argue in the political arena that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, when it comes to carbon capture, critics generally emphasize that the technology is too costly, too underdeveloped, and will detract from more important steps society needs to take. Other critics see the fossil fuel industry’s interest in carbon capture as glaring proof that this is not really about environmental protection at all, but a way to boost the bottom line of oil and gas companies. After years of denying and obfuscating climate science, why should the government help out these companies and effectively give them more political power to fight climate regulation?

Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, said that grassroots opposition to carbon-capture technology comes from “an understanding that the fossil fuel industry needs to be confronted head-on and overcome completely.” Under that framework, he said, “there’s much less patience for saying, ‘Well, let’s just pay Exxon Mobil to develop new technologies to save everyone.’”

Crabtree, of the Carbon Capture Coalition, said these sorts of objections misunderstand the actual dynamics of the fossil fuel industry, where U.S. domestic production of oil and gas continues to grow rapidly thanks to capital investment flowing into shale development. “Enhanced oil recovery, which has significant climate benefit, is not the component of the industry causing that growth,” he said. “Critics of carbon capture are seeking to prevent the adoption of less carbon-intensive CO2-EOR, when growth in conventional oil and gas production is exploding. It’s not an effective strategy if your goal is to reduce carbon emissions.”

One of the most powerful arguments made by carbon-capture advocates is that given the trajectory of coal around the world, it may be too risky to expect to meet global climate targets without carbon capture and storage technology as part of the solution.

One recent forecast published in August by Wood Mackenzie, a global energy consulting firm, projected that coal, gas, and oil will contribute around 85 percent of primary energy supply by 2040, compared to 90 percent today. Other analyses find that while developed nations are moving away from fossil fuels, developing nations will still be relying significantly on coal, oil, and natural gas to drive economic growth over the next two decades. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that non-OECD energy demand will rise by 71 percent between 2012 and 2040.

“Without carbon-capture and sequestration, we will not solve the problem,” said Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America. “Go tell China and India and Indonesia to stop burning coal. They’ll say no. Countries are going to continue to use coal for electricity.” Smith argued that it consequently makes the most sense for the U.S. to take a lead in developing carbon-capture tech. “For one thing, this sort of technology can be developed here, sold globally, and can put people to work,” he said.

“Our fuel usage will look different in 2040 and beyond, but those years are a far way away and we have to be realistic about what our usage is today and in the next 10, 15 to 20 years,” said Roxanne Brown, international vice president at large for the United Steelworkers.

“We can’t switch to renewables overnight,” added Conroy of the Boilmakers. “And too often, climate change is discussed only in the context of the U.S., when it’s really a global problem, and a lot of developing countries will still need to rely on fossil fuels to sustain their population, so we need this technology.”

Commercial carbon-capture technology dates back to 1972, when it was first used to seize CO2 from natural gas processing and then used for enhanced oil recovery. Today, 19 full-scale carbon-capture projects are in operation worldwide, with 14 using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery and five storing the carbon dioxide in saline aquifers.

The federal government has had a rough time with a few big carbon-capture projects. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced the “FutureGen” project to demonstrate carbon-capture and storage at a coal-fired electrical generating station. The Department of Energy partnered with coal companies and pledged $1.1 billion for the project. But years of problems delayed it, and construction didn’t begin until 2014. By 2015, the federal government suspended the effort altogether, after wasting $378 million in taxpayer funds.

Likewise another high-profile carbon capture project in Mississippi was suspended in 2017, after running three years behind schedule and $4 billion over its projected budget. That project, known as Kemper, was led by energy giant Southern Company, which was reported to have misled state regulators and the federal government to get more subsidies. (The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the failed project this past spring.) “Kemper was a fiasco, and it was a huge money pit that never went anywhere,” said Ross of Friends of the Earth. “There’s been so much effort to shove federal money into carbon-capture black holes.”

But carbon-capture advocates say that Kemper’s failure isn’t an example of carbon-capture technology itself failing. “Kemper was trying to marry this commercially established carbon-capture technology [Selexol] to an unproven new coal technology [TRIG Gasifier],” said John Thompson, the technology and markets director of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group. “Selexol has been used hundreds and hundreds of times around the world since 1960 on all kinds of plants. So you were marrying this very old, very established technology that was cheap and easy to use, to this innovation, this new way of converting coal into electricity, and that method was capital intensive and went way over budget.”

Advocates point to Petra Nova, a large coal fire plant outside Houston that launched in 2017, as an example of the technology’s potential. The federal government gave $190 million to the project, which burns coal and then uses scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide from the process, something known as “post-combustion” carbon capture. It marks the U.S.’s first and the world’s largest commercial post-combustion carbon-capture system at a power plant, and was hailed particularly for launching on time and on budget.

Proponents also emphasize second-generation innovations, like those identified in a feasibility study released in November 2018, which looked at the SaskPower’s Boundary Dam 3 in Canada. In 2014 Boundary Dam 3 became the world’s first power station to successfully use carbon capture and storage technology, and the feasibility study suggested that future projects could see steep reductions in capital costs.

Reforestation, or replanting an area with trees, is one method of “natural carbon capture” — which research suggests can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions. But as an IPCC report released in August also made clear, carbon-removal efforts that involve things like planting large-scale forests can also lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Mulligan, for his part, said tree restoration should be pursued alongside technological and natural approaches to carbon removal that do not demand large-scale land use. Climate “modelers are good at modeling lowest-cost options given a set of assumptions, but they’re less good at thinking holistically about constraints [and] societal tradeoffs,” he said of the IPCC pathways. “When I look at the pathways that deploy lots of BECCS” — bioenergy with carbon-capture and store, a negative emissions technology — “the key message I take away isn’t that we need lots and lots of BECCS; it’s that we need to find a way to remove lots and lots of carbon from the atmosphere — whether that’s BECCS or other options that the modelers haven’t yet figured out a way to model.”

