Jahana Hayes: The National Teacher of the Year Not Giving Up on Her Run for Congress

Originally published in The Intercept on May 21, 2018.
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By any conceivable metric, Jahana Hayes had no chance. She launched her campaign just 12 days before Connecticut’s convention for the 5th Congressional District race on May 14, with no infrastructure, no real funding, and no prior political experience.

She was facing off against a well-known, well-financed candidate who was largely expected to walk away with the nomination to replace the outgoing Elizabeth Esty unchallenged.

But her bid began picking up momentum almost as soon as she launched it. Her 2016 National Teacher of the Year designation earned her the attention she needed to get her calls returned, and delegations to the convention agreed to hear out her last-minute pitch. Local unions got excited, with firefighters, United Auto Workers, and others getting behind her.

Were Hayes to somehow come out on top, she would become the first black candidate ever nominated by Connecticut Democrats. She would be the only black person serving in the U.S. House or Senate from all of New England. She would also become one of only a few black members of Congress serving a district where white people make up a majority of the voting population.

But she had overcome much higher odds. The Berkeley Heights housing project, where she grew up, is just four miles away from Crosby High School, where the convention was held, but last Monday, it felt like it was a world away. She was not making the journey alone. Outside of the convention was a scene not typical of Connecticut political events. A middle school drum line, known as the Berkeley Knights Drill Team and Drum Corp, was banging away out front, on hand to support their alumna.

Hayes got in line with them. “I knew all the steps and everybody’s like, ‘How do you know that?’ I’m like, ‘Because they haven’t changed it,’” she told The Intercept. “It was born in the projects just to give us something to do.”

 

Inside the convention auditorium, Hayes had flashbacks, as she spoke to the delegates from the same stage she would have walked across 28 years ago to pick up her diploma, had a pregnancy at 17 not gotten in the way. (“I always wanted to be a teacher, but when that happened, I was like, well, I guess I screwed that one up,” she told The Intercept.)

But Hayes was back, after battling through a school for expectant teens, then low-wage jobs, community college, her first teaching job, and graduate school. On stage, eyes were locked on the screen tallying the votes of the delegates, as it delivered the most unexpected news: The votes were in, and Hayes had won a majority, which local news reports put at 172-168. Her backers, along with the former students who’d come to see her, exploded in celebration.

But the night was far from over.

When the selection process began earlier this year, delegates to Connecticut’s 5th District endorsement convention thought that they had signed up for a sleepy affair. The sitting congressional representative, Esty, was widely expected to cruise to re-election.

But that was before a scandal surrounding her handling of a sexual harassment issue in her office forced her into early retirement, throwing the race wide open.

Just after Esty stepped down in early April, Mary Glassman jumped into the campaign. Glassman, who works for a local education agency, had run for lieutenant governor in 2006 and 2010 — losing the general election the first time, and then losing the primary on her second attempt. Glassman was also the former first selectman of Simsbury, a mayor-like position for a wealthy enclave on the outskirts of Hartford. She quickly raised $100,000 out of the gate, hoping to clear the field.

On Monday night, as the screen flashed the results, with Hayes in the lead, it was clear that the field had been anything but cleared. With the votes in, Tom McDonough, the convention chair for Connecticut’s 5th District, asked from the stage whether any delegates planned to switch candidates.

Vote switching is not unusual, according to local operatives familiar with Connecticut politics. But even as no delegates came forward to make a change, the period to switch candidates stayed open as people jockeyed on the floor.

Classic convention chaos ensued, with the delegation from New Britain, where Glassman grew up, playing a central role. Manny Sanchez, an elected official from New Britain, who had also been gunning for the endorsement early in the night, dropped out after the first ballot earned him 17 percent, and he released his local delegates. He said he spent the rest of the evening watching from the back. “Initially, it seemed like it was a split,” he told The Intercept of the New Britain delegation. “I stayed out of that process, told them to vote their conscience.”

Their consciences were apparently conflicted. The head of the New Britain delegation, Bill Shortell, made three separate trips to the stage to announce switches. When he walked away the last time, enough delegates had changed their votes to put Glassman over the top, with a count of 173-167.

“Things happened on the floor,” Sanchez summed up, “and votes changed.”

At that point, Glassman’s supporters began calling for the vote to be closed. And it was, quickly. McDonough declared that Glassman had won the official endorsement of the Democratic Party.

When reached by phone, Shortell described the situation as “very sensitive,” “very delicate,” and one he’s “not too inclined to talk about.” He later told the local press that “the switchers made up their own mind.”

After the gavel came down, Hayes’s supporters fumed together about what they saw as a racist injustice having been done. Hayes, according to people who were with her, calmed the group down, a real-life rendition of the iconic “Saturday Night Live” segment that aired after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, with mournful white liberals coming face to face with the meaning of the election results.

She told The Intercept that her life had prepared her for what happened. “They were very upset,” she said of her backers, “and I was like, guys, you don’t live this long in this community, in this skin with no — they were more upset than me.”

“I was like, you know, this was amazing that we even got this close,” she added. That night, she challenged her supporters to buck up, knowing that she’d have to raise an awful lot of money if she wanted to continue the race.

In Connecticut, any candidate who wins the votes of at least 15 percent of the delegates earns a place on the ballot, but the party endorsee almost always wins the primary. Winning at the convention gives the candidate a favored status at the top of the ballot and a special designation that indicates she is the favorite of the party. News coverage has mistakenly referred to Glassman as the nominee, and the party has publicly congratulated her, signaling support to primary voters, who tend to be well-informed, particularly in an upscale district like Connecticut’s 5th.

But that high level of education and engagement could rebound as a benefit to Hayes, too. In just a matter of days, she was able to turn a coronation into a contest. In the wake of the convention, she asked her political friends what came next, and they all told her the same thing: Raise a mountain of money; with enough of it, you can defeat Glassman (again) in the August primary.

The day after the convention she called on her supporters to make 1,000 contributions of $10 each in 24 hours to show that her campaign had real grass-roots support. (She says she hit the $10,000 mark easily.)

But a primary like hers can cost several hundred thousand dollars, and her only realistic hope of raising the money needed to make it competitive is to strike a chord with small donors around the country.

The emphasis on money, Hayes told The Intercept, was both frustrating, but also a driver of her decision to plow forward into the primary. She didn’t want to let the system win that easily. “You have to go through the first hurdle of getting through party insiders, and then the next hurdle is money,” she said. “So, this whole process unfairly eliminates somebody like me before we can even get to the voters. So I just [said], I’m all in and I’ll figure it out. You know, I’m old, I’m no stranger to obstacles.”

The local press covered the convention outcome as Democrats going with “experience over enthusiasm,” but Hayes thinks she can use her lack of political experience as evidence that she hasn’t been corrupted by the process. In a district dominated by the health insurance industry, she told The Intercept she’s a supporter of “Medicare for All,” along with other touchstone progressive issues such as free public college and a $15 minimum wage.

Hayes has a persuasive way of arriving at strongly progressive political positions by linking them to her own life experiences. Her stance on college flows from the lifesaving role education played for her. On “Medicare for All,” the single-payer health care legislation championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., she references a trip abroad she’d taken. “When I was teacher of the year, I traveled to some really poor countries in Africa with the U.S. State Department,” she said. “There are places around the world that are still struggling with this issue. But in a country like the United States of America, the fact that there are people who go without health care is a tragedy, right? … Something like that, I feel, is just basic.”

And she said that some people who hear about her teen motherhood may assume she opposes abortion rights, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Government has no place in that decision,” she said.

