Will Nancy Pelosi Move The PRO Act?

Originally published in The Intercept published on December 2, 2019.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI has made no secret of her desire to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement by the end of the year, telling reporters recently that it would be her goal for the House to vote on it before Christmas. Centrist Democrats have been insisting privately that a quick passage for the trade deal is necessary for moderate members of Congress to win their competitive reelections in 2020, to show they can “do something.” Unions have made clear, though, that from their perspective, USMCA lacks real labor enforcement mechanisms, which could undermine the whole deal, further drag down wages, and eliminate more jobs.

Meanwhile, a top priority for labor has been sitting quietly on Pelosi’s desk and, unlike USMCA, already commands enough support to get it over the House finish line. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would be the most comprehensive rewrite of U.S. labor law in decades. It would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing, crack down on worker misclassification, and establish new rules so that employers cannot delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts. Introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., in May, it already has 215 co-sponsors in the House and 40 in the Senate.

The PRO Act passed the House Committee on Education and Labor on September 25 on a party-line vote. But two months later, Pelosi has still not moved to bring the bill to the House floor, nor has she given any indication of when she would. Her office did not return requests for comment.

“I don’t know exactly what the holdup is — it is taking longer than it should given the number of co-sponsors that we have,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. “Many other bills have come to the floor with fewer co-sponsors than this one.”

Jayapal told The Intercept that she believes that House leadership remains committed to the bill and that she and the Progressive Caucus have been pressuring them to bring it to the floor. “I think it is really critical for us as Democrats,” she said. “And anyone on the Democratic side who is wary of expanding collective bargaining I think should be thinking really clearly about why that would be.”

Rep. Mark Pocan, the other Progressive Caucus co-chair, said they’re working hard to make sure the bill gets calendared, but acknowledged that “there’s probably somewhat limited bandwidth” for the PRO Act given the intense focus on hashing out labor provisions in the trade deal, and the House’s desire to finish passing the drug-pricing bill.

“Because of that, we’re probably having a more difficult time getting an exact date. There’s a lot of work happening right now,” he said.

Dan Mauer, director of government affairs for the Communications Workers of America, told The Intercept that the delay to bring the vote to the floor has been “very frustrating” and that his union has made it clear to House leadership that members would be “very unhappy” if the House does not prioritize the bill by the end of the year.

“We get it’s hard, there’s a lot of stuff on people’s plates, and at the same time, this bill already has a lot of demonstrated support,” he said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Intercept over email that her union is also urging Congress to pass the PRO Act before the end of the year. “Currently, employers have carte blanche to abuse their power and dissuade workers from joining a union, but consider the flipside — in cities and states with a strong union presence, wages, benefits, and job security are better across the board,” she said. “Congress can do something concrete to rebalance the ledger, and the time to act is now.”

A repeal of right-to-work would mean that states could no longer impose bans on unions charging private-sector workers mandatory fees for collective bargaining, even if they are not dues-paying union members. In 2018, the Supreme Court effectively nationalized right-to-work in the public sector when it ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that no fee or payment may be deducted from a public-sector worker unless the employee “affirmatively consents” to pay.

While Pelosi has voiced concern that the impeachment against President Donald Trump might distract from advancing the Democrats’ legislative agenda, she is not moving the PRO Act, which is in a strong position for passage. The legislation builds on the House Democrats’ 2017 “Better Deal” agenda, which included many labor commitments also laid out in the PRO Act. “We want to put this out to the public,” Pelosi said at the time. “Public sentiment is everything.”

Aside from having co-sponsors, public sentiment for unions is also at one of its highest points in the last 50 years, according to Gallup’s annual polling. Sixty-four percent of Americans approve of unions, up 16 points since 2009.

While the House did vote to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour this summer, union advocates also felt that House leadership dragged its feet on bringing that bill to a full vote. It passed the House labor committee in March but didn’t come to the floor until July.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business lobbying group, is spending thousands of dollars ginning up opposition to the PRO Act, running ads on Facebook and Twitter. The chamber is also spending heavily on ads in support of USMCA, urging viewers to tell Congress to pass the trade deal.

“I do worry that by delaying [on the PRO Act], we just give the chamber and others the opportunity to prevent passing this legislation,” Jayapal said.

The last time Congress was in a position to pass a major rewrite to labor law was in 2009, when Democrats unsuccessfully pushed the Employee Free Choice Act. Labor leaders disagree over why EFCA ultimately failed. Some blamed moderate Democrats, others blamed then-President Barack Obama, and still others chalked it up to a weak ground game from labor and progressives in holding Congress accountable in the face of intense corporate opposition. The death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, who was chair of the Senate labor committee and then succeeded by a Republican, surely didn’t help. Neither did aggressive lobbying by the chamber. “This will be Armageddon,” the vice president for labor policy at the Chamber of Commerce complained at the time.

Some unions appear more resigned to the idea that it’s already too late for the bill to pass this year.

“The Teamsters would love the PRO Act to be considered by the full House as soon as possible, although time is running short for that to happen in 2019,” a spokesperson told The Intercept over email.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders also praised the House for its efforts so far to support workers, but avoided saying that his union expects to see the PRO Act wrapped up by the holidays. “We expect progress to continue” on bills like the PRO Act, and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would bring labor reform to the public-sector workforce, he told The Intercept. “With this political and grassroots landscape, we have every expectation that our elected officials will give working people the freedom to shrink the widening wealth gap and the voice they need to strengthen their communities.”