Support from the oil and gas industry understandably makes those concerned about the environment anxious. Some of the biggest investors in carbon capture to date include companies like Halliburton, General Electric, NRG, Equinor, and Shell. And earlier this year, Occidental Petroleum and Chevron announced that they would be investing in Carbon Engineering, a direct-air capture company that’s also backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Grand View Research Inc., a business consulting firm, estimates that the global carbon capture and storage market will exceed $8.75 billion by 2025.

Crabtree said that while oil and gas companies in his coalition largely support carbon capture as a business investment, and not out of a deep concern for saving the planet, that doesn’t negate its environmental potential. “We didn’t require people to sign on to each other’s agenda,” he said.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.

The Biggest Strike in America Is About How Much Bosses Can Gut Your Healthcare

Originally published in VICE on September 18, 2019.
—-

When about 48,000 workers went on strike Monday against General Motors, they launched the largest American labor stoppage against any business since the financial crisis. The striking union—the United Auto Workers—is confronting vicious headwinds in the form of always-cheaper foreign labor, reduced car sales, and pressure to invest in electric and self-driving vehicles at a time of impending climate catastrophe.

On top of all that, workers formed picket lines because GM is trying to effectively cut their hard-fought healthcare benefits. According to the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan-based think tank that receives some funding from auto companies, the average UAW worker pays about 3 percent of their health care tab, compared to 28 percent paid by the average American worker. Crain’s Detroit Business reported on Monday that GM’s initial contract offer asked workers to start paying 15 percent of their healthcare costs.

While such a move by an employer may seem fairly ordinary by contemporary standards, it wasn’t that long ago that Americans would have viewed this request as a huge scandal. In fact, experts said, that a once-mighty labor union is fighting tooth and nail to save generous health plans speaks to the economic precarity most Americans have grown to numbly accept.

“Having to pay large amounts of your health-care, that is still a fairly recent phenomenon,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes.

Loomis pointed to a 1983 labor stoppage where thousands of copper miners and mill workers went on strike for almost three years against the Arizona-based Phelps Dodge Corporation. “One of the key issues of that strike was that workers were so outraged by the request that they pay part of their health care,” he explained. “It was unprecedented, and yet today it’s become so normalized. Everyone complains about it, but employers just slowly force more and more of their costs onto their workers.”

Rather than ask why UAW workers pay so little in healthcare costs relative to others, Loomis said, the conversation should be framed around “workers defending what they have, and not letting companies cede more and more of their responsibility.”

Employer-based health insurance was actually something of a historical accident in the United States, led partly by labor unions that were barred from negotiating over wages during World War II. That led unions to begin focusing on other types of permissible fringe benefits, including employer-sponsored insurance. Many non-union companies followed suit, facing pressure to compete with unionized firms. Subsequent changes to the federal tax code made offering health insurance even more attractive for employers, so much so that 70 percent of the population was covered by private health insurance in the 1960s, up from nine percent in 1940.

Today, of course, when “job hopping” is common and the so-called gig economy means many workers are not full-time employees, it’s become painfully evident that tying health insurance to work is less than ideal.

Shaun Richman, who directs a labor studies center at SUNY Empire State College, said there is a strong case for “getting the boss out of the doctor’s office” altogether. Employer-based health insurance, he argued, “is plainly outmoded and is absolutely killing unions.” His thinking is partly strategic: Every time a union starts a round of contract negotiations, they almost invariably begin by fighting back against proposed healthcare cuts. “There’s simply no round of bargaining that employers won’t put healthcare on the table, and it’s been devastating,” Richman said.

Indeed, the fight over healthcare benefits is central to understanding the last few decades of labor disputes in the United States.

“The major issue we saw during labor walkouts in the 1990s and 2000s had to do with the restructuring of healthcare plans,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of What Unions No Longer Do. “Wages were really the secondary concern.”

Whether the auto workers can make their fight for affordable healthcare resonate with the broader public may be key to the UAW sustaining support for the strike in general. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, said auto workers might struggle to engender the same level of enthusiasm that striking teachers have across the country beginning last year. In fact, they might not even reach the same level of support as workers at other recent service-sector strikes like those at Stop & Shop grocery stores and Marriott hotels.

“My research and the work of others suggests that it may be easier for workers to build solidarity with their broader communities when they have daily interactions and are in the same social networks as the public,” Hertel-Fernandez said.

Still, as Rosenfeld pointed out, one thing working in the UAW’s favor is the clear profit margins enjoyed recently by U.S. auto companies. “GM is highly profitable now, and was bleeding money during the last 2007 walkout,” he said.

While the last UAW strike in 2007 ended after just two days, at least one union leader suggested Monday this labor stoppage could go on for much longer. On Tuesday, the White House reportedly began trying to broker a deal to end the strike, but GM also announced that it would be cutting off its share of strikers’ health benefits, shifting the burden to unions and telling workers they could apply for COBRA. On top of this financial blow, the average full-time UAW will be paid just $250-per-week while the strike stretches on—assuming the union’s strike fund holds up.

“They’re in a war for their lives, and the company is basically putting a gun to the unions’ head,” said Richman. “They’re saying we’ll reopen one of these factories if you agree to all these other concessions. I don’t think the UAW has much choice but to stand and fight, but this is not public education—schools can’t be shipped overseas. These jobs very much can be shipped overseas and have been. That threat is very real.”

How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics

Originally published in Washington City Paper on September 5, 2019

E8418F71-B85F-4CE2-8BB7-67285AC6CF97.jpg

Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism

Lobbyists mobilized quickly when they learned the D.C. Council would be proposing legislation to subject the city’s charter schools to freedom-of-information laws. The day before the bill was released in mid-March, charter leaders were armed with a list of talking points divided into two categories: “soft response” and “harder-edge messaging.”

