When a Suburb Tries to Densify, Forget ‘Minnesota Nice’

Originally published in CityLab on June 21, 2018.
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In late April, some residents of Normandale Lake Estates, an apartment complex in Bloomington, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, received a letter informing them that their leases were being terminated and they’d have to move out by June 1. New owners had recently bought the building and planned to upgrade the units. Existing tenants were told they could prequalify to return, but many suspect the new rents will be higher than they can afford. In the meantime, they’re scrambling to find new places to live.

For some of the displaced Bloomington renters, this isn’t the first time they’ve been forced out of their homes. A little over two years ago, in the nearby suburb of Richfield, new owners purchased an apartment complex called Crossroads at Penn. They renamed it Concierge, renovated the units, and priced out hundreds of families. Some of those Crossroads tenants, like Lisa Jones, who relies on a federal housing voucher for herself and her two grandchildren, and Linda Soderstrom, also on federal housing subsidy, moved from Richfield to the Normandale Lake Estates. Now they’ve been pushed out once more.

“The lack of humanity is deep,” Soderstrom told The Star-Tribune. “It’s really deep.”

After the Crossroads takeover in late 2015, housing activists and community groups across the metropolitan region began meeting regularly to strategize how they could confront the challenges of rising rents and displacement. Soon the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition was born—comprised of nearly two dozen community and faith-based groups. Their mission centered on the “the three P’s”—preservation of affordable housing, production of affordable housing, and protection of tenants.

Much of the attention around affordable housing in the U.S. has tended to focus on cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle—densely built urban areas where land for new housing is in short supply. But most Americans live in suburbs, many of which are seeing rapidly increasing poverty and racial diversityHere, the need for affordable housing can be just as acute, but the dynamics of the issue are distinct from the urban version—and, often, more complex.

On the outskirts of the Twin Cities, the housing crisis includes some familiar ingredients—anxieties about race and poverty, debates about density and “neighborhood character.” But here there are also deep divisions between various pro-housing advocacy organizations, as well as big differences between suburbs, depending on their relative affluence.

Hope Melton, a retired urban planner, has lived in the wealthy suburb of Edina for nearly 40 years. Last fall, she invited some neighbors to meet in her living room, to kickstart a conversation about steep local housing prices. They’ve been meeting and growing their group ever since.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the affordable housing crisis was mainly hitting poor people,” Melton told CityLab. “Now it’s affecting a much wider swath of people. We’ve really been attracting a lot of seniors in Edina, the older generation is really stepping up.”

Although the Twin Cities have historically been one of the nation’s most affordable places to live, the region has a markedly low rental vacancy rate, meaning there’s high demand for new units and steady pressure on rents. Activists fear that “flipping” affordable units into luxury market-rate apartments will become increasingly common prospects for investors, especially those from out-of-state.

Anne Mavity, the executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, says the region is not building new affordable units at the rate at which presently affordable units are disappearing. Market-rate units that were constructed 35 years ago are generally reasonably priced today simply because they’re and older and not fancy. The term-of-art for these types of units is “NOAH” or “naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

“We’re losing NOAH at a rapid pace,” Mavity said. “And every time a sale happens, the price of the unit is going to go up, the rents will go up. We are increasingly attractive to national investors, and that is not good for our residents.”

To combat some of these trends, the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition has been organizing around several key policy areas, namely to add new affordable housing stock, and help tenants fight displacement. In March, for example, the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring new property owners to give low-income tenants 90 days notice to find a new place to live if they’re being priced out, and to pay for tenants’ moving expenses. A similar rule was just introduced to the Bloomington City Council this month, according to the city’s program manager, Bryan Hartman.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, executive director of the African Career Education & Resource, Inc. (ACER), a group focused on organizing the African immigrant community in Minnesota and a member of the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition, says they’ve been pushing municipal leaders to no longer “view the landlord as the only stakeholder” in their cities. In her suburb of Brooklyn Park, activists recently succeeded in getting rental affordability requirements included in new multi-family housing developments.

Sitati-Munene says organizing around suburban governments has been both a challenge and opportunity. “The reality is this affordable housing crisis is a new phenomenon for a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of suburban city councilmembers are part-time. A lot of leaders have been really surprised to learn what’s going on, to hear people’s personal stories.”

Still, the fundamental tensions associated with affordable housing debates in other parts of the country persist here: Many suburbanites are vehemently opposed to changes in local development patterns, especially when the word “density” comes up.

“That’s a very polarizing issue,” said Ricardo Perez, a community developer at the Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County, when I asked him about increasing housing density as a strategy to boost affordability. “I personally leave it to the policy experts to have those conversations amongst themselves. My main focus is on community and to serve those families who are being affected directly by these issues.”

Aaron Berc, a housing organizer with Jewish Community Action and another Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition leader, was similarly noncommittal on the question of density. “We’re not going to support a project because it’s dense. We’ll support a dense project because it’s affordable,” he said. “Certainly we need more housing—our city needs to go grow. But I would say we need housing that is affordable for the community more than we need more housing.”

These questions around development and density are hardly theoretical abstractions. In March, the city of Minneapolis released a draft comprehensive plan which included a new proposal to upzone neighborhoods so that single-family-homes could be more easily converted into fourplexes, an idea with the strong backing of Minneapolis’s new mayor, Jacob Frey. “Affordable housing is a right,” he tweeted in March. “Addressing our supply—and shortage—is going to be a key part of realizing that right.”

Some groups, like the Defend Glendale Public Housing Coalition, have already come out in strong opposition to the fourplex idea; they argue that relying on market-based solutions will inevitably make things worse for low-income people and increase displacement. The city is accepting public comment on the draft proposal through the end of July.

In Edina, efforts to add more housing have also met stiff resistance. The City Council recently rejected a proposal for a new seven-story building, which would have included 20 percent of its 135 units as affordable. In October the Edina City Council rejected another proposed high-rise condo buildingthis one of 173 new units, with twenty percent of them designated as affordable.

There’s no doubt that height and density are the two issues that have focused people’s minds as we address development, redevelopment and affordable housing,” says Melton. “How would I characterize the conversation? Chaotic, emotional, uninformed.”

The dynamics get more complicated, Melton says, as residents wrestle with complex issues of race and class through the politics of Midwestern cultural norms. “‘Minnesota Nice’ plays into this very much,” she said. “People don’t raise their voice, nobody wants to talk about race, nobody wants to talk about their responsibility historically for what’s happened to people that they don’t want to have in their community.”

Instead, Melton says, her neighbors will “say they don’t want ‘urban’ things, that they don’t want all the noise and diversity and crowding and traffic and all that,” she says. “Those things they regard as negative, and they moved to Edina to escape it.”

Bruce McCarthy, the president of the Lake Cornelia Neighborhood Association in Edina, has said he is “very pro-development” but that “we just want to see it a certain kind of way.” He’s urged his city council to focus on its new comprehensive plan before it approves any new project that requires amending building size requirements.

Yet even among housing activists who might otherwise be on the same side, the issue of racial integration and fair housing can be charged. In 2014, two of the Twin City’s most racially diverse suburbs, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, filed a federal fair housing complaint against the state, alleging that policymakers had illegally concentrated subsidized housing and poverty in their cities, in defiance of a state law that requires affluent communities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. The re-adoption of a “fair system” is a way of ensuring that more subsidized units end up in higher-income areas. The Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), a faith-based housing organization, partnered with the cities on the complaint.

Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of MICAH, says the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency charged with enforcing the “fair share” law (among many other municipal duties) has been resistant to their complaint, though HUD is continuing to investigate their grievances.

“We’re not saying anyone needs to move or be forced to move, but we’re saying we want to make sure if you want to move out to another place, you should have affordable housing and opportunity in every community,” she said. “We went from being one of the most integrated metros in the country to one of the most segregated, and a lot of it was because we have designated our resources and policies so housing could only be developed in certain areas.”

But Sitati-Munene of Brooklyn Park’s ACER opposes the fair housing complaint: Her group insists that the working-class suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center need much more subsidized housing construction, not less.

Despite disagreements over strategy, placement, and scale, the fact that groups in in the Twin Cities metro are even wrestling with these issues puts them ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to organizing the suburbs. And activists acknowledge that the housing issues they’re confronting are not unique to their region.

“After the foreclosure crisis people lost their homes and more people have started to rent,” says Sitati-Munene“Rental markets are flooded, and prices are going up. If other suburbs aren’t dealing with affordable housing issues now, it’s coming.”