Mauer of CWA was more direct in raising the potential consequences for not moving swiftly, pointing to the need to galvanize union members before the next election.

“If you want real strong worker excitement that will get union activists excited for 2020, this is what we need to get it; the PRO Act is really it,” he said. “We absolutely think this is a key thing, not just legislatively but politically.”

As Longest-Serving Senate President in US History Steps Aside, Maryland Set For A Political Shakeup

Originally published in The Intercept on November 15, 2019.

For as long as anybody in Maryland can remember, any effort to pass progressive legislation in this deeply blue state began with one vexing question: What do we do about Mike?

Thomas “Mike” Miller, the longest serving state Senate president in U.S. history, has been a formidable barrier to progressive action for decades. A member of the Maryland Senate since 1975, the conservative Democrat has been the chamber’s top leader for the last 32 years, wielding unparalleled and deft power over politics, careers, and how or whether bills move forward in Annapolis. Allied with the state’s top lobbyists, he is who progressives have blamed over the years for stalling, thwarting, and watering down top legislative priorities like raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid sick leave, and reforming marijuana laws. “Why does Maryland punch below its weight class in terms of progressive legislation? It’s because of leadership,” said Kim Propeack, the political and communications director for CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights group. “People want to honor Mike Miller’s legacy, and I think that’s appropriate, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that we have the most conservative versions of, and that’s in large part because of him.”

In theory, Maryland could be passing model legislation in the same way New York, Massachusetts, California, and Washington state have been doing. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, the state has not cast its votes for a Republican president since 1988, and even with Republican governors sometimes at the helm, Democrats have retained a decadeslong veto-proof majority in the state Senate.

Progressives tried to take down Miller in 2018, mounting a primary challenge under the banner of “Take a hike, Mike.” While Miller ultimately won his reelection, unions, the Maryland Working Families Party, and other statewide left-wing organizations did manage to unseat a handful of other powerful incumbents tied to Miller. Among those ousted included the Senate Finance Committee chair, who many thought would eventually succeed Miller as president; the Senate Health and Environmental Affairs Committee chair; and the president pro tempore, the Senate’s second most powerful Democrat. Despite those wins, progressives’ ability to influence change in Annapolis remained limited, as Miller still controlled committee assignments and how legislation moves forward.

Maryland’s political landscape, however, drastically changed late last month, when Miller announced his resignation as Senate president due to complications from his cancer treatment. Come next year, he will continue to be a rank-and-file senator, but the state Senate will instead be led by Bill Ferguson, a 36-year-old progressive lawmaker from Baltimore, and one of the most vocal advocates for public education funding in Annapolis.

“It’s revolutionary, honestly,” said Propeack.

Larry Stafford, the executive director of Progressive Maryland, celebrated.“Now there’s more hope for finally having a more just and fair system of taxation in Maryland,” he said, “something that Mike Miller has not been supportive of in terms of the wealthy paying their fair share.”

FERGUSON’S ASCENSION TO the Senate presidency was something of a coup for progressives in Annapolis. Even with several of Miller’s closest allies having lost their seats in 2018, the expectation was that a more senior-level, establishment-friendly Democrat would take the reins.

Four prominent senators had been gunning for the role in a behind-the-scenes battle last month, but none were proving they could win the 17 votes necessary to win the nomination. Then, as the Baltimore Sun reported, the influential Senate Finance Committee chair, 83-year-old Delores Kelley, approached Ferguson and asked him to consider jumping into the fray. She liked his budgetary expertise, said his age shouldn’t deter him, and thought he could help break the succession impasse.

Miller was simultaneously applying pressure on the candidates to come to a nominating consensus, to avoid an acrimonious succession squabble. Some of the chamber’s more progressive senators began feeling nervous that the leading contender for the Senate presidency appeared to be Sen. Douglas J. J. Peters of Prince George’s County, an anti-abortion Democrat who also voted against same-sex marriage. “We played a role in backing up the message that someone who is anti-choice shouldn’t be the next senate president in Maryland in the year 2020,” said Stafford. After several weeks of campaigning around the state, Ferguson won out as the unanimous choice. Kelley played a key role shoring up votes for him too.

As Maryland Matters politics reporter Josh Kurtz noted, “While it’s not going to happen overnight, the culture in the Senate is going to change dramatically — more so, most likely, than if any of the other contenders to succeed Miller had prevailed.” Miller leaving his post is also expected to be a blow to the top lobbyists in Maryland, many of whom either served as Miller’s own political aides at one point or worked previously in the state Senate alongside him. Ferguson also accepts lobbyist and corporate donations, but Gerard Evans, a lobbyist who served as Miller’s top legislative assistant in the early 1980s, told the Washington Post he expects Ferguson to be more “participatory” in his legislative style and less reliant on a “key core” of people.

Ferguson’s new role will also help shift the balance of power in Annapolis from the D.C. suburbs — where Miller lived — to Ferguson’s home in Baltimore, which is much more heavily dependent on state assistance for basic municipal needs. Since May, the Maryland House of Delegates has also been led by someone from the Baltimore area: Adrienne Jones, a Democrat from Baltimore County, was elected speaker of the House in May to replace the previous speaker, who was from Anne Arundel County and had led the chamber for 17 years until his death in April.

