Senators Push for Free Prison Phone Calls in Next Coronavirus Relief Bill

Originally published in The Intercept on August 7, 2020.

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has put into sharp relief an issue criminal justice reformers have been raising for years: the astronomical rates that prison-phone corporations charge for phone and video calls to incarcerated individuals. Now, as Congress debates the next coronavirus stimulus deal, some lawmakers are pushing for provisions to make such calls free.

On Thursday, 17 Democratic senators, led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tammy Duckworth, sent a letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer urging them to make this a federal priority in the next package.

“Before the pandemic, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for housing and food, and one in 29 children had a parent incarcerated,” the letter stated. “In addition, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one went into debt in order to stay connected with them, and women shouldered 87 percent of these costs. Now, as many facilities have suspended in-person visits and families face layoffs, furloughs, and evictions due to the pandemic, these calls are more necessary—and cost prohibitive—than ever.”

In some jurisdictions, a local 15-minute phone call can run as high as $25, a cost that was untenable even before the current economic crisis. The Federal Communications Commission currently has jurisdiction to regulate interstate calls, but more than 80 percent of prison phone calls are in-state, meaning the vast majority of calls for the 2 million incarcerated individuals across the U.S. could not be regulated unless Congress changed the law — a challenge highlighted in the senators’ letter.

“Without action from Congress to address the rates for in-state calls, families will continue to suffer,” they wrote.

The pandemic and the nationwide protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder brought significant attention to conditions in U.S. jails and prisons, where there is a disproportionate rate of Covid-19 cases as compared to the broader U.S population; one recent estimate put it at 5.5 times higher. At the same time, the pandemic has made it even harder for incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones, due to the combined stresses of expensive phone calls and the lack of in-person visitation. It’s an issue federal officials have been quietly chipping away at for months.

IN 2015, THE FCC announced it would act to address predatory in-state calling rates, but after telecom companies sued, FCC Chair Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, in 2017 stopped defending his agency’s right to regulate those calls. Later that year, a federal court ruled that the FCC has the authority to regulate interstate prison phone calls but not in-state ones.

In June 2019, Duckworth, along with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; and Angus King, I-Maine, introduced a bill to expand the FCC’s authority to regulate prison phone calls. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act is named in honor of Martha Wright, a woman who filed a lawsuit in 2000 against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the FCC to handle, so she then moved to petition the agency to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons.

Little changed following the introduction of Duckworth’s bill last year, but then the pandemic hit. In the first stimulus package authorized by Congress, to advocates’ surprise, language was included to make all phone calls free in federal facilities for the duration of the national emergency.

“It wasn’t clear who led the effort with the CARES Act … but after years of advocacy, the prison phone justice movement certainly has its allies in Congress, and it paid off in a bizarre moment,” said Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a group focused on dismantling the prison industry. “Unfortunately, the downside of that bill is that it’s only for the duration of Covid.”

In late March, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a House bill, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, which builds on Duckworth’s legislation. In addition to expanding the FCC’s authority to regulate in-state prison phone calls, Rush’s bill would also bar state and local government agencies from collecting commissions from prison phone calls and set interim rate caps during the pandemic. It was included in the HEROES Act, a supplement to the CARES Act that was passed by the House in May, a measure Tylek called “the most significant federal legislative vote on prison phone justice in history.”

Meanwhile in the Senate, Duckworth and Klobuchar continued to push on the issue. In mid-April, Duckworth organized a letter, signed by 18 other senators, urging Pai, the FCC chair, to pressure telecommunication providers to commit to reducing call rates in prisons and jails. “The FCC is uniquely positioned to seek commitments from these providers,” the senators wrote. “We applaud the FCC’s efforts to encourage traditional providers to bolster connectivity for Americans impacted by the coronavirus, most notably through the Keep Americans Connected Pledgehowever, this effort does not adequately reflect the dynamics of prison and jail telecommunication systems.”

In May, Klobuchar and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., led 27 other senators in sending a bicameral letter to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE urging them to provide free phone calls to detained people during the pandemic. In the House, Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Zoe Logfren organized 50 colleagues to also sign on.

Then in July, Pai surprised advocates by coming out forcefully on the issue. On July 16, the FCC announced a new proposed rule to significantly lower the per-minute rate caps for interstate prison phone calls, from $.21 (prepaid) and $0.25 (collect) to $0.14 for calls from prisons and $0.16 for calls from jails. The proposed rule would also cap rates for international prison phone calls for the first time. In an accompanying blog post, Pai wrote, “Not surprisingly, without effective regulation, rates for inmate calling services can be unjustly and unreasonably high and make it difficult for inmates and their loved ones to stay connected.”

Four days later, Pai sent a letter to the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a trade association of state utility commissioners, urging the group to take action on the “unjust and unreasonable rates” of in-state prison phone calls, which he noted disproportionately hurt Black Americans. In 33 states, rates are at least double the federal cap, and in 27 states, the first-minute charge can be up to 26 times higher than that of an interstate call. In his letter Pai pointed to recent statements NARUC made following George Floyd’s killing about addressing discrimination and racial injustice. “These are noble sentiments … but it is time for these sentiments to manifest in action,” Pai wrote.

On July 23, NARUC issued a response to Pai’s letter, saying they “agree” and will ask their members to “take a comprehensive review in their jurisdictions around these rates and take action where warranted.” NARUC president Brandon Presley noted that in some states, corrections officials negotiate prison phone call contracts “outside the purview of state public service commissions,” so they would need to be involved, in addition to governors. But NARUC opposes expanding the FCC’s power over in-state prison calls, and in the last few weeks Pai has begun campaigning more vocally for Congress to give his agency that authority. While Pai has not endorsed Duckworth’s bill specifically, he has endorsed the most significant component of her bill. On Thursday the FCC voted to advance the proposed rule to lower interstate prison phone call rates, setting the stage for public comment.

 

Tylek said no activist anticipated this momentum from the FCC. “We can’t say we expected Commissioner Pai would come out and say, ‘State regulators, all of you are writing Black Lives Matter statements but aren’t doing anything about prison phone calls,’” she said, adding, “Having a pro-industry, Trump-appointee conservative acknowledging the issue is very positive for the movement and a welcome change.”

Pressure has continued to ramp up in the Senate to get this included in the next stimulus package. Advocates are planning to deliver a petition to Congress next week with over 75,000 signatures urging the passage of phone justice legislation, and this past Tuesday, Klobuchar formally signed onto Duckworth’s bill, and joined her in circulating the Dear Colleague letter on Thursday. Advocates say they are particularly excited about Klobuchar’s leadership since she has a good record of being able to corral Republicans onto legislation.

The real Republican gatekeeper on this issue is Sen. Roger Wicker, the chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Tylek says Wicker’s office has met with them, but he has not committed to support the legislation. Wicker’s office did not return requests for comment. 

As Schools Reopen, Teachers, Parents and Students are Pushing Back

Originally published in The Intercept on August 3, 2020.
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ON MONDAY, in more than 25 states, thousands of parents, educators, students, and community members are participating in the National Day of Resistance, staging in-person and virtual actions to call for safe, well-funded, and racially just school reopening plans. The actions come in response to pressure from state governments and the White House to resume in-person learning so that kids can get back to the classroom and their parents back to work, but are also being tied to the ongoing pushback against school privatization from the Trump administration.

In New York City, parents, students, and teachers will be marching from their union headquarters down to the Department of Education. In Los Angeles, activists are organizing a car caravan, first outside the LA Chamber of Commerce and then around the Los Angeles Unified School District building. “We’re kicking it off at the LA Chamber because even during Covid, this is a time when a lot of corporations and Wall Street are making record-breaking profits,” explained Sylvana Uribe, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive group participating in the protest. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, teacher unions are calling on Comcast to improve the quality of its service and make it more affordable for families. In Phoenix, activists are planning to demonstrate outside their state capitol building, where educators can write letters to their elected officials about how they feel going back to school or, if they want, write their imagined obituaries.

“Monday is Arizona’s first day back to school, so that’s why we know we have to lead in organizing because people across the country will be watching us and learning what happens with reopenings,” said Rebecca Garelli, a parent and science educator participating in the Phoenix protest.

In Chicago, activists are rallying outside of City Hall and Illinois’s state government building. Among them will be Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of 30 grassroots organizations that helped conceive of the Day of Resistance. “When we look at the fact that these same communities have shuttered public schools and opened up new jails, do we really think they will prioritize the health and safety of Black and brown children when it comes to reopening?” Brown asked. “We say no, or only if we make them do so.”

As part of their organizing, Journey for Justice and the 501(c)(4) affiliate of the Center for Popular Democracy sent a letter Monday morning to President Donald Trump laying out 15 demands for a safe and equitable reopening, including fully functioning air conditioning and ventilation units, free laptops and internet access for every student, regular coronavirus testing, and an elimination of police in schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, members of Congress, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were also copied on the letter.

Over the last month, the question of how and whether to reopen schools has become one of the most pressing and wrenching political questions. While Trump and DeVos both have sought to push schools to reopen in person, even threatening to withhold funding from those that don’t, majorities of educators, school administrators, and parents have expressed ambivalence about the safety of children and staff returning to school. One new estimate from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that more than 80 percent of Americans live in a county where at least one person with Covid-19 would be expected to show up at a school of 500 students and staff if school started today.

In late June, the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national nonprofit group comprised of heads of state departments of education, said as much as $245 billion in federal support will be needed in order to safely reopen schools, with the funding going primarily toward personal protective gear and cleaning supplies, as well as digital devices. Senate Republicans unveiled their latest Covid-19 relief proposal last week, which included $70 billion for K-12 school districts and private schools, but most of that money would be conditioned on schools reopening for in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, scientists and public health experts have been issuing conflicting advice, complicated by the fact that the public’s understanding of Covid-19 transmission among children has continued to evolve. While it was originally thought that the risk among children of catching or transmitting the virus was very low, especially among younger children, new research has recently challenged those assumptions. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued interim guidance on the importance of in-person schooling, but a few weeks later, the group released a new statement, in partnership with national teacher unions and the School Superintendents Association, urging against a “one-size-fits-all approach” to reopenings. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it,” the groups said.