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Apprenticeships, A Favorite of Trump Administration, Carry Major Potential for Foster Youth

Originally published in The Chronicle of Social Change and InvestigateWest on June 20, 2018.
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This year Washington became the first state in the nation to pass legislation specifically designed to help foster youth access apprenticeship opportunities, which offer a steady path to full-time employment in a highly skilled trade.

Research shows that foster youth are likely to earn even less than other low-income youth living around them. Bill sponsor Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, declared his intent to expand opportunities for children facing “immense obstacles or lack the support of their families.”

The legislation, SB 6274, offers financial assistance to foster youth, former foster youth and homeless youth for up to six years or until the person turns 26. It lowers the eligibility age from 16 to 13 and is expected to nearly double the number of eligible students.

Washington’s new law comes on the heels of President Donald Trump signing an executive order in June 2017 to increase the number of apprenticeships in the United States. The president called for doubling annual funding to $200 million, an expansion that would be paid for by reducing support for other job training programs deemed ineffective.

“Federally funded education and workforce development programs that do not work must be improved or eliminated so that taxpayer dollars can be channeled to more effective uses,” according to Trump’s executive order.

The order, noting that 350,000 manufacturing jobs were open, told the Labor Department to draw up regulations promoting apprenticeship programs by unions, trade and industry groups, and for-profit and nonprofit companies. It also sets up a task force to advise the president and calls for recognition for employers with good apprenticeship programs.

The order does not specifically mention the need to involve foster youth in apprenticeships, although it does seek to promote them for high school students, Job Corps participants, prisoners and those who were previously in prison, veterans and members of the armed forces.

While the president’s directive set no targets for exactly how many new apprenticeships there should be, labor experts from both sides of the aisle applauded the “earn-and-learn” expansion as needed and long overdue.

Apprenticeship programs begin with a mix of on-the-job training and class instruction, during which time the apprentice earns a wage. Industries where apprenticeships are common include information technology, construction and carpentry, plumbing, and various health professions. The executive order seeks to promote apprenticeships in “critical industry sectors,” such as manufacturing, construction, cybersecurity and health care.

Over the course of an apprenticeship, which can last several years, participants gradually take on more complex parts of a trade, and eventually receive a certificate of completion.

Supporters point to studies that suggest individuals who complete apprenticeships earn a starting wage of more than $60,000 per year, and that nearly 90 percent of participants lock down employment when their apprenticeship ends. With millions of job vacancies across the country, and a national survey of CEOs reporting that most executives struggle to find qualified workers, the potential of apprenticeships offers some a rare glimmer of hope.

Foster youth represent one population in particular that could really stand to benefit from these new economic opportunities. Some 23,000 young men and women turn 18 or 21 and “age out” of the foster care system every year. The statistics are grim. According to the National Foster Youth Initiative, foster youth have a less than 3 percent chance of earning a college degree, and only half who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by age 24.

But how can foster youth take advantage of expanded apprenticeships? What could help make such opportunities more accessible to them?

According to Mike Pergamit, a labor economist with The Urban Institute whose research focuses on vulnerable youth, experts “still don’t really know what works” when it comes to designing effective youth employment programs. The picture looks even worse when it comes to foster youth. Pergamit says “there haven’t really been many evaluations” of employment programs targeting youth in foster care.

That said, Pergamit maintains there’s reason to think apprenticeships could be particularly beneficial to foster youth since they they’re typically longer-length opportunities that come with high levels of mentorship. Stability and support, he says, can make all the difference.

One challenge for policymakers who might want to help target apprenticeships is that many foster youth have no desire to self-identify as someone with ties to the foster care system. One strategy for dealing with this stigma issue is to pursue strong data partnerships with government agencies.

In Washington, for example, the Washington Student Achievement Council has partnered with the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to better target resources and information toward foster youth looking to go to college or join the workforce.

“In secure ways DSHS sends us who is in foster care at the time at which they can maybe access the services so we know who they are,” said Becky Thompson, the director of student financial assistance at the Washington Student Achievement Council. “But it also requires a lot of outreach, so we provide training to social workers about resources that are available, since sometimes they can act as more of a trusted adviser.”

Some states also have foster care liaisons working in their public school districts; these liaisons can work with program providers to help students learn about what’s available and how to take advantage of supports.

Other barriers that could impede foster youth from accessing apprenticeship opportunities include a lack of stable housing; a lack of reliable transportation to get to work; and lack of driver’s licenses, which can be a prerequisite for even getting hired.

Krishna Richardson-Daniels, the founding director of A Bridge Forward, a nonprofit in Renton, Washington, focused on youth aging out of the foster care system, says her group works to provide young people with subsidized ORCA cards so they can get to work and school. But some foster youth live in areas that lack high-quality public transit.

Obtaining a driver’s license, Richardson-Daniels says, can be one of the biggest and most poorly understood barriers for foster youth.

“Driver’s education is now privatized and not offered in the public school system, and those programs can cost anywhere from $300 to 500,” she said, noting there really aren’t many foster families willing to support those costs and few nonprofit groups have the bandwidth to take it on.

“Seattle is the fastest-growing city, we have some of the largest construction projects going on, but you cannot actually work in construction without having a driver’s license,” she explained. Construction is a field with a long history of providing apprenticeship opportunities.
A coalition of foster youth advocates has launched a national campaign called “Going Places” to try to tackle this driver’s license problem.

Aside from these barriers, given that apprenticeships are broadly understood to be something of a rigorous pre-employment opportunity, many people fail to realize how much work typically goes into preparing young people for apprenticeships. So-called “pre-apprenticeship” programs have become a popular strategy; these are short-term opportunities designed to help acclimate specific groups so they can enter and thrive in their apprenticeship program later on.

One promising pre-apprenticeship model designed to help disadvantaged youth (including but not exclusively foster youth) was developed by the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund in Philadelphia. The pre-apprenticeship program runs for six weeks and includes an opportunity to ensure all participants secure driver’s licenses.

Advocates say thoughtful, concerted outreach will be necessary to help older foster youth access apprenticeships, perhaps even more so than other disadvantaged populations, given the chaos they face if they age out of the system at 18 or 21. Experts suggest beginning targeted outreach in high school, several years before foster youth are set to age out.

“This is a unique population that might have some barriers that need additional support, and so having some very early outreach happening with high school counseling can be very effective,” Thompson said.

Another barrier can be whether the employers themselves are prepared to work with foster youth. One strategy is for policymakers to encourage employers to get trained in the so-called Trauma Informed Approach, a professional development model which can help bosses better understand what their foster youth apprentices are dealing with, and how best to support them.

“Trauma is a big difference between foster youth and other disadvantaged youth,” said economist Pergamit. “Many (foster) youth have had various trauma, growing up in tough neighborhoods and witnessing all kinds of things, but foster youth by definition were the victim of some sort of abuse or neglect, and once they enter the foster system they’ve had even more disruption and turbulence beyond that.”

Representatives from the Labor Department did not return multiple requests for comment.

Edwin Dirth contributed to this report.

Backed by Obama Alums, A Law-And-Order Candidate Aims To Topple Progressive Leaders in Baltimore

Originally published in The Intercept on June 20, 2018

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Robbyn Lewis’s appointment to the Maryland General Assembly in late 2016 was met with excitement. The first black woman to ever hold office in Maryland’s 46th Legislative District, she said her life’s work in public health and transit advocacy prepared her to meet the needs of those in south and southeast Baltimore.

Her appointment was recommended by the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee, but now she is running in her first election. Next Tuesday, Maryland voters will head to the polls for the Democratic primary (early voting began on June 14), and Lewis, 54, is facing a formidable challenge from Nate Loewentheil, an alumnus of the Obama administration whose campaign has been fueled largely by donors outside the city. Loewentheil has centered his campaign on Baltimore’s high levels of crime, even though state delegates have little control over implementing crime prevention programs.

Lewis is running to hold her seat on a slate with the two other incumbents from District 46 — Brooke Lierman and Luke Clippinger — as well as the district’s state senator, Bill Ferguson, who is running for re-election unopposed. Lierman and Clippinger are running for their second and third times, respectively, and Lewis — who has served the shortest stint in office — is considered the most vulnerable candidate on “Team46.” (There are six candidates running for House delegate seats, three of whom will be elected to represent the district.) On Tuesday, the Baltimore Sun endorsed the Team46 candidates.