Sanchez, who is half black and half Puerto Rican, would also break barriers if he were to win. His third-place showing at the Waterbury convention gives him the opportunity to run in the primary if he takes it, but he’s so far undecided. He told The Intercept he’s worried that if he moves forward, he and Hayes would split the non-Glassman vote in August, and they would both lose. “It’s definitely something I’m considering. I don’t take it lightly,” he said of a three-way battle.

He added that Hayes’s near-win came as no shock to him. “Having met her, having seen her in action, it didn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “I think she’s got the energy and it’ll be a tough decision for the 5th District.”

Meanwhile, this is all unfolding as Democrats across Connecticut are furious at gubernatorial nominee Ned Lamont, who had signaled he’d run with a nonwhite candidate for lieutenant governor, but ended up picking a white woman the day after Hayes’s defeat.

The same day, a bit to the south in Pennsylvania, Democrats went to the polls for their own primaries. In two predominantly white districts, they also had a chance to nominate impressive black candidates who’d have been viable in the general election against Republican incumbents: Greg Edwards in the Lehigh Valley and Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson in Harrisburg. Both lost close races without the support of the party.

But the political drama in Waterbury may not be over yet: A subsequent look at the paper ballots found discrepancies in the vote total, particularly within the New Britain delegation, and the local NAACP is calling for an investigation into potential vote tampering.

Christina Polizzi, a spokesperson for Connecticut Democrats, confirmed that the state party is looking into a potential vote count issue. “If there was a problem in any way, if something wasn’t recorded correctly, we want to know and we want any issues handled quickly and appropriately,” she told The Intercept.

Whether the endorsement decision is overturned or not, Hayes says she’s all in. “I keep waiting for the right person to come along so I can support them,” she said. “Why can’t that person be me?”

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Cash Incentives for Charter School Recruitment: Unethical Bribe or Shrewd Marketing Technique?

Originally published in The Intercept on May 18, 2018.
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In cash-strapped school districts, where traditional public schools and charters compete over funds, schools face acute financial pressure to attract and retain students. In recent years, some charter schools have discreetly turned to a controversial recruitment strategy: offering low-income families cash stipends or other prizes in exchange for drawing new students into their schools.

The practice is a not-much-discussed part of the school choice debate, and it’s not well-known how widespread it is either. This is in large part because schools are typically under no obligation to report it. Critics say these incentives amount to unethical bribes targeting primarily low-income families, though defenders say they’re just shrewd marketing techniques.

The KIPP charter network is one of the largest and most prestigious charter school networks across the country. In December 2016, KIPP Adelante, a San Diego charter, sent a newsletter out to enrolled families offering substantial cash stipends to those who could help recruit new fifthgraders to their school.

The promotion read:

If you know a 5th grader at another school and you get them to come to school here, you will receive a premium of $500 to offset your child’s educational expenses. In addition, the family you bring to KIPP Adelante will receive a premium of $100 (also for educational expenses) for enrolling their child here. Bring two 5th Graders to the school – get $1000! These students have to attend our school for at least 2 weeks before you can collect your premium.

A former KIPP Adelante teacher shared the newsletter with The Intercept, troubled by the ad targeting a school where 99 percent of students enrolled are children of color, and 98 percent qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch.

That same year, the school offered a smaller cash incentive program to KIPP Adelante employees to help recruit fifth graders. The specific drive to recruit those students can be explained by the school’s unique makeup. In San Diego, elementary schools tend to go through the fifth grade, with middle schools covering the next three grades. But KIPP Adelante enrolls students from grades five to eight, which means enrolling fifth graders typically requires students to leave their elementary schools early.

Monique McKeown, the school’s principal, confirmed to The Intercept that they implemented the financial incentive program but said it was not successful and discontinued it this school year. McKeown said no families ended up claiming the money and just “one to three teachers did.” KIPP Adelante is a tuition-free public school that also provides students with free transportation and uniforms, and the funds were set to come out of the school’s budget.

Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University whohas studied KIPP schools said he’s never seen such a program. “I’m flabbergasted, that’s really striking,” he said.

The KIPP network comprises 209 charter schools educating about 90,000 students around the country. It does not normally monitor practices such as offering enrollment incentives, but Steve Mancini, a national spokesperson for KIPP, responded to an inquiry from The Intercept by surveying leaders from the 30 regions in which the charter management organization operates. He said he found that the majority of their schools do not have such recruitment practices:

While KIPP San Diego’s recruitment incentive program is allowed by state law, it is not common practices among KIPP network schools. The majority of KIPP schools do not provide incentives to staff or students for helping with student recruiting. Those that do generally offer students small-value items like school shirts, uniform vouchers, and gift certificates as incentives for referring their peers to apply to KIPP. These initiatives are done in accordance with state and local laws. KIPP’s recruiting relies on our reputation for providing high-quality education.  Families choose KIPP because our dual focus on character and academics, partnerships with more than 90 colleges, and commitment to building strong relationships with families.

KIPP leaders in southern California, though, told The Intercept it is relatively common in their region. “I know that other charter schools do similar things,” said McKeown, the KIPP Adelante principal. “I can’t speak to exactly what they do because I don’t know, but I can say that I know for a fact that other charters in the area do the same thing.”

Allison Ohle, executive director of KIPP San Diego, told The Intercept that “it’s not an uncommon practice” for charter schools to offer these sorts of stipends. Ohle declined to name other schools that offer cash bonuses, but emphasized that the practice is legal.

“I have pretty clear memories when our team was trying to figure this out, we looked at what was allowable and not in the law, and we saw we could use financial reimbursements for educational expenses,” she said. “That was totally above-board and up-and-up.”

Briana Gilchrist, a press assistant for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told The Intercept that her organization “does not track information related to financial gifts to families who enroll their students.”

While little formal study has been paid to the use of financial incentives to enroll students, local news reports show charter schools in a number of other states have employed similar strategies in recent years — though to a lesser degree than what was tried at KIPP Adelante.

In 2014, MLive reported that an Ann Arbor-area charter school offered small gift cards to families that helped recruit other students. “We know that word of mouth is one of the best ways to spread the word, and we know that our satisfied parents are the best spokespersons,” said a representative for the charter network.

That same year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a couple of charter schools in Wisconsin that offered families $100 cash rewards for referring new students. One charter school offered families a $50 grocery store gift card.

Another charter school in Indianapolis offered families $100 grocery store gift cards to sign up in 2015. “I’m not one of those folks who sees it as a problem,” the charter school’s chief strategy officer told Chalkbeat Indiana at the time. “The real shame would be if taxpayers built the building, bought the computers and nobody showed up. That would be the ultimate abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

At least one state has formally outlawed the practice, with legislators characterizing it as unethical bribery. In 2009, Colorado passed a law banning the use of financial incentives after it was reported that a charter network had offered families $100 gift certificates for enrolling. The Denver Post reported on a local charter school that broke the new law in 2010 when it offered families $400 worth of gift cards if they helped recruit new students.

Luis Huerta, an education policy professor at Columbia University Teachers College, said while he knew of charter schools in the 1990s that offered cash bonuses to families that home-schooled their children, he was stunned to hear similar strategies are still being used today.

“In California, they used to work to get all these home-schooled kids to sign up for charter schools and would give out cash and other prizes to get more and more families to enroll,” he told The Intercept. Such “home-school charters” were considered cash cows for school districts, Huerta explained, because the children required minimal overhead to be educated, but each student would still generate the full per-pupil revenue from the state. Huerta documented the rise and fall of home-school charters in books published in 2000 and in 2009.