Recently in Indiana, on the first day of school, administrators learned that a middle school student had tested positive for the virus. The student and others they came in contact with were ordered to quarantine for 14 days. A similar situation just happened with a high schooler in Mississippi.

“You can spend an entire year asking kids to walk in the hall, and yet we somehow expect them to wear masks for six hours?” asked Marilena Marchetti, a public school occupational therapist participating in New York City’s march. “It’s a joke.”

IN ADDITION TO some of the more familiar safety demands around PPE, Covid-19 testing, and ventilation, parents and educators have also been circulating a petition with demands for direct cash assistance to those who cannot work or are unemployed and police-free schools, as well as moratoriums on “punitive” standardized testing, vouchers, charter schools, evictions, and foreclosures.

Garelli, the science educator from Arizona, said the logic around the charter, voucher, and testing moratoriums is that “everything that drains” or “siphons” money from public schools should be avoided. “Standardized testing alone costs millions of dollars, and we need that money for PPE, ventilation, and sanitation,” she said.

“Our point is we don’t want to just go back to normal because normal wasn’t good at all,” added Marchetti.

Dmitri Holtzman, director of Education Justice Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, said the hope is for the progressive movement to “double down” with “transformative” demands to help counter the fact that DeVos and Trump are also trying to use the pandemic to push school privatization.

The demand for police-free schools, though not new, has seen a recent surge in political momentum in the wake of protests around George Floyd’s killing. In June, Minneapolis Public Schools cut ties with its city police department and Milwaukee Public Schools followed shortly after. In LA, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in July to cut its school police budget by $25 million and redirect those funds into hiring more counselors and social workers.

One of the grassroots groups participating in the Day of Resistance is Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth-led organization in Salem, Oregon. “We’ve been focusing on the school-to-prison pipeline for a long time, but we’ve definitely seen a surge in new support this summer,” said Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, the group’s director. “We’re planning a rally outside of the Salem-Keizer School District building.”

While some teacher unions are participating in the Day of Resistance, including the United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union, not all the demands outlined in the letter to Trump and the circulating petition are what the unions are actually negotiating over. Last week, UTLA had to issue a statement pushing back on media reports that said LA educators were refusing to return to school until charter schools and the police were abolished. “This is incorrect and damaging,” the union stated. “Defunding police to redirect money to education and public health and a moratorium on allocating school classrooms to charter companies so that public schools have space for safe physical distancing are just two” ways the district could raise revenue to safely reopen schools.

Other news reports have tried to frame opposition to school reopening as driven primarily by teacher unions, despite polls showing clear opposition from other stakeholders like parents and school administrators. One Axios-Ipsos poll released in mid-July found that most parents, including a majority of Republican parents and 89 percent of Black parents, thought returning to school would be risky, and just one-third of principals expressed confidence in their school’s ability to keep adults and children safe, according to a poll conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Importantly, while one of the demands for the Day of Resistance is to have no reopening “until the scientific data supports it,” activists acknowledge that different communities will define those public health metrics differently. “We don’t have a singular firm position on this,” said Holtzman. “For some people, it’s not until there’s a vaccine, for others, it’s 14 days with no new cases, and others, it could be a certain amount of days with no new deaths.”

Marchetti, who is part of the social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers, said its demand in New York City is to not reopen until there are no new cases for 14 days. “We don’t have a demand to wait for a vaccine, but people shouldn’t be afraid to go to back to work,” she said. While teacher union strikes are illegal in New York, educators have broached the idea of calling in sick en masse to protest unsafe reopenings. “We’re still feeling betrayed by how slow it took [city officials] to close schools in March,” Marchetti added, pointing to a Columbia University study that found thousands of lives would have been saved had New York put its control measures in place just one week earlier.

In Los Angeles, activists are calling for at least 21 days of no new Covid-19 cases before reopening schools. In Arizona, protesters are asking for leaders to put out some kind of public health metric, which currently no one has. “Some educators want to wait for a vaccine, and others just really want to have some kind of standard, like how New York set a [reopening] threshold of the coronavirus positivity rate staying below 3 percent,” said Garelli.

The American Federation of Teachers recently passed a resolution saying that schools should only reopen in places where the average daily community infection rate among those tested is below 5 percent and transmission rate is below 1 percent. “Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort,” the resolution stated.

Garelli rejected the argument that teachers returning to school should be viewed similarly to other essential workers who have had to return to their workplaces. “No other essential worker has to spend 7 hours a day in a small room with poor ventilation with 30 other kids,” she said. “There’s just no comparison.”

Brown, of Journey for Justice, said his affiliate groups plan to push over the next month for the funding and conditions to safely reopen school, because ultimately their goal is for students and educators to return. “We see the harm that our young people face not having access to school and the socialization that comes with it,” he said. “We understand the need for them to academically grow. But we also understand the need for them to live.”

USPS Workers Concerned New Wave of Policies Will Pave The Way To Privatization

Originally published in The Intercept on July 29, 2020.
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JULY HAS BEEN a flurry of confusion and stress for postal workers, as a barrage of new measures are threatening to fundamentally overhaul and undermine the culture and operations of the U.S. Postal Service.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on a memo from the new USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy urging postal staff to leave behind mail at distribution centers if they thought it would cause a delay for letter carriers. Another memo stated that the USPS would be looking to cut transportation and overtime costs, bringing about “immediate, lasting, and impactful changes” to the federal agency.

The following week, postal workers learned of yet another new pilot program called Expedited to Street/Afternoon Sortation, or ESAS, that would be rolling out in 384 delivery units nationwide beginning on July 25. The crux of this program, as outlined in an unsigned memo dated July 16, is to send letter carriers out to deliver mail more quickly in the morning by prohibiting them from sorting any mail in their offices before they go.

These changes could delay mail from getting to its final destination by at least one day, if not longer. While the USPS memo billed ESAS as an effort to “improve consistency in delivery time” to customers, reduce overtime, and increase efficiency, postal workers were alarmed and shocked by these new dictates, which appeared to directly undermine a core value of their work.

“These are changes aimed at changing the entire culture of USPS,” said Mark Dimondstein, the national president of the American Postal Workers Union. “The culture I grew up with, and of generations before me, is that you never leave mail behind. You serve the customer, you get mail to the customer. Prompt, reliable, and efficient.”

Dimondstein said the union is putting in place an ESAS monitoring and reporting plan to evaluate the impacts of these new changes to service. “We are definitely getting our members educated and we will fight this post office by post office, community by community,” he said. The union is also coordinating with members of Congress to discuss strategies, and Dimondstein said he’s hoping for oversight hearings in early fall.

“I think the best way to put it is we’re concerned,” said Arthur Sackler, manager for the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a postal industry advocacy group. “Maybe this will just delay mail delivery once, but we’re worried if there’s no real time to sort, and no overtime, then there could be a cumulative growing impact.”

Sackler said his group has still gotten no information or clarity about these new rules and their potential consequences from the federal agency. “We haven’t been told anything, we haven’t been consulted, and over the last three decades the Postal Service has had a good track record of talking to unions and industry groups if there are going to be changes.”

In a statement, USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told The Intercept that the Postal Service “is developing a business plan to ensure that we will be financially stable and able to continue to provide dependable, affordable, safe and secure delivery of mail and packages to all Americans as a vital part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The plan, which will be presented to the Board of Governors when it is finalized, will include new and creative ways to help us fulfill our mission, and will focus on the Postal Service’s strengths to maximize our prospects for long-term success.” In addition to developing the broader business plan, Partenheimer said, “the Postal Service is taking immediate steps to increase operational efficiency by re-emphasizing existing plans that have been designed to provide prompt and reliable service within current service standards.”

Postal workers have been on high alert since May, when it was announced that the USPS Board of Governors had selected DeJoy to serve as the new postmaster general and CEO. DeJoy has been a top Republican Party fundraiser, including for the Republican National Convention and the president’s reelection effort, which prompted questions about how exactly he secured his new gig.

DeJoy previously worked as chair and CEO of New Breed Logistics, a massive warehousing and distribution company, and is the first postmaster general in over two decades to have never worked at USPS. He replaced outgoing postmaster general, Megan Brennan, who was appointed in 2015 and had been a career-long USPS employee, beginning as a letter carrier in Pennsylvania.

A bevy of worker violations and complaints have racked up at DeJoy’s old stomping ground. When he was CEO, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that New Breed’s hiring practices were “motivated by anti-union animus” when it avoided hiring any Longshore union members after it secured an Army contract in California. Between 2001 and 2015, New Breed and its affiliates paid more than $1.7 million for violations of labor law, wage and hour regulations, employee discrimination, and aviation regulations. In 2014, the New York Times reported on four women who worked in a Memphis warehouse for New Breed who suffered miscarriages after their supervisors refused their requests for light duties while pregnant. That same year New Breed merged with XPO Logistics, and since 2015, XPO and its affiliates have paid more than $30 million for a range of workplace violations. Last year, hundreds of drivers, warehouse workers, and intermodal drivers at XPO facilities worldwide protested against abuse and wage theft. Then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, XPO offered to “lend” workers up to 100 hours of time off, but said they would have to repay that time.

DeJoy vowed to bring about change to USPS, criticizing the organization for having “an expensive and inflexible business model” that he said he looked forward to tackling head-on. “I did not accept this position in spite of these challenges, I accepted this position because of them,” he told USPS employees in a June 15 video address.

Postal service workers feel particularly unnerved by the new ESAS program and DeJoy’s appointment given the Trump administration’s announcement in 2018 that the president would like to restructure and privatize USPS. The White House suggested that USPS could save money by raising rates, ending door-to-door delivery, and cutting down days of mail service. This past April, Donald Trump called the Postal Service “a joke” and tried to force the agency to quadruple its package rates in exchange for Covid-19 relief.

