Steven Holden is the Latest New York Democrat To Try Flipping A Coveted House Seat. Is He Up to The Task?

Originally published in The Intercept on August 11, 2021.

FLIPPING THE HOUSE SEAT in New York’s 24th Congressional District — which includes all of Cayuga, Onondaga, and Wayne counties as well as the western part of Oswego County — should be a feasible task for Democrats, given that the district elected President Joe Biden in 2020 by 9 percentage points, Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 4 points, and President Barack Obama in 2012 by 16 points. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already designated the upstate New York district as one of its 21 “red-to-blue” targets for 2022.

Hoping to capitalize early on this for the Democratic Party is Steven Holden, a 48-year-old retired Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holden, the only primary candidate so far, served as a military finance officer and says he was part of the unit that helped finance the operation that led to Saddam Hussein’s capture in 2003.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

But Democrats have faced tough defeats in their past attempts to unseat Rep. John Katko, a former U.S. attorney who was elected in 2014. He’s earned a reputation as an independent thinker in a party increasingly drifting toward extremism. While Katko voted with President Donald Trump more than 90 percent of the time during the representative’s first term, that figure dipped to just over 50 percent during his second. Analysts say things could be different, though, now that Trump is out of office. In January, Katko also voted to impeach the president following the attack on the Capitol — a decision that cost him the backing of prominent local conservatives.

In other words, despite the grim national forecast Democrats face for the 2022 midterms, the party is still hoping that now might be a favorable time for a Democrat to flip the seat. The next question is whether Holden is the man for the job.

When Balter ran to unseat Katko in 2018 and 2020, she campaigned on issues like universal health care, legalizing marijuana, and a $15 minimum wage. In both races, she suffered great losses, losing by about 6 and 15 points, respectively. While her first run was hobbled by a lack of financial support from the party establishment, her 2020 run had the support of the DCCC, EMILY’s List, Obama, Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The 2020 contest was among the DCCC’s “red-to-blue” targets.

Moderates were quick to pin Balter’s losses on her progressive platform. In a blog post, the centrist group Third Way said her defeat showed that Democrats “must run with mainstream, moderate candidates and ideas central to the Party’s position.”

But 2020 was a tough year for nearly all “red-to-blue” candidates, as well as incumbent moderate Democrats like Abby Finkenauer in Iowa and Max Rose in New York. House Democrats lost a net of 11 seats and saw their majority drop to a slim 220-212 lead over Republicans.

Despite centrists’ warnings, Holden thus far is not looking to create much distance between him and Balter on matters of policy.

“I know there are some political actors who take the view that [Balter] lost because she ran too much as a progressive, but I don’t think that’s accurate,” Holden told The Intercept. “Just from what I know here, the biggest reason she lost is because of turnout, that’s honestly what this is.” (In fact, more than 340,000 voters cast ballots in the 24th District race in 2020, up from 260,00 in 2018 and 302,000 in 2016.)

Balter, who told The Intercept she is not considering running for office “at this time,” said she thinks that a Democratic candidate, whoever that is in 2022, could beat Katko. “President Biden and the Democrats in Congress are delivering for the people,” she said, pointing to pandemic relief checks, local government aid, and the expanded child tax credit. Katko, by contrast, “is failing central New Yorkers in a big way,” she said, and “spends his time stoking the fears of his extreme right-wing base and placating his corporate donors.”

Holden’s theory of change rests on increased turnout (a harder task during the midterms) and “hammering Katko from all sides” on policy. He chalks Balter’s loss up to some siphoned votes from traditional fusion voting. (Over 13,000 voters cast ballots for Steven Williams, a Working Families Party candidate, though Balter lost by almost 35,000 votes.)

He also thinks his background and experience as a veteran could help him win back some Democrats who voted for Katko as well as attract rural voters. “I know Dana tried, but I’m going to go in and talk about issues with Wayne County and the rural part of Cayuga County, and really getting rural and suburban voters to where they feel comfortable with me,” he said. Left unspoken is the question of whether a male military veteran will fare better in upstate New York than Balter, a female professor, did.

BUT HOLDEN’S STRENGTH as a candidate is unclear, particularly if he hopes to clear the progressive lane. For one, regional activists say that so far his campaign has involved little grassroots organizing.

“We don’t have a relationship with him and haven’t been contacted by him,” said Brian Escobar, co-chair of the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter.

“We don’t know anything about Holden, and he hasn’t reached out to us,” added Tom Heck, a member of the steering committee for Indivisible-24, a local chapter of a national progressive advocacy group.

Nearly two months into his campaign, Holden has no Twitter account, and his Facebook page, which he updates frequently with videos of him discussing issues, has roughly 110 followers.

The district is also set to be redrawn soon, and Heck thinks it’s too soon to say how competitive it will be. (Indivisible-24 backed Balter in 2018 and 2020, and Heck says the group is focused right now on both local issues and pushing nationally for voting rights reform.) That redistricting process hasn’t started yet, but the census data is set to be released later this month, and it will be the first time in the state’s history that district lines are drawn by an independent redistricting commission.

Meanwhile, Katko has his own intraparty conflicts to attend to before the election. While the local branch of the Conservative Party of New York announced in April that it will not endorse Katko, whether the incumbent faces a real primary threat will depend on if the Conservative Party actually chooses to get behind another candidate.

In a statement to The Intercept, Onondaga County Conservative Party Chair Bernard Ment said the local party’s decision about John Katko “will ultimately be decided by our state party with recommendations forthcoming from the counties in the Congressional District” and that they are waiting for the redistricting commission to issue its recommendation. “I will say that I have been approached by a number of candidates willing to take up the challenge to primary Mr. Katko for the Republican endorsement and we may be inclined to back a challenger if that individual shows bonafide Conservative credentials,” he said, adding that the decision will ultimately be up to Gerard Kassar, chair of the state Conservative Party, and the state executive committee.

For now, no other Democratic candidates have jumped into the race, but a source with knowledge of the local Democratic Party said they’re aware of other candidates being recruited and expect some additional people to announce bids soon.

“We are looking forward to reminding voters of Katko’s toxic record and sending him into retirement in 2022,” DCCC spokesperson Abel Iraola said in an email. “His craven flip-flop on pursuing the truth about the insurrection and his vote against the Child Tax Credit and relief for New York families and small businesses show he is more out of touch with his district than ever before, and make him one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.”

Despite Promises For Global Climate Justice, Biden Falls Short In Helping Reduce Poorer Countries’ Emissions

Originally published in The Intercept on August 3, 2021.

AS CONGRESS INCHES closer to approving billions in new spending for climate resilience projects through the American Jobs Act, many environmental advocates are wondering: What about countries that can’t afford such investments?

Advocates had high hopes that Joe Biden, who campaigned on emphasizing both global climate leadership and environmental justice, would prioritize international climate finance — that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can effectively reduce their own carbon emissions — if elected president. Rich nations like the U.S. have historically emitted the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; poorer countries, which account for more than 60 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions now, are expected to contribute nearly 90 percent of emissions growth over the next two decades. Climate financing provides Biden with the chance to lead internationally as well as to restore trust in the U.S., which lost immense credibility under President Donald Trump.

Biden would contribute money primarily through the Green Climate Fund, a reserve established by the United Nations in 2009 to finance mitigation and adaptation projects in low-income countries. In 2014, 43 countries pledged to raise $10.3 billion for such projects, with the U.S. pledging $3 billion over four years.

Though the Obama administration got $1 billion out the door, Trump ended U.S. support for the effort. When Biden came into office, the hope was that he’d not only back pay the U.S.’s outstanding commitment but also join other rich nations in making new, more ambitious pledges. But so far, nothing has materialized.

That’s not for lack of pressure. This past February, a coalition of leading environmental, faith, and development groups sent a letter to the new Biden administration urging an immediate $8 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund, both to pay the U.S.’s outstanding $2 billion from its 2014 pledge and to commit another $6 billion, bringing the U.S. in line with peer nations that doubled their initial pledges in 2019.


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This request was echoed in a letter signed by 40 members of Congress in late March, led by Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y. Like the nongovernmental organizations in February, the members also urged a new $6 billion commitment and called specifically for $4 billion in the president’s forthcoming fiscal year 2022 budget, to both pay off the outstanding $2 billion pledge and to include the first installment of the new $6 billion one. “We believe this funding is essential to our shared goals of mitigating and adapting to climate change,” the letter states. “Such investment will also have the welcome effect of putting the United States on a new, restored path of global leadership.”

Yet in April, the Biden administration’s budget request included just $1.25 billion for the Green Climate Fund, not even enough to fulfill the U.S.’s outstanding $2 billion pledge from 2014. And in its recently released guidance for its Justice40 Initiative — executive actions “to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad” — the White House does not even mention the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency tasked with international climate resilience and risk management work, despite referencing 20 other federal departments.

“The U.S. has a tendency to tout leadership, but from our perspective, the U.S. has not really been a leader on climate if you look at what they’re actually putting on the table,” said Niranjali Amerasinghe, executive director of ActionAid USA. While she acknowledged that political leaders have a poor track record on climate finance, she said climate justice advocates were hopeful that after four years of climate denial and all the success from the climate youth movement, the administration would embrace what “true leadership” could look like. “From our perspective, that would be not just rhetoric and calling other global leaders to the table but delivering on emission-reduction commitments that reflect its fair share and putting real money forward, and not just a few billions,” she said.

Typically, the White House puts forward more ambitious requests in its budget proposals, and then Congress negotiates from there — i.e., exactly what’s playing out with the ongoing infrastructure debate. But with climate finance, the House of Representatives actually declined to accept the administration’s low figure and approved $1.6 billion for the Green Climate Fund in fiscal year 2022. The Senate is still hammering out its budget.

“If the White House had made a bigger ask as an opening to negotiating, would that have given the climate hawks in Congress a bit more space to play with?” asked Joe Thwaites, a climate finance expert at the World Resources Institute. “You hear all the time that ‘the U.S is back’ and that ‘the U.S is a climate leader,’ but right now they’re taking a real à la carte approach to leadership.”