Ferguson did not return requests for comment, and he’s been careful in recent weeks to give thanks and credit to Miller for his years of public service. “I have been humbled to learn such a great deal about leadership from Mike Miller in the last 9 years,” he wrote in an October 26 email to supporters. “As I transition into this new role, we will continue to work side by side as the Senate reaches new progress for all Marylanders.”

Stafford, of Progressive Maryland, says that immediate priorities for progressives next year will be campaign finance reform and passing a more equitable public education school funding formula.

“I’m most excited about the prospect for a small-dollar fund matching program and getting the influence of money out of politics in state-level elections,” he told The Intercept. “We’ve been able to win campaigns to pass public financing in Howard County, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore City, and we believe this shift with Miller will enable us to have more success in pushing that type of policy forward, which could further change the makeup of the state’s political landscape.” A study released this past September by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group found that candidates who participated in Montgomery County’s new public financing program attracted far more donors in the 2018 election than those who didn’t.

Maryland activists are also hoping to advance paid family leave and to remove the exemptions from their watered-down minimum wage law. They are also bracing for intense fights next session over public education. Lawmakers plan to convene next year over new school funding recommendations issued this past September by a 26-member state commission.

The Kirwan Commission, as it’s known, was established in 2016 by the state legislature (and named after William Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University of Maryland) to rewrite the state’s long-standing school funding formula. After several years of deliberations, the Kirwan Commission recommended a $3.8 billion increase in school spending over a decade, with about half of that money coming from county and city governments, and the other half from the state. The commission also included recommendations for how the new money should be spent, like raising teacher salaries, expanding pre-K, and investing more in schools with high concentrations of poverty. Activists are calling next year a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to fix the state’s inequitable education system.

According to a recent poll by Goucher College, about 70 percent of Maryland adults think the state spends too little on public schools, and nearly three-fourths said they would be willing to spend more on improving education. But Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has already made clear he plans to fight hard against the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations, vowing to oppose any major tax increases that would be necessary to implement the plan.

While Miller has said he would fight to move public education forward, his friendly relationship with the governor, and his own centrist track record, had progressives feeling wary about getting a strong school funding formula through the grinder next year. Ferguson, by contrast, was actually on the Kirwan Commission himself, previously taught in Baltimore with Teach for America, and now works a day job at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

“He has a history in education, is very knowledgeable on the state budget, and we believe he will be more willing to go toe-to-toe with the governor over this,” said Stafford. “We’re ready to go.”

D.C. Is Rapidly Gentrifying and the Fate of its Affordable Housing Hangs in the Balance

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 14, 2019.



For D.C., the problem is major and it is imminent: How can the city avoid the fate of San Francisco, where housing has grown so costly that barely anyone can afford to live in it? Though D.C. has not reached the notoriety of SF, where everyone from custodial staff to high-earning tech developers feel priced out, it’s already one of the most expensive cities in the country. And leaders know things could get much worse—if nothing changes.

More than 700,000 people live in the District, an increase of more than 100,000 since 2010. Demographers expect population growth to continue in D.C. through 2045, and already new jobs have been outpacing new housing.

The flood of new residents moving in has added intense pressure on the people who hope to stay. Renters across the income spectrum are paying more of their (largely stagnant) wages toward housing costs, with average rents for market-rate one-bedrooms in D.C. reaching nearly $2,000 per month in 2018, and $2,500 for two-bedrooms. According to Apartment List, a real estate and research site, almost half of D.C. renters spent more than a third of their incomes on housing last year, and nearly a quarter spent at least half.

While D.C. rents may not yet mirror those in the Bay Area, the District did earn its own dubious housing superlative this year. Three national studies published in 2019 came to the same conclusion: that D.C. leads the nation when it comes to neighborhood gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. Many of these residents are being pushed out to the suburbs, partly due to the city’s uniquely high-earning renter population. One report published earlier this year found that 13.9 percent of D.C. renters earn over $150,000, and with Amazon’s new headquarters slated to open in Crystal City, that figure could surely rise.

City leaders say they grasp the stakes, are ready to act, and are committed to expanding affordable housing throughout the District. But some of the poorest residents, and those who have lived in the city for decades, are skeptical that the government’s money will ultimately be spent for their benefit instead of getting lost in the dense network of developers, consultants, and public agencies overseeing housing in D.C. Will these policy discussions really result in quality housing for low-income Washingtonians? Who stands to win and lose in the process?


Housing is a deeply controversial issue, but there’s at least one idea around which city leaders have newly forged a consensus: Increasing the supply of housing in D.C. is essential to relieving cost pressure in the housing market. Or, flipped around, that in the absence of more housing, the city will grow even more unaffordable.

The Urban Institute, a national think tank, published a study in early September estimating that the Washington metropolitan region needs to produce 374,000 new housing units by 2030 to accommodate projected population growth.

A week later, the board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which represents 24 jurisdictions in the D.C. area, passed a non-binding resolution calling for at least 320,000 new housing units in the region by 2030, with 75 percent of that housing targeted to low- and middle-income families.

The city’s plans, so far, are more modest. In May, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed an order directing city agencies to study how D.C. can create 36,000 new housing units by 2025, with at least 12,000 of those designated “affordable.”

Then last month, after nearly three years of negotiations, the Council voted unanimously to approve the “framework element” to the Comprehensive Plan—a city document that’ll chart the next two decades of growth and development in D.C. The “framework element” is the first of 25 chapters, and it sets the tone and priorities for the rest of the plan.