The “soft response” included points like: “this bill cares more about paperwork than school performance” and “devoting schools’ resources to yet even more compliance will divert from more important student needs, such as mental health counseling.” The “harder-edge messaging” went further, charging the legislation with “bureaucracy-building and political playback masquerading as watchdogging.”

The legislation is intended to let parents, teachers, and journalists access more information about the schools’ internal operations, and it comes on the heels of a series of scandals that fomented public distrust. But the talking points encouraged charter advocates to tell their councilmembers that it’s insulting to suggest that the schools need additional oversight. “We resent the implication that the hundreds of community and parent volunteers who serve on charter schools’ boards are not putting students’ needs first,” the talking points read. “The real agenda that needs uncovering is the union strategy to force charter schools to behave exactly like the school district bureaucracy.”

This coordinated pushback didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, D.C. taxpayers might be surprised to learn they helped fund the lobbying themselves. Every year D.C. charter schools collectively funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate the schools. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, local charters paid the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which calls itself “the collective voice of DC’s Chartered Public School Leaders,” more than $1.2 million in membership dues for its advocacy services, at a rate of $8 per student annually.

While most D.C. charters contribute to the Association, nearly all also pay $8 per student annually to a second group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, better known as FOCUS. Last year all but three charters kicked over FOCUS’ “voluntary student payments,” totaling more than $340,000.

In return for their contributions, charters have received dedicated advocates in the halls of city government and in public debate. In practical terms, this has mostly entailed keeping local lawmakers off charters’ backs. A July 2018 invoice that FOCUS sent to one charter leader said that the school’s payments “have already had an impact” in 2018, securing a “reduction in unreasonable monitoring and oversight” by “blocking or fixing five major pieces of legislation.” FOCUS’ executive director thanked the school leader for their annual donation, which ensures “a strong, steady, and committed” voice “to preserve your autonomy, increase your funding and improve your access to facilities and government services.”

Documents obtained by City Paper show that these two organizations produced the talking points from earlier this year. But they’re not the only players on the charter advocacy stage, and the D.C. Council’s charter transparency bill is not the first to hit a hard wall of lobbying resistance. Under DC Code Section 1-1161.01, lobbying is defined as “communicating directly with any official in the legislative or executive branch of the District government with the purpose of influencing any legislative action or an administrative decision.” And for more than two decades professional charter school advocates have successfully marshalled powerful arguments about limiting government intrusion into charter school operations, so leaders can better focus on teaching and learning.

For those who envision public-school politics as frazzled parents huddled in middle school gymnasiums, the world of D.C. charter advocacy might come as a strange sight. It’s a place where philanthropic money, revolving political doors, high-dollar galas, and a bevy of well heeled organizations have all been deployed to help charter schools shape their own regulations—or, more preferably, keep regulation away. Now, in the face of questions and community frustration, lawmakers are again under pressure to act. But if city leaders are going to bring newfound transparency to the charter world, they’re going to have to overcome a formidable influence machine with a long history of winning fights in D.C.

***

Many factors have aided the local charter advocacy apparatus over the past two decades—from a struggling traditional school district that drove parents away, to a weakened teachers’ union consumed with its own problems, to a conflict-averse Council that largely welcomed the relinquishment of school oversight duties.

But charter advocates’ biggest asset has been the School Reform Act—federal legislation enacted in 1996 authorizing the creation of charter schools in the District. Since its passage, the law has been used to ward off attempts by local lawmakers who sought more control over the public charter schools they were funding.

Congress’ involvement did not happen overnight. DC Public Schools had been declining for decades, as families left the city or turned to private schools. 149,000 students were enrolled in 1970. That number plummeted to about 80,000 two decades later. Academic performance was also a source of embarrassment, and scandal routinely wracked the District’s school administration. In 1995, a federal body created to help restore local public school finances came to the stunning conclusion that “for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed.” Half of all students dropped out before graduation.

That same year, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), was elected Speaker of the House and soon announced his goal to improve D.C. schools. He pledged to transform the city into “an urban jewel” and tasked another Republican in his inner-circle, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.), with drafting education policy recommendations.

The bill Gunderson put forth originally included both the creation of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, but it soon became clear that vouchers would never garner enough Democratic support in the Senate, and were ultimately stripped. Charters were an easier sell: The nation’s first charter school had launched in Minnesota in 1992, and plenty of Democrats, including then-president Bill Clinton, were enthusiastic supporters of the idea.

Many D.C. residents balked at Congress’ actions. When Clinton signed the School Reform Act into law in the spring of 1996, it was over the strong objection of D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who protested Congress’ interference in the city’s local affairs.

Josephine Baker, board chair and executive director for the city’s charter authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board, from 1996 through 2011, reflected on this process in her 2014 memoir: “The way [D.C. charters were established] left a terrible taste in the mouths of many life-long and civically engaged Washingtonians. It also represented a selling out of sorts to some community members who felt Republicans in Congress were acting as political imperialists.”

These misgivings over home rule did not stop charters from claiming legal independence, however. Professional advocates worked for years to convince the public and elected officials that D.C. lawmakers were legally unable to regulate their city’s charter sector if doing so conflicted in any way with the letter or spirit of Congress’ law. As Baker put it, “We used the charter law, deemed one of the best in the nation by the Center for Education Reform, as our shield.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group, has been the driving force behind these efforts. FOCUS was founded in 1996 by Malcolm Peabody, a Republican real estate developer who had strong political relationships in Congress and the local business community. A quarter-century earlier, Peabody helped pioneer the very idea of housing vouchers for low-income renters, when he served a stint under his brother, the governor of Massachusetts, and then later at HUD under President Richard Nixon. Peabody’s belief in vouchers for housing paved the way to supporting vouchers for schooling, but he understood the lack of political support for the concept in D.C., so limited FOCUS’ focus to charters.