In addition to its Green Climate Fund commitments, the Biden administration pledged another $4.5 billion toward climate finance, an overall sum of $5.7 billion. To put in context the administration’s proposed climate finance commitments, at the recent G-7 Leaders’ Summit in June, Germany pledged to start contributing $7.2 billion per year by 2025, even with an economy one-fifth the size of the U.S. And as Thwaites has pointed out, the European Union, despite having a combined economy that’s three-fourths the size of the U.S., has already pledged more than four times as much in public climate finance, committing $24.5 billion in 2019.

A spokesperson for John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, referred questions about the Biden administration’s climate finance commitments to the U.S. Treasury, which is the lead agency on the Green Climate Fund.

In response to The Intercept’s inquiries, a Treasury spokesperson pointed to Secretary Janet Yellen’s creation of a so-called climate hub to coordinate policy and reiterated the Biden administration’s intention “to make good” on the $2 billion outstanding pledge from 2014. The spokesperson described the $1.25 billion request “as a first step” and reiterated Yellen’s support for the Green Climate Fund. “As laid out in the U.S International Climate Finance plan, we will strategically use a range of bilateral and multilateral channels to do this, with the aim of maximizing catalytic impact of each U.S. public dollar, including in terms of leveraging private investment,” they said in an email. “Secretary Yellen recognizes the urgency act and has positioned the Department of Treasury to act boldly.”

There’s debate over exactly how much is needed for the U.S. to contribute its fair share, but advocates have urged the administration to factor in the country’s historical emissions when making that decision. One analysis published in June by the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, estimated that given the U.S.’s historical emissions, its population, and its gross national income, it should contribute about $41 billion every year to climate finance projects. An analysis by the World Resources Institute said the U.S. should give 45 percent of contributions to the Green Climate Fund. A third estimate, put forward earlier this year by a number of nonprofit groups — including ActionAid USA, Oil Change International, Friends of the Earth U.S., and the Sunrise Movement — put the fair-share figure at $800 billion between 2021 and 2030. No matter the estimate, the broad consensus is that the $5.7 billion figure put forward by the Biden administration is far below what’s needed.

Some climate activists have been willing to give the Biden administration more of a grace period in its first year. Clarence Edwards, the Friends Committee on National Legislation director for energy and environmental policy, told The Intercept that he sees Biden’s climate finance commitments as “a great start” and added that “it’s only been six months and going in the right direction.”

Edwards noted the challenge in moving federal bureaucracies even on good days and said he thinks that the administration’s focus on the U.S.’s domestic climate agenda, including the infrastructure bill in negotiations, has to take precedence politically. “Glasgow” — referencing the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference, which will take place in the city in December — “will be interesting because by then, with the American Jobs Plan, the world will know where the U.S. stands domestically,” Edwards said. “But if our Covid response is a coming attraction to how Western, developed countries are going to handle the climate crisis, then that’s not good news.”

Lauren Stuart, a climate change policy adviser at Oxfam America, disagreed that the administration needs to wait to hash out its domestic policy first but echoed Edwards in calling the administration’s initial commitments “a good first step, a floor.” She said the biggest challenge is an uncooperative Congress, though when asked why the House exceeded the White House’s budget request, she said, “It’s just been a messy process this year, complicated with a new administration.”

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the ranking member of the House Appropriations state and foreign operations subcommittee, has been a vocal critic of climate finance, and in a May congressional hearing, he suggested that the proposed international climate spending was “irresponsible and misguided at best.”

Still, in Congress, other leaders are pushing for more — and pushing the Biden administration to be more ambitious. Espaillat reintroduced the Green Climate Fund Authorization Act in April, and Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Chris Van Hollen as well as Reps. David Cicilline and Ami Bera separately asked for $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund in fiscal year 2023.

“While I believe we need to provide much more support to the Green Climate Fund and have authored legislation to do just this, I believe Congress is demonstrating to the administration and our global partners that we take our commitments seriously and fully intend to start a new form of American leadership on the climate crisis,” Espaillat told The Intercept.

At the annual U.N. climate meeting this winter, as countries begin to negotiate new climate finance pledges, there will be more pressure for the Biden administration to up its commitments.

“The U.S. wants to be a climate leader, to project influence, and I think what they’ve been discovering — whether it’s G-20 or in the mini negotiations ahead of COP26 [the U.N. climate meeting] — is that they’re not negotiating from a position of strength,” Thwaites said. “There’s a profound lack of trust in the U.S, in part from the Trump legacy.”

In July, Kerry delivered a major policy speech in London on global climate action and was pressed immediately by members of the media about the U.S.’s climate finance commitments. Kerry affirmed that the U.S.’s pledge would be discussed at the G-20 meeting days later in Naples and said he had spoken to the president about it recently. “The U.S. plans to announce its contribution before the Glasgow conference or risk affecting the dynamic of that event,” he told the audience.

Now activists want to make sure that the Biden administration sticks to its word. “We hear a lot from the administration about environmental justice,” said Stuart of Oxfam America. “But it’s been really focused domestically. There’s a lot of opportunity to scale up that thinking internationally.”

To Counter “Critical Race Theory” Attacks, Advocacy Groups Dodge The Term

Originally published in The Intercept on July 27, 2021.

“TRUST STUDENTS TO talk about what’s happening in the world around them,” instructs the Partnership for the Future of Learning, a national coalition of left-leaning think tanks, unions, foundations, and advocacy groups. The coalition is one of many that hopes to combat conservative outcry over “critical race theory” by promoting the idea of “teaching honesty” in education as a strategy to support teachers, school administrators, and school board members who find themselves under new attack for equity and anti-racism work. As its top message, the coalition recommends: “Truth in our classrooms propels young people toward a more united, inclusive and just future.”

In recent months, liberal and left-leaning groups have promoted similar messages, like the Zinn Education Project’s “Pledge to Teach the Truth.” Launched in late June, the pledge garnered thousands of signatures from educators endorsing Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has “a moral responsibility” to disobey unjust laws and promising to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.” Deborah Menkart, executive director of the national social justice group Teaching for Change, told The Intercept that her organization is also developing a #TeachTruthSyllabus “to shine a light on the kind[s] of lessons that the GOP is trying to ban.” The African American Policy Forum is leading a related #TruthBeTold campaign.

These iterations of teaching “truth” and “honesty” in education are responses in part to threats of censorship embedded in new anti-critical race theory bills, and they reflect liberal groups’ views that conservatives want to teach students a sanitized, false version of American history. Critical race theory, an academic framework developed decades ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other legal scholars, teaches how racism is systemically embedded in policies and systems.

The pressure to respond to attacks on critical race theory has grown more acute over the last three months, as eight states have passed laws restricting critical race theory instruction. Nearly 20 more are considering similar bills, and Republicans have made clear that they see attacking critical race theory as one of their best strategies for base mobilization ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.

But while there is growing consensus among left-wing groups around the idea of teaching “truth” and “accurate history,” there’s far less unity over what that actually means, let alone what students are capable of handling. To avoid having to parse out detailed curricula, most groups have landed on language that suggests leaving politicians out of the decision-making and trusting educators to figure it out. Some historians, meanwhile, worry that the new emphasis on “honesty” threatens to replace one dogmatic narrative with another.


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WHETHER RESPONDENTS UNDERSTAND the concept or not, the phrase “critical race theory” has polled poorly with the public. Rather than trying to burnish its reputation, some liberal groups have turned to messages that downplay the theoretical framework and redirect from the phrase itself. The Future of Learning’s guide encourages allies to remind people that “CRT is not an official part of the curriculum of most schools. However, if the actual issue is whether or not we should talk about racial equity in schools, the answer is yes.”

A separate messaging guidance developed jointly by the progressive public relations groups ASO Communications and We Make the Future tells allies, “Don’t volunteer the term ‘critical race theory,’ an academic concept the right has co-opted as an all-purpose dog whistle.” If confronted with the phrase, the groups suggest defining it “on our terms as the honest, up-to-date education students deserve,” and emphasizing that critical race theory is “taught in law school and graduate school to adults” and not age-appropriate for grade school kids.

In place of the term critical race theory, the two messaging guides promote the softer-sounding idea of “culturally responsive education,” which they define as “rigorous, student-centered learning that connects curriculum and teaching to students’ experiences, perspectives, histories & cultures.”

“Say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for,” Tinselyn Simms, co-director of We Make the Future, told The Intercept. “This is a lesson the left has a lot of trouble with.” In Simms’s view, the left should then emphasize that conservatives are trying to distract from their efforts to defund education and “block every single thing that parents and kids need.”

A third messaging guide reviewed by The Intercept, developed by a progressive nonprofit known as the Swell Collective, emphasizes that “equity and truth in education are non-negotiable” and avoids what the group describes as an “adversarial” approach. 

“We thread the needle by talking about power and talking about this shift globally that’s happening around expectations of how the human species engage[s] power,” said Executive Director Emily Gonzalez in an interview. “We do ourselves a disservice if we take an adversarial stance in defense of critical race theory. If they’re against CRT, and we say we’re for it, well, I don’t think we need to waste our energy on that.”

The Swell Collective recently announced its intent to raise money for state-specific guides and host “a series of virtual convenings” for teachers, school administrators, school board members, parents, and students ages 11 and up. They aim to hire staff and initiate an 18-month program, beginning now and running until December 2022, to provide peer support, combat new anti-critical race theory legislation, and mobilize civic engagement headed into the midterms.

Both of the two national teachers unions are also attempting to walk a line between encouraging teaching about systemic racism while distancing themselves from critical race theory.