Lewis was born in Gary, Indiana, at the height of the civil rights movement, and she says her experiences since then have shaped her path toward public office. Her parents were among the first beneficiaries of the Fair Housing Act; the landmark 1968 legislation that prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of property enabled them to buy a house in a completely white Chicago neighborhood. She went on to attend the University of Chicago for college and obtained her master’s degree from Columbia University. She later served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s, when she got a job coordinating research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Over the last two decades, Lewis has led a movement to plant over 100 new trees in her community and founded a grassroots political PAC to mobilize infrastructure investment in Baltimore. She told The Intercept she’s humbled to be able to bring those experiences with her to the state legislature, one of the most progressive in the country.

Loewentheil, a 32-year-old graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, has only recently returned to the city. He was born in Baltimore and attended the Park School, a liberal private school in town, but lived in the Baltimore County suburbs for much of his youth. In 1991, Loewentheil’s father told the Baltimore Sun they were moving out of Baltimore due to safety concerns.

After law school, Loewentheil went straight to work for the Obama administration, serving as a policy adviser on the National Economic Council. Later, he took over a federal task force on Baltimore which was formed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. It sought to coordinate and mobilize over a dozen federal agencies to help Baltimore tap new sources of funding and address systemic challenges, such as lead exposure and unemployment.

Loewentheil “spent the last weeks in the administration working closely with political, business, and civic leadership, and it was a reminder of all the great things I loved about the city,” he said of the task force.

He has leaned heavily on his connections to the Obama administration to run his campaign, both as a selling point for his candidacy and as leveraged power through his Obama alumni network. Jeffrey Zients, Obama’s lead economic policy adviser, held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for Loewentheil’s campaign and personally wrote him a $6,000 check. The candidate’s Yale alumni network has also stepped in to help him unseat Lewis. Even Bob Borosage, co-director of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future, kicked him some money.

All told, Loewentheil has amassed a remarkable amount of financial support for his campaign: over $430,000 according to the latest campaign finance reports. He spent $109,738 between May 16 and June 10. Lewis, by contrast, has raised a little over $110,000 throughout her campaign and spent $2,546 in that same period.

“I would say the amount he’s raised and the amount he’s spending in a state delegate race is beyond unprecedented,” Ferguson, the state senator running in the 46th District, told The Intercept. “I can’t imagine there has been anything close to this anywhere else in Maryland history.” Ferguson acknowledged that “fundraising is part of politics” but noted “the breadth of non-Maryland dollars that are being funneled into the campaign is striking.” According to campaign finance reports, a majority of Loewentheil’s funds have come from outside the state. More than $9,000 came from Palantir, the San Francisco-based data surveillance which Peter Thiel co-founded and now chairs.

Loewentheil is part of a wave of former Obama appointees who are flooding into the lower levels of politics and reaping praise for doing so. Earlier this month, USA Today ran a story headlined, “Surge of Obama alumni running for office in wake of President Trump’s election.” The piece reported that more than 65 former Obama officials are currently campaigning, aided by the resources and prowess of the Obama Alumni Association. A picture of Loewentheil knocking doors featured prominently in the article.

“Obama was a community organizer, and I think that’s shaped my approach to the campaign,” Loewentheil told The Intercept. “I just spent literally every day knocking doors, you just go out and talk to folks, that’s what politics means. I’ve been influenced by [Obama’s] experience and story which really permeated the White House.”

His support from the Obama network is overwhelming, but not absolute. Broderick Johnson, a Baltimore native who served as Obama’s Cabinet secretary, assistant to the president, and chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, recently endorsed Team46 over Loewentheil. “While serving as President Obama’s Cabinet Secretary, I helped direct much needed attention and resources from across our Administration to Baltimore City,” Johnson said in a statement. “Those efforts were done in collaboration with the city’s great leaders. … Those leaders who are closest to the ground, like the members of Team46, need no introduction to the city or to the State’s leaders in Annapolis. Team46 has created partnerships and leveraged resources necessary to bring equity in Baltimore’s public schools, to support greater job creation, to fund transit to connect citizens to those jobs, and to build a Baltimore where everyone counts.”

Baltimore has indeed struggled to curb crime, which has spiked over the last three years. The city saw 341 homicides in 2017, 318 in 2016, and 344in 2015. The average rate for the prior four years was 214, and the city hadn’t seen 300-plus murders in one year since the 1990s.

Loewentheil has singled out this issue, accusing his opponents of not doing enough to improve public safety and lamenting how crime prevention programs have historically been run. Many of his proposals involve injecting state funds into Baltimore — which state delegates can indeed help do — but it is local officials (like the mayor, state’s attorney, and police commissioner) who ultimately oversee policy and program implementation.

“I think win or lose, I’ve forced our current delegation to take the issue of gun violence more seriously,” he told The Intercept. In reality, the district’s current representatives have worked on a number of public safety initiatives.

“It is incredibly misleading and disingenuous to suggest that state legislators representing the 46th District have been anything but fierce advocates for creating safe communities,” said Ferguson, the state senator.

Throughout the campaign, Team46 has highlighted a series of their ownlegislative accomplishments on improving public safety. For example, Maryland’s governor signed the Maryland Violence Intervention and Prevention Program into law earlier this year. The new law, which Lierman authored and Clippinger and Lewis co-sponsored, sets aside $5 million for the next fiscal year to fund violence reduction strategies through competitive grants to local governments and nonprofit groups. The Huffington Post reported that only five other states have such a program, which is “designed to give a financial injection to evidence-based services that address the root causes of gun violence.”

Lewis, for her part, said her public health background equips her to address those root challenges. “As an African-American, I will never stop telling the truth about the root causes of our challenges in this city,” she told The Intercept. “The root causes of crime in this city are the long-term policies that drove racial segregation, disinvestment in communities, and criminalization of black skin. A single-minded focus on the outcome of those policies is disingenuous. I’m a public health professional; my training is in identifying sources of illness and addressing them.”

On social media, residents have charged Loewentheil with running a fear-based campaign, pandering to white voters in his district. Nearly half of District 46 is white, making it one of the whitest legislative zones in the city.

One video Loewentheils’s campaign released this past spring featured a white man that the candidate identified as his personal friend, his campaign treasurer, and a lifelong Baltimore resident. The man, Guy Tawney, talked about how he’s “not certain” if he’d be comfortable raising a family in Baltimore, given all the crime and violence he’s witnessed and experienced. “And that’s why I support Nate’s campaign,” Tawney concluded. “I know Nate is going to improve public safety in our city.”

On his campaign website, Loewentheil claims that if elected, he “will fight to get the Baltimore Police Department back to basics, like beat policing that gets more cops walking the streets.” His “plan for public safety,” released late last month, outlines a number of other police reform ideas that fall far outside the authority of a House delegate, such as getting the police department to adopt “predictive policing.”

Loewentheil has also penned a number of op-eds emphasizing the image of Baltimore as an unsafe, crime-ridden city. In the Washington Post, he opened with stark imagery of violence: “Baltimore is experiencing the worst wave of violent crime of any city in the United States. One day last month, in only 24 hours, six people were murdered. It’s as if mortal dice are rolled every day across the city’s streets. Stray bullets have injured a girl as young as 3 and a woman as old as 90.”

Lewis told The Intercept that Loewentheil’s campaign affects her personally. “To hear messages that because we don’t have a crime-free city, the people in leadership like it that way, or don’t care, that’s very personal for me,” she said. “It’s really strange to be a black person and have a white person accuse you of being indifferent to crime. It’s a way of saying that you like crime, you tolerate crime. It’s a dog whistle, it’s a way of triggering fear in a certain population of this district, and a way of subliminally suggesting that the first African-American representative won’t keep you safe because she’s African-American.”

Loewentheil has also repeatedly vocalized his support for mandatory minimum sentences, declaring in an op-ed last summer that he supported a newly proposed mandatory minimum in Baltimore that would have imposed jail sentences on first-time offenders caught carrying a gun within 100 yards of places like churches, schools, and parks. The proposed measure, which was vociferously opposed by activists in the community, waseventually weakened after public protest. Loewentheil later lamented that a similar state-level push for a new mandatory minimum “was unfortunately rejected.”

In outlining his support for new minimums, he has broken with a growing bipartisan consensus that has emerged around the idea that such policies are ineffective and expensive crime deterrents, as well as racially discriminatory. He has also praised Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, for his “commitment to addressing crime in Baltimore.” Hogan has sponsored legislation that would lengthen mandatory minimum sentences, limit access to parole, and try more juveniles as adults.