It’s been 13 years since D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan was last rewritten, and the biggest changes between then and now, experts say, is new language emphasizing the need for more housing and development in all parts of the city, as well as language officials hope will make it harder to block new developments in court.

A week after the Council took its vote, at a press conference held at ElectriCityBikes in Tenleytown, Bowser and her Office of Planning Director Andrew Trueblood released two new reports—draft proposals for the remaining 24 chapters of the Comprehensive Plan, and neighborhood targets for how the city should distribute 12,000 new affordable units by 2025.

There are roughly 52,000 “dedicated affordable” units in D.C. today, with the majority concentrated in Wards 7 and 8, the poorest parts of the city. The mayor’s plan notably calls for building many more subsidized units in more affluent neighborhoods, like Rock Creek West and Capitol Hill, which have just 470 and 1,820 affordable units respectively.

This recommendation is reinforced by a separate planning process, conducted by the city, to certify that it is in compliance with federal civil rights law. Released in late September, the city’s new draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice includes findings such as: Many historically black D.C. neighborhoods have become increasingly white, and zoning and land costs hinder affordable housing in Wards 2 and 3. (Ward 3 was once home to a thriving middle class black community—one that fought for decades for its right to stay.)

“We have all these conversations about cost-pressures, but a fair housing lens is so rarely applied,” says Megan Haberle, the deputy director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, which the city hired to conduct the analysis along with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The mayor’s housing proposals, Trueblood emphasized at the October press conference, were informed by the first-ever housing survey recently administered the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing and Community Development. More than three quarters of the 2,760 respondents said the current distribution of D.C. subsidized housing—with the majority packed east of the Anacostia River—was unfair.

Public review of the mayor’s proposals is ongoing between now and Dec. 20, with ANC resolutions due Jan. 31. The Bowser administration will then prepare its legislative package to introduce by March, with the hope that the Council approves a full Comprehensive Plan by the end of 2020.


Mostly omitted from Comp Plan conversations is the hot-button issue of zoning. About 28 percent of the city’s land is zoned for residential use, and many advocates say easing up on zoning restrictions to allow for more kinds of development will be key to addressing housing affordability.

Nationally, housing policy has become increasingly focused on the role zoning plays in clamping down on housing supply. Many urbanists were thrilled when Minneapolis undertook major zoning reform last year. In December, the Minneapolis city council voted to end single-family zoning throughout their city, and instead allow residential structures with up to three units to be built in every neighborhood. The state of Oregon followed suit this past summer, voting to allow duplexes to be built in any single-family zoned neighborhood in any city with more than 10,000 people.

Alex Baca, a housing organizer with Greater Greater Washington—a local urban policy group that generally supports increased housing density—says “no one is ready to touch zoning right now” in D.C., but thinks probably in a year or so, once the Comprehensive Plan is finished, there will be more bandwidth to take up the issue. “The 2016 re-zoning process was very challenging,” she adds, referring to three years ago when the city made minor adjustments to its zoning code, like allowing more homeowners to rent out their garages and basements, and lowering the number of parking spots needed for new construction. (Baca is also a former City Paper assistant editor.)

At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the Council’s housing committee, tells City Paper that she too expects zoning reform will be necessary to meet D.C.’s affordable housing goals. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, also on the housing committee, agrees. “Our zoning code was drafted in 1920 and based on prohibitive covenants and redlining, we have a dark history of segregation and unfortunately the modern era has not rectified that,” she says. “So what we have to do is legalize more diverse types of housing across the city … we got language on affordable housing, reducing segregation, and racial equity [in the Framework Element] so now we have to do the land-use changes that put our money where our mouth is.”

But some housing advocates are uncomfortable by all the buzz around making it easier to build more homes, and question how affordable these units will really be.

“When the mayor talks about affordable housing to push more density, we just don’t see how building more will actually benefit existing residents,” says Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, a grassroots community organization. “If every time you put multiple units in the place where before there was one unit, it actually drives the price up.” And does building more subsidized units in affluent neighborhoods, she asks, mean there will be less money for housing in other wards?

“The reality is many single-family zoned houses are in black communities with black homeowners, and they are now facing pressure of rising tax costs, even when they’ve paid off their home,” Norouzi says. “If you want to use a racial justice lens, then you need to do a full analysis, and there are parts of the city where ending single-family zoning will do nothing but increase gentrification and displacement.”

Nancy MacWood, a Ward 3 ANC commissioner and trustee on the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a land-use group that generally backs tight D.C. zoning rules, also voices doubt that easing up on zoning would yield more affordable housing. “In Ward 7 where there is single family zoning, the land values are less than in the single family zoned areas in Ward 3, so a developer who buys a single family lot and redevelops it with multi-family housing is not going to be building affordable housing,” she says. “The real estate industry in the District, they’re always looking for new places to build, and new ways to make profit.”

Jeff Utz, a D.C. Building Industry Association board member focused on the Comp Plan, pushed back on the idea that the real estate industry is narrowly focused on its bottom line. “There is certainly no desire or focus on pushing people out, and that’s a sensitivity developers have as well, frankly,” he says. “Developers can be an easy punching bag and painted as a monolithic concept, but they live here and work here, on the same streets that are being developed. They are bought in on making sure that the city works and thrives for diverse communities.”


Amidst all this housing affordability discussion, a new citywide campaign just launched in October, dedicated to expanding and strengthening rent control.