According to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the movement against critical race theory is a culture-war campaign led by Republicans and Fox News to muzzle truth, “limit learning, and stoke fears about our public schools.” While Weingarten pledged to defend educators from attacks — in July, the union added $2.5 million to its existing $10 million legal defense fund — she also insisted that critical race theory is not even taught in public schools. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists,” Weingarten said at the AFT conference earlier this month. “But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism, or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic.”

At the National Education Association’s recent annual conference, delegates approved a resolution opposing efforts to “ban critical race theory and/or The 1619 Project” and committing to promote clarifying information on what critical race theory is and how to combat rhetoric against it. But the union’s leadership, meanwhile, has sought space from the polarizing phrase. In a lengthy op-ed published in USA Today in late June, NEA president Becky Pringle wrote that children deserve “honesty and truth” and need to be taught about race and racism, but she avoided any mention of critical race theory.

Information about the recently approved resolution was also scrapped from the NEA’s website, a fact critiqued by right-wing media outlets. A representative for the union told The Intercept that was a routine action taken after every annual conference and that while the union plans to “use every legal advocacy tool” available to defend educators from specious attacks, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools because it’s not “age-appropriate and certain types of analytical thinking are too advanced.”

Speaking on background, the representative insisted that this position does not conflict with the union’s other stated positions on trusting students and teaching them about systemic racism. “I don’t think there’s tension at all,” they said. “We should make sure that educators are trusted in their own expertise in how to design lesson plans that are age-appropriate, honest, and reflect the truth.”

Other advocates warn that there has been too much prioritization of talking points and not enough attention to on-the-ground action.

“All these education groups are talking about listening and developing messaging guides and doing polling to counter the CRT attacks, but we feel like there needs to be a more visible response,” said Menkart. Her group, Teaching for Change, held the #TeachTruth Day of Action on June 12, mobilizing educators and allies across the country to protest the new laws restricting discussions of racism. The event “has sadly been to date one of the only public, organized national responses against these laws,” she told The Intercept, adding that they’re currently organizing additional public actions for August 27-29.

“Partly what we found after June 12 is that for weeks after, media organizations reached out to us asking for another photo they could use because all they can find to illustrate their articles [on the critical race theory debate] are these snapshots of white parents at school board meetings,” Menkart said. “And if that’s the only image they have, that’s what sticks with people.”

NOT ALL LIBERAL advocates are dodging critical race theory language.

The African American Policy Forum, a social justice-oriented think tank founded by Crenshaw, encourages a stronger defense of the concept when mobilizing responses to right-wing attacks. In August, the group will facilitate a five-day “summer school” workshop titled “‘Forbidden Knowledge’ Fights Back: Unleashing the Transformative Power of Critical Race Theory.”

Another messaging guide being developed by Kevin Kumashiro, an education policy expert and former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education, aims to provide talking points that situate teaching within a democratic society while addressing systemic injustice. That means not shying away from “CRT in particular, which some other messaging guides either explicitly or implicitly recommend,” Kumashiro told The Intercept. His guide is set to be released publicly in the next few days, at which point some 100-plus groups that have endorsed it will help push the framework out with teach-ins, toolkits, and other actions.

Legal organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law — are also exploring lawsuits to challenge anti-critical race theory bills. “We think that there are first amendment claims, potential vagueness claims, and potential equal protection claims – basically, racial discrimination claims – in some of these cases,” Emerson Sykes, an ACLU staff attorney, told The Guardian earlier this month. Sykes noted that there is precedent that K-12 students have First Amendment rights in receiving information through curricula.

Lambda Legal successfully challenged former President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued in September 2020, that made federal funding contingent on avoiding so-called divisive concepts including critical race theory, systemic racism, and intersectionality. President Joe Biden rescinded the order in January, but this past spring and summer, states introduced new bills embracing some of the Trump order’s language. Parallel legislation restricting curricula about LGBTQ+ people also cropped up this past spring, with Tennessee passing the first law in May, followed days later by Montana.

Stefan Lallinger, a fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation think tank, told The Intercept that while he “applauds” the “teach truth” approach for its resistance to the attempted repression of education, he hopes that response efforts recognize history’s complexity. “Folks who are historians spend a lot of time thinking about the ways the stories of the past are told and know that many parts can actually be fairly subjective,” Lallinger said.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Intercept that while U.S. history curriculum has always been contested, from both the left and the right, historically most of the changes sought in textbooks and curricula were “efforts to include formerly excluded groups into this broader patriotic story.” When Zimmerman published “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools” in 2005, he lamented that advocates were eliding tough questions about how including more groups in the traditional American melting pot story may challenge the story itself.

To Zimmerman, this moment feels different, like a real historical “inflection point.” His worry, though, is that rather than teach students competing narratives — say, the 1619 Project alongside a more traditional version of U.S. history — he fears that “we’re just going to replace one narrative with another. And we’ll just have fights over which narrative is correct.”

While Zimmerman is inherently suspicious of slogans like “teaching truth,” he does think that the way forward involves trusting students and teachers to form their own opinions. “We should have the courage to let kids in on that little secret that we don’t all agree on what the correct historical narrative is,” he said. “It’s depressing but not surprising that we don’t trust our teachers and students to make up their own minds about this.”

Teachers and Staff at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School Call for Removal of CEO

Originally published in Washington City Paper on July 20, 2021.

Teachers and staff at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, a top-tier school serving D.C.’s adult immigrant population, have recently pressed their board of trustees to remove the school’s CEO, Allison Kokkoros.

In a letter sent to the board earlier this month, unnamed employees writing collectively under the banner of “CR Strong” said that under Kokkoros’ leadership, “school growth and innovation has stalled. The culture is steeped in toxicity and pain.” The workers, who identify as a mix of “many” who have worked there for more than two decades as well as some who’ve been at the school for less than a year, warned that despite the school’s strong local and international support, “the mission and continued success of the school is in imminent danger.”

The letter cites Washington City Paper and this reporter by name, noting that past and current employees have contacted Rachel Cohen with concerns, and references her past reporting on Kokkoros’ executive compensation, which well exceeded that of any other charter administrator in D.C. The letter also lists other grievances, including what staff cite as “between $125,000 and $150,000 in legal fees” generated while investigating Kokkoros for “discrimination, retaliation, harassment, exclusion, favoritism, creating and maintaining a hostile and toxic work environment and creating culture of fear.” The letter says there were more than 30 complainants and witnesses involved in the “multiple investigations,” as well as “multiple cases of student abuse by teachers” that leaders at the school allegedly failed to investigate.

City Paper spoke with one former employee, who left Carlos Rosario in May after 13 years and filed a complaint alleging retaliation, harassment, and trans discrimination. That investigation is pending. City Paper also reviewed documents related to another complaint alleging racial discrimination. That investigation concluded in June 2020. “Even though there was no finding of unlawful conduct, your complaint highlights the importance of issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, now more than ever,” Patricia Sosa, the chair of the Board of Trustees, wrote in the complaint closure letter.

The CR Strong letter also blasts high turnover at the school, listing 14 departures in 2021. The most recent departures include Karen Rivas, a principal, and Gerardo Luna, the chief financial officer. “Most have publicly stated that their reason for leaving the school is abuse by Allison Kokkoros and/or the toxic environment that she has created and continues to foster,” the letter states. Luna did not respond to a request for comment. Rivas told City Paper she is moving on from Carlos Rosario “due to a growth opportunity for me, as an elementary school principal.” She added that she has “not witnessed abuse or a toxic climate created by Allison” and sees Kokkoros’ “strong leadership as a guiding light.”

In an emailed response sent on the morning of Wednesday, July 14, the Board of Trustees told school staff that they take their oversight responsibilities very seriously and are “working with the senior management to assesses the situation and take actions, as appropriate, to ensure transparency and build trust” within the school community. The board pledged to implement an action plan and share next steps with faculty and staff within the next 45 days.

In response to interview requests from City Paper, Kokkoros and Patricia Sosa, the chair of the board, sent a joint emailed response. “We are running the School, preparing for welcoming students back to our buildings, and assessing how best to provide quality of life and support for our students and employees,” they write. “Covid 19 hit the community we serve hard, and presented an immense challenge to management and staff, issues not unusual for educational institutions. In addition, DEI discussions raised difficult challenges for a school as diverse as ours … The Board has joined senior staff to address concerns and support the adoption of management practices in line with our long history of serving the DC immigrant community in a safe and caring environment. As soon as our plan is finalized within the next 45 days, we will gladly share it with you.”


On June 4, 2020, in the wake of the racial justice protests that swept D.C. and the nation, Carlos Rosario staff sent a petition to school leadership urging them to more forcefully embrace anti-racism policies. Among other things, the signatories called for the creation of a racial equity advisory group, hiring a racial equity consultant, hiring more culturally responsive staff and teachers of color, implementing more trauma-informed practices and mental health supports, and providing anti-racist trainings for staff, leaders, and students. 

One concrete change to come from the petition was the hiring of diversity consultants who launched an investigation into the practices at the school. An executive summary of their work was released in late March, though to date employees have not been able to review the full findings. The consultants did not return City Paper’s request for comment or to review the full report.

In the 16-page executive summary, the consultants write that Carlos Rosario “is at a pivotal point in its [Diversity-Equity-Inclusion-and-Belonging] efforts” and that the charter’s organizational culture “predicates favoritism and inequity, both deriving from exclusionary dynamics across leadership, staff, faculty, and student relationships.” The consultants said stakeholders “continuously referred to the racial hierarchies and stratification of roles within the organization” and to fear related to the HR department. The consultants wrote that the current school climate “lends itself to microaggressions” and listed 10 recommendations for the school to adopt, including “cultivate a culture of ownership, not simply buy-in, for DEIB.”

On June 7, a staff member emailed all school employees to raise concerns with the DEI trainings at the school. The staffer, using an anonymous ProtonMail account, critiqued the workshops for “brand[ing] Carlos Rosario as a racist institution.” They cited research showing DEI sessions are ineffective, argued that the trainings “undermine friendship and community,” and are “condescending and racist to Black people.” The staffer urged alternatives to pursuing diversity and inclusion.