Delaying mail delivery in the name of cutting costs and efficiency, Dimondstein argued, means that people will lose confidence in one of the most trusted federal agencies in the country, which, unlike its private competitors, delivers everywhere, including to unprofitable and rural areas. “Undermining and degrading the Postal Service helps frustrate the customer, which sets the stage to privatizing it,” he said. “The Trump administration is on record for raising prices, reducing service, and reducing workers’ rights and benefits. This [pilot] may be Trump’s first foray to try and actually accomplish some of those things.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., pointed to the implications delaying mail could have not just on letters and packages, but also for the upcoming election. “With states now reliant on voting by mail to continue elections during the pandemic, the destabilizing of the post office is a direct attack on American democracy itself,” he said in a statement. Pascrell is a vocal supporter of postal banking and a co-sponsor of the USPS Fairness Act, a bill that would repeal the requirement that the Postal Service annually repay future retirement health benefits. In May, he called for an inspector general investigation into possible political interference by the Trump administration within USPS.

In terms of reducing overtime, Dimondstein said the obvious way to do so is to hire more workers. Between 2009 and 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office, USPS cut its workforce by more than 77,000 employees. “There’s always going to be some fluctuation in mail, and overtime goes up during periods of high mail volume, but it also goes up when you’re understaffed, and during this pandemic we’ve had over 38,000 postal workers quarantined for Covid-19 exposure so someone has to cover those shifts.”

Drew, a letter carrier in Rockford, Illinois who requested his last name be withheld in case of employer retaliation, has worked for USPS for the past two years, and his parents also worked as carriers at different times. “This is the worst any of us have ever seen it,” he told The Intercept. “One of the things that’s always been a central tenant of the Post Office is that the mail gets through, no matter how late you have to work, what the weather is, and now it feels like that’s being thrown out the window.”

The level of uncertainty that looms over carriers now is affecting morale, according to Drew. “We don’t know what sorts of overhauls are coming down the line,” he said. “It feels like something new comes down every few weeks.”

The Democratic Party’s Most Confounding Primary

Originally published in The Intercept with Akela Lacy on July 28,2020.
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WHEN NEWS BROKE late last summer that Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy was considering a primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey, many political operatives reasonably asked … why? Elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, the most high-profile aspect of Kennedy’s political career had been giving the Democratic response to the State of the Union in 2018 — and, of course, being a Kennedy. Markey, meanwhile, wasn’t shrouded in any scandal and had recently introduced the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an instant hallmark of progressive politics.

Polling voters, though, the answer is a little more evident. Last July, before Kennedy jumped in the race, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed that 45 percent of likely voters in the state were undecided about supporting Markey for reelection and 14 percent said they had never heard of him. By September, Boston Globe/Suffolk University released another poll finding Kennedy leading Markey by 14 points in a potential Senate head-to-head, and more Massachusetts voters viewed Kennedy as the more liberal candidate and a better fighter for Democratic priorities than Markey.

Soon after Kennedy announced his candidacy in September, progressive groups were quick to jump behind Markey. Markey has earned endorsements from a host of progressive organizations, ranging from national groups like Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, and Planned Parenthood to teachers unions, peace groups, and environmental activists on the state level.

As the September 1 primary nears, progressives, many of whom are still mourning the losses of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary, have turned their sights to saving Markey’s seat in the Senate — grateful for his early backing of the Green New Deal, which was unpopular among Democratic leadership in Washington when it was introduced. It doesn’t matter to them that Kennedy also supports the Green New Deal, and some view his recent announcement that his family trusts have divested from oil and gas stocks as too little too late. (In December, Markey’s campaign returned more than $46,000 from donors who didn’t meet requirements of the fossil fuel pledge, which both candidates signed.)

Many also suspect that Kennedy has decided to run for Senate because he’s calculated that it might be easier to unseat a 74-year-old incumbent now than it would be to beat Rep. Ayanna Pressley or Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an open primary six years down the road. Indeed, Kennedy’s stated rationale for entering the primary is a little fuzzy. Both candidates admit that when it comes down to brass tacks, they are in line on major issues. Kennedy’s case boils down to the idea that he thinks he could “leverage” the Massachusetts Senate seat better than Markey has. Senators have immense power beyond just voting on bills, Kennedy’s argument goes, and Markey hasn’t used his position effectively enough to serve the Democratic Party and the country.

The result is a Senate primary race that can best be described as pretty weird. On the one hand, there’s an incumbent who has served more than 40 years in Congress running as some kind of grassroots underdog. On the other hand, a literal Kennedy is claiming to be bullied by the political establishment and invoking language used by progressive insurgents who’ve sought new leadership to shake up the status quo.

There hasn’t been polling in the race since early May, when a UMass-Lowell poll showed the race had significantly tightened with Kennedy up by just 2 points. That, Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh argued, is because the progressive base has consolidated behind the senator. But another poll, conducted around the same time by Emerson College/7News, showed Markey trailing Kennedy by 16 points.

PROGRESSIVE ENTHUSIASM FOR Markey from both the activist community and left-wing media has at times led the left to go fairly easy on the senator for votes they’ve criticized other Democrats for. Over the years, like Joe Biden, Markey voted for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the 1994 crime bill, and he opposed busing for desegregation in the 1970s.

When asked if he has any comments about these past votes, Markey told The Intercept that Black and brown men in the United States were “owe[d] a national apology” for the over-incarceration wrought by the 1994 crime bill, and said that’s why he’s co-sponsoring Sen. Cory Booker’s Next Step Act to overhaul the criminal justice system. Markey offered similar remarks when he announced his 2018 co-sponsorship of the First Step Act, a precursor to Booker’s bill: “The First Step Act is just the beginning of the national apology we owe to the generation of African-American men and women who lost their lives and futures in prison due to a few dollars of crack cocaine and an unjust War on Drugs.”

On Iraq, Markey says he “deeply regret[s] that vote” and blamed President George W. Bush for lying to Congress and the American people about nuclear weapons in the country. “I’ve worked every day to ensure we don’t have another needless war in the Middle East,” he said, though he voted “present” in 2013 on military intervention in Syria, saying at the time that he needed to study the issue further.

“Senator Markey has been on the cutting edge of progressivism in the Democratic Party for his entire career,” Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement to The Intercept, citing the senator’s early support for net neutrality and opposition to nuclear weapons. “Has every vote he’s ever taken over his long political career been perfect? No. But he’s often the person in his party forcing others to take hard or uncomfortable votes before positions become politically popular, creating the space and momentum for change.”

Though Markey has positioned himself as a stalwart leader of the progressive movement, and touted the significance of receiving progressive endorsements in his primary, the senator lacks a record of backing progressive primary challengers, something Warren and Sanders have embraced over the last few years. Unlike Warren and Sanders, for example, Markey stayed out of Charles Booker’s competitive Senate bid in Kentucky this year, and in his home state, he’s standing behind Rep. Richard Neal, despite Neal facing a much more progressive challenger in Alex Morse. Markey also didn’t endorse Pressley in 2018, though his supporters say it matters that he didn’t endorse Mike Capuano, the incumbent, either.

Back in November, a reporter pressed Markey about why he wasn’t supporting Morse, given that he supports the Green New Deal, and Neal doesn’t. “Ultimately he supports taking bold action on climate change and changing the tax code that makes [a Green New Deal] possible,” said Markey, defending his colleague. Markey and Neal both endorsed each other before Kennedy and Morse were running. “I like both candidates,” he added, referring to Booker and Morse. “On big votes Congressman Neal has been with me, but we have our differences.”

Kennedy hasn’t endorsed in the Morse/Neal contest either and told The Intercept that he plans to focus on his own race. Kennedy has also been criticized by progressive groups for endorsing the more moderate candidates in Massachusetts races in which progressive challengers were running.

“One thing we’ve pointed out is that in 2018, he had the choice to support progressive women of color — Ayanna Pressley and Nika Elugardo — but he didn’t,” said Jonathan Cohn, a leader with Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group that has endorsed Markey. In those races, Kennedy endorsed incumbents Capuano and Jeffrey Sanchez, who both lost. (This cycle Elugardo has endorsed Markey, and Pressley is staying out of the race.)

EARLIER THIS WINTER, a Democratic activist in Massachusetts approached Kennedy after a campaign town hall and pressed him on why he was running. “With due respect to Senator Markey, who is a good man, there’s more to this job than the way you vote and the bills that you file,” Kennedy answered, as reported by Boston Magazine. “It comes with an ability to leverage that platform … and, with due respect to the senator, if you’re not going to leverage that now … then when?”

But has Kennedy “leveraged” his House seat to the best of his ability?

“I think I have,” he told The Intercept, though acknowledged that he’s “done it differently obviously” than star representatives like Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez. He credits those women for using their platforms to cast a spotlight on issues of importance. “I’ve tried to do that in a way that is most natural to me,” he said, and pointed to his fundraising trips throughout 2018 to help Democrats flip the House. Kennedy said this work helped flip the House in 2018 and in a recent debate, he brought up his fundraising for Covid-19 relief groups and legal defense for immigrant families.

“Let me be clear,” he added. “When I critique Senator Markey … I’m not saying in persona, experience, history, or policy that I would be the next AOC or Ayanna Pressley. Like that’s not who I am, that’s not the policy positions that I necessarily take.”

“The reason Joe can go around [fundraising] is because he’s Bobby Kennedy’s grandson,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager. “It’s not because he’s ever led on a single issue since he’s been in Congress.” Kennedy countered that he’s proud of his leadership in areas around mental health and LGBTQ issues, and noted he spoke to Black Lives Matter and transgender rights in his 2018 response to the State of the Union.