In D.C., landlords with units covered by rent control can only raise rent once a year, and the rent can only increase by two percent plus the inflation rate. (Seniors and people with disabilities can apply for a lesser increase.) There is no official mechanism tracking how many units are still covered by rent control, though experts suspect the number hovers somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000. The Urban Institute estimates that between 1985 and 2011, due to redevelopment and loopholes in the statutes, the District lost approximately 50,000 units of rent-controlled housing.

D.C. rent control laws are set to lapse on Dec. 31, 2020, and councilmembers have already pledged to pass something before then, extending the program for an additional 10 years. The new Reclaim Rent Control campaign is aiming to use the Council’s upcoming rent control reauthorization to strengthen and expand its protections.

The campaign is driven by a coalition of over 30 local organizations, including housing and faith-based groups, and unions like the Washington Teachers’ Union, UNITE HERE, and SEIU. “Part of our theory of change is you need to unite the left and progressive interest groups and grassroots planning group to get this thing passed,” says Benjy Cannon, a UNITE HERE Local 25 spokesperson. He said coalition members plan on “confronting landlords head on.”

Just like zoning reformers in D.C. have been mobilized recently by actions in Minneapolis and Oregon, rent control advocates point to new victories in New York and California, where housing advocates successfully pressured lawmakers to strengthen tenant protections.

On Oct. 26, the coalition held a launch rally at Lamont Park in Mount Pleasant, turning out roughly 300 people. This week dozens of coalition members poured into the Wilson Building to testify in support of strengthening the laws.

“I did meet some members of the campaign, and they do have a very ambitious agenda, and I think some of what they are proposing can be realized, I really do, and I plan on working with them,” says Councilmember Bonds. “But I think at the same time we have to be realists about just how far we can move the needle because it is about dollars and cents as it relates to a company having the authority to make money and [also] provide our residents safe, sanitary, and hopefully attractive living environments.”

Earlier this year Bonds formed a working group of housing stakeholders—including advocates, landlords, and attorneys—to look at voluntary reforms to rent control. It ended in a stalemate. “Both sides continue to be very far apart,” she acknowledges.


Many questions remain about the mayor’s plan.

One is how leaders plan to prioritize the number of units versus the size. A study published this summer found a third of D.C.’s housing stock is considered family-sized, meaning it has at least three bedrooms, but most of those units are not affordable to lower-income families. The study was commissioned by the city amid protests over redeveloping Brookland Manor, a long-time affordable property in Northeast. Its owner wants to replace the property’s 535 large units with more than 1,750 luxury apartments, the majority of them being one- and two-bedroom.

“If someone says, ‘I can build you 50 affordable units, and they’re all one-bedroom, and someone else can do 30, and they’d be 3 and 4-bedroom, will the Bowser administration feel it has to go by unit count because they need to deliver on their 12,000 unit target?” asks Councilmember Nadeau.

It’s also not clear how exactly the city plans to overcome the “not in my backyard”-style political opposition that has derailed and killed so many housing projects in the past.

One strategy leaders are banking on is making it harder for anti-gentrification activists, as well as residents who want to block or control development in their neighborhoods, to use litigation to achieve their goals. Court challenges—one of the few ways people have fought against projects they worry could change a neighborhood for the worse—can delay construction for years and make an entire project much more expensive. Newly approved language in the Comprehensive Plan, leaders hope, will make it harder to stall future projects.

At the mayor’s press conference in October, an attendee asked Bowser if she’d be willing to go further, and support even more substantial changes to the legal standing of activists and residents who might want to challenge new development. She hinted that she would.

“I’m discouraging any developer who has the opportunity to build more affordable housing to not be scared away,” Bowser replied. “We will use every tool at our disposal that will discourage that … we need these units.”

The mayor is also sounding an optimistic note with regards to dealing with potential community opposition to new development, especially new affordable housing. “I think that we have to put [projects] in front of people that they can embrace,” she said recently on the “The Politics Hour” of the Kojo Nnamdi Show. “That add housing, that are close to amenities, that are close to Metro, and that they think add value to their quality of life. I think frequently when we talk about these things they are so abstract that people may have a knee-jerk opposition. So we want to give folks great projects that they can support.”

Yet while the mayor’s plan has developed specific targets for how many new units of affordable housing should be distributed throughout the city, it does not offer real details of how the city plans to manage and maintain those properties, or where in those neighborhoods new housing should actually go.

“Should they say how they’re going to build the 36,000 units?” asks Baca of Greater Greater Washington. “Yeah, but they won’t, and I’m not going to die on that hill. Having the mayor say we need more housing does more than we can do with 10 years of GGWash blogging.”


Unanswered questions about what affordable housing will really look like in practice also remain.

“Affordable” can mean a lot of things, but D.C. has adopted a definition that many cities use: housing that costs less than 30 percent of a household’s income, for households earning up to 80 percent of the region’s median income. Federal guidelines consider anyone earning below that 80 percent cutoff to be “low-income.” Households earning less than 50 percent are considered “very low-income,” and households earning less than 30 percent are “extremely low-income.”

As of July a “low-income” family of four in the D.C. region was one that earned up to $97,050 annually.

While the city has so far steered clear of detailing how affordable the 12,000 affordable units will be, Richard Livingstone, the interim deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Community Development, tells City Paper that “the intention is to create significant affordable housing” for those at the extremely low-income level. Doing so, he says, will come primarily through investing in programs like D.C.’s Local Rent Supplement Program, which offers residents vouchers to cover market-rate rent, and the Housing Production Trust Fund, which has produced over 10,000 affordable units in D.C. since 2001.