“We were interested in vouchers before Congress passed the law, but when it became clear that charters were a better way to go, we shifted over,” he tells City Paper.

From 1998 to 2015 FOCUS was led by Robert Cane, a former attorney and school principal from Virginia drawn to the nascent charter movement in D.C. “Robert Cane was a force,” says Kathy Patterson, D.C.’s auditor who served as the Ward 3 representative on the Council and chaired its education committee. “[Cane] and Mike Peabody, they were the ones who convinced everyone that there was no authority locally to legislate charters, and I think that’s been a myth that’s been around since 1996. They convinced councilmembers of that, they convinced people in my office [at the D.C. auditor’s] of that. I guess if you just say it over and over and over again for long enough then people will believe it.”

***

While FOCUS has long advocated on behalf of nearly all charter schools in the District, its leaders are quick to emphasize that it is not, in fact, a membership-based organization. “We asked charter schools to support our advocacy efforts, but we never wanted to be a membership organization because [they] can’t act as quickly and as decisively as non-membership organizations,” Cane tells City Paper. “And we wanted the freedom to disagree with charter schools.”

But a membership-based charter advocacy organization would eventually come on the scene, with the advent of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools in 2004. Its founders wanted to give black-led charters a more organized voice in city politics, as FOCUS’ leaders were predominantly white. “School founders and school leaders wanted to distance themselves from external advocacy groups that had their own agendas, but they wanted to improve their well-being through democratically arrived at positions,” Ramona Edelin, the group’s executive director, explains.

Still, many charters were active in both groups, and FOCUS and the Association often worked together, sometimes with the assistance of the Public Charter School Board, to fight back on legislative efforts they felt might encroach on charter freedom.

“Autonomy is everything to charter schools, and autonomy is basically nothing to the government, and that’s really the crux of it,” Cane says.

***

From the very start of D.C.’s charter movement there have been concerns about oversight. An inspection of one school in 1999 revealed poor attendance, incomplete student health records, and an “insufficient focus on the core academic subjects.” Another charter provided its students with no textbooks for a full year, with a student explaining that when visitors came in, administrators instructed them to “keep [their] notebooks open” to conceal the lack of books. At another charter closed early for financial mismanagement, officials reported that the principal had “awarded $60,000 in bonuses to himself, his wife and other staff members, and tried to hold student report cards hostage to avoid prosecution.”

In 2001, D.C.’s inspector general and its chief financial officer, Charles Maddox and Natwar Gandhi, respectively, testified before Congress asking for greater authority to oversee local charter school finances. The following year Gandhi turned to the Council to ask for legislative authority over the schools, saying that all charters should be assessed by a single auditing firm, selected by the D.C. government.

“Such legislation is completely unnecessary and is antithetical to the idea of charter schools,” Cane argued at the time. He and other advocates successfully rebuffed the idea.

Politically there were tensions from the get-go, too. During the mayoral election in 1998, one candidate ran on a charter school moratorium, two others ran on platforms to limit the number of new charters issued annually, and a fourth candidate, Anthony Williams, ran on a charter-supportive platform but said there needed to be more careful monitoring. Williams won.

In 2000, the D.C. financial control board authorized Mayor Williams to manage surplus school property, news that charter advocates cheered, as they long suspected D.C. officials had been denying them access to vacant school buildings to stymie their growth. Advocates hoped Williams would be easier to work with.

But it didn’t take long for charter advocates to get frustrated with Williams too, and charge his administration with facility sabotage. “We have a joke we always say [at charter school coalition meetings],” one leader told City Paper in 2001. “You may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

FOCUS leaders decided to take matters into their own hands, by leveraging their power on Capitol Hill. In 2004, at the urging of FOCUS, charter supporter Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) slipped an amendment into the D.C. Appropriations Act requiring D.C. officials to give charter schools a “right of first offer”—instead of a “preference”—to purchase or lease vacant D.C. school buildings at a 25 percent discount. Remarkably, Sen. Landrieu did not consult with any D.C. officials before making this change.

Local leaders—again including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton—were outraged by this federal brazenness.

“We’ve now gotten them very angry at us, and I’m sorry about that, but each one of those councilmembers has been advocates themselves—some of them very successful at it—and I think they would have done the very same thing in our position,” Peabody told the Washington Post at the time. Perhaps predictably, the maneuver set up future conflicts. When the city opted to hang on to some empty properties for future use rather than quickly sell or lease them to charters, charter advocates responded by accusing D.C. officials of violating the law that the charter advocates themselves helped re-write behind city leaders’ backs. Such criticisms continue to this day: A video released this past summer by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools featured Edelin, the group’s director, condemning city leaders for failing to give charters a “right of first offer” to buildings.

***

D.C. lawmakers have tried to regulate the charter sector over the years but are usually unsuccessful, like in 2006 when the majority of the Council backed legislation to improve open meeting laws. These laws dictate what exactly regular residents can access when it comes to the decision-making of public bodies.

“In our estimation, the District of Columbia has the most outdated, ineffective open meetings statute in the country,” the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press testified at the time, urging D.C. “to catch up with the rest of the country.”

Part of the reforms would have subjected charter school boards to the city’s open meetings law. The then-chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Vincent Orange, argued that given how much public funding the schools receive, and because they would not exist without government-issued charters, they should not be exempt.

As The Common Denominator, a now-defunct local news organization, reported at the time, advocates like Edelin and Cane were some of the most ardently opposed to the bill, and ultimately succeeded in getting the government to back off open meetings for charter schools.

Charter advocates succeeded again two years later in 2008, when two councilmembers, Chairman Vince Gray and Ward 6 representative Tommy Wells, introduced legislation to increase government oversight over the city’s charters, and add new rules restricting how easily new schools could open or expand. Existing law has grown “outdated and proven ineffective to ensure the Council’s ability to provide effective oversight,” Gray argued back then. Wells stressed that there was too little coordination between the Council and the charter sector, which spends public funds.