In the spring, the members of Team46 all voted for SB101, an omnibus crime bill that included, among other things, a new mandatory minimum for twice-convicted violent offenders. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers. The delegates maintain they oppose mandatory minimums but say that they voted “yes” because the package included provisions they otherwise support, such as allowing certain offenders to have their records expunged and protecting in-prison drug treatment.

Loewentheil praised one of the incumbent delegates, Lierman — calling her “a very talented politician” — but asserted that the current delegation is just unable to get the job done in Annapolis. He pointed to Dea Thomas, another African-American woman running in the race with whom he has allied himself as another alternative. “My plan is for both of us to win,” he said. Thomas has raised just $68,000 dollars, according to campaign finance records. She ran for a city council seat two years ago and lost by a wide margin. Thomas did not return The Intercept’s request for an interview.

The race could go either way, but Lewis hopes that her record of service in Baltimore will bring her over the top.

“No one else has been a community organizer like I have, no one else has started a political action committee in service of bringing mass transit infrastructure but me — I’ve been here long enough to accomplish those things,” she said. “I stand on my record of service, my demonstrated care, and compassion. If the best you can do is throw mud, go for it, and we’ll let the people decide.”

Arkansas’ Medication Abortion Ban Was Hit With a Temporary Restraining Order. Here’s What’s Next.

Originally published in Rewire News on June 20th, 2018.
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A federal judge on Monday granted a brief reprieve from an Arkansas law that dramatically restricts abortion access in the state by effectively banning medication abortion.

The first-of-its-kind statute would limit abortion access at all but one Arkansas health center. The law had been in effect since May 29, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined Planned Parenthood’s request to hear the case. The plaintiffs filed for emergency relief following the high court’s dismissal, and U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker agreed to grant them a two-week restraining order, which will expire at 5 p.m. on July 2.

But the battle to stop the law is far from over.

This fight began in the spring of 2015, when the GOP-majority Arkansas legislature passed Act 577, requiring physicians who prescribe drugs for non-surgical abortions to secure contracts with a second doctor who has hospital-admitting privileges. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have both said there is “no medical basis” for such requirements, and abortion providers, especially those in conservative states, typically struggle to find hospitals willing to partner with them.

The law was set to take effect at the start of 2016, but on December 28, 2015, Planned Parenthood sued to block it. A temporary restraining order was issued on December 31 of that year, and three months later, Judge Baker issued a preliminary injunction as Planned Parenthood Great Plains continued with their lawsuit against the state.

An Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals panel in July 2017 lifted Baker’s injunction, asserting she would need to more concretely show how Arkansas women would be harmed by the admitting privileges law. A year earlier the Supreme Court overturned a package of abortion restrictions that included requirements for admitting privileges. The justices determined the rules posed an unconstitutional burden on Texan women seeking to end their pregnancies.

Planned Parenthood says that if the law were to take effect, its two abortion facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville would no longer be able to provide medication abortion. Neither of those facilities provide surgical abortions.

The health care provider requested the Eighth Circuit’s full bench of judges review the panel’s July ruling, but in late September, the appellate court declined the request. The Eighth Circuit is one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country; two years earlier its judges recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court “re-evaluate its jurisprudence” on abortion, urging for greater state power over reproductive health.

The next step for the plaintiffs was petitioning the Supreme Court to review the Eighth Circuit’s decision. The appellate court agreed to keep the preliminary injunction in place in the meantime, which meant the law has not been enforced all year. But at the end of May, the Supreme Court finally responded to Planned Parenthood’s petition and declined to intervene. This set the law into immediate effect.

Planned Parenthood quickly filed for a temporary restraining order, a request which was finally granted this week. In a press statement, Planned Parenthood said that beginning on May 29, “health center staff were forced to immediately call patients to inform them they would no longer be able to access their medication abortion.”

Some patients, according to Planned Parenthood, were already en route to their appointments, and others were “left scrambling to alter their work and child care schedules, and to secure additional funds required to undergo the state-mandated counseling process over again for a surgical abortion or to travel out of state, further delaying care.”

Emily Miller, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, told Rewire.News that the next steps are not clear, though at least until July 2, when the temporary restraining order lifts, providers will again be able to provide medication abortion.

“We’re approaching it like we have a temporary restraining order that will run for fourteen days, and then we’ll focus on our next step which is the preliminary injunction,” Miller explained. “But we don’t know exactly what course the state will choose to take.” The state might try to skip the preliminary injunction step and go straight to a full hearing. Miller says if that does happen, the two-week restraining order could be extended.

Ever since the Eighth Circuit demanded the plaintiffs more clearly show how the admitting privileges law would affect patients, Planned Parenthood has worked to collect and document that information, Miller said.

Last month, research was released that sought to systematically evaluate the availability of abortion care and distance from all major U.S. cities. The study’s objective was to describe abortion facilities and services available in the country from the perspective of a potential patient searching online, and to find out which cities are farthest from available abortion care.

Alice Cartwright, project director at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health and co-author of the study, told Rewire.News that their research is exactly the kind of data plaintiffs could refer to if they returned to court.

“We found that abortion access is better in the northeast and western part of the country and one reason is they were more likely to have a higher proportion of clinics that were only providing medication abortion,” said Cartwright.

The organization’s research team worked to determine the number of cities with at least 50,000 people where patients would have to travel 100 miles or more to reach the closest abortion provider. As of spring 2017, they found 27 such cities in the US. Cartwright says if this Arkansas law were to take effect the number of cities could increase much more.

The rate of medication abortion has increased in popularity since the Food and Drug Administration first approved Mifeprex in 2000. The procedure typically involves using both Mifeprex—often referred to as “the abortion pill”—and a second drug, misoprostol. With access to surgical abortion diminishing at a rapid clip, medication abortion is recognized as a safe, much-needed health care alternative, especially for those living in rural and medically underserved parts of the US.

Is School a Waste of Time?

Originally published in Democracy‘s summer 2018 issue.
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The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money By Bryan Caplan • Princeton University Press • 2018 • 416 pages • $29.95

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, the highly influential libertarian scholar who authored The Myth of the Rational Voter and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, has a knack for attention-getting polemics. In the former work, he argues that it’s biased and ignorant voters who drive bad economic policy; in the latter, he contends that adults should just chill out since their parenting styles will barely affect their children’s life outcomes anyway. Whatever you want to call these arguments, you can’t say they’re boring.

And now Caplan is out with yet another controversial take. In his new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, he makes a relatively straightforward argument. He begins by laying out the conventional narrative, which goes that schooling provides knowledge, skills, or concepts that are valuable and therefore translate into higher earnings. But Caplan then quickly pivots, asserting that the vast benefit of education comes from the “signals” a diploma or credential sends to a college or employer. In other words, employers and admissions officers can infer certain things about an applicant’s conscientiousness, persistence, and conformity by the very fact that she has earned a high school diploma or college degree. A candidate who makes it to graduation day versus someone who dropped out the day before graduation is likely quite similar in terms of skills and aptitude. But if you had to choose one over the other, the applicant who finished out the process, who earned the degree as expected, would be assumed to have a stronger or more reliable work ethic.

In other words, Caplan thinks most of the value of school comes from signaling, not from real learning. He estimates that such signals even exceed 50 percent of the value of schooling, and probably upwards of 80 percent. Yet even if this signaling constitutes just 30 percent of an education’s value—and he argues there’s no way it could be less than that—then, he concludes, we should still agree that schooling is a huge waste of time and resources.

But why, exactly, is that? Because, he writes, we generally forget what we learn, and employers don’t really seem to care. Few can recall specific historical facts or trigonometric ratios or French verbs, so the argument that education trains us for the workplace seems suspect. This leads Caplan to the conclusion that since education is wasteful, we should dramatically cut government subsidies and shift the economic burden of schooling onto students and their families; they can then decide for themselves whether to waste their own time and money on it. Leave the business of schooling to charity and the private sector. If fewer people can afford to go to school as a result, all the better. “My thesis, in a single sentence,” Caplan writes, “[is] civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better, indeed more civilized way: We can switch as soon as adults collectively admit we’re making childish mistakes. We have to admit academic success is a great way to get a good job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job. If everyone got a college degree, the result would not be great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.”