Sarah Butler Jessen, an education professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and co-author of a new book, “Selling School: The Marketing of Public Education,” told The Intercept that she’s never heard of schools offering families cash incentives for recruitment, but that she’s not surprised, either.

“Part of the reason this doesn’t surprise me is because there isn’t a lot of transparency with these activities. There is no requirement that schools report practices like this,” she said, adding that charters, as privately managed organizations, are generally subject to different public reporting guidelines.

“It can be really difficult to get the inside information, even from teachers and certainly from administrators who would be able to speak to these larger policies,” Jessen said. “It’s just hard to track.”

Families Stranded After Rocketship Charter School Fails to Open Ward 5 Location

Originally published in Washington City Paper on May 14, 2018.
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Parents had until May 1 to enroll their children in schools matched through D.C.’s high-stakes school lottery. But families that selected a new Rocketship charter school in Ward 5 were in for a rude awakening: After the enrollment deadline had passed they learned the school they had chosen would not actually be opening. Rocketship, which operates two schools in Ward 7 and 8, had been set to launch its third campus this fall.

City Paper first learned about the situation on May 9 after speaking with a Ward 5 parent who was still struggling to find a new school for their child.

The parent, who requested anonymity, says the day after the enrollment deadline passed she received a voicemail from Rocketship telling her to call them as soon as possible. “I called as soon as I got off work and they said the Ward 5 school wouldn’t be opening, that something happened with the building so they can no longer move into the space they had planned,” she says. “They didn’t say why or what the reason was.”

Rocketship had been planning to temporarily lease space in the LAMB Public Charter School building on 18th and Perry streets in Northeast. Children would attend school there for one or two years before Rocketship relocated into a more permanent Ward 5 location.

On May 3, the day after learning her daughter’s school would not open, the parent reached out to MySchoolDC—the agency which handles school choice enrollment—for help finding an alternative. “There was just no level of sympathy for my situation. They didn’t sound overly familiar, there was no sense of urgency,” she says. When the parent pressed MySchoolDC for help, she says she was told that Rocketship was giving all families the chance to enroll in their Ward 7 and 8 campuses.

“But I picked Ward 5 based off proximity to my home, and those other schools were extremely inconvenient,” she says, adding that she also had safety concerns about those options.

After making clear she was not interested in sending her child to a campus far from her home, she says MySchoolDC told her she could always enroll her child in her in-bound traditional public school. But the parent wasn’t satisfied with that choice either. “If I had wanted that then I wouldn’t have gone through the MySchoolDC lottery in the first place,” she says.

The parent had her child on two other Ward 5 charter waiting lists—Yu Ying and Stokes—and asked if MySchoolDC could help her child get into those schools given the circumstances.

“I asked them if there was anything they could do to help students who were displaced and they told me that each school makes their own waitlist decisions and they can’t force any school to let children in,” she says. The parent then called the Public Charter School Board, where she says she was also told that the waitlist situation is out of their control.

More than ten days after getting the news that Rocketship’s Ward 5 campus would not open as expected, the parent was still waiting for waitlist updates and was actively considering private school options.

Joyanna Smith, the Ombudsman for Public Education with the DC State Board of Education, had also been planning to send her son to Rocketship’s Ward 5 campus. Smith tells City Paper that her family didn’t learn the school would not actually be opening until three days after the MySchoolDC enrollment deadline had passed.

“Someone called us to tell us Rocketship would not be opening because of a permitting issue but that we could probably get off the waitlist at Perry Street Prep,” she says. Perry Street Prep is housed in the same LAMB Public Charter School building that Rocketship was set to be in, and Smith was able to enroll her child in the new school last week.

“I’m glad that we were able to settle things for my child, but in my role as SBOE ombudsman I feel there has been all this miscommunication,” she says. “If we had wanted we could have kept my son in private daycare, but for a lot of families they don’t have those same choices and that’s really frustrating.”

In an interview with City PaperJacque Patterson, the regional director for Rocketship DC, says 44 families had matched with Rocketship’s Ward 5 campus, and 22 families had enrolled. Their enrollment target had been 160 students (100 students in kindergarten through second grade, and 60 3 and 4-year-olds.)

But low enrollment numbers was not the reason why Rocketship decided to postpone opening its Ward 5 school, according to Patterson. He says that even if they had hit their enrollment goals, their temporary building location would have still required far more repairs than they had originally budgeted for.

Rocketship DC signed a letter of intent with Perry Street Prep in April to rent their third floor for the 2018-19 school year. Rocketship officials knew the third floor required a host of repairs, and toured the premises before they signed their letter of intent. Patterson tells City Paper that at the time, they concluded they could handle the scope of needed repairs. But, he says, “in the last two or three weeks” they brought in their own construction workers to assess the facility, and then determined the repairs would cost substantially more than what they had anticipated.

“The decision we made was that it’d be just impossible to open the school given the amount of construction and repairs that was needed for a one-year lease,” he says. “Even if we had enrolled all 160 children, it would not have been financially responsible and we wouldn’t have been able to provide all the programs and services we needed to.”

Patterson says the school will still be moving into a permanent Ward 5 building for the 2019-20 school year, though a precise location has not yet been finalized. He also says Rocketship worked with every family that had enrolled to help them find a new high-quality school. But the parent City Paper spoke with under the condition of anonymity says they still have yet to figure out what they’ll do next year.

City Paper asked the Public Charter School Board if Rocketship would face any consequence or penalty for its delayed opening. In 2014 the PCSB conditionally approved Rocketship to open eight schools throughout the city.

In a statement, Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB, says: “We’re very concerned any time a school fails to meet its charter commitment and that will be taken into consideration next time a school wishes to expand or open a new facility. We are particularly concerned about the students and their families which is why we required Rocketship PCS to work with MySchoolDC to help the affected families find alternate, quality education for this fall.”

Chloe Woodward-Magrane, a spokesperson for the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, tells City Paper that this is the second time that a campus has not opened or has delayed opening in the five years that MySchoolDC has been in existence. Catherine Peretti, the executive director of MySchoolDC, tells City Paper that she first learned of Rocketship’s decision to delay its Ward 5 opening on May 3.

City Paper asked Woodward-Magrane what kind of response they’ve received from families left to find new schools. In a statement, she says:

“OSSE and My School DC realize this is a challenging time for families matched with the Rocketship Public Charter School campus in Ward 5. My School DC is working with families enrolled at the Rocketship campus that will not open in order to restore the families to waiting lists of other schools they identified during the lottery process. Rocketship is also providing assistance to help them re-enroll in their current school placement or another Rocketship campus.”

Patterson will be leaving his role as Rocketship DC’s regional director on June 1 to start as KIPP DC’s Chief Community Engagement and Growth Officer. He tells City Paper he will also be joining Rocketship’s board of directors, and that a search to find his replacement is currently underway.

The Trump Administration Is Making It Easier to Evade Housing Desegregation Law, Triggering Civil Rights Lawsuit

Originally published in The Intercept on May 8, 2018.
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The Trump administration has illegally suspended a rule that requires local governments to show they’re working to reduce housing segregation, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson.

HUD announced in early January that it would delay enforcing the rule. Civil rights advocates say the delay is an effective end to federal fair housing oversight over billions of dollars to be doled out to local governments for at least the next six years. They have also accused HUD of reducing the amount of support it offers local communities in implementing the desegregation rule, effectively sabotaging its success.

“Decades of experience have shown that, left to their own devices, local jurisdictions will simply pocket federal funds and do little to further fair housing objectives,” reads the complaint, which was filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; the American Civil Liberties Union; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Public Citizen; the Poverty & Race Research Action Council; and the law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.