Kennedy’s campaign said its polling shows Markey leading with more white, affluent voters, while Kennedy is doing better with middle-class and working-class white people, as well as Black and Latino communities. “We are proud of the broad and incredibly diverse base of support Joe has earned from communities of color to working-class cities and towns,” Kennedy’s press secretary, Brian Phillips Jr. told The Intercept. White, affluent voters tend to be more reliable Massachusetts primary voters, and so the Kennedy campaign is hoping for high turnout overall. “If you look to more moderate and conservative Democrats, they’re with Joe,” said Walsh.

Kennedy, who recognizes that he comes to this race with wealth and a dynastic political history, still feels like he hasn’t really been given a fair shake by the left. Progressive media has gone after Kennedy for working for Michael O’Keefe, a conservative, tough-on-crime district attorney on Cape Cod. “Why did Joe Kennedy … choose in 2009 to help cage his indigent neighbors under the leadership of O’Keefe?” asked The Appeal’s Will Isenberg. The Nation’s Maia Hibbett said Kennedy would have been “collecting quality-of-life fines, securing low-level drug convictions, and evicting families from their homes” during his time as a prosecutor.

Kennedy told The Intercept that he did not handle eviction cases, as those are civil suits, and that his time was spent primarily on DUIs, assault and battery charges, domestic violence, and opioid and mental illness drug cases. “The idea that your liberal ideology has to be in accordance with your boss is an absurd position to take, because yeah I disagree with him, but my job wasn’t setting policy, it was implementing the laws that were actually uniform across the state,” he said. According to Kennedy, his nickname at the office was “innocence project” because of his commitment to criminal defense.

In May, Kennedy introduced a bill to establish a right to counsel for eviction, medical bankruptcy, and domestic violence cases — a decadeslong goal from the legal aid community. Yet he earned minimal progressive plaudits, perhaps because earlier that month he was ripped online for a tweet that said no patient should “be forced to fight off medical bankruptcy in the midst of a global health pandemic without a lawyer by their side.” (The next day he clarified, “Let me be clear here: We need Medicare for all. We need an end to medical bankruptcy. … But until we get there, we need assurance that every patient will have access to legal counsel and aid if they are forced to fight their insurer in court.”) Kennedy has also been blasted by progressives for not co-sponsoring former Rep. John Conyers’s original Medicare for All bill in the House, but he said he was “proud” to co-sponsor Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s version, which builds upon earlier proposals from Sanders and Conyers, after working with her to ensure that it would cover abortions and long-term care.

“Senator Markey has over the course of the past several months gone much further left than he ever has,” Kennedy told The Intercept. “The progressive world has consolidated around him to make him the progressive in the race and tried to make me a mealy-mouth moderate who is running on ambition and my name, which has been frustrating to say the least.” Kennedy said he wants more of an honest conversation about vote histories. “I looked at my record and what I’ve done and I’m just trying to say, ‘Hey, you want to have a debate about who is more progressive? Fine. I think the honest answer is there’s areas where Senator Markey has led, and there are areas I’ve led.’”

LAST WEEK, Kennedy’s campaign held a press conference with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who slammed Markey for his immigration record, pointing to a 2013 vote in which the senator broke with his caucus and the president to increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention bed quota. Kennedy later voted for an omnibus spending bill that included the quota, along with all but three other House Democrats.

Markey certainly rejects the idea that he hasn’t led in the Senate and ticked off a number of his biggest accomplishments, from increasing fuel efficiency standards to creating the largest federal program for low-income students to access internet at home. He feels his advocacy on issues like the climate crisis, net neutrality, and Medicare for All position him well to win his next election. “It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas that are important,” Markey said. “And in terms of the age of my ideas, I’m the youngest person in this race.”

Markey isn’t alone on shifting leftward over the course of this election cycle. Kennedy, whose grandfather was killed by a man who’s been up for parole many times in recent years, now supports eliminating life sentences without parole, although he said he wants to balance sentencing reform with the wishes of victims and their families. That’s a change from earlier this year, when he wrote in a February candidate questionnaire that he supported eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles and nonviolent cases, and “heavily restricting,” but not eliminating, qualified immunity.

“I think my position on that has actually evolved since we even did that questionnaire,” Kennedy said. “I’ve thought about that one a lot. … I am comfortable now with the idea that people should be eligible for parole. … I also want to make sure victims’ voices and survivors’ voices are heard.”

At the end of the day, the Markey and Kennedy campaigns will have poured close to $20 million into a race that won’t help Senate Democrats add any seats in the chamber or markedly change the winner’s policy blueprint for the next congressional session. Kennedy has raised more than $7.8 million so far, and Markey — who out-raised Kennedy for the first time last quarter, according to his campaign — has raised more than $10.4 million to date. Both men cast their most recent fundraising hauls as evidence that their campaigns are surging.

Teachers and the Struggle for Paid Family Leave

Originally published in Rethinking Schools on July 22, 2020.
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Last fall, California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, signed a sweeping array of progressive legislation into law. Among the many bills he enacted included legislation granting collective bargaining rights to the state’s more than 40,000 childcare providers, making medication abortion available to all students at public colleges, and strengthening tenant protections. It was a dazzling list full of victories advocates had long fought for.

But one piece of progressive legislation that would have granted at least six weeks of paid maternity leave to California’s public school teachers didn’t make it over the finish line. The bill passed the state Legislature with bipartisan support, but faced stiff resistance from school districts and education associations, which urged the governor to veto what they saw as an expense too heavy to take on. Proponents argued the bill would save districts money on retention and recruitment, as fewer teachers might feel they need to quit the profession to balance their family duties, and more educators would be incentivized to take up teaching in the first place.

In the end, Newsom sided with the school districts, as did his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a similar bill in 2017.

“Providing every California worker with paid family leave is a noble goal,” Newsom said at the time. “However, this bill will likely result in annual costs of tens of millions of dollars that should be considered as part of the annual budget process and as part of local collective bargaining.” He pointed to a state task force on paid family leave and said the benefit for educators should be considered within that effort.

Educators like Evelyn Sanchez, an 8th-grade English language arts teacher in San Francisco, were heartbroken. “It’s really unfortunate that such a prosperous state treats its public employees so badly when it comes to family-friendly policies,” she said, recalling how hard it was to come back to school so quickly after giving birth, and wetting her pants in class because her pelvic floor was shot.

More than three quarters of teachers are women, with most working during their prime childbearing years. For now, teachers in California, like teachers in the vast majority of school districts across the country, will continue on as they have for decades — either taking unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or cobbling together vacation and sick days, or in some instances extended leave at a lesser salary. (In California, teachers who take extended leave even have to finance the cost of their own substitutes.)

And teachers are certainly not alone in carrying this burden. The United States remains the only developed nation in the industrialized world that doesn’t provide federal paid family leave. Only nine states currently guarantee the benefit — and most of those, including California, exclude public sector workers like teachers. Within the private sector, just 19 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employer.

While some teachers have recently increased their organizing for this overlooked issue — and there are victories to be found through state advocacy and local bargaining — many teachers are beginning to understand that true relief, not just for them but also for the families they serve — will only come through federal action.

In some respects, it’s surprising the lack of paid leave for teachers has gone under the radar for so long, given how many educators it affects every year. On the other hand, it’s not surprising — given how few workers have the benefit at all and considering that teachers already have their hands full fighting school budget cuts, and rallying to preserve their dwindling healthcare benefits and retirement. Many teachers interviewed for this story added that the lack of attention to paid leave for teachers was just one more example of how the female-dominated profession has been, and remains, undervalued and disrespected.

*     *     *

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was signed into law 27 years ago and provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents or individuals to care for a serious personal or family illness. This federal protection has been used more than 200 million times, and advocates describe it as a landmark step forward because it affirmed the idea that a family shouldn’t jeopardize one’s job or health insurance, that both men and women should be entitled to caregiving time, and that not only newborn or newly adopted children require care.

But gaping holes in the law have loomed large, and lawmakers have failed to make any real progress toward addressing them. Aside from the fact that millions of workers can’t afford to take unpaid leave from their job, FMLA also applies only to those at companies of 50 employees or more who work on average at least 25 hours a week. If you work in a small business, if you work part time, or if you don’t have weeks of savings to lean on, you’re out of luck.

In the meantime, some states, cities, and school districts have stepped up to tackle paid family leave — though that too has been frustratingly slow.

The first four states to pass paid family leave were California (in 2002), New Jersey (in 2008), Rhode Island (in 2013), and New York (in 2016). All four had the advantage of adding the new benefit onto their existing temporary disability programs — something only five states in the country have. As a result, those states were able to incorporate paid family leave relatively easily into their state welfare systems.

State policymakers then worked to improve upon the programs earlier states had created. For example, New York’s was the most comprehensive program to come at the time — up to three months of partially paid leave for all private sector employees, no matter their gender, the size of their workplace, or whether they are full time or part time. California and New Jersey, by contrast, offered just six weeks, and Rhode Island only four. (In 2019, New Jersey extended its benefit to 12 weeks.)

However, all four of those programs also excluded public sector workers in unions, like teachers.

“The big concern for lawmakers in those states was the fiscal note, meaning how much the program was expected to cost,” says Ellen Bravo, the strategic advisor of Family Values @ Work, a national network of organizations working to advance paid leave policies. Excluding public sector workers was a way to keep the effort’s sticker price down, making it politically easier to get through the legislative grinder.

In 2017, Washington became the first state to pass paid family leave that didn’t already have a temporary disability program, and notably their bill covered public sector employees too. Washington went further than New York, offering 12 weeks of paid leave, and up to 16 when family and medical leave are used together.

Massachusetts followed suit in 2018, and Oregon and Connecticut joined in 2019. The most recent states also created what’s known as a progressive wage replacement, so the people who earn the least are entitled to a greater percentage of their lost wages.

Bravo says Washington and Oregon were really the first states to pass paid family leave framed as a universal principle — and in both states teachers were involved in helping to push that forward.

In 2016, months before New York passed its own statewide law, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earned praise for signing an executive order extending six weeks of paid parental leave to the city’s 20,000 non-union employees.

But public school teachers — who are unionized — were ineligible.