Caplan does conclude it probably makes smart economic sense for most kids to finish high school. “High school is a good deal for almost any student who wants a full-time career after graduation,” he writes. College, on the other hand, should be reserved only for “strong student[s]” or “special case[s]” such as those who win generous scholarships. Within the K-12 system, he wants to see vocational education offerings significantly expanded, and I’d be remiss not to mention his characterization of history, social studies, art, music, and foreign languages as “fat” that we should purge from curricula immediately, leaving room only for “practical” disciplines like engineering and math. “About 40 percent of [college] graduates earn degrees in comically—or tragicomically—useless subjects,” Caplan writes.

Unsurprisingly, much of Caplan’s book seems deliberately designed to simply provoke readers—sometimes with the spirit of an Internet troll. “What’s wrong with child labor?” he asks at one point. Sure, he admits, it “has a dark side.” But “[t]hen again, so does book learning.” Given that leaders regularly say education will help prepare young people for landing jobs when they’re older, Caplan says the more efficient thing would be to just “deregulate and destigmatize” child labor now, landing kids part-time jobs in their youth. Simply put, the best way to educate kids for work, he reasons, is to get them working experience.

In a section examining whether an individual should go to college, Caplan asks: “[A]re you a woman who firmly plans to marry?” If so, he says, “Then despite your spotty academic record, college may be for you.” Over half of a woman’s financial payoff for college quality, he claims, could come from marriage, suggesting women who attend good colleges tend to marry higher-earning spouses. “It’s not my fault married women profit more from education than single women,” Caplan writes defensively.

It’s more than the message that is off-putting. So is the tone. Indeed, there are multiple times in The Case Against Education when Caplan praises himself for being a bold truth-teller, simply here to report the data that everyone else is too cowardly to reckon with. “My counsel rubs many the wrong way,” he writes. “Some dismiss it as ‘elitist’, ‘philistine’ or ‘sexist.’ The correct label is candid.”

To disagree with Caplan’s conclusions, he writes, indicates you’ve fallen victim to “Social Desirability Bias”—meaning you’ve fallen victim to fictions that may have sounded appealing, but in reality you just don’t want to confront the truth. Indeed, everyone but Caplan is tainted with bias or misinformation. Leaders who speak of the need to provide every child with the best education are just demagogues, pandering for popularity. Readers who disagree are in denial: hopeless defenders of mediocrity, failure, and the status quo. No one is capable of principled disagreement; no education supporters could rationally defend education as an intrinsic good and smart societal investment even when it doesn’t increase earnings.

Caplan engages only trivially with his critics and their counterarguments, while acting as though he’s exhausted the evidence and fully accounted for any reasonable objection. For example: He concedes that yes, in theory history, civics, and foreign languages are important subjects for democratic citizenship, but the data show we’re just not good at teaching them, demonstrated by the fact that people don’t remember specific details decades later. Therefore, Caplan says, we should obviously stop teaching those areas, and we should certainly stop spending money in vain attempts to teach them better. If this were at all possible, he contends, we would have figured it out by now.

Never mind that families have been clamoring for more bilingual offerings, that millions of people around the world successfully learn second and third languages in school and go on to use them later in their careers and beyond. Never mind that the ability to recall specific historical facts on-demand 30 years down the line has never been the real objective of learning history, but to forge deeper understandings of our past, present, and future. Never mind that it can be much easier to relearn information if you’ve already studied it once before, that forgetting things is perfectly all right, and that perhaps there were good reasons activists spent decades trying to outlaw child labor.

Yet, for all its nonsense, some elements of Caplan’s book are worthwhile. While I almost always disagreed with his conclusions, he did manage to explore areas of educational dogma that I, too, have encountered in my reporting, and which certainly do get short shrift from education advocates. “Education’s powers of social transformation are galactically overrated,” Caplan writes. On this most basic concept, we agree.

He rightly pours some cold water on the elite conventional wisdom that everyone should go to college no matter what, by any means necessary. In making this argument, he first presents the statistics: Yes, high school graduates in the United States outearn high school dropouts by 30 percent. Yes, college graduates earn 73 percent more than high school graduates. There is an earnings boost that comes from continuing your education, even if we generally exaggerate how large that boost is. The United States has the largest high school premium and nearly the highest college premium of all 35 OECD nations, so the incentives for staying in school are not imaginary.

But, as Caplan says, throwing those figures around as irrefutable proof of education’s value is silly and unfounded. Given the earnings premium, it might make very good sense to continue your schooling. But there are other questions to consider when making the decision. “When you invest in your education, how well does your investment pay off for you?” he asks. “Depends on income, fringe benefits, unemployment risks, job satisfaction, health . . . the point: When you weigh the value of education, knowing the benefits of education is not enough. You also need to know costs and timing.” That should seem obvious, and uncontroversial, but you’d be surprised how little education advocates like to focus on these costs and risks, and how simply raising the question translates to many as “You don’t believe in students.”

A few years ago, economist Marshall Steinbaum published research showing that the demographic groups most likely to miss payments on their student loan are middle-class African-American and Latino college graduates. Loan delinquency and default can result in increased fees, wage garnishments, and even lawsuits. In other words, we typically tend to believe that if you can just manage to earn that college degree, you’ll find economic security. And so we relentlessly encourage higher education, and tell students it is worth taking out loans, if necessary, to get it. But we still live in a world where blacks and Latinos have less wealth, where minorities risk a lot more to finance a college education, and where many schools often target these specific demographics with degrees that are far less valuable than their promotional materials suggest.

Caplan’s book, ironically, pairs well with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, a tour de force published in 2017 that explores the explosion of for-profit colleges, and the pressures individuals face today to stock up on degrees, looking for any kind of social insurance in our increasingly precarious economy. College enrollment soared following the Great Recession, in part because the government allowed students at for-profit institutions to qualify for federal loans. For all his insistence that he’s telling truths no one else wants to hear, Caplan’s evidently not the only one thinking about credentialism and its ills. Yet as works such as McMillan Cottom’s show, from this same conclusion one can arrive at far different and better solutions.

Caplan rightly observes that education can’t solve everyone’s economic problems. But his proposed libertarian policy fixes—to slash education subsidies, to dramatically limit school offerings, to reduce taxes and government regulation—are hardly likely to yield better results.

Last year, I published an article looking at the growing body of evidence suggesting educational attainment is actually not the main factor influencing whether a child will one day outearn his parents (what economists refer to as “intergenerational mobility”). Differences in regional labor markets—such as the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries—have been found to play much more significant roles in facilitating a poor child’s ability to rise atop the economic ladder, compared to, say, the quality of the school she attended. I was surprised by how much this article upset people working in education advocacy. Many seemed to bristle at the suggestion that school improvement efforts aren’t the best way to solve poverty or, more generally, make the economy work better for a larger number of people. One critic even called me “immoral” for writing it.

But the point wasn’t to argue against investing in education, which is essentially what Caplan does in his book. Education is still crucial for building citizenship, for maintaining democratic polities, for fostering human development. But it would be better if our government stopped looking at schools as the ticket to economic security, and stopped acting as though our ability to afford health insurance, housing, and food should depend on whether one is capable of obtaining a college degree. People are under pressure to continue their educations—sometimes indefinitely—because we’ve reduced spending on welfare, because we fail to provide people with affordable basic services, because we’ve decimated unions that used to offer stability within industries sans extra years of schooling. And rhetoric that justifies public education because of its supposed utilitarian economic gains to students only plays into the hands of critics like Caplan.

We can’t and shouldn’t expect education to do everything in the first place. Improving schools is a worthwhile endeavor, but improving pedagogy in the classroom can’t guarantee the creation of new jobs in the aggregate. From an individual standpoint, attending a better school may very well be the best way to boost your earning potential and hack it in today’s modern economy. Caplan would agree. But for policymakers looking to help more people improve their economic circumstances, schools are just not likely to be the main mechanism to make that happen. Caplan gestures toward real problems, but fails to arrive at the right conclusions and to reckon with the broader context of economic insecurity in which these debates play out. The Case Against Education Fixing Our Economy is the book I think we really need.

A War Between Nevada Teacher Unions Spills Over Into Democratic Gubernatorial Primary

Originally published in The Intercept on June 8, 2018


As teachers in r
ed states work to elect Democrats to office this November, in-fighting in Nevada may threaten the state’s leftward shift. An increasingly tense two-year battle in Nevada between the statewide teachers union and the state’s largest local teachers union has spilled over into the Democratic primary for governor, and it may shape the outcome of Tuesday’s primary election.

Chris Giunchigliani and Steve Sisolak, both Clark County commissioners, will be squaring off in the Democratic primary, and the warring labor factions have placed their bets.