FOCUS launched a robust campaign against the proposed legislation, recruiting parents, teachers, and students to lobby local lawmakers and deliver a pro-charter petition signed by nearly 6,000 people. The bill died, and it marked one of FOCUS’ biggest political victories to date.

“It’s hard to say exactly why it failed because so much of this stuff goes on behind closed doors,” says Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for D.C. schools. “My guess is there were all sorts of big time business people involved.”

***

Whoever killed the 2008 bill, things were only about to ramp up for D.C. charter advocacy. That year, largely thanks to the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, FOCUS started raising a lot more money. At the turn of the century, FOCUS’ budget stood at $287,000, according to tax filings. A decade later, it would hit $2 million, and it reached nearly $3 million in annual revenue by 2016. Between 2008 and 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave FOCUS more than $7.7 million. And with the infusion of new funds came greater capacity, with the organization taking on new efforts like data analysis, school support services, and consulting.

As FOCUS’ budget went up, so did its lobbying expenses. In 2008, the organization reported $39,000 in total lobbying expenditures. Two years later,  FOCUS hired Michael Musante to be its new director of government relations. According to city ethics disclosures, FOCUS reported $120,000 in lobbying expenses in 2013, $130,000 in 2014, $145,000 in 2017, and $165,000 in 2018.

In addition, according to congressional disclosures, Musante also spent $206,000 since 2016 lobbying Congress on behalf of American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports private school vouchers.

Another major force aiding D.C’s charter sector has been CityBridge, a foundation headed by local philanthropist Katherine Bradley. A 2015 City Paper cover story detailed Bradley’s unique influence over school policy in Washington, though the full extent of her advocacy is hard to track, as she has never registered lobbying activities with the city. “CityBridge is very familiar with D.C. lobbying laws, and our attorneys have told us that we—like hundreds of other charitable organizations in the District—do not need to register,” Bradley says.

“The threshold for registering is quite low. If you’re aware of anyone making lobbying contacts the odds are very high that they should be registered,” says Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for consumer protections.

Yet another player entered the charter advocacy scene in 2015, with the founding of Democrats for Education Reform DC, or DFER-DC. Democrats for Education Reform, a major national backer of charter schools, is actually a constellation of different entities: a political action committee, a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Education Reform Now, and a second 501(c)4 nonprofit—controlled by the same people—called Education Reform Now Advocacy. This split structure enables the group to lobby and spend vast quantities of money in elections. The national organization is further divided into state chapters, of which DFER-DC is one.

Most of DFER-DC’s political spending comes in the form of independent expenditures—hiring paid canvassers, sending political mailings, and running TV, radio, and digital ads. In 2018 alone, DFER-DC raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in such funds, including nearly $200,000 from Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress tied to the Walton Family Foundation. By the time the June 2018 primary rolled around, the group had already spent $300,000, and would go on to spend at least $150,000 more during the general election.

The Washington Teachers’ Union, by contrast, spent just $2,100 in direct campaign contributions in 2018, and nothing in independent expenditures.

A woman named Catharine Bellinger directed both DC Education Reform Now, and its PAC, DFER-DC, for its first three-and-a-half years. Despite frequently engaging lawmakers both in and outside the Wilson Building, she never registered as a local lobbyist.

In one email dated May 2016 with the subject-line “DFER’s top priority this budget cycle,” Bellinger wrote to At-Large Councilmember and education committee Chairman David Grosso asking him to press Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on increasing funds for charter school facilities. “I’d like to ask you to consider personally urging Chairman Mendelson to make this [2.2%] increase,” Bellinger wrote. “My sense is that a call from you, as Ed Committee chair, would really make the difference. Is that something you might consider?” In another email sent in June 2018, a month before moving to Texas, Bellinger wrote Grosso to say, “I’d love to get together with you for breakfast or a coffee to hear about your priorities as Ed Committee chair for the next session as well as share some thoughts we have on the proposed education research entity”—referring to legislation the Council was considering at that time.

“All of my advocacy efforts on behalf of ERN [referring to Education Reform Now] were in compliance with DC Code for nonprofit organizations,” Bellinger tells City Paper.

Josh Henderson, a political consultant and the former government relations liaison for the public charter school board, then took over as acting DFER-DC director. Despite also engaging lawmakers over legislative issues, he too never registered as a city lobbyist. When asked about this, Henderson cited a provision of the DC Code—noting a lobbying exemption applicable to nonprofit social welfare organizations—to explain why DFER’s (c)3 activities would not need to be registered.

Yet it’s not clear this provision is meant to exempt DC Education Reform Now from disclosure. “This is an obviously inaccurate reading of the law,” says Public Citizen’s Holman. “All of us regular nonprofits who spend $250 or more on lobbying the D.C. government must register and disclose our activities.” Other (c)3 organizations that register their lobbying include Jews United for Justice, the Nature Conservancy, and even FOCUS. “As nonprofits, we are given a break in the lobbyist registration fee,” Holman adds.

Henderson tells City Paper that their (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, is a registered lobbying entity in D.C. and they hire the firm Arent Fox to lobby on specific legislation. Records show that the registration occurred in 2018, and between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, Education Reform Now Advocacy paid Arent Fox $72,919.00 for the “promotion of policies benefiting public education, particularly charter schools.” Arent Fox earned an additional $63,150.00 during the first three months of 2019.

In July, DFER-DC hired Jessica Giles to serve as its next deputy director. Giles came directly from Grosso’s office, serving the last four years on the education committee.