The rule in question is called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, and was finalized in 2015. It was designed to more effectively implement the integration mandates of the Fair Housing Act, a landmark civil rights statute passed a half-century ago to eradicate discrimination and segregation in housing. While jurisdictions that receive federal HUD funds have long had to certify that they are indeed working to reduce government-sponsored segregation, for decades HUD did little to ensure real steps were actually being taken.

In the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawyers credit the AFFH rule with spurring commitments by local governments over the last two years to provide more help for African-Americans facing eviction from their homes, to revamp zoning laws to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, and to build more low-income housing in affluent areas.

HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan declined to comment on the suit, citing pending litigation. He instead referred to his agency’s statement released in January, which says that HUD has “extended the deadline” for local governments to comply with the AFFH rule “while HUD invests substantial human and technical resources toward improving” the tool used for rule compliance. “HUD stands by the Fair Housing Act’s requirement to affirmatively furthering fair housing, but we must make certain that the tools we provide to our grantees work in the real world,” the statement said.

AFFH was born out of a problem that was identified at least a decade ago.

In 2008, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity reported that the government’s existing system for ensuring fair housing compliance “has failed.” The commission, co-chaired by two former HUD secretaries, noted that the federal housing agency requires “no evidence that anything is actually being done as a condition of funding,” and does not punish jurisdictions found to be directly involved in discrimination or failing to affirmatively further fair housing.

One year later, HUD convened a listening conference with over 600 participants from across the country to discuss compliance with federal fair housing mandates. John Trasviña, who was then HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, testified before Congress later that “fair housing and civil rights groups, mayors, counties, and states all voiced their desire for HUD to amend its regulations to provide more concrete, specific information about how to develop a meaningful plan for affirmatively furthering fair housing.”

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a comprehensive report outlining the failures of local jurisdictions to comply with federal fair housing mandates, and the failures of HUD to promote meaningful oversight and enforcement over those obligations.

Over the next five years, key stakeholders worked closely with HUD to develop the newly revised AFFH rule, which not only gave communities more tools to carry out their fair housing obligations, but also strengthened HUD’s enforcement mechanisms for  oversight. In other words, the fair housing mandates finally had some teeth.

Civil rights advocates have long worried that the Trump administration might take aim at this hard-fought rule. Prior to Ben Carson’s appointment as HUD secretary, he had penned an op-ed likening the AFFH rule to other “failed socialist experiments.” Once he was confirmed, Carson told the Washington Examiner that he “believe[s] in fair housing,” but not in “extra manipulation and cost,” and so his agency will need to “reinterpret” the rule.

In suspending the AFFH rule, advocates allege HUD has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the federal law that governs how federal agencies propose and implement regulation. The Trump administration has been repeatedly accused of violating the APA, issuing new directives and mandates, and rescinding old ones, without going through the established channels of rule-making.

This is the second major civil rights lawsuit aimed at HUD in the last year on the grounds of violating the Administrative Procedures Act. As The Intercept reported at the time, civil rights attorneys sued HUD and Ben Carson in October, for suspending a rule that would have assisted low-income voucher holders to move into more affluent communities. The attorneys succeeded in their legal challenge in late December, and the rule is now back in effect.

Sasha Samberg-Champion, a Relman, Dane & Colfax attorney who was involved in the former case and is also litigating this one, told The Intercept that their earlier experience in court “suggests to us that the judges in the District Court for the District of Columbia are well acquainted by now with lawless actions” of HUD and other Trump administration agencies.

Teachers Are Finally Winning Raises, But Many of Their Co-Workers Aren’t

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 8, 2018.
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Teachers are on the march across America. This year has seen a stunning eruption of invigorated teacher movements in states that rarely make this kind of political news—places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Though these mobilized teachers have been careful to frame their demands for higher pay in the context of increased spending for students and schools, there is no doubt that raising their own salaries has been a key priority.

Local and national media have worked hard to lift the voices of teachers taking to the streets. We’ve read about educators with virtually no savings or chance of affording a vacation. We’ve met teachers forced to moonlight as cashiers and Uber drivers. We’ve learned about educators’ stagnant or falling wages, and their spiking health-care premiums.

The stories have been infuriating.

That’s partly why the teacher movements have commanded such strong public support. A national poll released in late April found about 78 percent of surveyed adults felt schools don’t pay teachers enough, half said they’d pay more in taxes to fund teacher pay increases, and 52 percent said they’d back educators who strike for higher wages.

Looming behind this infectious momentum, though, are some other uncomfortable realities.

In 2016, the median annual income for a full-time worker stood at $45,860. Someone working full-time at $15 an hour—a minimum wage goal heralded by progressives—could earn an annual salary of just $31,200. And we know minimum wage earners are no longer just high school kids scooping ice cream in the summer. The average-age of a minimum-wage worker is 35, and more than a quarter have children.

Teachers, by comparison, are above-average earners. The average American public school teacher earned $58,950 in 2017. And while the states with active teacher movements have some of the lowest educator pay, those salaries still stack up reasonably well against the low level brought home by the average American. In 2016, West Virginia high school teachers earned an average of $45,240 per year, in a state where median earnings amounted to $27,543 . In Arizona, the high school teacher average stood at $48,020, where median earnings were just $30,096. And in Oklahoma, the average high school teacher earned $42,460, in a state where median earnings reached $29,038.

This is not to say that teachers have it fine—far from it. It’s certainly not a call for educators to go home or to stop protesting. But it does raise a question that needs to be on the table: if we think these teachers are not earning enough, where does that leave the millions earning even less?

What is the argument for raising teacher pay?

Some ground their support for higher teacher pay in education policy. They argue you’ll get the quality of teachers you pay for, and teacher pay lags behind other white-collar professionals. The Economic Policy Institute found that teachers’ weekly wages are 23 percent lower than those of other college graduates. If a teacher can’t earn enough to pay off their student loans, they’ll probably think twice before becoming an educator.

From this vantage point, if we want to do improve the quality of teaching, then we need to offer more competitive salaries to recruit and retain the most talented. And there is evidence that raising pay can reduce teacher turnover.

Others have a less technocratic view. Many Americans support raising teacher pay simply because they support teachers. We recognize teachers are doing important and often thankless work, and the idea that on top of all this they’d be struggling to make ends meet strikes us as cruel and outrageous.

And yet, teaching is just one of many important, thankless jobs in America. Does our outrage stem from full-time workers not being able to make ends meet—or teachers specifically? Have teachers successfully mobilized because people think they deserve different, and better, treatment than other workers?

There is evidence that schoolteachers are held in special regard by the public, in similar fashion to police, firefighters, and the military. Like those groups, support for teachers has remained consistently high over the years.

In other words, no matter how it’s framed, the idea that educators provide a special service and should be well compensated for it seems central to the teacher pay debate. The debate has not focused, more broadly, on what Americans need to live secure economic lives in 2018.

But paying workers based on public perceptions of their value to society raises thorny problems.

We can see these issues emerge in debates around early childhood education workers, who, unlike K-12 teachers, do not earn anything near an average wage. The national median income for child-care workers stands at $20,320; for preschool teachers, it’s $28,570.

This past January The New York Times ran a magazine feature headlined: “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid The Least?” It reviewed social science research highlighting the economic and academic returns of high-quality preschool programs. As part of the emerging consensus around the value of early childhood education, policymakers and advocates have begun to ramp up pressure to raise the salaries of early childhood teachers.