Giunchigliani is an avowed progressive who led the Clark County teachers union from 1983 to 1987, and was president of the statewide teachers union, the Nevada State Education Association, for the next four years. As a gubernatorial candidate, she’s been endorsed by the statewide union. But the local Clark County union she once led, which claims almost half the public school teachers in the state, has backed Sisolak, her far more moderate opponent.

Giunchigliani has a long history in state politics: She’s been a commissioner for Nevada’s largest county since 2007, and she served for 15 years in the Nevada Assembly before that. Sisolak, meanwhile, sat on the Nevada Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education system, for the decade before he was elected as a county commissioner in 2008.

The primary split between the teachers unions is more than a matter of mere endorsements. Beginning in early May, a political action committee tied to the Clark County union, which represents Las Vegas-area teachers, started releasing anti-Giunchigliani TV ads, including one blasting her for exempting teachers from a law that expanded reporting requirements for sex offenders. The ad claims: “Chris Giunchigliani single-handedly protected perverts and kept parents in the dark about their child’s teacher.”

The ad references a story published recently in the Reno Gazette-Journal about a last-minute amendment to the 2005 law that Giunchigliani submitted back. Giunchigliani maintains that she introduced the amendment to ensure the bill’s passage, and that any suggestion that she is soft on predators is “deeply offensive.”

 

Giunchigliani responded this week with her own TV ad detailing the sexual abuse she suffered as a young girl and highlighting her record pushing for stronger sexual assault laws. Prior to the Reno Gazette-Journal story, she had never spoken publicly about her abuse.

“An 8-year-old girl was sexually abused for over a year,” Giunchigliani says in the ad. “Her sister was kidnapped, held in a trailer, and raped for three days. I’m Chris G. And that 8-year-old girl was me.”

The gubernatorial race is just the latest arena for an ongoing dramatic battle between the Clark County Education Association and the Nevada State Education Association. The two unions filed separate lawsuits against one another in September, just months after the Clark County union voted “no confidence” in its state affiliate. The Clark County union, which stopped paying dues to the state union, charged the NSEA in court with a lack of transparency over how it spends its funds. This, the Clark County union said, amounted to a breach of contract. The state union responded with a lawsuit of its own, accusing the Clark County local union of illegally withholding due payments. Both cases are still winding through the courts, and both unions have denied the accusations against them.

The tensions have only continued to escalate. On April 25, the Clark County Education Association voted to disaffiliate from the Nevada State Education Association entirely. Six percent of the Clark County union cast ballots in the disaffiliation vote, with 88 percent in favor of splitting off, according to the Nevada Independent.

The vote was scheduled after Clark County union leaders learned that their state delegates planned to vote at the end of April on a measure that would authorize the Nevada State Education Association to become “trustees” over local affiliates in the event of corruption or financial wrongdoing. Because the Clark County union had been withholding its due payments from the state union as its lawsuit pends, it would not have been eligible to vote on the trusteeship proposal. The state union called it a “common-sense” reform, but the Clark County union slammed it as a “hostile takeover” and evidence of a “dictatorship.”

The state union immediately responded to the Clark County union’s disaffiliation vote by launching a new Clark County local union —the National Education Association of Southern Nevada — which is now trying to compete with the CCEA for members. The CCEA says disaffiliation from the state union will reduce teachers’ membership dues from $810 per year to $510. The NEA of Southern Nevada advertising membership at $460 per year.

The CCEA’s disaffiliation signals a loss of millions of dollars to the state union, a financial blow that comes just as the Supreme Court prepares to issue its ruling in a case that could cripple public sector union finances.

Representatives from the CCEA and the NEA did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

SISOLAK HAS COMMANDED a significant fundraising advantage over Giunchigliani throughout the race. A poll released in April, commissioned by the Nevada Independent, found that 44 percent of Democrats said they’d back Sisolak, compared to 16 percent of Democrats backing Giunchigliani. But a full 40 percent of respondents said they hadn’t yet decided who they’d vote for.

In late May, another poll showed a dead heat between the two candidates. The poll was funded by Women Vote!, which works with EMILY’s List, a national organization that has endorsed Giunchigliani. Sisolak’s campaign dismissed the poll results.

Nevada has been helmed by a Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, for the last eight years, but the state has begun to make a leftward shift. In 2016, Nevada voters not only backed Hillary Clinton for president, they also elected a Democrat to the Senate and flipped two Republican seats in the House. On the state level, Democrats wrested back control of both legislative chambers. Sen. Dean Heller, who is up for re-election to the U.S. Senate, is among the most endangered Republican incumbents hoping to survive a potential blue wave.

The state’s Republican attorney general, Adam Laxalt, is the likely GOP candidate for governor.

Congress Still Won’t Pay For Busing to Desegregate Schools

Originally published in Next City on June 4, 2018.
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Now is a moment of increased recognition of the ills of school segregation, says Ujju Aggarwal, professor at The New School and a grassroots desegregation activist in New York City.

“We’ve reached a point where the political problem of segregation has been recognized across the board,” Aggarwal says. “So many studies and reports have illustrated not only the intensification of the problem but also the impact, and so this generally presents a question of what are we going to do about it?”

While it’s certainly not the case everywhere, more local and state policymakers are exploring what to do about it — desegregation strategies like revamping school district boundaries, expanding magnet schools, and encouraging the establishment of diverse-by-design charter schools. In New York City, with some of the most segregated schools in the nation, new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent shockwaves in April with a tweet calling out white parents who opposed a plan to bring more black students into schools with their children.

But the question of how to ensure that all students can access desegregated schools remains thorny, and costly — which is why civil rights advocates are speaking out against two decades-old provisions from a “bygone era” that have once more crept into federal appropriations bills for the coming fiscal year. The provisions, or riders, officially known as Sections 301 and 302, bar federal funds from going toward transportation for school integration purposes. In effect, it leaves states and municipalities exclusively responsible for paying to transport students around for the sake of school desegregation.

Dozens of civil rights groups signed onto letters sent to the House and Senate last week, calling on legislators to remove Sections 301 and 302 from the next and future rounds of federal appropriations bills.

“It is alarming that such legislative language would still be present in 2018, at a time when racial re-segregation of our public schools has surged, where a majority of members of the Supreme Court have declared school diversity to be a ‘compelling government interest,’ and where many districts are working voluntarily to promote racial and economic integration for the benefit of their children and communities,” the letters state.

Such anti-diversity provisions have been included in appropriations bills since at least 1974, established in a political era of fierce opposition to desegregation mandates.

Signatories to the letters included the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the ACLU, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Democrats for Education Reform, and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

“We must no longer passively accept the status quo of their presence in appropriations bills,” stated the National Coalition on School Diversity, a network of more than 50 civil rights groups, university-based research centers, and education practitioners. “It’s time for a shift that puts the federal government firmly on the side of local communities that desire to use their federal funds to bolster school integration efforts.”

Momentum to remove these provisions began last year, when it became evident that the decades-old riders conflicted with the Every Students Succeeds Act, the federal education overhaul passed in 2015. That law gives states and local districts greater flexibility to implement evidenced-based school improvement strategies. Decades of research have shown that racial and socioeconomic integration can lead to a wide-range of academic and social benefits — which many state and local policymakers hope to provide for students.

Civil rights groups managed to convince legislators to exempt the federal magnet school program from the riders in last year’s appropriations cycle, and Congress pledged to “consider a longer term solution” on the issue this year. According to Nicole Dooley, policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, these new letters represent advocates’ attempts to hold Congress to its word. For too long, Dooley says, Sections 301 and 302 just “flew under the radar” and no repeal attempts were even tried.

The most vocal legislative champion of removing these provisions has been Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) who pushed unsuccessfully for removing the provisions altogether in 2017. Scott released a statement this year “vow[ing] to fight again” for the removal of “discriminatory education policy riders that discourage efforts to increase public school integration.”

Last year civil rights groups circulated an online petition to generate awareness about the overlooked provisions, and a new petition was launched last week.

Funding for transportation can make a significant difference in school desegregation efforts, given that housing markets across the country still tend to be heavily segregated. Erica Frankenberg, an education policy research at Penn State University, says that studies show magnet schools that offer free transportation are more likely to attract African-American families, and magnet schools that do not provide free transportation are more likely to be segregated.