Outside of Wilson building lobbying and campaign expenditures, DFER works to cultivate relationships with political leaders by hosting them at upscale private events. For example, public records requests made by City Paper reveal that DFER invited Grosso and his wife to sit at one of its two “VIP tables” at a Howard Theatre gala in 2016. “[We] are assembling a small group of education, civic, and philanthropic leaders to join us,” Bellinger wrote in her invitation.

The next year DFER invited Grosso and his wife to another gala, this time at the Ritz-Carlton, where they had a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. Bellinger likewise invited Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to join her for a dinner event in 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton, again at a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. And in April 2018 she extended yet another invitation to Mendelson for a Walton-sponsored table, this time at a gala hosted at the Newseum.

***

In D.C., the entity that directly oversees charters is the Public Charter School Board. Publicly funded through administrative fees charged to each school’s annual budget, the agency is the sole authorizer for D.C. charters—meaning it’s tasked with opening, closing, and monitoring the schools. But the board has also embraced a significant advocacy role, fighting back against regulatory efforts it thinks may hurt charter school operations.

Sometimes this means D.C.’s charter school board coordinates with private advocacy groups in unusual ways. In 2015, for example, according to a public records request, the board’s general counsel emailed Irene Holtzman—who had recently taken over for Cane as FOCUS’ executive director—to strategize about securing changes in a language access bill the Council was considering. “Since we still have two bites at this, in my opinion, what would be helpful now is for the Council to hear from FOCUS and more charter schools,” the general counsel wrote. She encouraged FOCUS to submit testimony, “citing its position on autonomy as it has in the past on issues such as this that try to loop charter schools in with DCPS.”

A subsequent fight over school discipline reform reveals a more extraordinary example of charter board advocacy. In the fall of 2017 Grosso was gearing up to introduce legislation that would set legal limits on how schools could discipline students. Among other things, the bill would ban most suspensions through eighth grade and cap the number of days a child could be suspended in a year.

In October 2017, according to an email obtained by City Paper, charter board executive director Scott Pearson emailed representatives from every charter school with an urgent warning to protest this forthcoming bill. Pearson also copied his director of government relations, Drew Snyder, and Holtzman from FOCUS.

“As drafted, this bill would substantially interfere with your exclusive control over school operations, and would create major reporting burdens for your school,” Pearson wrote. “We hope you can join the discipline discussion so that we can protect the foundations of the School Reform Act.” (Bold lettering matches Pearson’s original email.)

He urged charter leaders to contact Grosso’s office. “Many of you are busy with the day-to-day operations of your school but we need you to share your perspective during any and all meetings or in writing if necessary,” he wrote, adding that Snyder and Holtzman are both available to provide “information, or assistance in preparing testimony, talking points, or written submissions.”

If the call to action were not explicit enough, Pearson ended his email by requesting charter leaders “let Drew or Irene know” if they can submit testimony or attend the next Council meeting on the legislation.

Pearson acknowledges that as the city’s sole charter school authorizer, making such requests could place undue pressure on the schools he’s charged with regulating. He also notes that not all charter schools opposed Grosso’s legislation like he did.

“I don’t think I’ve ever button-holed a single school and said, ‘You need to do this,’” he tells City Paper. “Because to me that would go beyond what’s appropriate given I’m the authorizer and I know schools might feel like they need to do that to please me.” It would cross a line, he says, if he asked an individual school leader to testify, or “if I was somehow showing that we were keeping track, like here’s a list of the leaders who signed up [to speak].”

While Pearson says there have been in-person meetings where he’s encouraged school leaders to “make their voices heard” on other legislative matters, the school discipline bill is the only example he can think of where he sent an email out like that. He thought the bill represented a “five-alarm fire.”

When City Paper asked Holtzman why she didn’t just send that advocacy blast herself, she explained she felt charter leaders would be more likely to open the email and act if it was sent by Pearson. “I think Scott’s intent was to amplify my message because the truth is … I’m their friend, maybe a critical friend, but I’m not their auth[orizer],” she said. “And I said to Scott… I didn’t think at the time we were going to get a ton of traction, I think Scott was like, ‘If I send out an email, they open emails that come from Scott Pearson.’”

The lines between the two organizations have been close in other ways. The charter board’s  second-in-command from January 2012 up until this past June, Naomi DeVeaux, had come from FOCUS. “She was my right-hand person,” Cane says. Other FOCUS alums would go on to lead different parts of D.C.’s educational establishment, like Erika Wadlington, who led advocacy and outreach at FOCUS and later went on to direct the Council’s education committee.

Cane emphasizes that there were times when the charter authorizer took positions that FOCUS felt encroached on charter autonomy, and FOCUS would make their concerns known. Still, Cane “was very close” with Pearson. “I would say there’s an attempt on both sides to cooperate, a close working relationship, because both PCSB and FOCUS are interested in the survival of the public charter school movement,” he says.

Holtzman agrees there have been times when FOCUS and the charter school board were not perfectly aligned, but says she thinks “Scott and the PCSB are like the authoritarian dad … and I might be like the cool aunt … But we’re all part of one family and we all play really different roles.” (Holtzman abruptly left FOCUS at the end of June.)

Pearson recognizes that his predecessor, Josephine Baker, was less engaged in advocacy, but suggests that was easier to do when the charter sector’s market-share was smaller. Today nearly half of all public schools students in D.C. attend charters.

Pearson says he personally sees political advocacy as an essential part of his job. “To be an effective authorizer doesn’t just mean doing a great job of oversight of schools, it also means being an advocate so the schools are operating in an environment that allows them to thrive,” he explains. And unlike the DC Public Schools chancellor, who works for the mayor, Pearson and his colleagues can publicly criticize the executive branch.

***

Traditional public schools have advocates too, but they’ve struggled and have very little money.