In an emailed response to all staff reviewed by City Paper, Kokkoros wrote that the June 7 email “is in no way a representation of leadership or our Board of Trustees.” She reiterated the school’s intention to continue with their DEI work, and emphasized that “it is uncomfortable, but we know it is for the betterment of our organization and the way we interact with one another.”

Toni Lewis, a former outreach and recruitment manager who left the school in March, says Carlos Rosario’s lack of regard for staff feedback, lack of understanding of racial inequality, and lack of commitment to structural and policy changes, drove her decision to move to another adult charter school in D.C.

“I did and still care about the mission of the Carlos Rosario School, I still have a lot of respect for my colleagues there, but that is why I and a great number of other people have left,” she tells City Paper. “I minced no words about this in my exit interview. “

Schumer Amendment Shorts $5 Billion in Covid-19 Relief Funding

Originally published in The Intercept on June 30, 2021.

BURIED IN THE $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March is a little-known amendment, proposed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and backed by 13 of his colleagues in the Democratic caucus, that rerouted billions of dollars meant for economic recovery for small towns. The obscure change altered five words and could strip more than a quarter of the recovery funding from 23 states, including Schumer’s New York.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included $19.53 billion to distribute to local governments serving small cities and towns of populations of about 50,000 or less, known in government jargon as “non-entitlement units,” or NEUs. In the House’s version of the bill, every NEU in every state would have received the same amount per resident, about $178 per person. 

But the Senate version doesn’t allocate aid based on NEU populations. Instead, it instructs the Treasury Department to allocate funding based on states’ “non-metro populations” — a designation that overlaps with NEUs but is not synonymous. First identified by the data consulting firm Civilytics, the change in terminology established a new aid formula that shifted $5 billion, or 25 percent  of the total program, creating sharp disparities depending on how states classify their communities. 

According to Civilytics researchers Jared Knowles and Hannah Miller, in states that have large populations living in unincorporated areas — places outside the bounds of local or municipal jurisdiction, governed only at the county, state, and federal levels — local governments will now receive much higher per capita funding than those in states without them. 

In states like California, Maryland, Georgia, and Virginia, where there are large unincorporated populations, residents in small towns stand to get hundreds of dollars more per person. But in the unincorporated areas themselves, with no local governments to allocate funding, residents are effectively barred from receiving federal aid.

ROUGHLY A QUARTER of the U.S. population lives in unincorporated areas that would be disqualified from the funding, according to Civilytics’s analysis of Census data. That’s not just in tiny rural towns; over 1 million residents live in unincorporated parts of Miami-Dade County, for example, and more than 65 percent of Los Angeles County is unincorporated.  

In Nevada, the 1,327,951 residents in unincorporated areas quadrupled the amount of federal aid the state will receive under the new formula. Nevada’s small towns could get over $1,300 per resident now — but unincorporated populations will get none.


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Many states will receive far less. 

Seven states — including New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island — have virtually no residents living in unincorporated areas. In another nine — including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the proportion is 1 percent or less. Small-town residents within all these states are now set to receive about $104 per person in American Rescue Plan aid.

Had the federal government kept the House’s funding formula, Pennsylvania would have received almost $689 million more in aid, and New York and Ohio would have also received over $500 million more. Sixteen states in total would have gotten about 70 percent more federal aid for their small-town economic recoveries under the House version. By contrast, Nevada, Maryland, and Virginia are getting more than four times as much thanks to the Senate amendment.

A DEMOCRATIC AIDE familiar with the amendment’s crafting said the senators worked with the Biden administration to draft the change. According to the aide, it was driven by desires to get federal funds out more quickly, as well as to reflect the different ways states classify small towns and cities and how their populations may overlap. 

“Our goal was to get the money out directly to these small communities in as efficient a way as possible,” the aide said. “Treasury, states, and local communities are working together to make sure that state and local governments are getting their fair share.” The Treasury Department is accepting public comment on the distribution of state and local stimulus funding until July 16.

Knowles and Miller told The Intercept that they don’t think many jurisdictions realize that they’re being shortchanged. Many local governments have less research capacity to crunch the numbers than larger metropolitan cities, and they believe that the Treasury Department published its information in nontransparent and obfuscatory ways. 

The Intercept reached out to all 14 senators who sponsored the amendment, asking them if they were aware that the legislative change would have this effect and if they believed that the Senate’s formula was better than the House’s version. Democratic Sens. Schumer; Tom Carper of Delaware; Brian Schatz of Hawaii; Ben Cardin of Maryland; Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; Jon Tester of Montana; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Ron Wyden of Oregon; and Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington as well as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont all did not return requests for comment.

Robert Julien, a spokesperson for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., declined to comment. Jay Tilton, a spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, referred questions to the Senate Finance Committee. Tilton did not answer questions regarding Leahy’s role in the amendment that carries his name. 

A Democratic aide on the Senate Finance Committee suggested that their changes from the House version “were largely reflective of the interests of senators in representing whole states, including smaller and more rural states, versus districts.” But the Senate amendment for small-town aid doesn’t benefit states more than districts; it just alters which states benefit more than others. The aide did not answer follow-up questions.

Given the rush to pass the stimulus bill, it is possible that no one analyzed the numbers to see how the language would impact individual states. Indeed, Schumer’s amendment deprives his own state of $541 million in federal aid, a reduction of over 40 percent from the House’s version. The senators from Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio who sponsored the amendment also shifted hundreds of millions in funding away from their states.

Senate sources said the change came at the behest of officials at the Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The thinking, they said, was that the shift to “non-metro” populations could provide a more expedient way to distribute funds than using NEUs, because the former is used in other programs like HUD’s Community Development Block Grant. But that doesn’t explain why the Treasury Department then published guidance restricting which NEUs could receive funds, taking flexibility away from states that could otherwise have directed some money to unincorporated areas.

A spokesperson for the Treasury Department defended its allocations, saying in an email that the agency distributed funds “according to the plain meaning of the specific requirements” set forth in the American Rescue Plan. The spokesperson did not acknowledge the agency’s role in helping craft the amendment.

“It is clear under the statute that the local governments referred to as non-entitlement units of local government (NEUs) do not include all unincorporated areas,” the spokesperson said. “Treasury worked with the Census Bureau to provide guidance to states as to the universe of eligible NEUs. Of course, each state and county may assist unincorporated areas within its borders using its share of the $195.3 billion and $65.1 billion provided to states and counties, respectively.”

IN MARYLAND, WHERE NEUs will now receive close to $1,000 per resident, the Senate amendment resulted in an additional $433 million in aid, a 450 percent increase compared to the allocation under the House version.

“It’s great for [Maryland small towns], they’re going to get a lot of money,” said Marc Nicole, deputy secretary at the Maryland Department of Budget and Management. “I’m going to say some of them are going to do a great job [with the funding] and will have really good ideas, and for some of them, it’s going to overwhelm them. We have one municipality that has a population of 15. They’re going to get like $14,000. I don’t know that I’d have a problem spending $14,000, but they may not know what to do.”

Like all states, Maryland recently received the first half of its allotted funds and will have 30 days to distribute the dollars to local governments. The second installment comes next year.

Michael Wallace, the legislative director at the advocacy group National League of Cities, described the American Rescue Plan as a “major victory” for local governments of all sizes and a “critical lifeline” for small cities. But “there is still more work to be done,” he told The Intercept. “NLC will continue to work to ensure that fair and tested funding formulas are included in future economic recovery legislation so that small municipalities everywhere can receive the funding they need to rebuild and support their residents.”

Virginia Department of Planning and Budget Director Dan Timberlake said he could not offer any comment on alternative funding proposals or on any outside organization’s analysis. “I don’t recall ever seeing any allocations other than the final ones,” he said. Virginia’s funding for small towns and cities increased 482.6 percent because of the amendment. 

“I think what happened is cities and towns probably lobbied Congress and said, ‘Hey we’re having problems too, and you haven’t given us our fair share,’ and I assume Congress then allocated more to municipal governments, which is good for them,” Nicole said. He acknowledged that his state — whose senior senator, Cardin, sponsored the amendment — “did better” than others given their large number of residents in unincorporated areas.

With the Treasury Department’s public comment period open until July 16, the Civilytics researchers believe that there still may be ways to rectify the funding formula for a more equitable distribution of aid to small towns.

The remedy could either come from Congress changing the formula for the second aid payment to adjust for the first, or Treasury could soften the issue by allowing states the flexibility to distribute funds to unincorporated populations in their borders as well,” said Knowles, the researcher.

To do so, though, some lawmakers may have to consider whether they consciously or unwittingly excluded 78 million Americans from the pot of recovery aid. 

School Privatization Lobby Places Fake News on Local Stations

Originally published in The Intercept on June 16.

ON A WEEKLY basis over the last three years, an arm of the national school privatization lobbying group the American Federation for Children has been producing fake news segments and distributing them to local news stations. The stations often air the segments just as they receive them, allowing anchors to recite accompanying scripts word for word. The aired content includes no disclosure that it was produced by the education advocacy group.

The little-known project, known as “Ed Newsfeed,” has “distributed hundreds of stories in dozens of states,” said Walter Blanks Jr., a press secretary for the American Federation for Children, in response to questions from The Intercept. The Ed Newsfeed staff sends out a weekly email to producers nationwide with their new video content, including recommended scripts, available to them free of charge, and where “courtesy is optional.” The news producers can also access a full library of current and previous stories by creating an account on the nondescript site

Founded in 1999 as the American Education Reform Council, and long funded by billionaire and top Republican Party donor Betsy DeVos, the since-renamed American Federation for Children pursues policies that redirect public education funding to parents to spend how they see fit. “We believe choice, innovation and entrepreneurism will revolutionize an antiquated K-12 system into a 21st century mode,” states the website for the lobby’s 501(c)(3) partner, the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, which sponsors the videos. DeVos was the group’s chair when she was tapped in 2016 to serve as secretary of education under President Donald Trump.