Repealing Sections 301 and 302 could also help make more funding available to deal with another threat to busing as a strategy for desegregating schools — rising fuel costs. As the costs to transport students goes up, many school districts have been looking for ways to reduce expenses. Eliminating busing across school district lines has been one strategy that localities have turned to.

“These [integration] issues can’t be disentangled from the broader cuts we’re seeing to transportation funding,” says Frankenberg.

A Split Among Labor Groups Has Made a Maryland Primary Suddenly Contentious

Originally published in The Intercept on June 1, 2018.
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What was once thought to be a quiet Democratic primary in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has turned into a competitive race for the county’s highest elected official — thanks in large part to a split among organized labor.

On June 26, residents of what’s colloquially referred to as “PG County” or just “PG,” will cast ballots for county executive, a person tasked with managing all government departments and agencies. PG County’s outgoing county executive, Rushern Baker, who is term-limited after eight years in office, is now gunning for the state’s governorship. In a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1, the winner of June’s Democratic primary in the county executive race is all but certain to win the general election in November.

While there are nine Democrats vying for the spot, the top two candidates in the race are Angela Alsobrooks and Donna Edwards. Unions are divided over the women, citing their political records and sources of funding. Even some locals from the same union have backed different candidates. There are four SEIU locals in Prince George’s County, for example, and while the two largest — SEIU 500 and SEIU 32BJ — back Edwards, SEIU 1199 and SEIU 400 are supporting Alsobrooks. (This is quite different from the Maryland governor’s race, where unions have largely coalesced around one Democratic candidate, Ben Jealous.)

Edwards, who represented Prince George’s County in the House of Representatives from 2008 to 2017, was the first black woman elected to Congress from Maryland. She’s a frequent guest on MSNBC and, in 2016, ran against Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate, in a race where she received considerable support from EMILY’s List. Taking on the white male dominance of the Senate was central to Edwards’s ultimately unsuccessful bid.

That’s not the case this time around, as her main competitor is also an African-American woman and a single working mother. Alsobrooks, who has served as PG County’s elected state’s attorney since 2011 and led the county’s Revenue Authority for six years before that, leads the race in fundraising. With less than four weeks to go, Alsobrooks has $848,326 on hand, compared to Edwards’s $240,884, according to campaign finance reports.

With nearly a million residents, Prince George’s County, just outside of Washington, D.C., is the second most populous county in Maryland and one of the wealthiest black-majority counties in the United States. Sixty-five percent of Prince Georgians are African-American, and the county’s median household income stands at $76,700, compared to a U.S. median household income of $56,400.

The two main issues in the campaign are economic development and schools. Prince George’s County public schools have been racked by scandal over the last year and a half, and both candidates speak of the need for more development, bringing more wraparound services to schools and reducing class sizes. PG County’s teachers union, which represents 9,000 members working in the district’s public schools, is backing Edwards in the primary.

The contest has escalated in recent weeks following the release of new mailers and online ads by a pro-Edwards Super PAC funded by unions. The ads accuse Alsobrooks of pay-to-play politics and allege that she’s beholden to real estate developers. One flier says, “Wealthy developers control Prince George’s County Government. Pay-to-play Angela Alsobrooks is right in the middle of it.” The Super PAC is funded primarily by the hospitality workers union, Unite Here Local 25, and the construction workers union, LiUNA.

According to the latest campaign filing reports, 85 percent of Edwards’s contributions were for less than $150, with about 30 percent coming from residents who live in Prince George’s County. Roughly 80 percent of Alsobrooks’s donors came from PG County, and 73 percent were from small-dollar contributors. But she has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate developers. Edwards, by contrast, has pledged not to accept developer money.

The history of the county executive office makes the ads particularly contentious. In 2011, Baker’s predecessor, Jack Johnson, was sentenced to jail for seven years on shocking corruption, bribery, and extortion charges. Baker, who ran on a platform of “clean government” has spent the last eight years working to rebuild the county’s tarnished reputation.

Alsobrooks has called the ads an “evil lie” and “offensive.” “They are calling me a criminal,” she said in a press conference held in mid-May. “I am deeply offended. It is unfair, irresponsible, and unethical.”

The Super PAC has raised more than $650,000 to help elect Edwards. Alsobrooks has tried to frame that money as coming from “outsiders” — since Unite Here’s headquarters is based in D.C. and LiUNA’s is in Reston, Virginia. But Local 25 represents 3,200 members who work in PG County, and LiUNA represents 1,500 PG County workers. In an interview with The Intercept, Alsobrooks went so far as to say the Super PAC reminds her of Donald Trump’s tactics. “These are outsiders trying to divide our community and create fear and negativity,” she said. “The fact that a Super PAC is involved ought to be very troubling. This is also what Donna said she was against in 2015 when she said she was against outside big money. It all reminds me of Trump.”

Mark McLaurin, political director for SEIU Local 500, which also endorsed Edwards but has not contributed to this particular Super PAC, told The Intercept that he “rejects out of hand that there is some equivalence” between a union-funded Super PAC and a real estate developer that gives the maximum contribution of $6,000 or puts half a million dollars into a Super PAC.

“By the law the only money that unions have to use for political activity are the small-dollar donations from members who are often making just $12 and $15 an hour,” he said. “But they contribute because they believe in the power of the union’s collective political operation to balance the scales. When you’re attacking a Super PAC that’s funded off the back of voluntary contributions from workers, you are in effect attacking workers.”

McLaurin also referenced an upcoming Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, in which the court is expected to strike a heavy blow to public-sector unions. “With the Janus decision hanging over our heads, which is a kill shot aimed at working folk, the idea that a Democrat who calls themselves progressive would participate in the demonizing of unions is really just shameful, unacceptable, and underscores why we decided not to back her,” he said.

Local 500 is also notably aiming to unseat Maryland’s Senate president, Mike Miller, who has served in the legislature for the last 43 years. McLaurin has linked his union’s support for Edwards to this larger effort, telling the Washington Post that electing Edwards would be a “body blow” to the Democratic establishment.

Alsobrooks maintains that there hasn’t really been a labor split, noting that a majority of unions have backed her. “What’s more interesting is that unions that supported Donna’s Senate race in 2016, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are now backing me this time,” she told the Intercept. “The Amalgamated Transit Union, the SEIU, the AFGE — they were previously supporters of Donna and now they endorsed me.”

UNIONS THAT PREVIOUSLY backed Edwards and now support her opponent point to Edwards’s track record in Congress.

Pat Lippold, vice president of political action for SEIU 1199, which represents nurses and hospital workers, told The Intercept that her union decided not to back Edwards after being let down by her tenure in the federal government. “We put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an independent expenditure to back her for Congress when she ran in 2008, and we were thrilled to elect her,“ she said. Lippold said that when Edwards was in office, though, the representative would not return the union’s phone calls and was generally unresponsive to their concerns. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Lippold explained, was when the union asked for Edwards’s support in fighting a new hospital operated by a provider known to be anti-union that would compete with a unionized one nearby. Edwards resisted and the unionized hospital is now closed. “People want to profess that she was so pro-union. Well, that was not a pro-union move,” said Lippold. “We met with her repeatedly to try to mend fences, but not once did she acknowledge that that was a problem or that she could have done something different.”

Edwards told The Intercept that she feels that she’s “on the right side of history” with that hospital episode, and that she “doesn’t even understand the argument” that the union is making. Edwards said that every Maryland member of Congress supported the new hospital, yet she’s “the only one that 1199 has held that against.” It’s “kind of bogus,” she said.

Alsobrooks’s tenure in local government has also inspired some support.

When she led the state’s attorney’s office, she increased the number of staffers, as well as their salaries and benefits, which is one thing that earned her SEIU 1199’s backing, Lippold said. “A lot of our members are overworked and underpaid, and Angela’s work going and fighting for money and additional staff really struck our union,” she said.

McLaurin of SEIU 500 said he thinks that workers who represent the lower end of the economic spectrum, like fast-food workers, janitorial staff, and adjuncts, have tended to back Edwards, while some of the more higher-earning unionized workers have rallied behind Alsobrooks.

The question over who can command the true mantle of a “grassroots” campaign has been hotly contested. Unite Here Local 25’s President Linda Martin, who is also a resident of Prince George’s County, told The Intercept that her members are very “fired up” for Edwards. “We’re putting this excitement into direct action,” she said. “Our members have been out knocking doors every other Saturday since February, canvassing in teams of 30 to 50 union members each time. Between our face-to-face canvassing and our regular phone-banking, we’re reaching thousands of Prince George’s County voters.”