In response, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, launched a campaign that began with a petition for paid parental leave and breast pumps and later included rallies, walk-ins, and other actions.

Teachers outside the caucus also began organizing for paid leave. Emily James, a teacher and mother of two, was so frustrated that one day she decided to start her own online petition — which unexpectedly went viral, garnering more than 80,000 signatures. She wrote about her own experience having children, and recounted going to a maternity workshop in 2012 after getting pregnant to better understand her benefit options. “It began as a room full of bubbly, pregnant women, and ended with many of us in tears,” she wrote.

Feeling the urgency, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, pressured City Hall and by June 2018 the mayor announced a deal had been reached. The union’s 120,000 members would now be eligible to take six weeks of paid leave to care for a new child. The cost was covered by extending the union’s contract a bit longer, and it was estimated that 4,000 educators would take the benefit each year. Teachers could also combine that new benefit with their accrued sick days.

Rank-and-file union members have also put pressure on their national teacher unions to step up. In 2017, at the National Education Association’s annual convention, delegates introduced a resolution calling on their union to draft paid parental leave contract language that locals could use during bargaining. The resolution passed, and an NEA spokesperson shared the sample contract language, which states that teachers “shall have the right” to take paid parental leave, and that the employer shall not discriminate against any employee who does. The language also clarifies that an employee who returns to work would be reinstated with “accumulated seniority, retirement, benefits, and uninterrupted employment credit.”

The most generous paid leave policy for teachers right now can be found in Delaware, where in the spring of 2019 Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a bill extending 12 weeks of paid parental leave to all state workers, including teachers. If both parents are public employees, they can take the benefit concurrently, or each take 12 weeks separately.

“We are really excited and eternally grateful to the governor for signing this,” says Kristin Dwyer, director of legislation for the Delaware State Education Association. Prior to this, Delaware educators had to either use their sick days or go on short-term disability, meaning they would have to take a pay cut.

Dwyer acknowledges it wasn’t an easy push in the state Legislature to get approval. “A lot of legislators believed that educators should just be able to time their pregnancies to have kids in June, and I had to enlighten them that bodies don’t always work that way,” she says. “You also had some legislators who believed that fathers shouldn’t have access to this benefit, that it was a mother’s duty.” Some lawmakers even worried providing the benefit could lead to a “baby boom.”

Ultimately, Dwyer said, having teachers testify about their personal experience moved reluctant lawmakers to vote for its passage. “Our members showed up and said at the most expensive point in my life I’m expected to take a pay cut, at the point in my life where another individual needs me the most and I cannot leave their side, I’m expected to leave their side, and at a point where I need some time to recover mentally and physically, I’m expected not to do that.”

Like in California, leaders of Delaware school districts argued they wouldn’t be able to afford this new cost, and insisted they lacked a viable substitute pool to support the policy. In response to these concerns, the state volunteered to shoulder the per diem cost of substitutes when needed for paid parental leave.

Dwyer expects the benefit to be a boon to Delaware, bringing educators in and helping to retain them. She says they’ve already seen anecdotal evidence for this. At a new-hire orientation a few months after the bill’s passage, she met teachers who said they just moved over from Maryland specifically for this reason.

*     *     *

While these victories in states, cities, and school districts represent important political milestones for the paid leave movement and offer strong examples of success for opponents who claim paid leave will be devastating for businesses and local economies, advocates are under no illusion that all states would ever pass their own programs.

In 2018, 32-year-old Kathy Hoffman was elected Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, a statewide position that oversees Arizona’s public school system and its state Education Department. Hoffman entered politics after working as a speech language pathologist in Arizona public schools for five years. She says Betsy DeVos’ notorious Senate confirmation hearing was what motivated her to run for office. While campaigning throughout the state, as the #RedForEd movement picked up steam, Hoffman worked to elevate how unpaid parental leave was hurting Arizona’s teachers.

“The issue resonated very strongly when I brought it up, and something I saw was that most voters were completely shocked when I told them teachers don’t get paid parental leave,” she said.

In 2019, a bill was introduced in the Arizona Legislature by a freshman Democratic representative to provide six weeks of paid leave for state employees, including teachers. Hoffman supported the legislation, but it died in committee.

“Arizona still has a Republican-controlled Legislature so it’s very hard to have Democratic bills heard and move forward,” Hoffman said.

Bravo says that’s why Family Values @ Work, composed of activists across 27 states, helped launch a campaign with dozens of other national partners to push for a federal fix.

Their goal is the passage of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, which would provide up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave for qualifying workers to care for a new child or for a serious personal or family health condition. The bill, though imperfect as it could exclude 30 percent of new parents, represents a major step forward by covering 150 million people annually. It has 34 Senate co-sponsors, 205 House co-sponsors, and it would be paid for by modest contributions from employers and employees, managed by the Social Security Administration.

To get the bill passed, and improved, activists are using similar tactics they deployed on the state level, including allying with labor unions. The National Education Association, for example, is part of the national coalition organizing under the banner of Paid Leave for All.

Yet despite the fact that paid family leave has strong bipartisan support among the American public, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other powerful groups have been working to prevent Congress from taking action.

Corporate lobbyists have spent decades spreading fear that mandates for paid leave will cripple businesses and hurt the economy. Back in the 1990s when federal lawmakers were considering the FMLA, one representative warned that “tens of thousands of working men and women will be put out of work” if the bill passed. But their arguments have been proven weaker and weaker as the years stretch on, as more states pass programs and the sky has decidedly not fallen.

Bravo says the push for paid family and medical leave that is gender-neutral and universal ensures greater success than campaigns limited to new child leave, which not everyone will need. Nearly everyone, though, will have family members they are called on to care for at some point or another, or will develop their own serious illness.

“The minute it becomes something that affects everyone,” she said, “it’s a whole different story politically.”

Stuck-at-Home Parents Want More Support for Home Schooling

Originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek on July 22, 2020.
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Christine Morgan, a mother in Peachtree City, Ga., calls herself “a big proponent of public schools.” But after dealing with her district’s remote-learning offerings this past spring—which she says were scant on instruction and heavy on busywork—she decided to look at home schooling for her rising fourth grader. “I would consider sending my kid back to brick-and-mortar school if everyone were taking the virus seriously and taking precautions,” she says. “But it’s Georgia, and they are not.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, about 4% of school-age children in the U.S. were home-schooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Many more families are weighing the option for the fall, either frustrated with remote learning through their public school or nervous about the health risks of sending their children into buildings with others. School choice proponents, who’ve long advocated that per-pupil spending should “follow the child” wherever they seek their education, hope to capitalize on the shift. And with the backing of President Trump and Republicans in Congress, home schooling could get the biggest boost it’s ever gotten from the federal government in the next round of stimulus funding.

In April the American Federation for Children, a national school choice group that was formerly chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, commissioned a poll and found that 40% of families were more likely to consider home schooling even after lockdowns ended. Tommy Schultz, the group’s vice president, says the results were initially met with skepticism: “Some people were saying, ‘Well, those numbers are inflated and it’s too early to tell.’ ” But in late May, a separate Ipsos/USA Today poll found 60% of parents were considering home schooling in the fall and 30% were “very likely” to make the switch.

“We started putting on social media, ‘Hey, we’re spending on average $15,000 per kid for public schools. Shouldn’t families get some of that back to support home education?’ and that sort of messaging just skyrocketed in terms of interest and engagement,” Schultz says. “We’ve been running online petitions, and it’s the single largest spike in advocacy we’ve ever seen.”

Brittany Wade, a mother of five in Washington, D.C., is among the parents who think the government should do more to help families shoulder the cost of home schooling. Wade and her husband considered opting out of public school even before the pandemic, frustrated with what they felt was a stagnant curriculum offering too little Black history.

Wade helped her children with remote learning through the spring and says the difficulty of that experience hastened her decision to explore home schooling for the fall. She’s in the planning stages, browsing Facebook groups and talking with veteran home-schooling parents in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. “I do think there should be more support for parents that are choosing to keep their kids home,” she says. Because some of the learning apps that District of Columbia Public Schools used during the spring aren’t available during the summer, she says, “I had to pay out-of-pocket for them.”

Home-schooling families receive virtually nothing from the federal government, and some don’t want any public funding, seeing it as opening the door to government interference. But conservatives in Congress have been trying to change that. Now, with House Democrats and education groups clamoring for at least $250 billion in education stimulus funding, Republicans have their best shot in years to push through new school choice programs. Trump and DeVos support the passage of Education Freedom Scholarships, a $5 billion annual tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to organizations that support private-school tuition or home-school expenses. Eighteen states have tax credit scholarship programs, although according to EdChoice, New Hampshire’s is the only one in which home-school students are eligible for funds.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who introduced the Education Freedom Scholarships legislation in 2019, also introduced the Helping Parents Educate Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic Act in June. The bill, which he hopes to include in the next round of stimulus, would allow parents to use 529 college savings plans to cover K-12 expenses such as tutoring, test fees, and private-school tuition.

It’s not clear whether Democrats will bite. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said that with only weeks until the start of the new academic year, “the administration and Secretary DeVos remain fixated on how it can siphon away resources for vouchers and other privatization schemes” instead of plugging public schools’ funding gaps.

Many school districts are scrambling to figure out how to keep students enrolled, at least in their virtual options, to avoid steep drops in per-pupil funding on top of additional budget cuts as states face a financial crisis. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has urged Congress to reject “failed ‘choice’ schemes” in any future stimulus package. Her national teachers’ union has fought aggressively against past attempts to expand federal funding for favored school choice options such as charter and private schools, and likewise sees home schooling as a way to undercut public education. “DeVos’ craven attempts to divide and privatize would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Diane Ravitch, president of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group championing public schools, is sympathetic to families that might decide on home schooling in the fall. “They won’t do it happily. They want real teachers, but they don’t want their children at risk,” she says. When Covid-19 is no longer a threat, Ravitch predicts parents who opted out will return their kids to public schools. “This isn’t going to be a permanent way of life.”