But what if there weren’t studies showing preschool was so beneficial for students’ futures, and these teachers couldn’t be deemed “the most important”?

Would preschool teachers be condemned to live off $29,000 a year?

This is not just a hypothetical, because educators aren’t the only ones embroiled in this current movement. And indeed how and whether classroom teachers choose to stand up for other workers will surely shape the future of this education uprising. In West Virginia, teachers successfully pushed for wage increases not just for themselves, but also for bus drivers and school cooks. But when hundreds of school bus drivers in DeKalb County, Georgia went on strike in April to protest their low pay and working conditions, they did not meet real solidarity from local educators. These drivers, whose annual income is reportedly $23,500, were not making the case that their unique talents merit greater monetary reward. They simply argued that their current earnings were not enough live on. Eight school bus drivers were swiftly fired for their protests.

If we opt to pay some workers better because we’ve decided their services are more societally important, where does that leave everyone else?

This is not a call for everyone to be paid equally. But we need to consider whether we want economic stability to be the exclusive province of the groups we deem most deserving. If we can be outraged by teachers making $55,000 a year and still struggling to make ends meet, then there should be room for outrage over the millions of workers who are even less fortunate—and policy solutions that can help everyone.

Conservatives Work to Undermine Oklahoma Teachers’ Raises After Walkout

Originally published in Rewire News on May 7, 2018.
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When Oklahoma educators headed back to school in mid-April after their historic nine-day walkout, they did so with mixed feelings. They hadn’t won all of their key legislative demands, but they didn’t return empty handed either: Teachers won salary increases of roughly $6,100 each, and raises of $1,250 for school support staff. The pay increases, set to take effect on August 1 would be paid for by new taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, and oil and gas production. “We achieved something that we all thought might be impossible,” declared Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) when she signed the tax legislation into law.

But some conservative activists are saying, “not so fast.”

Members of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, an anti-tax group, filed paperwork last week to get a veto referendum on the November ballot. The group has until July 18th to collect about 41,000 signatures. The new taxes to fund the salary increases are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, but there’s debate over whether those would need to be put on hold if activists collect enough ballot signatures before that date.

A representative from Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite did not return Rewire.News‘ request for comment, but a member of the group, Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, told Oklahoma’s local NBC affiliate that they “believe very much that teachers need a pay raise” and that her group’s ballot initiative is “not personal.” Vuillemont-Smith argued that legislators should conduct statewide audits to eliminate waste from agency budgets before raising taxes.

Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, told Rewire.News there’d be “no way” the referendum would pass if it were voted on today. “There’s zero chance, I’d put big money on that,” he said. But Allen acknowledged that “a lot of things could happen between now and November” as anti-tax groups start raising money and doing advertising. “It’s a shame that we have to spend some of our attention and resources on defeating this when we want to defeat those representatives who don’t lift a finger to help education,” he said.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the largest teacher union in the state, is also gearing up to fight the ballot initiative.

Lawyers for the union believe the salary increases are locked in, and the veto referendum addresses only a funding mechanism for those raises. But a provision in the teacher pay bill stipulates it will not become law unless items from the tax increase bill are enacted.

“There are probably going to be conflicting views on this,” an OEA attorney told the Associated Press. “At the end of the day we’ll need some determination, from either the courts or the attorney general.”

Educators did manage to stave off a separate challenge last week, defeating what some public education advocates were calling a Republican “revenge bill.”

Taking aim at a bill designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell) introduced a last-minute amendment to prevent school districts from automatically deducting union dues from teacher paychecks. Educators instead would need to make other arrangements to handle membership payments. Russ’s amendment would have also mandated that a majority of educators in each school district vote every five years on whether they want to keep their collective bargaining unit; if a majority did not vote in favor, the school district would be stripped of union representation.

Doug Folks, a spokesperson for OEA, told Rewire.News that teachers, police officers, firefighters, and state employees inundated legislators’ phone systems and “in about 18 hours, we were able to get enough promises of no votes that the [amendment] was never heard.” The bill, SB 1150, was approved by lawmakers without the anti-union provisions. It now awaits the governor’s approval.

It wasn’t the first time state Rep. Russ has introduced legislative language like that and union leaders say they would not be surprised if he tries again in the future. “He’s just union-busting,” said Allen. “Plain and simple.”

Rep. Russ did not return Rewire.News’ request for comment, but he told NewsOk that he was looking out to protect teacher fairness.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, told Rewire.News he did view Russ’s amendment as strike retribution on the part of the GOP leadership.

“Those of my colleagues in the legislature who are frustrated with teachers and other education advocates are showing their true colors,” he said. “They’re saying they are frustrated with the ‘tactics’ of the teachers and the unions, but in reality I think they’re pretty sore from being exposed. For years, legislators have been able to go home to their constituents and claim they’re all for education. But teachers across the state learned that their legislators talk about better schools out of one side of their mouth and then advocate for tax cuts out of the other. We can’t fund core services like education while we cut, cut, cut.”

Georgia Bus Drivers Joined The School Uprising, And Paid a Price

Originally published in The Intercept on April 22, 2018.
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The red-state school uprising is spreading to educators around the country, with teachers in Colorado and Arizona now planning walkouts to demand better treatment from state and county governments. But the widespread public support that has helped carry the teachers to victories so far has been less present for blue-collar workers following in their footsteps. In Georgia, bus drivers who organized their own work stoppage last week were met with public condemnation and immediate firings.

On Thursday, the same day that the votes in favor of a walkout were tallied in Arizona, nearly 400 school bus drivers in DeKalb County, Georgia, stayed home from work, staging a “sickout” to protest their low salaries and meager benefits.

Whether the school bus drivers can succeed in winning their demands and maintaining broad popular support remains to be seen, but the protest provides an important test case on whether these teacher movements will lead to a broader working-class uprising or stay limited to organizing among a narrower band of white-collar professionals. The bus drivers are not building their case around the idea that their unique talents merit greater monetary reward, but that they simply need and deserve to be treated more fairly.

Bus drivers in DeKalb County have been raising concerns about their working conditions for the last several years, and since early March, driver representatives have been meeting with district officials to discuss their grievances. Among their list of demands are pay increases, better health insurance, better retirement plans, and a call to be reclassified as full-time employees rather than part-time workers.

A sickout is when a group of workers calls in sick en masse, to protest but also to avoid a formal strike that may be illegal. Two years ago, educators in Detroit staged large, mass-coordinated sickouts, shutting down more than half of the public schools in their city.

The bus drivers’ protests last week did not lead DeKalb County’s school district to shutter its schools. But on Thursday, 42 percent of the district’s bus drivers did not show up to work, causing disruption and delays. DeKalb Public School officials called for transportation help from outside the district, the bus drivers who did show up were asked to take on second routes, and parents had to find last-minute transportation alternatives.

The bus driver protest continued on Friday, with 25 percent of bus drivers refusing to show up for work. Organizers have called for the sickout to continue through Monday.

While the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona have boasted the vocal support of local school boards and superintendents, the school district leadership in DeKalb County has offered no such solidarity to the school bus drivers. In fact, seven bus drivers were fired on Thursday, identified as “sickout ringleaders.”

“We started with those who were obviously, we have evidence that they were orchestrating or in many ways organizing this event, and that is illegal,” said DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Stephen Green on Thursday to CBS46, a local news station. A spokesperson for DeKalb Public Schools did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

At a press conference held on Thursday, Green emphasized that the sickout “is not acceptable and will not be tolerated” and pointed to a state law that says it’s illegal for public employees in Georgia to “promote, encourage, or participate in any strike.” Green said DeKalb Public Schools would be “well within its rights to take adverse employment action” against any driver participating in a sickout, adding that for every day drivers miss due to the sickout, he would be requiring a doctor’s note as proof that they were actually ill.