The news broadcasts are mostly cheerful and positive, focused on students who overcome long odds, transformative educators, and “inspiring schools.” Ed Newsfeed segments have featured organizations, apps, schools, and services that have political and/or financial connections to both the American Federation for Children and the DeVos family. Such relationships are not disclosed in the videos, which are marketed as straight news clips.

Multiple stories produced over the last year feature officials from K12 Inc., a publicly traded company founded in 2000 and the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charter schools. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick were early investors in K12 Inc., and the company has sponsored the American Federation for Children’s annual policy conferences. One segment, produced in late November 2020, touts the growth in student enrollment at K12 schools during the pandemic. The video features Kevin Chavous, who the producers identify as the president of academics, policy, and schools at K12 Inc.

“Covid has been, I think, in many ways an opportunity to excite what is possible in education,” Chavous says. “But it’s also been a challenge because for a lot of families who have really trusted the public school system to educate their children, they now have to be more involved, and we try to take that load off with the way we offer our educational support.” The clip makes no mention that Chavous also sits on the American Federation for Children’s board. In its recommended script, Ed Newsfeed encourages stations to tell viewers how to learn more about K12 Inc.’s offerings. Another segment produced in late January, titled “How Covid has Changed U.S. Education,” features Jeanna Pignatiello, K12 Inc.’s senior vice president and chief academic officer.

Emily Riordan, a spokesperson for the company (which renamed itself “Stride” in November but is retaining the K12 brand) told The Intercept that “we have responded to [Ed Newsfeed’s] inquiries for stories about Stride K12-powered schools and online learning as we do for any other news organization or outlet, connecting them with enrolled families, teachers and school leaders, and Stride executives for interviews as appropriate.”

Ed Newsfeed stories also featured Connections Academy, another for-profit virtual charter school that has donated to the American Federation for Children. “Ed Newsfeed takes a closer look at the world of online learning and why it is successfully allowing students to be in charge of when and how they learn,” says the group’s fake anchor in one such 2019 segment, highlighting a student named Tyler enrolled in a virtual Connections Academy school. “And while there isn’t a brick-and-mortar building for Tyler to go to, online schools offer plenty of support. … Online instructors also say teaching kids virtually does away with the distractions that come with a typical classroom setting.”

Many segments are seemingly apolitical and feel-good, spotlighting things like successful tutoring programs, new research on early autism, or a local barber who gives back-to-school haircuts. But many more clips feature schools, programs, and leaders affiliated with the school choice movement. In October 2019, Ed Newsfeed produced a two-part program on homeschooling, an advocacy priority of the national lobbying group. “Homeschooling puts the curriculum completely in the parents hands,” reads the suggested script. “Find out why some say they’ve chosen homeschooling, how these clever and creative parents approach it, and the rewards.”

The Intercept reached out to several television stations that it could identify as having run Ed Newsfeed stories, including KPVM and KLAS-TV in Nevada, KTVK in Arizona, and Fox34 (KJTV) in Texas. No representative returned request for comment.

Blanks Jr. confirmed that “there are no requirements for TV news stations as far as attributing the content to Ed Newsfeed” and described the program as a “free service, run by a network of seasoned broadcast professionals, [and] offered to stations to be able to use video and interviews in any manner they see fit.” Pointing to budget cuts in the struggling news industry, he added: “The majority of news stations do not have an education reporter, so the goal is to help them bring innovative education stories, as well as heart-warming people stories, tied to education topics to their viewers.”

CORPORATIONS AND EVEN U.S. government entities have been producing deceptive audiovisual content designed to look like real news broadcasts since at least the early 1990s. In 1992, a TV Guide cover story titled “Fake News” admonished the media and PR industry’s practice of using so-called video news releases, or VNRs. The journalist, David Lieberman, warned that media outlets risked ruining their credibility with viewers if they did not label the footage clearly as the public relations content it is.

front-page New York Times exposé in 2005 detailed the George W. Bush administration’s penchant for producing hundreds of fake news segments for television stations. At least 20 federal agencies, including the State Department, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Defense Department, produced pre-packaged content ready to air, narrated by “reporters” who were actually former journalists now working full time in public relations. While companies and government agencies told news stations they were free to edit or choose which parts of the segment or script they’d like to use, the stations often aired the footage and script in their original form.

Jon Stauber, the founder of the progressive watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, told Democracy Now! that the New York Times’s 2005 report marked the first mainstream media exposé of the “billion dollar sub-industry of the P.R. industry” that he had been tracking for over a decade.

“First of all, we’re talking about fake news,” Stauber said in the interview, years before the term would become a household slogan popularized by Trump. “And what this is, actually, is propaganda, because these are not news stories. They look like news stories, but they have a bias in favor of a political program or an ideology or a product. And the networks and stations that air these, and we’re talking about thousands of these produced a year, are engaging simply in plagiarism and fraud, fraud perpetrated on their viewers.”

Allison Perlman, a historian of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, told The Intercept that prior to the 1980s, broadcast stations had much greater concern about providing reputable news coverage to their communities. “There were public interest obligations when you were up for [broadcast] license renewal, and there was also a sense at the national level that high-quality journalism was good branding for stations and networks,” Perlman said. That started to change when the Federal Communications Commission began deregulating broadcasting in 1981 and as major broadcast networks were bought out by companies less committed to producing original journalism.

“The local stations still typically air local news in the evenings, but it’s really expensive to produce that content, and I’d imagine many would welcome some free stories,” Perlman said. “The FCC does have news distortion rules, but those have not been enforced.”

The Ed Newsfeed project works to obfuscate its ties to the school privatization lobbying group, perhaps to make laundering content easier. The vast majority of news segments are narrated by a “reporter” named Kim Martinez, a former TV news anchor who is now a spokesperson for the American Federation for Children’s Arizona chapter. Nowhere on the script segments or website does Ed Newsfeed identify Martinez as a spokesperson. Neither Martinez nor Margaret Beardsley, an executive producer for Ed Newsfeed who is also an Emmy Award-winning former TV news producer, returned The Intercept’s requests for comment.

Blanks Jr., of the American Federation for Children, told The Intercept that Ed Newsfeed was launched in response to the overall dearth of education coverage. “So our team had the vision of providing a service to the industry given AFC Growth Fund’s network of relationships in K-12 education across the country,” he said in an email. Asked about conflicts of interest and financial disclosures, Blanks Jr. said, “Ed Newsfeed is not paid for our coverage by any of the schools, programs, or educators featured in the pieces so there are no sponsorship attributions.” He declined to provide details on the number of stations that have aired their video press releases.

The group’s goal, Blanks Jr. said, is for coverage “to be timely, positive, and helpful” and to produce stories covering “all types of intriguing and uplifting K-12 schools and individuals … with no bias — a good education story is a good education story.”

Syracuse School Board Elections Heat Up Over Police Debate

Originally published in The Appeal on June 11, 2021.

A year ago, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, activists flooded the streets of Syracuse, New York, with demands for police reform. The Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition (SPAARC) put forth “The People’s Agenda for Policing,” which included a call to remove school cops, known euphemistically as school resource officers (SROs). Students stressed that schools rely on police too heavily for discipline and cops are too often called in for matters best handled by mental health experts or social workers. The Syracuse school district spends about $1.6 million on policing each year, and activists argued that the district could use some of that money to hire alternative support staff instead.

The push to remove police from public schools is not new, but it gained traction over the last year as racial justice protests swept the country. School boards in places like MinneapolisMilwaukeeDenver, and Portland, Maine, voted to end their contracts with local law enforcement, and in Syracuse, activists pointed to Rochester, a city just 90 minutes away, where the City Council also voted last June to remove school cops. The issue has become a focal point of local school board elections, too, like in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where some candidates campaigned last fall on promises to halt the practice of using armed police in schools.  

Research suggests the presence of cops increases suspensions and arrests, especially for young students, but there’s no consensus on whether they reduce school crime or violence. Student surveys show Black students tend to have significantly more negative perceptions of school police.

In early July, activists met with city leadership to discuss their demands. “I didn’t see that as helpful, I just saw it as a way to spill out our trauma in front of them and get blank faces in return,” said Shukri Mohamed, a leader in SPAARC and an affiliate group called CuseYouthBLM. Overall, Mohamed said she feels the school board and mayor have been very unresponsive to their concerns. “They’re very out of touch with what students are facing, even though we’ve provided them space and time and records to show what [school cops] feel like,” she said.

In light of their frustrations, Syracuse activists have their sights set on the city’s June 22 school board election. Youth have rallied behind Twiggy Billue, a longtime social justice leader and president of Syracuse’s National Action Network chapter. Billue has been pushing to remove cops from the city’s public schools for more than a decade, and in 2014 she published a book on how harsh discipline policies negatively affect students throughout life.

This isn’t Billue’s first attempt at running for the school board. In 2019, she competed against four other candidates in the Democratic primary for four spots and narrowly lost. This time there are four candidates competing for three seats. While the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter has endorsed Billue, the local Democratic Party has endorsed the three other candidates on the ballot: Karen Cordano, Nyatwa Bullock, and David Maynard.

Maynard, a former teacher and principal, said the issue of school cops “hasn’t really come up much at all” as he’s been campaigning. “It was a big issue last summer. … I believe they wrongly took a look at police officers in schools, but there wasn’t a lot of oomph for that,” he said. Maynard said his 20 years in school administration showed him the value of school police and he believes they really care about students. “They have such a complex set of abilities, and if you look at the Syracuse murder rate, violence doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door,” he said. Homicides were up 55 percent in Syracuse last year, though no data links this to violence in schools. In the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year with data available, there were 4 incidents of assault with a weapon (not including firearms or explosives) and 43 incidents of assault without a weapon.