But other experts think the overlap we’re now seeing between remote schooling and home education will likely persist after the pandemic ends. Travis Pillow is the editorial director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center based at the University of Washington Bothell. “The twin financial and public-health pressures of Covid appear to be accelerating the blurring of the lines between public education and home schooling that was already picking up steam before the pandemic,” he says. For Pillow, this would be a good thing—one that could lead to improvements and make home schooling more accessible. “We would welcome new entrants into this space,” he says, “because existing outcomes in full-time online learning have been pretty dismal.”

Israel/Palestine Looms Large Over Minnesota Primary

Originally published in Jewish Currents on July 17, 2020.
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REP. ILHAN OMAR, who represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District—which includes all of Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs—is well-positioned to win re-election this year. She faces four challengers, but Minnesota Congressional incumbents virtually never lose, and she has the endorsement of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, support from other high-profile politicians like Attorney General Keith Ellison, and a prolific fundraising operation.

But despite her strong odds, Omar does have one challenger who is running a relatively viable campaign. Antone Melton-Meaux, a Black Minneapolis-based lawyer, was backed by nearly a third of the DFL’s delegates for the party’s endorsement, and raised a whopping $3.2 million between April and June, next to Omar’s $472,000 in the same period. A sizeable portion of Melton-Meaux’s money has come from national pro-Israel groups that have endorsed him: Pro-Israel America and NORPAC. As HuffPost first reported, those groups, which are also significant donors to Republican candidates, have bundled more than $450,000 for Melton-Meaux to date. Their fundraising comes just weeks after they poured money into New York’s 16th Congressional District primary, in an unsuccessful effort to save Rep. Eliot Engel’s seat from progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman.

In some ways pro-Israel groups’ investment in the Minnesota race is unsurprising, as Israel/Palestine has been a flashpoint throughout Omar’s time in office. Melton-Meaux is the only Congressional challenger endorsed by Pro-Israel America, which is backing 40 candidates this cycle. Executive Director Jeff Mendelsohn, who describes Pro-Israel America as “an online portal” with over 100,000 members, said it was easy to find donors willing to back Omar’s opponent. “Our members and people beyond our membership recognize her positions as dangerous and antithetical to the US–Israel relationship that they value,” he said.

Though Melton-Meaux has not made questions about Israel central to his messaging, they dovetail neatly with his campaign’s narrative that Omar hasn’t been “focused on the 5th.” He argues that her controversies on the national stage and her “divisiveness” have detracted from her ability to work for her constituents. In contrast, he highlights his background as a mediator. “I live in conflict, and I know how to understand that there are very deep-seated differences that people come into a situation or dispute with,” he said. “What is amazing to me is that even with those differences in mind, people can have honest conversations and you can create really powerful solutions that didn’t exist before.”

The search to find someone to primary Omar began almost immediately after she won her general election. “Literally when Congresswoman Omar won there were calls going around to other electeds—particularly Black and Indigenous and people of color—testing the waters, before she even had a record in Congress,” said Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis City Councilmember who Omar used to work for. “There were a lot of people who were called and said no, and I’ve personally spoken to a number of them.”

In the spring of 2019 The Hill ran a story on these struggling recruitment efforts. By December Melton-Meaux had jumped into the race, though he denies being recruited by any group or person. “He has chosen to pursue this office because of a deep commitment to service and a concern with the current representation our district is receiving,” said campaign spokesperson Lee Hayes.

Some aspects of Melton-Meaux’s candidacy have resonated with Jewish audiences. Earlier coverage of the race from Jewish media outlets like Jewish Insider and The Forward has emphasized his knowledge of Hebrew, which he studied in college and divinity school, as well as his Jewish communal ties. These publications have also highlighted Melton-Meaux’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. On his website, Melton-Meaux promises to “always oppose BDS,” though he insists he would not support anti-BDS laws that infringe on First Amendment rights. “I look at this from the perspective of a mediator, and BDS creates undue pressure on Israel, incredible barriers and headwinds,” he told me. “But I’m also a lawyer who believes in the Constitution, and I’m an African American man who has been protesting, and I will protect individuals’ right to protest.”

This is not wholly unlike how Omar has expressed her own position on BDS, at least at times. In August of 2018, when Omar was running for Congress, she was asked “exactly where [she] stand[s]” on BDS, and told a synagogue crowd she did not think the movement was “helpful” in getting to a two-state solution. It “stops the dialogue . . . I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure,” she said, “and I think that pressure really is counteractive.” But five days after winning her general election, Omar said she “believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized.” Some Jewish constituents felt deceived. Omar, however, denied there was any discrepancy in her statements, maintaining that one can support a non-violent protest movement without believing in the efficacy of all of its goals or tactics.

Later on she would introduce a resolution, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib and John Lewis, affirming the First Amendment right of Americans to participate in boycotts. In a speech that same day she reiterated her support for a two-state solution, and emphasized that while Americans must condemn those who use violence, “we cannot simultaneously say we want peace and then openly oppose peaceful means to hold our allies accountable.”

For some Jewish constituents, the difference between Omar’s and Melton-Meaux’s positions on this issue is decisive. “I agree with most of [Omar’s] policy positions, but as a Jew the BDS stuff hits too close to home,” said Barbara Bearman, an 85-year-old Jewish voter in Minneapolis who plans to vote for Melton-Meaux. “With all the antisemitism that’s rising worldwide, it’s frightening. I don’t like being a single-issue voter . . . but this is a single issue that frightens me.”

Perhaps the clearest policy difference between the two candidates on Israel/Palestine concerns conditioning military aid to Israel. Omar supports conditioning aid if Israel pursues annexation—a position shared by a small minority of progressive Democrats in Congress, including Bernie Sanders. Melton-Meaux says he too opposes annexation, but would not condition aid as a way to pressure Israel.

Some of Omar’s critics who now support Melton-Meaux are less concerned with the particularities of Omar’s policy stances than with her rhetoric around Israel and pro-Israel lobbying. In the first month of her term, an old tweet resurfaced in which Omar, responding to Israel’s November 2012 attack on Gaza, wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world.” (Omar initially called the wording “unfortunate” and later acknowledged the language was “offensive.”) Shortly after this, when Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy accused Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of antisemitism, Omar tweeted that McCarthy’s attacks were “all about the Benjamins baby.” An editor at The Forward accused Omar of tweeting an antisemitic trope and asked who she was alleging to have paid politicians to be pro-Israel. Omar quickly responded, “AIPAC!”

Omar’s tweets roiled Washington. Senior House leadership issued a resolution condemning her remarks, and urged Omar to apologize, which she did. But when Omar later said at a DC coffeehouse that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” a new wave of controversy ignited. The US House soon passed another resolution condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, in response to the outrage sparked by Omar’s comments.

“I would have liked to support Congresswoman Omar but I can’t,” said Ron Latz, a Jewish state senator representing the Twin Cities metro area, who is supporting Melton-Meaux and did not support Omar in the 2018 primary. “She has demonstrated an antipathy for Jewish issues and Jewish sensitives and towards Jews themselves.”

Other local Jews say they have found little objectionable in Omar’s record, and feel compelled to stand up in her defense. “I do not find any antisemitism in what she has said, and she’s also shown a willingness to learn and has modified her views,” said Sylvia Schwarz, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace-Twin Cities. “The Jewish community here is not monolithic.”

Beth Gendler, the executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota, spoke highly of her group’s working relationship with Omar in Congress. “She listens to us, and has been a really important partner of ours,” she said. “Have some of the things she said been antisemitic or played into antisemitic tropes? Yeah, sure, antisemitism is in the air we breathe. Is some of the backlash because she’s a black immigrant woman wearing a hijab? I would hazard to say yes.”

Libi Baehr, an activist with IfNotNow Twin Cities, said her group of primarily millennial Jews took it upon themselves to stand up for Omar when the backlash to her tweets blew up. “We definitely feel a responsibility to vocally show up,” she said. IfNotNow members in both Minneapolis and Washington, DC visited Omar’s Congressional offices with freshly baked challah in solidarity, and the Twin Cities group has since spoken out about what they see as a double standard with Rep. Betty McCollum, a white Minnesota Congresswoman who is strongly critical of Israel.

“I did not think people’s pain and disappointment [with Omar’s comments] was unfounded,” said Baehr. “It was an unforced error, and she could have avoided the issues that came up after she had said those things if she had thought about it a little more. That said, I do think a lot of good came out of it, a lot of honest reckoning.”

The turmoil over Israel has faded into the background in recent weeks, as politics in the district have turned sharply to discussions around policing and racial justice, with Omar and Melton-Meaux responding in ways that reveal their contrasting political styles.About a week after Floyd was killed, Omar introduced legislation to create a federal agency tasked with reviewing all deaths in police custody. Two days later, she joined a group of protesters in Minneapolis organized around a call to defund the police, where she spoke about the limits of police reform and her own experience as a Black woman raising children in the United States, and defended calls to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Melton-Meaux has also tried to capitalize on the protests, telling Jewish Insider George Floyd’s killing has “amplified” his overall message that “leadership matters.” His campaign released two commercials in June, one emphasizing his experience as a Black man in America, and the second emphasizing his commitment to social justice and conflict resolution. His campaign has taken a more optimistic view on the potential of police reform, though he also supports redistributing some money from policing into housing, healthcare, and schools.

Voters in Minnesota’s 5th appear satisfied with Omar’s approach. Yesterday, following Melton-Meaux’s big fundraising announcement, her campaign released new polling conducted by Change Research that showed the Congresswoman leading Melton-Meaux 66–29% among primary voters in the district. The pollsters found Omar had a 70% approval rating, compared to 40% for Melton-Meaux, who also “still lag[ged] in name recognition.” Melton-Meaux’s campaign declined to share results from their internal polling, but said “what it does show is Antone’s message of leadership, unity, and accountability is resonating.”