“I remember the charter board as kind of a non-entity,” says Gina Arlotto, who in the mid-2000s led an advocacy group for D.C.’s traditional public schools, called Save Our Schools Southeast/Northeast. “They left the heavy lifting to FOCUS.” Arlotto’s now-defunct organization took a critical stance on charters. It formed around 2003, and Arlotto says many community members were not receptive to their efforts. “It was sad we couldn’t get more people to just see what we were trying to do,” she says. “We wanted people to look at charters and be a little skeptical to protect the public investment.”

In the fall of 2004, their group filed a lawsuit alleging that top city officials had neglected their duty to the traditional public schools and were violating their constitutional obligations by spending so much money to advance school choice. “Robert Cane hated us, we got into it with him a bunch of times,” recalls Arlotto. “He’d call us ‘losers,’ ‘racist,’ tell us we’re never going to win.”

They didn’t win, as their case was dismissed in 2006 for lack of standing, and the group stopped organizing in 2009. And unlike in other cities, where teacher unions have played an active role in slowing charter school growth, the Washington Teachers’ Union has been politically weakened for years, following an embezzlement scandal where union leaders diverted more than $2.5 million in membership dues.

“They had scandals, they were in disarray, we were lucky in that sense that we didn’t have to spend time on them,” says Cane.

These groups form a stark contrast with education reform-backed parent advocacy. One of the newest groups to emerge on the charter advocacy side is Parents Amplifying Voices in  Education, or PAVE, which trains local parents to advocate for school reform. It has quickly grown into a powerful force with deep pockets in the city.

PAVE was founded in 2016 by Maya Martin Cadogan, through an education reform-backed “entrepreneur-in-residence” program. She had previously worked at two local charter schools, and served on the DFER-DC advisory board.

With a first-year budget of $450,000, PAVE had the early financial backing of groups like CityBridge, the Walton Family Foundation, and DFER. By 2018, its budget had increased to $1.2 million, and today has 11 full-time staffers. While charter parents were its sole focus in year one, it’s since expanded to parents in both sectors.

Last December, the group held its inaugural PAVE Parent Power Gala at District Winery in the Navy Yard, where Grosso was awarded the “Parent PowerED Policymaker Award.” The event had many high-dollar sponsors, including Katherine Bradley and her husband who contributed $25,000, the Walton Family Foundation, which gave $10,000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $5,000, and Pearson of the charter school board, who donated $2,500.

Since its founding, PAVE has also organized an annual “Parent Voice and Choice Week” where it hosts catered meetings between advocates and lawmakers at the Council. This past year parent leaders met with 11 elected officials and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. Advocates ended the week with a reception co-sponsored by PAVE, DFER, FOCUS, and the Bradleys.

In June 2018, Valerie Jablow, a DC Public Schools parent and charter critic, filed a complaint with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, raising concerns that PAVE staff were engaged in unregistered lobbying; she noted they join parents in their meetings with lawmakers. “My complaint is not to indict the work of PAVE or anyone else for that matter, but to ensure that our laws are followed for lobbyists,” she wrote in a subsequent email to the agency. “In this case, pretending PAVE is just a group of parent volunteers specifically disadvantages actual volunteer parents like me, who approach elected officials on their own or as the unpaid representatives of groups, like PTAs, that are also unpaid and 100 percent volunteer. This is why, in fact, we have lobbying laws that define who a lobbyist is—to level the playing field to ensure those with money do not have disproportionate power.”

Holman, of Public Citizen, explains that one of the more difficult aspects of enforcing lobbying laws—both in Congress and on the local level—is monitoring who should be registered in the first place. “If you don’t register no one is going to know what you’re up to, and the way this is policed is often through self-policing,” he says. “So when I realize that I’m in a lobbying meeting with other people who aren’t registered, it’s up to me to file a complaint so the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability can pursue an investigation and even levy fines for violating the law.”

This past April, the agency’s director Brent Wolfingbarger wrote Jablow to say they had conducted a preliminary investigation and were dismissing her complaint as they found insufficient evidence to support the claim that PAVE staff should register as lobbyists. Wolfingbarger emphasized that all PAVE staffers did was set up meetings between parents and lawmakers, but never communicated with lawmakers about legislative issues themselves.

Yet emails unearthed from a public records request paint a different picture—one in which PAVE staff also meet and converse with lawmakers and their staffers alone. In one email dated Aug. 6, 2018, Kerry Savage, PAVE’s associate director of policy and advocacy wrote to the Council’s education committee director, Akeem Anderson, to say, “As we discussed, I’d love to grab coffee to learn more about you and your work. I know Councilmember Grosso shares many of PAVE’s policy priorities, including mental health supports and transparent funding, and I’d love to discuss potential opportunities to partner together.” Emails show Savage and Anderson scheduled a meeting at the Wilson Building on Aug. 8.

About two months later, Anderson emailed Savage to say, “We should grab [sic] catch up soon. Are you available Friday or sometime next week?” The next month Savage emailed Anderson asking him to “let me know if there are any good days for you to chat in the next couple weeks and I’ll compare with my schedule.” Roughly a month after that, Anderson sent an email connecting Savage with Katrina Forrest, the deputy chief of staff in Grosso’s office. “I want to connect you with Katrina in our office to discuss School Based Mental Health and our budget priorities as we move into the next Council Period,” he wrote. “Hopefully you two can find time to connect soon.” Savage wrote back to both staffers and said, “Katrina, I’d love to talk soon about our shared priorities. Is there a good time for you this week? Otherwise happy to connect after the holidays.”

“No PAVE staff have discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one with [council] staff, and our staff, myself included, do not engage in lobbying,” Cadogan tells City Paper over email.

City Paper asked Anderson if he ever discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one during his meetings and conversations with Savage. “Councilmember Grosso and staff met with and provided all relevant information about our meetings with parent advocates and staff of PAVE to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which has concluded its report,” spokesperson Matthew Nocella wrote in response.