In stressing that the drivers who protested their working conditions were putting children in danger, Green echoed the recent comments of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who said teachers protesting at the state capitol likely contributed to an unsupervised child getting sexually assaulted at home. (Bevin later apologized for these remarks.) Bus drivers dismissed the superintendent’s assertion, emphasizing that student safety is paramount and that parents had been notified in advance of their protest. Families were notified earlier in the week by school district robo-call and email that there might be a three-day school bus strike, and that any student who arrived late would not be punished.

One of the seven fired drivers, Marion Payne, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that police officers from the school district dropped off a termination letter at his home Thursday night. Payne had helped pass out flyers for the sickout, and had been a school bus driver for five years.

“I’m a veteran, I’m a concerned for all the senior [drivers] … retiring and getting $210 or $210 a month,” he said. “But you know how it is, when they think you pose a threat.”

Shelia Bennett, another fired bus driver, pushed back on the narrative that she was a ringleader who organized a strike. “I would never organize a strike when I know this is a right-to-work state, and we cannot strike because we don’t have a union,” she said to Atlanta’s Fox 5 news station. Bennett has worked as a driver for the district for more than a decade, earning a salary of just $24,000 this year. She said she “never in a million years” expected she’d be terminated, and pointed out that she’s never had any sort of disciplinary issue in the past.

In the red states where teacher movements have erupted, school bus drivers have helped support the educators protesting their working conditions. In Oklahoma, for example, teachers walked off their jobs to protest at their state capitol for nine days, and bus drivers prepared and drove free meals to more than 100 designated pick-up points to make sure students were not left hungry. Some school bus drivers even helped transport their teachers to the state capitol to protest.

The school bus driver protest comes on the heels of a successful strike organized by Atlanta paratransit drivers, who staged the first-ever one-day protest on February 14. They were organizing against what they called unfair working conditions and safety concerns for disabled and elderly passengers. The second one-day strike was threatened to be held on April 18, but this effort was called off at the last minute after MARTA Mobility management agreed to make some compromises in their contract negotiations.

Politicized By Trump, Teachers Threaten to Shake Up Red-State Politics

Originally published in The Intercept on April 17, 2018.
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THE TEACHERS STRIKES that have roiled red states across the country burst onto the national scene seemingly out of nowhere. But a closer look at the people who make up this movement reveals the distinct Trump-era nature of the uprising.

In the four states where teachers movements have erupted over the past few months — Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — educators and community members are encountering broadly similar circumstances. In all four states, residents are reacting to years of Republican-controlled legislatures, a decline in state funding for students and teachers, an expansion of private school vouchers and charter schools, and an increasingly galvanized electorate that is motivated by all sorts of other organizing efforts that have emerged since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

And while the ranks of the educators are stocked with progressives, the strikes would have flopped had they not been joined by conservative Republican teachers who are, in significant ways, manifestations of what Washington pundits have begun to believe are purely imaginary people outside of the Beltway: folks who remain ardently conservative but are rejecting the direction the party has taken in the White House, back home or both.

“This whole effort has helped shake people from a slumber, and more people are asking, ‘Well, how is my representative voting?’” said Noah Karvelis, a public school teacher in Phoenix and a #RedforEd organizer.“People are asking if they need to rethink their votes. On our Facebook page, we even have a lot conservative teachers writing about how frustrated they are with our Republican legislators.”

Adelina Clonts, an educator in Oklahoma for more than 20 years, marched with her ten-year-old daughter from Tulsa to her state capitol, more than a hundred miles, motivated by the chance to give her students with special needs a greater shot at life.

Clonts, a Republican, said when she arrived in Oklahoma City she was disappointed to learn what her legislators had been up to. “I physically went out there to do my own research, and I found out this was basically Republicans not wanting to do their jobs, not wanting to really represent us,” she said. “It really upset me because I’m an active political party person, and it just felt like they were not hearing us.”

Clonts said she and her colleagues are prepared to vote out both Republicans and Democrats. “Everyone wants these problems fixed, and the question for our leaders is, are you trying to do something about it?”

Another Tulsa-area teacher, Cyndi Ralston, went from the sidelines to the protest and now to the campaign trail, running to take on her incumbent state representative after his viral rant against the teachers.

Were it not for Trump, it might not be happening. Kathy Hoffman, who is in her fifth year of teaching in Arizona public schools, decided to run for state superintendent after watching Betsy DeVos’s shambolic Senate confirmation hearing. “That was really the tipping point, the day it hit me [that] we really need more educators to run,” she told The Intercept. “I’m sick of people who never taught in schools leading them, and that’s also what we have in Arizona.”

Over the past year and a half, Hoffman has marched for science, for women, for DREAMers, for gun control, and, she said, for “everything.” Most recently, she’s been rallying with the newly formed #RedForEd movement, a grass-roots effort in Arizona to better fund public schools.

Edwina Howard-Jack, a high school English teacher in Upshur County, West Virginia, has spent the past 18 years in the classroom. When West Virginia teachers walked off their jobs in late February, Howard-Jack made the two-hour drive to her state Capitol on eight of the nine strike days to protest in solidarity. “The labor organizing went right along with what I was already doing,” she explained, calling the election of Trump “a wake-up call” for her. Howard-Jack marched for women in January 2017, and, soon after, decided to found an Indivisible chapter in her hometown. “There have just been so many people who were apathetic before, but now want to get involved, and the teachers strike took it all to a whole new level,” she said.

Sarah Gump, a 33-year-old teacher in Kentucky, has taught for six years in the public school system. About two years ago, she got involved with Save Our Schools Kentucky, a grass-roots effort to protest the entrance of charters into their state. (Kentucky became the 44th state to allow the formation of charter schools in 2017.) This year, as Gump has taken some time off to care for her young daughter, she’s continued to organize for public education, but has also gotten more involved with the BlueGrass Activist Alliance, a hybrid Indivisible and Together We Will chapter.

In West Virginia, educators who went on strike won a 5 percent pay raise, the first pay increase in four years. In Oklahoma, teachers won raises of about $6,000, and more in education spending, though most of their other strike demands were not met. Last week in Arizona, after more than 1,000 schools participated in a statewide “walk-in” to call for more education money, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he could give teachers a 19 percent pay increase by 2020. Ducey’s offer revealed the pressure he faced to avoid a full-blown teachers strike, but so far, educators have voiced skepticism about the governor’s proposal. And in Kentucky, where teachers have been protesting pension and education cuts, activists convinced their legislators this weekend to halt spending on new charter schools through June 2020.

AS THE FOUR teachers movements all progress at different speeds — though summer vacation looms ahead for them all — educators and activists say they are under no illusion that the battles will end with the school year. Leaders have been urging for more attention to be paid to the upcoming midterm elections. “We’ll remember in November” has become the teachers’ rallying cry and warning to politicians.

The teachers in West Virginia are happy because they won this fight, but they know it’s not over,” said Richard Ojeda, a progressive state senator running for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District seat. “If you talk to any teacher out there, they’ll tell you 5 percent is not enough, and they’re absolutely planning on removing these people in our state leadership who fought their efforts.”

“Teachers are definitely getting more engaged in the upcoming election,” said Howard-Jack. “They’re really looking at who supports unions, who supports education, and our Indivisible chapter is the same. We’re holding candidate forums, endorsing candidates, writing op-eds. I haven’t seen anything like this energy in the past.”