Even if Melton-Meaux’s supporters can’t stop Omar from winning re-election, many of them still hope to prevent the kind of blowout win Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in her recent primary, where the New York Congresswoman trumped her challenger with 72% of the vote. (Bowman’s victory was more modest; the latest available figures have him 25 points ahead of Engel, though with nearly 40,000 absentee ballots outstanding.) Melton-Meaux’s backers—like Engel’s—think that by spending big, they can at least diminish the mandate of the victor.

“Of course we want to win, but even if we don’t, part of life is the struggle to do good and that means you find and support good people,” said Dr. Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC. “Our job was to give Antone enough money so that people could hear him, and then they’ll make their decision.”

Over 100 Houston Doctors Slam Rep. Dan Crenshaw for “Spreading Dangerous Disinformation” On Coronavirus

Originally published in The Intercept on July 17, 2020.

MORE THAN 100 doctors, medical professionals, and emergency room physicians in the Houston area have signed their names to a letter condemning Republican Rep. Daniel Crenshaw for spreading misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been ravaging the Texas city hard in recent weeks.

The doctors didn’t mince their words.

“The COVID-19 pandemic should not be a partisan issue — that’s why even Governor Abbott is finally stalling the reopening process and implementing the mask mandates that he unwisely blocked just two short months ago,” the medical workers, who are primarily women, wrote in the letter, which is first being reported on by The Intercept. “Dan Crenshaw, on the other hand, has spewed lies for the past four months — minimizing the threat we face and spreading dangerous disinformation for self-indulgent headlines.”

Doctors rarely ever make such pointed political statements, but the urgency of the coronavirus crisis — and the real harm caused by disinformation spread by elected officials — prompted the Houston-area physicians to speak up, especially as Republicans in the state continued to promote large, indoor gatherings against the advice of public health experts.

“As everyone is seeing right now with Dr. Fauci, the medical community is just getting raked over the coals, and undermined and blamed,” Dr. Christina Propst, a pediatrician in Houston who helped to organize the letter, told The Intercept. “If you’re a physician working in places like Texas and Florida, you’re just battling disinformation constantly, and it gets so exhausting and frustrating.”

The list of Crenshaw’s comments undermining the seriousness of the pandemic runs long. He has also taken it upon himself to strongly defend the Trump administration’s response to the public health crisis. In mid-April, the first-term representative recorded a video entitled “Debunking the Left’s COVID-19 Narrative” where he defended President Donald Trump’s pandemic response. (Trump tweeted the video, describing it as “BRILLIANT, A MUST-WATCH.”) Crenshaw’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

On Wednesday, Houston reported 16 new deaths from Covid-19, the first time the city had reported double-digit fatalities since the virus hit the region in March. The deaths were linked to cases that were reported in June, as the past month has seen the number of cases skyrocket in Texas and the greater Houston area.

Between Memorial Day and mid-June, Texas’s hospitalization rate shot up by 36 percent, a fact that Crenshaw has downplayed. “If you just hear 36 percent increase, that does sound like a lot. … In reality, it’s under 500 additional hospitalizations out of a state of 30 million people,” he said on his podcast. “So it’s really not a lot. … We’re so far away from being in over-capacity or even close to it that it’s laughable.”

When a Harris County judge said around the same time that Texas “may be approaching the precipice of a disaster” Crenshaw blasted her for “pure and simple fear mongering.” He also added that “people have figured out what they need to do to remain safe.” A few weeks later, he argued that “prolonged and universal closures” had been “devastating for learning and health.”

In their letter, the doctors criticized Crenshaw for “undermin[ing] the advice of our public health experts at every turn — enabling millions of his followers to the same.” This mixed messaging, they say, left medical workers “handicapped in our mission” to protect Texans from the start of the pandemic.

“We need elected officials who don’t throw out meaningless platitudes while trying to shift blame to the institutions working to keep us informed and protected,” the doctors wrote. “Please Congressman Crenshaw. We are tired. We are your neighbors. … We implore you to stop playing politics with our lives, stop spreading dangerous disinformation, and start leading by example.”

Propst said that she felt the tide start to change among physicians a few weeks ago, back when the Republican Party of Texas made clear it had no intention of canceling its in-person biennial convention, where 6,000 people were expected to convene inside Houston’s George Brown Convention Center. Propst and some fellow female colleagues began organizing a petition and phone calls to pressure the Texas Medical Association to condemn the event, which at the time the association was still sponsoring. The internal lobbying was successful and in late June, the president of the 50,000-member state medical association withdrew its sponsorship of the event and urged the GOP to cancel it. (Earlier this week the state Republican Party finally agreed to hold its convention online.)

“I think when people saw that organizing work, it emboldened us to speak out against more dangerous and unethical things we’ve been dealing with,” said Propst.

Crenshaw, who represents Texas’s 2nd District — which includes much of northern and western Houston — is facing off in November against Democratic challenger Sima Ladjevardian, an attorney and former adviser to Beto O’Rourke. The race is one of the seven Texas House seats that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deemed most competitive and possible to flip.

“Now more than ever we need a leader who will listen to our medical heroes, guide Houston toward a recovery, and protect Texans with pre-existing conditions,” said Ladjevardian. “Our medical frontline heroes are begging Congressman Crenshaw to stop spreading disinformation and start acting responsibly, but he won’t.”

How The Largest Known Homeless Encampment in Minneapolis History Came To Be

Originally published in The Appeal on July 15, 2020.
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On June 7, less than a mile away from where a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a veto-proof majority of the City Council gathered at Powderhorn Park and pledged to dismantle the police department and rethink public safety. A few days later, more than 200 homeless individuals were evicted from a hotel they had been using as an ad-hoc shelter, and about a dozen made their way to the closest park: Powderhorn. In the month since, many more have followed. City officials estimate more than 550 tents have been set up there, in what is the largest known homeless encampment in Minneapolis history.

Residents in the Powderhorn neighborhood initially jumped into action—determined to support their new, vulnerable neighbors, many of whom were Black and indigenous. But as the encampment grew, some housed residents’ became more exasperated, citing concerns about crime and safety. Their frustrations have gotten some national coverage. The conditions that led the encampment to form, however, and the government’s response or lack thereof, have gotten far less attention.

The homelessness crisis in Minneapolis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is not new. In 2018, a Minnesota-based research group found over 4,000 people experienced homelessness in Hennepin County, an 11 percent increase from 2015. The researchers cited a lack of affordable units as the main driver, and found more than half of those experiencing homelessness were languishing on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

Back in the summer of 2018, an encampment cropped up alongside a Minneapolis highway sound wall, with roughly 300 people living there by the fall. “One thing that was very frustrating about the 2018 encampment was everyone talked about this great emergency, but the emergency had been going on for years,” said John Tribbett, a street outreach manager at St. Stephen’s Human Services, a Minneapolis  homeless services group. “It was just a congregation of it that forced the public to actually see it.”

Nonprofit groups and city officials supported the primarily Native residents, who are disproportionately represented among Minnesota’s homeless. But by December those living in the encampment were moved into a so-called navigation center, a first-of-its-kind experiment in the state. The navigation center had on-site social services, lower barriers to entry than many homeless shelters, and no curfew. Within six months nearly half of its homeless population had moved into permanent housing or treatment programs, though others were kicked out, incarcerated, or back on the streets. The center shut down in June 2019.

“After it closed, what we really saw was the atomization of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness throughout the summer of 2019 and frankly up until COVID,” said Tribbett, emphasizing that displacement was routine, and homeless people were regularly “on the move all the time.”

As unsheltered people were dispersed across Minneapolis, the crisis of homelessness became easier for the city’s housed residents to ignore. The Powderhorn encampment has forced the public’s attention once again.

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After the tents went up at Powderhorn, the community mobilized to support their unhoused neighbors. Volunteers began organizing funds and coordinating daily meal deliveries, setting up laundry shifts, and donating blankets, water, and toiletries. They also began organizing among themselves to put pressure on elected officials for help.

While the Minneapolis Park Police told those living in the encampment they would have to evacuate, dozens of housed residents protested, and pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and an executive order issued by Governor Tim Walz urging against homeless encampment sweeps during the pandemic. The Minneapolis Park Board relented and said the encampment could stay, and five days later, on June 17, the board approved a resolution to allow homeless people to seek “refuge space” in Minneapolis parks. By this time nearly 200 tents had been set up at Powderhorn.

As time went on, some residents felt abandoned by the government and frustrated that the bulk of care duties were falling on untrained volunteers. Encampment safety concerns grew too, with at least three incidents of sexual assault taking place between June 26 and July 5, one person threatened with a knife, and several overdoses.

“Things are very tense,” said Patrick Berry, a 41-year-old homeless individual who moved to Powderhorn in late June. “When your life is in the gutter, little things can set you off. People definitely freak out at the encampment over little things.”

“As white homeowners, I think we just assumed that the government was operating at a level of competence that it’s clearly not,” said Lily Lamb, a lifelong Powderhorn resident who has been volunteering. “I’ve called my elected officials from all levels of government and their response overwhelmingly has been, ‘What do you think we should do, what are your suggestions?’”

Alex Richardson, another Powderhorn resident who has been volunteering, said although he understands some of his neighbors are anxious about security concerns, he has tried to help them recognize that these are not new problems. “It’s just that we’re seeing it now, now it’s in our front yards,” he said. “Some people have been fearmongering, or there’s a lot of shock and disbelief since they’re used to not having to bear witness.”

On July 4, residents brought tents and camped outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, demanding a more organized state-led response to the homelessness crisis. “Walz just gave $6 million in relief aid to the Minnesota Zoo,” said Sheila Delaney, a Powderhorn volunteer. “I love animals, but Jesus Christ.”

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Government officials have defended their crisis response, while noting that the pandemic has put unprecedented strain on their systems. “The most critical issue is that all of our staff and services have been stretched beyond anything we’ve ever known,” said David Hewitt, the director of the Office to End Homelessness for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis.