In July, Jablow attended BEGA’s monthly board meeting to raise her concerns, and call for a continued investigation. Wolfingbarger insisted again that all PAVE staff has done is schedule meetings for parents—nothing more. “PAVE does the organizing of the meetings, but doesn’t actually present arguments or try to persuade,” he said, in an audio recording of the meeting.

Wolfingbarger tells City Paper his team found no evidence that PAVE met one-on-one with councilmembers or their staff. He did not respond to a voicemail and three follow-up emails with City Paper’s questions regarding details about their investigation, including the time period BEGA’s team studied, and whether their search involved a review of Council communications, like email.

***

The School Reform Act has protected charter schools against city interference for years, but signs are emerging that this legal armor is starting to corrode.

That’s in part due to a failed federal lawsuit brought in 2014 alleging D.C. had illegally underfunded charter schools by hundreds of millions of dollars, in violation of the School Reform Act. The Association and two local charter schools were named plaintiffs, and FOCUS helped finance the litigation.

D.C.’s then-Attorney General Irvin Nathan argued the case should be dismissed on the basis that “these are distinctively local decisions.” He emphasized that the School Reform Act does not “relieve the Council of its Home Rule Act authority” to determine school funding.

A federal judge denied Nathan’s dismissal request, but in 2017, she ruled against the plaintiffs. The charter groups appealed, and this past July, the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case for lack of federal jurisdiction.

“I think the winds have changed,” says Patterson, the auditor. “I think the litigation is informing sitting policymakers that they can do what they think is right and not run into legal problems because Congress enacted it.”

“I think for a long time the Council just really drank the Kool-Aid about charters being self-regulating and the market taking care of problems,” adds Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an advocacy group for school facilities.

Aside from the lawsuit, Grosso has also been more willing than past lawmakers to test the limits of the School Reform Act. In 2014, before he was committee chairman, Grosso introduced legislation to restrict the number of suspensions and expulsions for preschool students. The charter sector fought the bill, leveraging their federal supremacy arguments, but Grosso went forward anyway. It passed in 2015, the year he was named committee chair. In 2017, again over the strong objections of most charter advocates, Grosso introduced his next school discipline bill to restrict suspensions and expulsions for all public school students.

“I focus the work of the Committee on Education from a perspective of what is best for students and how can I put every student in D.C in the position to succeed in school,” Grosso tells City Paper. “We always set out from that framework. When we have a priority—like [the school discipline bill]—I do a legal analysis with my office and general counsel to make sure that it’s something we can move forward with.” Since becoming committee chair, Grosso says he’s been “able to get my priorities through.”

***

Gathered on the fourth floor of the Wilson building this past June, at a Council hearing for bills to track the flow of funds to the city’s most vulnerable students, dozens of public witnesses turned out to testify about a different matter: increasing transparency in D.C.’s public charter schools.

Unlike most other cities and states, D.C.’s charter schools are not subject to public records requests, and a proposed piece of legislation, not due for a hearing until Oct. 2, seeks to change that. Supporters of that bill feared the late date was selected to neutralize their momentum, and so they came out earlier to make their case.

This local political battle comes on the heels of a recent fight in California, where advocates had also long sought to bring charters under the state’s sunshine statutes. At the end of 2018, California’s attorney general issued a sweeping opinion around charter transparency, rejecting the idea that nonprofit charters should be exempt from public record requests, and this past March the state’s governor signed a bill bringing all California charter schools under the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws as traditional public schools.

Grosso has already stated his interest in subjecting charters to open meeting laws, something he and other councilmembers rejected back in 2015 when government watchdogs last pushed for it.

With reform chatter in the air, D.C.’s network of charter advocates is gearing up to go to battle once again.

They call the push for public records and other transparency rules an effort by unions and charter opponents to undermine the schools, by draining charter resources and hobbling them with bureaucracy. They say that just because other states successfully apply sunshine laws to their charters does not mean D.C. would see similar success.

This past spring, Education Reform Now, DFER-DC’s affiliate, funded a text-message campaign against the proposed transparency bill, using the same internal talking points endorsed by FOCUS and the Association. “The D.C Council is considering legislation that would divert resources in quality public charter schools away from helping students achieve to completing onerous paperwork and bureaucracy,” one text read. Another encouraged recipients to click on a link, which provided them with a pre-drafted email to send to their local representatives opposing the legislation. “I am writing to express disappointment in your recently introduced bill to unfairly target public charter schools,” the form email read. “Our kids need teachers and resources not more legal burdens.” DFER-DC did not answer City Paper’s inquiries regarding how many residents received the texts.

At the June hearing some charter leaders made similar points against additional oversight.

“I see this Council and others moving in a direction that troubles me, treating public charter schools as public agencies,” testified Shannon Hodge, the executive director of Kingsman Academy, a charter located in Ward 6. “We are not public agencies and we are not intended to be.”

Royston Lyttle, an Eagle Academy principal, agreed. “We don’t need more bureaucracy and red tape.”

“We have seen the playbook of the [National Education Association] for how to act against charters, and unfortunately some of what is happening right now, it’s coming straight out of the playbook,” says Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Peabody echoes her comments, saying the transparency bill is “part of what the national union is proposing to improve the charter schools, but what they’re really saying is if you weaken, surround them by red tape, then they won’t be as good as they are now.”

About three hours into June’s eight-hour hearing, At-Large Councilmember Robert White suggested that charter advocates try another approach going forward. “The biggest opposition to the FOIA piece from charter schools that I’ve heard is that it’s this huge burden. I don’t have a position on this right now, it’s something I’m still listening to, but if the strongest argument from the charter schools is that this is a burden—I don’t think that’s a strong enough argument,” he said. White invited advocates to share “more reasons, other reasons” as to why charter schools believe they should be exempt.

“Yeah it’s a burden, but is it an insurmountable burden?” he asked. “No, it’s not.”