In a statement released Thursday, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, declared that as classes resume, educators “must turn our attention towards the election season. Instead of making our case at the steps of the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more. … This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools. We have created a movement and there’s no stopping us now.”

Liberals across the country are hoping for a massive “blue wave” this November. In deep red states, progressives are similarly hopeful, but they are also trying to temper expectations and promote some more modest electoral objectives.

“Our goal is balance,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, in a recent interview with The Oklahoman“We know that when our legislature is balanced, when our statewide offices are balanced, that we see more moderate governance and more effective governance, and so that’s what we’re aiming for. We want to break the supermajority in the House. … We want to win the governor’s race. And we want to pick up some seats in the Senate, too. The exact number may not be more than 10 in each house, but we saw that having 28 [Democratic] members made a real difference in budget negotiations, and if we can get to 34 members, that would make an even bigger difference.”

Christine Porter Marsh, a first-time candidate for office in Arizona and the state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, says she also hopes her candidacy can bring some balance to her state’s red-leaning legislature.

“The Democrats are only two seats down from creating a tie in the Arizona Senate, and in our state, there is no tiebreaker,” she explained. “A tie loses. The seat I’m running for, against an incumbent Republican, is the most purple one in our state. If we can create a tie in the senate, not even a majority, it will be a game-changer for Arizona, because then everyone at the Capitol will have to negotiate compromises, and, to me, that is really motivating.”

Marsh, who has taught for 26 years in the classroom, says she decided to run for office after realizing a little less than a year ago that her lobbying efforts at the state Capitol just weren’t having much of an effect. “My generation of teachers, the ones who have been in it for a long time, we kind of dropped the ball,” she told The Intercept. “We were too focused on staying within the walls of our own classroom — which is so noble and wonderful and that’s what kids deserve — but so many years of doing that has created the situation in which we find ourselves, where students are directly and indirectly harmed by these bad policies.”

John Waldron, who has spent the past 20 years teaching high school social studies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ran for office for the first time in 2016. He says his race was motivated by what he felt were terrible anti-education policies coming out of his state’s legislature. Waldron lost his race, but he feels more optimistic this time around, not only because he has increased name recognition, but also because of how much more progressive organizing there’s been in his state since Trump took office.

“Our county party has been revitalized as people got back into politics after the 2016 election, and I think if there was a Democrat in the White House, the mood in Oklahoma would be very different,” he told The Intercept. “With Trump, a lot of people who would be voting are staying home out of frustration, and a lot of people who would not be so active are now being quite active.”

Waldron knows his state is conservative, but says his legislature leans even more conservative than its voters, due to special interests funding far-right candidates in uncompetitive districts. While he doesn’t really expect a blue wave that wholly flips his state’s political balance this November, he says he’s optimistic about a decade-long process where voters “move the conversation from the far right, where it is now — where politicians want to arm teachers and to get government out of everything except a woman’s uterus — back to the center.”

According to Waldron, the highly covered Oklahoma teachers strike has “given a lot of oxygen” to his political campaign, because voters, he says, are now well familiar with the demands and frustrations of educators across the state. He says he’s been offering mentorship to other first-time teacher candidates running in Oklahoma.

“I think most of us would rather stay in the classroom, but what we’ve learned from the Oklahoma experience is that teaching is a political act,” said Waldron. “I think us teachers feel ready to handle the legislature, because we deal with teen-aged kids all the time.”

In Kentucky, 40 educators have also recently filed to run for office, organizing under the banner of A Few Good Women (And Men). David Allen, former Kentucky Education Association president, told The Intercept that the majority of these educator candidates are classroom teachers, but some work in higher education, and some have retired. “It’s a statewide kind of movement, if you will,” he said. “I’ve been pleased. We’re nothing without public education. Nothing.”

A Five-Decade Fight to Improve Housing Choices for the Poor

Originally published in CityLab on April 12, 2018.
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Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, and in Chicago, there’s a man who has spent all 50 of those years fighting to preserve and expand the vision behind it. His name is Alexander Polikoff. He’s 91 years old, and although he’s virtually unknown to most Americans, he’s been almost single-handedly shepherding one of the nation’s most consequential civil-rights lawsuits for more than half his life.

Polikoff was the lead attorney on a landmark case in the 1960s, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority. It was the first major desegregation case concerning public housing. The lawsuit charged the Chicago Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause and the 1964 Civil Rights Act by concentrating thousands of public housing units in segregated black neighborhoods. It was named for Dorothy Gautreaux, an African-American public housing resident, community organizer, and activist.

Polikoff’s case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and in the decades since he has overseen its settlement. That included a novel remedy: giving low-income Chicago residents vouchers to move into the suburbs. The nation’s first “housing mobility” program was born as a result of Gautreaux.

The results of these “mobility vouchers” were so unexpectedly positive that in the early 1990s, Congress decided to pilot an experiment dubbed “Moving to Opportunity,” which gave poor families in five cities similar opportunities to relocate to the suburbs.
Maryland’s Senator Barbara Mikulski ended up killing efforts to expand the pilot nationally when homeowners in suburban Baltimore County rebelled, but the debate over the promise and pitfalls of housing mobility has continued to this day.

The actual Gautreaux vouchers have ended (they ran from 1976 to 1998), but there is still an existing Chicago mobility program as a result of the case. And the Gautraeux lawyers, including Polikoff, are overseeing it in other ways—for example, by ensuring that new scattered-site developments of public housing aren’t racially concentrated.

Polikoff, a resident of the Highland Park suburb just outside of Chicago, works as a senior attorney at BPI, a public interest law firm. (Previously, he served as BPI’s executive director for nearly 30 years.) CityLab sat down with him to learn more about his life’s work—Gautreaux—and the mobility movement he helped to build.

I really enjoyed your book Waiting for Gautreauxwhich traces the history of your lawsuit from the early 1960s up to 2006. Looking back now, has anything changed, or do you wish you did anything differently?

There’s some things I wish I made clearer in the book. For example, we always run into people who say, “You know, this mobility voucher business. It’s not going to deal with very many people, so what are you pushing that for? We’ve got to do something about the communities they already live in.”

And you also run into people who say, “Your mobility efforts are interfering with choice.” Those two points of view come up all the time, and one thing I wish I had done differently was respond more clearly to those objections in the book, because they’re both thoughtless.

How so?

With respect to the choice issue, housing mobility proponents are not proposing it as the solution. They’re not proposing it as right for everybody. What we are saying is that while we continue—for God knows how long—attempting to deal with what the high-poverty communities need, and while we’ve worked to death for 50 years and we still don’t have a way to address it effectively, while we’re doing that, should we be denying families the opportunity to get out?

The answer is obviously no. We should be offering mobility as a piece of the solution for those people who want it.

Mobility is purely voluntary, and what they don’t understand is that we’re not pushing it as the answer, but as a humane necessity for the people who want it.

So I understand that housing mobility advocates stress that they’re not forcing mobility, that they recognize it’s a voluntary option that’s not right for everyone. But don’t you and others also say we need to dismantle the segregated ghettos?

Of course! My whole book talks about using that word—dismantling. And nobody is arguing that mobility is going to dismantle the ghetto. You’ve got to dismantle the ghetto even if no one ever thought of the idea of mobility. The two are on different planets.

You’ve been doing this work for a long time. Does anything surprise you any more?

Yes, I actually got a call out of the blue two weeks ago from a woman who is a member of the Vermont legislature. Why was she calling me? To thank me. She [grew up in] one of the first families who moved in the 1970s through the Gautreaux housing program.