But production from the trust fund has slowed in recent years, as construction costs and other expenses have gone up. Reports published over the last two years by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson have also alleged leaders of the fund chronically mismanaged it and wasted tens of millions of dollars. And while the fund has been annually required to spend 40 percent of its resources on serving the city’s poorest residents, it met this target only once in the past five years, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Despite all these concerns, Councilmember Bonds says she wants to try increasing the budget for the Housing Production Trust Fund in the future. “I’m going to try to increase it to as close to $130 million, I think that would be helpful,” she tells City Paper. “If we can increase it more to $150 or $200 million, wow, just think what we could do.” Bowser also proposed increasing the housing trust fund to $130 million this past cycle.


While city leaders discuss committing new money and attention to affordable development, there is one type of subsidized housing that is getting extremely short shrift: public housing.

“Public housing is the only program that’s permanently affordable and permanently targets the lowest-income residents,” says Norouzi of Empower DC. Most new affordable housing in the District has targeted households earning 50 to 60 percent of the area median income, not 30.

The easiest explanation for why public housing gets less attention is that the federal government has disinvested in the program over the last few decades, leaving existing units nationwide to deteriorate. Last December, after conducting a multi-million dollar audit, the DC Housing Authority concluded that nearly a third of its public housing—2,500 units—demanded “extremely urgent” attention, and were nearly uninhabitable. Another 4,445 units were considered in “critical condition.”

In April, the Housing Authority’s director Tyrone Garrett said it would take $2.2 billion over the next 17 years to get the city’s public housing back into good shape. The Council budgeted $25 million for public housing rehab this year, but advocates say there’s many more ways to increase those investments in the future.

“In the past decade, D.C. has found funding for costly but important priorities such as WMATA and school modernization,” says Doni Crawford, a housing policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “The District has even found hundreds of millions for sports stadiums, so why not public housing?” She suggests scaling back development tax breaks, tapping into the city’s surplus, and using general obligation municipal bonds as some possible sources of revenue.

In late August, the Housing Authority published a draft “Transformation Plan” to address the future of city public housing, and accepted public comment on its plan through Sept. 27. Much of the Housing Authority’s vision involves transitioning units into the private sector through the federal government’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which converts public housing into Section 8 subsidized rentals, with affordability contracts that are supposed to renew in perpetuity. Housing advocates worry tenants may lose many of their rights through RAD conversions, and a coalition of eight advocacy groups, including Empower DC, Legal Aid Society, and Bread for the City submitted joint-comments to this effect. The draft plan, they wrote, is “virtually silent on the rights of residents [to return and once they are newly developed properties], the impacts of displacement, the very real challenges of renting with a voucher, or the years of harm endured by residents living in slum conditions.”

The Office of Planning tells City Paper, “public housing is a critical part of the District’s housing ecosystem” and says it is working with the Housing Authority and other agencies “to refine, improve, and implement their [Transformation] plan.”


In addition to producing more housing, funding new affordable units, and opening up land for denser construction, leaders say a key element of maintaining affordability in the District is preserving affordable units that already exist. But between 2006 and 2014, the city lost at least 1,000 units of subsidized housing, and another 4,700 dedicated affordable units have subsidies set to expire by 2025.

Peter Tatian, the Research Director of the Urban–Greater DC initiative at the Urban Institute, emphasized that not all projects with expiring subsidies are at risk of being lost as affordable housing, because in some cases the subsidies just renew. Nonetheless, Tatian helps maintain a database of subsidized housing that flags which properties are particularly vulnerable to being lost.

One way the city hopes to preserve affordable housing is by funding community-based organizations that work with tenants. These groups help low-income residents take advantage of city programs like the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which entitles tenants to buy the property where they reside if their landlord wants to sell.

Councilmember Nadeau thinks political action is key to preserving existing housing. “How do you preserve the units that have expiring subsidies?” she asks. “You do that by having an army of people out in communities who are talking to tenants about what that means and getting them organized so they can fight to preserve their affordability.”

In 2017, the city also established a $10 million Affordable Housing Preservation Fund, to leverage private dollars to help maintain, acquire, and rehabilitate existing affordable units. According to LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), a community development financial institution which helps manage the fund, the fund has already helped over 1,000 residents stay in their homes. While the Council almost zeroed out the preservation fund’s budget this year, lawmakers ultimately approved $11.8 million for it.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if the investments are large enough, the long-term vision bold enough, or even whether the city has the basic capacity necessary to meet its goals. City Paper has found, time and again, across several different government affordable housing programs, properties in desperate conditions. Many tenants deal with things like insect infestations, doors that don’t lock, debilitating asthma that is, at least in part, attributable to their housing, and sewage bubbling up in their tubs.

And planning officials seem relatively resigned to the fact that some affordable market-rate units currently available to residents just won’t be around in the future.

Older market-rate units that have lower rents without government subsidy are known as “naturally occurring” affordable housing. This subset of D.C. housing has been shrinking: According to the Office of Planning, there were 18,300 fewer “naturally occurring” affordable units available to lower-income families in 2017 than there were in 2006.

“Dedicated affordable” units, meaning subsidized housing for those earning up to 60 percent of the area median income, make up about 16 percent of D.C.’s housing stock. Add the “naturally occurring” affordable units to the mix, and you have roughly 21 percent of all housing in D.C.