Cordano, a parent leader, said voters have asked her about school police as she’s campaigned and says it’s “a very nuanced situation” that does not lend itself to “an easy yes or no answer.” Although she believes school police should not be used to discipline children, she says she wants to  learn how many guns and weapons they confiscate annually. “That information could change my mind in a heartbeat, depending on what the numbers are,” she said. “I feel like I don’t know enough to advocate right now, but I do think once the data is clear to me, then let’s figure it out.”

Bullock, an activist and undergraduate who is a former teaching assistant, did not respond to requests for comment.

Billue told The Appeal that working with SPAARC and the National Action Network has allowed her to look around the country and see “similarly situated” communities “finding success” in identifying school police alternatives. “We know there is potential for violence in schools but other schools have units outside of school to make sure nothing bad enters,” she said. “We also think something other than police could be implemented alongside community partners.” 

The issue of police violence in Syracuse schools came to a head in 2008, when an officer working in a high school punched a 15-year-old girl in the face and broke her nose. The cop said the student hit him first and he ultimately arrested her and charged her with attempted assault. Some parents and students defended the police officer, and others condemned his actions. The superintendent ultimately removed the cop from school, though the police chief had said the behavior was justified. About a decade later, another officer was removed when he broke a 14-year-old’s elbow during an arrest.

Some defenders of keeping police in schools point to violent incidents, like in 2018 when a teenager stabbed two students at a high school.

Most members of the Syracuse school board have been much more quiet on the issue than the candidates.

Three members—Pat Body, David Cecile, and Derrick Dorsey—are retiring, and only Body responded to a request for comment about school cops. “I voted to keep the SROs in our high schools,” she said in an email. “We want to make changes to the role.” Body did not answer a follow-up question about what kinds of changes she’d like to make.

School board commissioners Mark Muhammad and Tamica Barnett also did not respond to requests for comment. But last summer Barnett told that although she’d like the board to have oversight of school resource officers, she believes they help young people establish positive relationships with police and are necessary sometimes in violent situations. “I’m inside the schools,” she said in July. “I would encourage anybody that’s really pushing for the SROs to be removed to spend days inside the schools.” Commissioner Katie Sojewicz referred media inquiries to school board president Dan Romeo.

Romeo told The Appeal that after having several board conversations about SROs, he and his colleagues have “decided that keeping them in our schools is what we would like to do going forward. There was a clear message in our discussions that we are willing to improve the SRO program and those discussions are happening.” When asked what kinds of improvements specifically, Romeo said in an email that a committee “will look at any opportunity to improve. While I am not a part of the group, I would say the [Memorandum of Agreement] with the city, job description/duties and responsibilities and personnel selection are all things that will be looked at.”

Perrine Wasser, co-chairperson of the Syracuse DSA chapter electoral committee, told The Appeal that committee members  see electing Billue as “the best chance we have at removing SROs” and that she believes some school board members could be persuaded. “I think this is what a lot of the parents want, and I think that will be clear when Twiggy shows up and has a lot of support,” Wasser said. “And she’s just the most consistent in showing up for the community and listening to what students and young people want.”

Sarhia Rahim, a SPAARC leader and co-founder of Raha Syracuse, a Muslim youth group, said she knows that even if Billue is elected “some of the other people at the table may not listen because they haven’t listened to us.” Still, Rahim said “we know where Twiggy stands … and I can’t say the same thing for a lot of the other commissioners.”

Mayor Ben Walsh is also facing a Democratic primary on June 22. His opponents, Khalid Bey, and Michael Greene, did not respond to a request for comment on school resource officers.

In an emailed statement to The Appeal, the mayor’s chief policy officer, Greg Loh, emphasized that the Walsh administration has engaged in discussions over the last year regarding the role of police, but the school board will make the final determination on district policy.  “Mayor Walsh’s Syracuse Police Reform Executive Order stated that he is committed to the implementation of a new model for school safety and security,” Loh said. “His order said the city would work in coordination with the Syracuse City School District which is governed by the Syracuse Board of Education.”

Mohamed of SPAARC and CuseYouthBLM said they’re not going to be deterred even if their goals take awhile. “We’re not stopping any time soon,” she said. “If it means we keep going for 10 years, then so be it.”

On the 2020 Murder Spike and What This Means for 2021

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 9, 2021

As millions of vaccinated people emerge from lockdown, returning to shops, bars and restaurants, American life is kicking back into high gear. And in the United States in 2021, that means elected officials and crime experts are bracing for an unusually deadly summer marked by wanton gun violence. 

But the reasons for and locations of the likely surge in shootings, a trend that began before but has accelerated during the pandemic, are more complicated than the effects of lockdowns or traditional seasonal shifts in urban crime patterns. Instead, experts say, everything from a flood of fentanyl and open-air drug markets to surging gun violence in rural areas and small towns could make for a remarkable season of tragedy.

Homicides generally spike every summer, but 2020 saw a spike of shootings and murders that far outpaced even the typical surge. One analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy group, found a 30 percent increase in homicides across 34 U.S. cities compared to 2019, and Jeff Asher, an independent crime analyst, found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities. An analysis of gun-violence data by Everytown, a gun-control advocacy group, suggests 2020 had the highest rate of gun deaths in the last 20 years.

Other types of crime, including rape and robberies, seemed to drop in 2020, likely due in part to stay-at-home orders. But homicides and shootings were already increasing between 2014 and 2019, meaning even a return to 2019 murder levels wouldn’t indicate crime is on a good track. 

“After 2014, shootings went up, and they continued to go up, and they accelerated wildly last year,” said John Roman, a crime researcher with the University of Chicago. “Why is that? We don’t know, but the thinking that it’s suddenly going to stop strikes me as wishful thinking. The best [crime] predictor of what happens this year is what happened last year.”

One challenge in interpreting crime data in general—and making sense of the 2020 surge in particular—is the slow pace at which it is published. National news outlets have run many stories highlighting the murder wave in large U.S. cities, painting a picture of spikes that are unique to those generally liberal, urban areas. “The U.S. saw significant crime rise across major cities in 2020 [a]nd it’s not letting up,” read one CNN headline from April typifying the genre. 

But one reason reporters tend to focus on crime in large cities is because they have the capacity to publish more frequent crime statistics, whereas other smaller towns and rural areas don’t or choose not to. 

The grim reality is that while murder spikes were most pronounced in large cities, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all U.S jurisdictions last year. Preliminary FBI data from nearly 13,000 law enforcement agencies found cities with 25,000 people or less saw 25 percent increases in murder last year, and mid-sized cities had increases ranging from 24-31 percent. Final FBI data will be published in September.

“Even in the suburbs and rural areas it was up 15 percent,” Asher told The Daily Beast. “Crime fell last year in America, but murder rose historically.”

So what are the most plausible explanations? One likely factor is a jump in the number of guns in America, which somehow has gotten even more out of hand. FBI data suggests nearly 40 million guns were sold last year, a 40 percent increase from 2019. New data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found roughly 20 percent of those who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners. 

The research also found 39 percent of American households now own guns, up from 32 percent five years earlier. 

“Gun crime usually occurs between people who know each other, and if you talk to cops, they’ll tell you that there are more than the traditional players who are now carrying guns,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

The research literature is clear, added Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University: more guns mean more gun deaths. Whether that means the huge increase in 2020 gun sales is the best explanation for spiking gun violence is less clear. 

“Honestly we don’t know, though we should know soon,” Webster said, pointing to the forthcoming data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF), which traces crime to specific guns. “Once that data comes out, we’ll be able to see in a fairly direct way: were those gun sales used quickly in crime, or is this just a coincidence.”

Webster said his main concern going forward is that more guns, combined with more guns in public places because states are making it easier to carry firearms legally, coupled with more illegally-carried guns due to a loosely regulated secondary gun market, all increase the chance for violence. “As a public health epidemiologist, basically what that translates to is more exposure to guns, more people in more places with firearms, and even though the vast majority are going to be safe and not harm themselves or others, some portion will,” he said.

The pandemic itself stands as another likely explanation for the increase in shootings and homicides. And, indeed, this overlaps with the increase in gun sales, as purchases spiked in the early months of the pandemic, even before police-violence protests stoked fears of unrest. The pandemic weakened community institutions that experts say typically help deter crime. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and criminologist at Princeton, has said the corresponding disconnection from places like schools and pools and rec centers all help increase the conditions that may lead to violent behavior.

Roman at the University of Chicago, too, has argued that the disruption of routine activities for large numbers of young men in poor areas likely contributed to violence with other young men in similar situations. But he told The Daily Beast that the infusion of federal stimulus funds to state and local governments should help support those institutions and individuals who help keep people from committing crime and being victim to crime, including therapists and social workers, and libraries and pools.

A less plausible explanation for the rise in homicides, though one that gets quite a bit of airtime on cable news, is the so-called de-policing theory, which suggests police have scaled back their work in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Dating to at least 2014, the suggestion has been that police are either doing their jobs less well because of low morale from being criticized, or simply being less proactive in the field out of fear of discipline or even criminal punishment. Some pundits have pointed to cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw stark increases in homicides last year, as evidence that activist pressure to “defund the police” is driving the murder surge.

But even some law-enforcement leaders acknowledge the weaknesses of the defund theory.

Laura Cooper, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police executives in the U.S. and Canada, told The Daily Beast that the defund the police movement “has not been pervasive” across their membership cities. And, she noted, “in a lot of places, they’ve actually increased police budgets.” Cooper added their data shows violent crime has increased, even in the first quarter of 2021, regardless of whether cities increased or decreased their police budgets. 

That’s not to say tensions with the police have had no relationship to crime levels. If police are perceived as illegitimate, then community members tend to be less likely to cooperate or assist cops in investigations. “If you ask police chiefs what will make a difference, they will tell you that the most important thing is regaining public trust with the community,” said Wexler. “It sounds sort of fuzzy, but it’s not.”