Hewitt pointed out some things the government has done at the county level, including expanding shelter space, redeploying county staff to homeless services, and working to distribute $15 million in emergency rental assistance to prevent new homelessness. Between January and May, Hewitt added, the county moved more than 700 people from homelessness into permanent housing.

But he acknowledged their efforts “still fall woefully short of meeting the unprecedented need” and said at Powderhorn, they’ve been working to provide medical services and connect residents with housing options. “The daily increases in the number of people at Powderhorn Park are also not accompanied by any commensurate reductions in the numbers of people in other encampments or in shelter in Hennepin or Ramsey County,” Hewitt said.

Marion Greene, a Hennepin County commissioner, told The Appeal that the county has also been significantly scaling up funding for homelessness. “Normally we budget about $20 million per year, and now we’re spending an additional $2.5-to-3 million per month just on shelters,” she said. “I feel like there’s been really strong partnerships between the city, county, and state, and we’ve all been clear that permanent shelter is the goal.” The Minneapolis Park Board, for its part, said it has been providing portable toilets, trash cans, handwashing stations, and other onsite cleaning services. Today encampments are spread across 38 city parks, though Powderhorn remains the largest.

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The current escalation of the homelessness crisis in Minneapolis is overlapping not just with the pandemic but also with intense protests around policing and racism.

Despite making up roughly 14 percent of Hennepin County’s population, Black people represent 65 percent of those living in its homeless shelters, and 49 percent of homeless adults living in the county overall.

While a dearth of affordable housing is certainly contributing to the crisis, the lack of wealth in Black and Native communities—the result of being shut out for centuries from wealth accumulation opportunities—is another main driver. Minneapolis has one of the largest racial income gaps in the country, and Black homeownership in the city stands at one-third the rate of white families. Some federal funds flow to tribal governments, but the majority gets spent on reservation life, despite the fact that most Natives now live in cities.

One resulting consequence is that in times of need, when Black and Native individuals turn to their family and friends for help, many of their social networks struggle to absorb the added financial pressure in ways white communities more easily can. Researchers found that people of color “are not unwilling to double up, take people in, or live in another person’s home—but they do not have the capacity to accommodate the additional consumption of resources” like food and household goods. “That, in turn, strains relationships.” Less wealth means less ability to weather unexpected financial emergencies.

The criminal legal system and decades of racist policing are also notorious drivers of homelessness. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 more times likely to be homeless than the general public, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports roughly 48,000 people who enter shelters every year come directly from jails and prisons. Having a criminal record can then be a serious impediment to finding housing, which can then begin vicious cycles right back into prison. One study found that people returning from prison who lacked stable housing were more than twice as likely to end up back in prison than those with stable homes.

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Looking ahead, even those most supportive of letting homeless people take sanctuary in public parks recognize an alternative solution must be developed, with the freezing Minneapolis winter just months away. Policymakers are also worrying about thousands of new people becoming homeless if lawmakers start lifting eviction moratoriums and unemployment rates stay high. “The economic impacts of COVID-19 are further threatening to exacerbate these challenges,” said Hewitt, the homelessness office director.

Earlier this month, Minneapolis Park Board members considered a resolution that would have limited homeless encampments to 10 parks, at a maximum of 10 tents per park, with all encampments having to be cleared by Sept. 1. After protests, the park board voted 5-4 to table the resolution.

“It felt pretty par for the course, where they wanted to do something that seemed like they were taking action, but it was really more for their housed constituents to get the homeless out of sight,” said Richardson, one of the Powderhorn volunteers.

“It was just another set of reactive strategies, similar to the governor saying you can’t clear the encampments but providing no further guidance on what you can do,” said Tribbett, the street outreach manager.

Jono Cowgill, the park board president, told the Star Tribune he brought the resolution forward to help set deadlines, which he hoped would push the state to act more quickly. Cowgill did not respond to a request for comment.

Some advocates are pushing the city to create a new navigation center, similar to the one that shut down last year. One possible location is in a South Minneapolis Kmart building the city recently purchased, though even that would not be a long-term solution.

“A lot of people called the navigation center a success but for many Native people it was just a revolving door to the streets,” said Autumn Dillie, an outreach worker with American Indian Community Development Corporation. Dillie said her group has been pressing the county to build a culturally specific shelter for Native people. Greene, the county commissioner, said the government is also exploring the purchase of hotels as a way to provide shelter.

Lamb, the lifelong Powderhorn resident, says the last few weeks have been exhausting, and she worries about people becoming desensitized to the crisis. “The ability of humans to adapt to circumstances is extremely powerful and is working against our favor,” she said.

Delaney, one of the Powderhorn volunteers, agreed. “I think we’ve become accustomed to seeing tents everywhere, but we should all be revolted,” she said. “Especially in an incredibly wealthy state.”

Berry, who is still camping at Powderhorn, wants help, but not too much of it. “All I really need is a safe place to live where I can close my door at night,” he said. “And where no one will harass me.”

Could Your Fitness Tracker Really Detect COVID-19?

Originally published in GQ on July 14, 2020

When professional golfer Nick Watney woke up on Friday, June 19, after playing the first round of a PGA tournament in South Carolina, he felt physically fine. But when he checked the WHOOP fitness tracker he’s worn on his wrist for the past year, he was startled to see a spike in his breathing rate while he was sleeping.

He had heard that could be a sign of COVID-19, so just to be safe, despite showing no other symptoms, he got a test. To Watney’s surprise, it came back positive. Over the next ten days, while he self-isolated in South Carolina, he never developed a fever, cough, or shortness of breath—though he did end up losing his sense of smell for a while.

A week after Watney tested positive, the PGA Tour announced it would be distributing WHOOP bands to all players and caddies, in the hopes that they too might be able to identify potential coronavirus infections early. The straps have since been credited with early detection for other PGA Tour golfers who have gone on to contract the virus. This comes on the heels of the NBA’s announcement earlier in June that it would be purchasing more than 2,000 Oura Rings, a similar fitness tracker, to help detect cases of the virus when the league re-starts in Orlando.

Whether it’s WHOOP and Oura Ring, or other fitness trackers like Fitbit and the Apple Watch, there’s increasing enthusiasm around fitness trackers among researchers as a first line of defense in the fight against coronavirus. While the science is still in its earliest days, the hope is these devices could alert individuals to changes in their health they might not otherwise notice. Early detection is particularly crucial for combating the coronavirus, which has the unusual characteristic of spreading “silently” from people who are not feeling symptoms. These devices use sensors to track a range of physiological markers—sleep patterns, heart rate, breathing rate, and temperature. For example, if your resting heart rate is normally 62 bpm, but jumps inexplicably to 75 bpm, you likely wouldn’t feel any different, but that jump could prompt your tracker to issue an alert to get tested. Of course, no researcher expects the tech to replace real diagnostic testing. At least right now, the best anyone can say about this right now is that, when combined with other coronavirus safety protocols, it doesn’t hurt.

Researchers also see potential to use wearable tech to study how the virus moves through large populations. If a cluster of people living in the same area all start to notice similar changes in their heart rate or temperature, that could help officials better respond to outbreaks and mitigate their spread. “If you and many of your neighbors are showing similar reactions—that’s when it becomes a signal rather than noise,” said Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, which is leading one of the major ongoing fitness tracking studies. Topol’s interest in using fitness trackers to predict disease predates the current pandemic. In January he and his colleagues published a study that found by using de-identified heart rate data from Fitbit users, researchers were able to significantly improve their predictions of influenza-like illness when compared to using CDC data.

A built in advantage for fitness trackers is that millions of people already have them. In 2019 Gallup reported nearly 20 percent of Americans currently use one, and consumer analysts say the devices represent one of the fastest-growing sectors in global technology, especially smartwatches. Another benefit is that they work passively; they don’t require manually entering symptoms into an app, or sticking a thermometer under your armpit on a daily basis.

While researchers are optimistic about the potential, they caution that the existing knowledge base is very, very scant. There’s been almost no research, for example, on how wearables could be turned into reliable clinical tools. “Your average doctor doesn’t want to see your wearable data because they don’t know what to do with it or how to make sense of it any more than anyone else,” said Benjamin Smarr, a data science and bioengineering professor who is leading a University of California at San Francisco study on Oura ring data and COVID-19.

Smarr is among a handful of researchers who have been studying wearable tech data for the past decade. He said the overall assumption is that having lots of information health professionals wouldn’t otherwise have access to will prove to be useful in some way, even if they don’t know exactly how yet.

And while Harvard health policy professor Thomas Tsai supports the ongoing research—“it’s fascinating and important,” he says—from a public perspective, Tsai worries about the mixed messages these fitness trackers could be sending during the pandemic. “We’re working really, really hard to break the message that only symptomatic individuals should get tested,” he said. “That was true back in March and April, when we had a huge shortage of tests, but that’s not true anymore.”

Tsai also raised concerns that someone’s smartwatch could give them a false sense of security about their health. “The danger is that someone who needs to get tested may not want to because their wearable device says they are showing no symptoms,” he says.

Right now there’s at least four large-scale fitness tracker studies underway; the one at UCSF, the one at Scripps, a third at West Virginia University, and a fourth at Stanford. In late May the West Virginia researchers announced preliminary results from a study of 600 healthcare professionals and first-responders, which found that, using Oura Ring data and artificial intelligence models, researchers could predict COVID-19 symptoms three days in advance of their onset, with over 90 percent accuracy. That’s not a huge sample size, but they’re now scaling up their next phase of research to roughly 10,000 people. (Oura is not funding the West Virginia study, but is funding the trial at UCSF.)

Topol says he hopes that when (and if) we have high-quality coronavirus tests that people can administer from home, the fitness trackers could pair well with them, allowing infected people to self-isolate earlier than otherwise would have. “There are sixteen companies working on at-home COVID tests and we’re in discussions with five of them,” he said.

“These fitness tracker studies are going to lead to a really, really large amount of comparative physiological data,” Smarr added. “We don’t know yet what we’ll find— nobody has ever done something like this before.”