But in its recently released Housing Equity Report, the Office of Planning noted that the loss of 18,300 “naturally occurring” affordable units suggests that over the next decade or two the remaining supply will no longer be affordable to low-income households. The city’s solution is to ensure that a third of its new housing production will be affordable, so that D.C. can make up for this loss. In other words, three decades from now city planners envision there will be roughly the same percentage of non-rent controlled dedicated affordable units in the city as there is now—21 percent.

If D.C. loses some of its existing subsidized units between now and 2025, will the city then adjust its housing production goals? Would a loss of 2,000 affordable units mean the city would commit to producing 14,000 new ones in a half-decade instead?

For now the city is saying yes, the 12,000 target is a net goal. “Lost units [would] increase the number of new affordable units that must be created,” Livingstone tells City Paper.

Marian Siegel, executive director of Housing Counseling Services, one of the community-based groups that works with residents who are fighting to protect their housing, says that while the city is making some efforts to ensure people who have lived here can stay, it’s not enough.

“The city has tremendous resources and has chosen to use many of those resources to engage new residents in feeling comfortable,” she says. “In general it’s a progressive city, but it often loses sight of how people are living.”

With the Help of Teachers Unions, the Climate Strikes Could Be Moving Into Phase 2

Originally published in In These Times on November 4, 2019.

As young people across the country join the global movement to mobilize school strikes to demand climate action, one group is starting to think more seriously about how to best support those efforts: their teachers.

Educators, like those in the California Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), are beginning to leverage their power both as teachers and union members to push the bounds of climate activism.

Kurt Ostrow, a high school English teacher in Fall River, Mass., has helped lead his union to the forefront of the climate movement over the last few years.

“Climate to me has always been the major crisis that needs to be addressed, and even though in the classroom I really try to prioritize it, it just doesn’t feel always enough,” he says. “So I have been trying to use the leverage that we have a as union of 110,000 people to support the movement.”

In his first year of teaching five years ago, Ostrow went as a delegate to MTA’s annual meeting, where the union’s social justice caucus—Educators for a Democratic Union—sought a teacher to introduce a resolution (known as a “New Business Item”) recommending the divestment of state pension plans from coal. Ostrow’s college friends had been leaders in the campus divestment movement, and he had always participated in their actions as an ally, so he was happy to volunteer to introduce it.

“We lost a quorum, so we weren’t able to take a vote on it, but the next year we did it again and it passed,” he said. “That was really how I first dipped my toes in.”

When the youth climate strikes took off last year, Ostrow, who now serves on the board of his statewide union, began thinking harder about how teachers could help them. At its March board meeting, he decided to introduce a resolution that the MTA would support the youth climate strike scheduled for March 15. It passed unanimously.

At the union’s next annual meeting, held in May two months later, leaders of the social justice caucus deliberated over what environmental resolutions they should introduce to best support the Green New Deal.

“I knew we could put forward a resolution that said MTA supports the Green New Deal, and I think that would have passed easily, but I really wanted to create a decision point, like a ‘which side are you on’ moment that would really force teachers to confront their own conscience,” he told In These Times. “So I decided to go radical, and I put forward a New Business Item calling for the MTA to propose a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal.”

It’s illegal for teachers to strike in Massachusetts, and following Ostrow’s impassioned speech at the conference, there was some heated debate. In the end, though, it passed.

Ostrow was pleasantly surprised. “I’m a member of the Sunrise Movement, and my dream is to try and coordinate our efforts with Sunrise’s long-term vision of striking for a Green New Deal,” he said. “So I was just trying to plant the seeds in members’ brains, but to be honest I hadn’t done any organizing around it. I wasn’t calling other locals and saying, ‘hey there will be this NBI and will you support it?’”

At the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual meeting in July, an MTA delegate introduced a resolution for the national union to also call for striking in support of the Green New Deal. It failed, with too many members nervous about the legality of such a move.

The next month, two high school students who were organizing for the September 20 global youth climate strike came out to the MTA’s August board meeting and asked the union to pass something backing their efforts.

The union did, and also upped its engagement in the weeks leading up to September 20.

“For the March strike, we just endorsed it, issued a press statement, and Max Page [the union’s vice president] spoke at a rally,” said Ostrow. “There wasn’t a lot of coordinated effort.”

Leading up to this strike, explained MTA’s president Merrie Najimy, the union did more outreach, and organized a statewide conference call with members to discuss how to get involved. “Our legal department wrote an advisory where the gist was to say you have this right to participate, and as an organizer you can push your principal, your superintendent, to make this a field trip day,” she said. “You have the right to take a personal day.”

On the day of the strike, Ostrow took his students down to a climate rally as part of a class field trip. He knows he was fortunate: In New York City, the school district, despite saying students could receive excused absences for participating in the climate strike, issued an order that barred teachers from going. The city’s education department decided that any employee participation, including class field trips or even staging walkouts on school property, would violate rules of ensuring a “politically neutral learning environment.”

The MTA’s work has continued since the strike. Last month at its latest board meeting, the union officially endorsed the Green New Deal, and a new member-driven climate crisis team is holding its first meeting in November. “Our goal will be to figure out how we can push the MTA to take more and more radical actions in support of the Green New Deal,” Ostrow said. One possible tactic is taking collective sick days. “If you can take off to take care of your kids, well the fact is Mother Earth is sick,” he said.