One likely explanation for 2020 gun violence that gets less airtime is the opioid crisis and the corresponding explosion of open-air drug markets. Preliminary CDC data suggests more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 29 percent increase from 2019. Black Americans were disproportionately affected, and the drug overdoses were driven largely by fentanyl and other opioids.

Roman said the fentanyl crisis could help explain some of the geographic spillover in shootings and homicides we’re seeing. “Open-air drug markets are the ultimate recipe for violence,” he said. “You have dealers fighting over customers, customers fighting with dealers, wholesale networks on top of that competing for market share. New beefs, turf wars, gangs.”

Roman thinks one reason politicians focus less on opioids is because it’s just a massive problem that defies demographic realities, and has no obvious solution. “But it’s pretty myopic,” he said. “We have this huge [opioid] problem we all know about it. And we’ve decided it isn’t related to this other murder problem that takes place in the exact same space.”

Webster of Johns Hopkins agrees the role of drugs and illegal drug markets is “an under-examined” factor. 

“The increase that we’re seeing in overdose deaths really is a signal that obviously drug markets are very active places,” he said. “So I actually suspect that there is a connection, though what we do about is a far more challenging question.” Webster believes drug markets are a less-studied factor because they’re just harder to measure, and “we get too comfortable” with other explanations, like policing and anger over it. 

The first few months of 2021 have shown few signs of improvement in terms of shootings and homicides. One analysis from Asher of 37 cities suggested murders were up 18 percent over the same period last year, and gun sales have continued apace

As the public and elected officials grapple with these and forthcoming crime statistics, there will be a familiar pressure to respond by increasing police budgets, even though policing is more of an indirect response to violence. Indeed, in the New York City mayoral race, three leading candidates have all backed more resources for cops even as rivals call for the NYPD to be defunded. 

But if spending more on police can have a marginal benefit in crime reduction, as the country learned from its largest protest wave in history, it can also help provoke backlash and long-term community harm. 

“I think the story is pretty simple and we make it pretty complicated,” said Roman. “The reason you get a gun is because you’re afraid of someone using that gun against you. What we can do is change how fearful people are of other people with guns. That’s really the only way out. It’s the difficult path, and it’s not clear how much of that runs through traditional policing.” 

New York City Unions Prepare to Shift Retirees Off Medicare

Originally published in The Intercept on June 8, 2021.

NEW YORK CITY public sector unions are pushing a plan to move retirees from Medicare to privatized health insurance, drawing intense protest from thousands of members. The move, which could affect 200,000 municipal retirees — including retired teachers, sanitation and park workers, firefighters, and staff from the City University of New York — and their 50,000 dependents, could be finalized as soon as July 1. But many members are hoping to stop it.

In New York City, public sector retirees are insured by Medicare, the federal government’s program for people over 65, and the city reimburses for outpatient care, as well as for a supplemental “Medigap” plan that offers additional services. The proposed switch, which would move retirees to privatized health insurance through a program known as Medicare Advantage, comes as retiree health care costs continue to climb, putting strain on city budgets and union negotiating power.

Stu Eber, president of the Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations, which advocates for retired city workers, told The Intercept that his organization is concerned that retirees will lose access to their current providers and at existing Medicare rates; that not all local hospitals currently accept Medicare Advantage, including the illustrious Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; and that Medicare Advantage typically requires patients to seek permission from an insurance company for tests and procedures. “We do not have these barriers now, and we do not want them in the future,” Eber said. “Gatekeepers can delay our necessary health care and even kill us.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the New York City teachers union, told local labor publication The Chief that embracing Medicare Advantage was “our way of not sitting back” as health care costs continue to weaken the union’s ability to win teacher salary increases and other benefits. “The last thing I want is for health care to be at the center of every collective-bargaining negotiation,” Mulgrew said.

In 2018, New York City’s Office of Labor Relations negotiated an agreement with the Municipal Labor Committee, which represents retired city employees, to save $600 million annually in health care costs, beginning in 2021. Switching to Medicare Advantage was one of eight ideas put forward at the time; others included consolidating drug pricing and auditing insurers for claims and accuracy.

The city has yet to release specific details of the Medicare Advantage plan, including its proposed private provider. As more members have gotten wind of the health insurance switch in recent months, New York’s public sector unions have been attempting to quell the mounting anger.

In mid-March, Eber sent a letter to the Municipal Labor Committee and Mayor Bill de Blasio admonishing them for having never consulted with the 200,000 retirees and their families about Medicare Advantage. “The lack of transparency in your rush to change this program is both insulting and frightening to those of us who have collectively worked millions of years serving the people of New York City,” Eber wrote.

“I definitely do not want to go on Medicare Advantage, and I’ve been very, very upset since I’ve found out about this,” said Shelley Cohn, a retired public school teacher who has been on Medicare for the last six years. “It’s a disgrace.”

Cohn and over 15,000 retirees have signed a petition urging for the continuation of Medicare Part B benefits. “We contributed to Medicare during our years of employment with the tacit understanding that we will have the hard earned entitlement when we turned 65,” the petition reads. Teachers also point to the United Federation of Teachers’s own multiple resolutions against privatized health insurance and de Blasio’s stated opposition to privatized health insurance when he ran for president.

MEDICARE ADVANTAGE WAS launched in the early 2000s with the stated goals of giving consumers more choice in their health insurance offerings and reducing overall Medicare costs. Monthly premiums in Medicare Advantage plans are typically lower compared to those offered by traditional Medicare, and the plans often include additional benefits like vision and dental that traditional Medicare plans don’t provide.

The convenience of “one-stop shopping” for benefits and lower premiums have served as attractive incentives for seniors, many of whom live on fixed incomes. More than 24 million Americans were enrolled in such Medicare Advantage plans as of last summer, roughly 43 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries.

The concern, though, is that while Medicare Advantage may seem like a good financial deal to relatively healthy seniors, as they get older and develop more complicated health care needs, they could end up paying much more than they would have under Medicare. With traditional Medicare, retirees can access the majority of health care providers, and patients are not required to get pre-authorization from insurance companies to receive any tests or procedures their physicians recommend.

A deputy commissioner from the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations acknowledged that such pre-approval from insurance would likely be required for municipal retirees under a shift to Medicare Advantage. Cost savings often come from making it harder for patients to access services.

Diane Archer, president of Just Care, which offers health and financial information to seniors, said if New York City moves forward with the shift, “they’ll be saving money on the backs of retirees” who need expensive care. Corporations and unions nationwide have been able to avoid an outcry over similar cost-cutting moves “because the majority of people they’re moving are in good health and value what appears to be additional benefits; they generally don’t understand the financial and administrative barriers to care they will face when they need costly care.”

A mayoral spokesperson told New York Focus that any new health care plan “will increase both quality and benefits for retirees” and “will also remain free for them while lowering costs for the City.” A spokesperson for the city did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

In a statement provided to the Intercept, United Federation of Teachers spokesperson Alison Gendar said the union is seeking to create a plan that “replicates the network size and structure of the current … plan, without any reduction in benefit.” The UFT’s position, Gendar added, is that any new health care plan “must provide our members with the same or improved benefit structure. Members must have access to the same doctors in addition to having the choice of any Medicare-eligible providers.”

In a meeting with the UFT retirees’ chapter on May 4, Mulgrew, the teachers union president, stressed that the union’s plan would not be like the “horror stories” members had been hearing.

“Unions can negotiate something better for their retirees than people can get on their own in the Medicare marketplace, but I don’t think it will be anywhere as good as what they have now,” said Archer. “Mulgrew explains that people will still have premium-free care, but he doesn’t explain that they could have out-of-pocket costs that will be prohibitive if they develop a complex condition.”

NEW YORK CITY labor groups aren’t the first unions to look to Medicare Advantage as a way to cut costs. Experts predict that there could be a marked increase across the country over the next few years as local budgets come under more strain.

Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, noted that Medicare Advantage is being considered at a time when organized labor is under attack from multiple levels, including over pensions and retiree health care. Unlike traditional Medicare, Medicare Advantage invests heavily in sales representatives who market their products nationwide. “They always have an answer, but it’s just like if you’ve ever been pitched to buy a timeshare,” Lawson said. “Yeah, those people make a good pitch; it doesn’t change the fact that it’s just a hustle.”

Lawson predicted that other big-ticket unions will follow the UFT’s lead. “I don’t think you could say right now that you know for certain how it’s going to go based on the experience of other unions,” he said, but he believes that the UFT is “generally at the beginning” of the trend.

Health care researchers say it’s not necessarily true that New York City retirees will be worse off under Medicare Advantage, but the lack of good data makes it hard to be confident. “Surprisingly little is known about how much Medicare Advantage enrollees pay out of pocket for the services they receive overall, across plans, according to health condition, or in comparison to beneficiaries in traditional Medicare (with or without supplemental coverage),” wrote Kaiser Family Foundation researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018.

Jason Abaluck, an economist at Yale whose research found great variation among Medicare Advantage plans, told The Intercept the existing evidence “is not completely clear that [New York City retirees] will not have a more efficient plan and of the same quality” under Medicare Advantage.

One reputable study from 2018 found that when Medicare Advantage patients were forced off their plans because their private provider exited the market, the patients who switched to traditional Medicare ended up utilizing hospitals much more often, but there was no change in mortality rates. Abaluck said that while mortality doesn’t capture everything, the study “counts as evidence against the claim that Medicare Advantage plans are harming people by spending less, but it is far from definitive.”

Other studies have shown that individuals in Medicare Advantage plans tend to utilize fewer health care services, including preventative care. “This suggests that some of the tools that Medicare Advantage plans are using to control costs are pretty blunt instruments,” said Abaluck. Some research has suggested that individuals with poorer health tend to disenroll from Medicare Advantage plans more often. A 2018 Office of Inspector General report found evidence of inappropriate delays and denials of care and coverage under Medicare Advantage plans, which also suggests that beneficiaries had initially been denied services and payments they were entitled to receive.