She and her sisters and her mother all moved from inner-city Chicago to the suburbs. They moved out there and lived for, I don’t remember exactly how long, four years maybe, and then they moved back because her mother felt she needed to spend her teenage years in an African-American community. But, she told me, those years out of Chicago made all the difference, and that’s why she says she’s the first African-American woman in the Vermont legislature.

How can we not provide something like that when we have the opportunity and the wherewithal to do so?

I see housing mobility as part fair housing, even though I know they began somewhat independently. Do you see those as part of the same movement today?

I do, but mobility is a small part of a much bigger picture. We could have a great housing mobility program, but if that’s all we had, it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough. And it’s partly because it isn’t right for large numbers of people, and partly because of the resource constraints. We’ll never have enough vouchers to make a difference, even if far more wanted to try it than I think will ever be the case. So it’s going to be a small, but vitally important, piece.

Why vitally important?

One, because of what I said before, about it being the right thing to give people who want it.

And two, because of the effect it can have on people’s psyches when they see poor African-American families having improved life chances and taking advantage of those improved life chances in opportunity—meaning white, affluent neighborhoods—and not bringing those neighborhoods down. Having a lot of examples of that is potentially significant.

It’s what Gunnar Myrdal called the “vicious cycle.” If all black people are kept in ghettos, where there’s high crime and high unemployment, and then we say, “Well, there’s someone committing crimes, not trying to work, and he’s black,” it paints a picture that that’s the way all black people are. It’s toxic, and it feeds on itself.

What is the state of housing mobility? Gautreaux was the first, but how much has it expanded? Are all housing authorities trying to do this now?

No, 99 percent are not. As of 2015 there were 15 mobility programs in the country, with seven of them coming from court-ordered settlements.

The two largest programs are in Baltimore and Dallas. Chicago’s is doing better than almost anywhere else except those two places, but it’s still very limited.

Why are there so few?

It’s because of the way HUD regulations are set up and administered. There is really a positive disincentive for housing authorities to do mobility right now.

HUD pays housing authorities administrative fees based on how many people they lease up. Well, it takes longer to lease up in an opportunity area, doesn’t it? It’s harder to do. So the more they spend money on trying to do mobility, the fewer lease-ups they’ll get for which they’d get paid administrative fees.

They really get hit twice—they need to spend more to try to do mobility, because the opportunity vouchers cost more, and then they’re also getting less back from HUD.

We could make it easier for housing authorities to do it, right?

Yes, HUD could.

What’s your relationship to the Gautreaux case now?

I’m still involved, and Gautreaux is a surprisingly active case. They tore down all the public housing high-rises and they’re replacing the high-rises slowly but steadily with mixed-income communities. But we’re seeing to it through Gautreaux that the public housing in the mixed-income communities is dispersed, and visually indistinguishable from the non-public housing. And that’s a lot of work.

Every two years we file complaints, because each one of these things must have a court order. Most of the time we work with the Chicago Housing Authority to reach an agreement, but occasionally we have a fight with them and go to the judge.

How are you feeling about everything after working on things for all this time?

I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful. I think the long arc of justice is a good metaphor, and I think post-Trump, maybe we’ll have an emerged progressive community. We’re moving so slowly, but in the right direction. This Trump period is a terrible setback, but I think history is going to view it as a big bump in the road.

A New Type Of Bank Offers A Lifeline For Those Trapped In A Vicious Cycle Of Debt

Originally published in HuffPost on April 12, 2018.
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Three years ago Cynthia Tucker relocated from South Carolina to Raytown, Missouri ― a suburb just outside Kansas City ― to be closer to her children and grandchildren. To cover costs of the move, the 62-year-old widow took out a short-term loan. But her borrowed $675 quickly spiraled into a nightmare.

“By the time I thought I had paid over half the loan back, I realized I had gotten nowhere because it had already added hundreds of dollars on top of what I originally owed,” says Tucker, who believes that the lender failed to clearly explain the risks to her. “I thought I was making progress, but with these recurring charges it became so stressful.”

Tucker is not alone. An unexpected medical bill or an unplanned auto repair can toss many people into financial trouble, and 44 percent of adult Americans say they’d struggle to cover an additional expense of several hundred dollars. This is music to the ears of payday loan companies like the one Tucker turned to – voracious businesses that provide cash-strapped people with small, short-term loans, charging high interest rates and fees.

An estimated 2.5 million American households ― about one in 50 ― take out payday loans every year. A typical loan is $350 and costs $15 for each $100 borrowed. Given that more than 80 percent of payday loans are rolled over, or are followed by another loan within two weeks, it’s not hard to see how some of America’s most financially insecure can get trapped in debt indefinitely.

Proponents of the industry point to the lifeline payday loans can provide for people like Tucker.

But there’s a growing movement of alternatives aimed at better supporting those in need. Tucker, for example, turned to the Holy Rosary Credit Union, which paid off her payday loan and issued her a new one with a much lower interest rate. She eventually repaid the credit union and moved on with her life.

Like banks, credit unions offer checking, savings and loan services. But unlike banks, which primarily serve shareholders, credit unions are nonprofit entities set up by members and governed by a volunteer board. Importantly, they generally charge discounted loan rates and lower fees than traditional banks.

A new credit union is set to open this spring in Kansas City, following an eight-year fundraising effort. The WeDevelopment Federal Credit Union is a community development credit union that will differ from most banks and traditional credit unions by specifically focusing on those who have never had access to a bank, or who have been shunned by banks because of past financial trouble.

Community development credit unions “believe in providing individuals with second, third and fourth chances,” says Paul Woodruff, vice president of community development at a community development credit union based in St. Louis.

Kansas City is racially segregated, which means sharp differences in economic supports for different racial groups. In 2013, for example, 45 percent of the city’s black residents lacked access to a bank account or a financial institution.

WeDevelopment will be located in downtown Kansas City, near its second-busiest public transit spot, and is designed to serve residents in one of the most distressed parts of town.

Its operations will rely on interest earned from loans and investments, and moderate transaction fees. Those involved with WeDevelopment told HuffPost they cannot yet give specifics on interest rates, but say they will be competitive with banks. Organizers say they will pursue grants to supplement the cost of services like financial education training.

Woodruff’s team has been helping Kansas City leaders get WeDevelopment off the ground. More than 700 individuals have expressed interest in joining the new credit union, and organizers hope to sign up at least 1,500 members within its first year. Prospective members must live, work, or worship nearby.

“We want to help get people on the path to building credit, to building a secure banking relationship, to building wealth,” says Ajamu Webster, WeDevelopment’s board chair. He adds that community development credit unions are more than just a way for individuals to advance their personal goals. “There’s a social compact that comes with being a member,” he says. “They’re social institutions. This is a social movement.”

The Rev. Susan McCann, board president of the neighborhood advocacy group Communities Creating Opportunity, says community development credit unions are an important part of providing fair financial opportunities to all.

But even community-focused credit unions can’t replace the need to change state laws around payday loans, McCann says. Missouri’s lax payday loan laws allow lenders to charge up to 1,950-percent annual interest. Communities Creating Opportunity and other consumer advocates have been pressuring state lawmakers for years to cap the interest rate at 36 percent ― the maximum rate Congress allows anyone in the armed forces or their family members to be charged.

“Imagine if we can get two, three, four-thousand members in three years ― getting that many people who are tied to an institution that’s thinking about economic development,” Webster says. “This can become a community political force, giving us a new voice to influence what happens in our neighborhoods and the city.”