Alsobrooks, though, is being supported by a smaller PAC, a political arm of a group that represents minority-led businesses and nonprofits in Prince George’s County. The head of that PAC, Sandy Pruitt, told The Intercept that her group sees itself as the grassroots voice, pushing for constituencies who don’t often get a seat at the table. “It’s a small clique in this county who makes decisions, but Angela has demonstrated she wants to ensure we get our voices heard,” she said.

Pruitt dismissed Edwards’s claim of being a grassroots candidate. “Donna is not out here going around listening to all the groups, and she’s not doing the hard work on the ground because Donna has gotten $660,000 from outside groups,” she said. “I was someone who supported Donna getting elected to Congress, but once she got in, she never came out to one of our events in her eight years in Congress, and we’re the largest grassroots organization representing the community.”

Despite both leading candidates being women of color, they each say they’ve experienced subtle discrimination while campaigning.

Many have asked whether electing Alsobrooks — who has served in local government for a long time — would essentially be a third term for Rushern Baker and his establishment ilk.

“It’s so sexist, so insulting,” Alsobrooks told The Intercept. “I’m an independently elected official, and, in my own right I’ve run two major agencies. I have a rock-solid record of accomplishments, but the perception is that if you’ve accomplished anything, there’s some guy you must be latching on to.”

Edwards, in turn, thinks some of the local coverage describing her has been unfairly gendered. “There is no question I’m very outspoken, I’m fearless, I’ve taken on some of the big developers in this fight, and if you look at some of the language that’s been used to describe me, I think some of the words that are used hint at the underlying impact of gender, irrespective of whether that’s front and center.”

An Unusual Idea for Fixing School Segregation

Originally published in The Atlantic on May 23, 2018.
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Many proposals for addressing school segregation seem pretty small, especially when compared to the scale and severity of the problem. Without the power of a court-ordered desegregation mandate, progress can feel extremely far off, if not altogether impossible. Some even believe—understandably though mistakenly—that no meaningful steps can be taken to integrate schools unless housing segregation is resolved.

But a new theory from Thomas Scott-Railton, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, provides reason to believe there are still new ways to think about this issue. Railton’s approach does something that’s all too rare in education-policy debates: He takes what are normally viewed as discrete issue areas—K–12 segregation, college admissions, and the lack of diversity at top universities—and says, what if those can all be addressed together? What if, in fact, it’s impossible to address them apart? Scott-Railton’s proposal, which he published in the Yale Law & Policy Review, is to reduce K–12 segregation by reforming the college-admissions process.

Scott-Railton began thinking about this last fall, after listening to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reporting on This American Life about school segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The radio broadcast featured wealthy white parents in a St. Louis suburb distressed by the prospect of black students from a neighboring town enrolling in their public schools. The black children’s district had recently lost its accreditation due to poor academic performance. (It was the same district that Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police in August 2014, had graduated from.) If a Missouri school district loses its accreditation, the state permits any student enrolled to transfer to a nearby accredited one.

Packed at a school-board meeting, white parents one after another spoke out about their fears of this new incoming student population—that they’d bring increased crime, violence, and disease. And, some parents feared how the black students’ test scores might threaten their own children’s academic standing. “Once [they come] in here, will that lower our accreditation?” asked one parent, to thunderous applause.

But Scott-Railton knew that the parents were right about one thing: Integrating the school could mean that the school’s rating would drop, and schools with lower ratings tend to pay a penalty in the highly competitive college process. Universities tend to give a leg up to affluent, high test-scoring suburban schools—which then incentivizes wealthier parents to seek out segregation. But what if those incentives could be changed?

And thus Scott-Railton’s idea was born: to take demographics of schools into account in college admissions—giving priority to applicants who attended schools with a certain threshold of low-income students (say, above 40 percent). In other words, admissions officers would look favorably on students who attended an economically integrated school, much as they do those who have had unusual travel experiences or outstanding extracurricular achievements.

In a nutshell, he argues, this idea would drive integration in three ways: It would create an incentive for middle class and wealthy parents to enroll their students in socioeconomically integrated schools, it would create countervailing considerations for white parents considering leaving currently integrated school districts, and it would provide an incentive for private schools to enroll more low-income students. Middle-class students would likely benefit more from Scott-Railton’s idea than low-income students, since his proposal doesn’t inherently change the financial barriers to attending college. But millions more would benefit from the increased K–12 integration, which decades of research show improves public schooling.

It wouldn’t be the first time colleges sought to change applicant behavior by altering admissions incentives. In 2016, deans and admissions officers from more than 50 elite universities signed on to a report—Turning The Tide—a first-of-its-kind effort led by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to signal that going forward, colleges will work to de-emphasize resume padding and hyper-competitive achievement, and prioritize communal values and work taking care of others. The colleges recognized that they were powerfully positioned to transmit different cultural messages to applicants and their parents.

One strength of Scott-Railton’s proposal is that colleges and universities would not have to sacrifice much to make it work. It would be relatively cost-neutral to implement, and wouldn’t require schools to accept any particular students. As he puts it, the plan operates within higher education’s “existing institutional constraints.” But that also means it would be unlikely to substantially increase campus diversity, at least initially, and for that reason Scott-Railton says his idea should not be seen as an alternative to measures like affirmative action and Pell Grants.

Nevertheless, Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy and an expert on college admissions, said one of the biggest challenges this kind of proposal faces is just institutional inertia. “A lot of this will come down to courage,” he said. “Universities get bogged down in political constraints, caught up in managing competing interests, and it can sometimes just be easier to do nothing, rather than try something new.”

But if colleges could work up the will to try it, another benefit of this idea would be that it seems to be on solid footing legally. In the wake of Supreme Court decisions that have challenged both K–12 desegregation plans and university-level affirmative-action policies, advocates for diversity have been wary of pursuing new strategies. Scott-Railton took that into account in crafting his proposal, which recommends that admissions boosts come primarily from taking the poverty level of a school—not its racial makeup—into account, and for this reason it is more likely to withstand any kind of constitutional challenge.

“My sense of his plan is that it probably threads the needle pretty effectively,” said Sam Erman, a law professor at the University of Southern California who has studied integration and affirmative action. “There are some ambiguities in the legal doctrine, but it’s hard to see how you would launch a successful attack on this idea.”

Fear that the Supreme Court would eliminate race-based affirmative action has led other scholars to propose a college-admissions focus on school or neighborhood demographics. For instance, in her 2014 book Place Not Race, law professor Sheryll Cashin proposed substituting race-based affirmative action with a geographically-based system that took segregation into account. Scott-Railton’s idea builds upon this sort of notion by focusing more explicitly on using admissions to transform the makeup of K–12 institutions.

As Erman told me, without some kind of new experiment, integration advocates shouldn’t expect much to improve. “Most of what we’ve seen implemented are ideas that nibble at the margins, that make relatively small adjustments to things that the court has already approved,” he said, noting that unless the court swings left, it’s reasonable to expect the legal constraints to narrow even more.

“This is a very smart and strategic way of dealing with what has been the overwhelming obstacle to school integration, which is white and middle-class resistance,” said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a longtime scholar of segregation. Kahlenberg said he likes the idea not only because it creates incentives for hyper-competitive affluent families, but also because it creates a way for universities to have more students who arrive with experience navigating diverse environments. “Elite universities need more bridge-builders,” he said. “I think this is a win-win.”

While the idea remains in its infancy, some other researchers have launched efforts to develop it further. Ilona Arnold-Berkovits, an education researcher at Rutgers who also began thinking more deeply about these issues after listening to the same This American Life episode which inspired Scott-Railton, launched a website, schoolbonuspoints.org, to begin mobilizing other policy experts, researchers, and funders around this idea of voluntary incentives.

There may be room for additional development. Scott-Railton’s idea could offer a real bulwark against white flight, but it is ultimately focused on integrated schools more than the truly disadvantaged schools. If an incentive-based policy like this were to be truly successful, leaders would need to coordinate it with efforts that directly address schools where racial and economic segregation are far worse. A strategy that preserves integration in schools that are 40 percent low-income may have no impact at all in a school that’s 90 percent low-income.

Perhaps one of the strongest merits of Scott-Railton’s idea is that it advances a new way of thinking about some very old problems, and encourages thinking about two issues—K–12 integration and diversity in higher education—together, rather than apart.

“In reality, for students, it’s a seamless web,” said Kahlenberg. “One impacts the other, and it’s not really until this proposal that we’ve seen those two worlds come together.”