This past spring, in an annual federally mandated analysis on Medicare, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission wrote that “the current state of quality reporting in [Medicare Advantage] is such that the Commission can no longer provide an accurate description of the quality of care.”

David Meyers, a Brown University health policy researcher, told The Intercept that much more work is needed to understand how Medicare Advantage plans work for the sickest patients with the most serious needs. One study Meyers worked on found that Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were more likely to enter lower quality nursing homes than those on traditional Medicare. Other research by Meyers found that about 30 percent of Medicare Advantage plans have narrow primary care networks, and even more have narrow psychiatry as well as mental and behavioral health options. Limiting provider options is “one way plans can save money,” Meyers said.

“We’ve gotten some verbal assurances from the unions, like Mulgrew said Memorial Sloane Kettering would accept Medicare Advantage, but let’s see that in writing,” said Eber. “No one has given us a written explanation of how the city expects to save $600 million, yet the vendor is going to make a profit and retirees won’t pay the price.”

Biden Says He Backs a Just Transition for the Climate Crisis. Advocates Say, “Prove It.”

Originally published in In These Times on June 2.

One of the most difficult problems that political leaders have faced in addressing climate change has not involved the science or technology, but the politics, including bringing key constituencies like energy workers and their labor unions on board. This skepticism and resistance to change is why a so-called ​“just transition” — referring to an ethical and economically secure shift away from a fossil-fuel powered economy — has become so integral to crafting a successful climate plan. 

Figuring out how to provide economic security for both energy workers that have depended on the nation’s fossil fuels and frontline communities has become a leading priority for activists and elected officials alike. The Biden administration, for its part, has thrown its weight behind developing a just transition, though some advocates tell In These Times that federal leaders haven’t gone far enough, or worry the executive branch’s rhetoric won’t deliver real results. Other researchers have called for more careful study of past economic transitions, as well as more firm commitments around social programs such as universal healthcare. 

On January 27, one week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order establishing an interagency working group focused on addressing the economic needs of ​“coal, oil, gas, and power plant communities.” The group, co-chaired by National Economic Council director Brian Deese and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, is a collaboration between 12 federal agencies including the labor, interior, treasury and energy departments. 

In late April the working group published an initial report identifying 25 of the most impacted regions for coal-related declines, and highlighted existing federal programs that could provide nearly $38 billion in funding for relief. The report noted that ​“creating good-paying union jobs in Energy Communities is necessary but not sufficient” and stressed that ​“foundational infrastructure investments” including broadband, water systems, roads, hospitals and other institutions would be necessary to economically revitalize these areas. The group also noted that a just transition would require prioritizing pollution mitigation and environmental remediation, like plugging leaking oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land. These objectives hold the potential not only for job creation but also achieving environmental justice priorities.

Next steps from the working group include organizing town halls with senior Biden administration officials in affected communities like those in Appalachia, the Northern Rocky Mountain region, the Illinois Basin, and the Mid-Continental Gulf Coast, and establishing a centralized mechanism for distributing federal resources. 

Near the end of its second term the Obama administration launched its own interagency effort to provide grant funding and technical assistance to communities impacted by the transition to renewable energy. Known as the POWER Initiative, the effort was never subject to a formal Government Accountability Office evaluation but a 2019 analysis prepared by the Congressional Research Service determined some of its legacy programs continued to be active and receive annual appropriations under the Trump administration. The Appalachian Regional Commission credited the POWER Initiative for investing over $200 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, told In These Times that the Biden administration’s effort is ​“the POWER Initiative on steroids.” (Walsh convened the POWER Initiative prior to joining BlueGreen.)

Just infrastructure

Biden also included some measures to support a just transition in his recently released infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, such as a $16 billion fund that would finance energy workers plugging oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines. ​“In addition to creating good jobs in hard-hit communities, this investment will reduce the methane and brine that leaks from these wells, just as we invest in reducing leaks from other sources like aging pipes and distribution systems,” reads one White House fact sheet.

The American Jobs Plan also endorses an $100 billion investment in projects such as affordable broadband access and calls for a new $40 billion Dislocated Worker Program at the Labor Department.

Walsh, of BlueGreen, said more is needed to support workers on the legislative front, and that his group has been having ​“an open dialogue” with the administration on how to make those supports a reality. ​“We need to start from recognition that our existing Department of Labor programs are not designed to sufficiently support workers who are dislocated, they just don’t provide enough support,” he said.

Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said he worries the proposed amounts of spending in the American Jobs Plan are too low — and others too vague in their description. With respect to the $16 billion for plugging oil and gas wells, for example, Richardson noted that the plan ​“doesn’t specify the breakdown in cleaning up these sites, but it’s likely that this amount is insufficient to meet the needs.” Other development initiatives were mentioned in the American Jobs Plan, such as the Economic Development Administration’s Public Works program, but without proposed funding levels. Richardson notes the plan is also silent on other important areas relevant to a just transition, like the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and removing loopholes from our nation’s bankruptcy laws that have enabled corporations to abdicate responsibility to their workers.

Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, a philanthropic effort focused on helping coal communities, called Biden’s infrastructure plan ​“an ambitious first step.”

Lawmakers in Congress have pushed forward just transition bills that overlap with priorities in the American Jobs Plan. Last month, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D‑NM) introduced an $8 billion bill called the Orphaned Wells Cleanup and Jobs Act. ​“Communities suffer when oil and gas companies abandon their drilling sites and don’t clean them up,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D‑NM) in a statement supporting the bill. ​“I look forward to the day when these hazardous sites are a thing of the past.”

In the Senate, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D‑NM) introduced the Schools and State Budgets Certainty Act, aimed at helping states like New Mexico wean off the money they currently rely on from the federal fossil fuel leasing program. (The leasing program accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s annual carbon output and generated nearly $8.1 billion in tax revenue for the federal, state, local and tribal governments last year.

Nicole Ghio, a senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth, said while she has some concern with Heinrich’s bill as presently drafted, her group strongly supports the legislative goal of helping states decouple their revenue from the federal leasing program as part of a just transition. ​“We’ve seen what an unmanaged decline of fossil fuels looks like,” she told In These Times. ​“We need to avoid repeating what’s happened in Appalachia.”

What energy workers need

Outside of the proposals made by the White House and in Congress, advocacy groups are helping to highlight the urgency of making a just transition central to any climate and infrastructure plans.

report published in March by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports unions in tackling climate change, featured lessons and interviews with more than 100 workers, Indigenous leaders and community representatives about navigating workplace closures, the climate crisis and major upheavals in local economies. The Just Transition Listening Project spotlights some encouraging examples of what a just transition might look like, such as the Redwood Employee Protection Program of 1978, a federal initiative that supported dislocated timber workers. That program provided up to six years of pay, benefits, vacation, relocation and retraining for full-time and seasonal workers and a three-year bridge to retirement for those 62 and over.

The report also highlighted the justified skepticism from some workers that new clean energy jobs would offer comparable standards of living, and it explored tensions between environmental justice activists and union members.

Mijin Cha, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and one of the report’s co-authors, told In These Times that it’s important to remember that fossil fuel jobs themselves were not necessarily good jobs when they first came online. ​“We have created a lot of low-paying renewable energy jobs but there’s no reason they have to be,” she said. ​“It’s through worker organizing and worker power that they can become good jobs.” The Just Transition Listening Project endorses passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, federal legislation that would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing and establish new rules so that employers can’t delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts. This type of pro-union legislation would help give renewable energy workers more power on the job. 

Still, worker skepticism on quality job creation is understandable, as ​“it took decades and decades of bargaining to make those jobs well-paying and provide pensions,” said Todd Vachon, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, and another report co-author. Labor laws today are also much weaker compared to the 1930s, though the PRO Act would help address that.

Common themes that emerged in Just Transition Listening Project interviews included fears over the sustainability of replacement jobs as well as the affordability of healthcare, retirement and education. To ease these concerns, the report authors recommend instituting universal programs like Medicare for All that would help alleviate a lot of the anxiety that sparks opposition to economic transitions. The authors also explored the idea of creating universal transition programs not just for energy workers but also for workers facing dislocation from automation and outsourcing. ​“If we could really provide a robust social safety net, it would make a huge difference,” said Dimitris Stevis, a political science professor at Colorado State University and another report co-author.

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, commended Biden’s team for endorsing the passage of the PRO Act to help workers unionize, but he lamented that the administration and even most Democrats haven’t embraced single-payer healthcare. ​“The fact that that’s not really a part of the just transition conversation shows how lacking in a comprehensive vision the administration and political leadership’s vision is,” he said.

Walsh of BlueGreen alliance said that ideally there would be a generous universal dislocated worker program. ​“I would love to be able to work toward that, though I’m skeptical we’ll get there,” he said. ​“I also want to take advantage of the opportunity we have over the next 4 – 6 months to pass infrastructure legislation and fight hard for energy workers who are most impacted right now.” 

Cha of Occidental said serious gaps still exist in our understanding about how past economic transitions have played out. ​“We don’t really know what happened, where the workers were displaced to,” she said. ​“We have general numbers, but we don’t have good qualitative data and it’s all really incomplete.”

The researchers think Covid-19 has impacted the conversation around a just transition as well, as millions of workers experienced very recent and concrete job losses and disruptions from the pandemic. Following the report’s publication the authors led a congressional briefing for House and Senate staff, and have been in subsequent discussions with some of those offices, according to Labor Network for Sustainability spokesperson Judy Asman.

Asman said her group also submitted recommendations based on the report to Biden’s interagency task force, and presented their findings to Greenpeace International, Last Chance Alliance, and some labor organizations, though she declined to specify which. 

Cha said the important thing for lawmakers to realize is that they don’t have to start from scratch. ​“We know how to meet the immediate material needs of workers so they don’t have to be in crisis,” she said. ​“We know that wage supplements and universal programs can give workers and communities time to develop what they need. We know what people need on a basic level.”