MTA is not the first teacher union to endorse the Green New Deal. In March, the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers passed a resolution in support of it, and was actually the first statewide labor organization in the country to adopt a climate justice agenda in 2016. That agenda includes support for fossil fuel divestment, for enacting climate legislation, and for educating members and students about the crisis.

Looking nationally

So far the national teacher unions have been more guarded.

AFT president Randi Weingarten marched with union members in New York City during the September 20 strike, but the statement she issued did not commit her labor organization to any real political action beyond educating children about the issues. “If we can help students learn about the science of climate change, help them understand free speech and citizen advocacy as part of civic education, and encourage their belief in themselves, we’ve done our job in helping the next generation secure their future,” Weingarten said.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA, has taken a similar approach. In a statement provided to In These Times, García said, “Educators around the nation are proud that their students are leading on climate change because they know it is an urgent threat. We teach our kids to be leaders in the classroom and their communities, so it is inspiring to watch them speaking up to demand action on the climate crisis from elected leaders.”

The NEA provides educators with resources to teach about climate change, and while delegates voted down the proposed resolution for a national strike at its most recent annual meeting, delegates did pass two less controversial measures—to encourage locals to compost, and to recommend schools incorporate the causes, effects, and solutions to climate change in their science curriculums.

Najimy, the MTA president, is more optimistic about growing activism from teacher unions. She pointed to a new working group on climate justice that’s forming with the national Bargaining for the Common Good network, a coalition of labor and grassroots organizations dedicated to leveraging union contracts for social justice. “When we go back to the bargaining table, we can use our power in labor to negotiate new ways of acting for the climate,” she said.

College faculty, like their K-12 counterparts, are also starting to organize in support of their students.

Leading up to September’s climate strike, a small group of professors organized an open letter calling on fellow educators to cancel classes and strike. Almost 830 people signed it. Two of the organizers, Jonathan Isham, an economics and environmental policy professor at Middlebury, and Lee Smithey, a peace and conflict studies professor at Swarthmore, co-authored Guardian op-ed in late August urging the same thing. “We risk losing credibility with an entire generation of students if we cannot take action in support of the defining cause of their generation,” they wrote.

Isham works at Middlebury with environmental activist Bill McKibben, and he taught McKibben’s seven 350.org co-founders back when they were college students. In an interview, Isham said he understands it can be easier in some ways for college faculty to take off compared to public school teachers. He praised his university’s HR department for being supportive of faculty who wanted to cancel classes for the strike, as professors were given the option to take a personal day off. Isham doesn’t even teach on Fridays, so it was especially easy for him to participate in Middlebury’s rally that day.

“I think the number-one thing educators can do is educate, and share what we know about the climate crisis and climate instability with our students,” he said. “That is our primary job, but I like to say the classroom has porous walls, and I think it’s important to also get out in the world and stand up as a citizen.”

Why Labor Unions Are Looking to 26-Year-Old Jessica Cisneros

Originally published in The Intercept on November 1, 2019.

EVER SINCE 26-YEAR-OLD Jessica Cisneros announced that she would be challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar in the primary for Texas’s 28th District with the support of Justice Democrats, the primary unfolded about as well as Cisneros could have expected. The Cuellar campaign dismissed her as an out-of-touch leftist with few roots in her community. Cisneros plowed ahead, swore off corporate PAC and lobbyist money, and began putting together her volunteer operation. The national press, perpetually on the hunt for “the next AOC,” breathed life into her campaign. Local media, not wanting to miss the upset, took her seriously too. Fundraising was robust.

But then the race took an unusual turn: On October 23, Cisneros picked up a key union endorsement, Communication Workers of America District 6, and on Saturday, she’ll be speaking in Austin at a political rally hosted by AFSCME Local 1624. The event is being held to gin up excitement for 2020, and Cuellar was not invited.

“Personally, I just think it’s time for change, and I want to see younger, fresher blood running for public office, who I can relate to, who can relate to our workers, and who honestly look like everyday common folks,” said Yvonne Flores, president of AFSCME Local 1624. “For me, that’s like, hell yeah, let’s get Jessica on stage and hear her talk.”

Organized labor, which typically allies with the party establishment in the face of ongoing insurgency, has company in opposing the incumbent Democrat. Cisneros has scored endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren; the Working Families Party; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; and even EMILY’s List, all betting that the deep-blue district, which went for Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 points, is tired of an anti-choice Democrat who often votes with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

Cisneros stunned when she announced a fundraising haul of $310,000 in the third quarter, and her campaign confirmed that Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement in October has fueled even more small-dollar donors.

Unions have good reason to be interested in this race. While Cuellar is more commonly known for voting to support a 20-week abortion ban and funding a Mexican border wall in his own southern Texas district, his record on labor issues has driven worker advocates crazy for years.

In May, Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill that would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing, crack down on worker misclassification, and establish new rules so employers cannot delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts.

The bill has 214 Democratic co-sponsors, and Cuellar is not among them.

“It’s something his staff is monitoring to see how the bill evolves and changes, and then he’ll make a decision,” Colin Strother, Cuellar’s campaign spokesperson, told The Intercept. “Three out of four jobs in our district are created by small businesses, so he always has an eye toward how something will impact small business.”

It’s certainly not the first time Cuellar has cited protecting small businesses as a reason to avoid pro-worker legislation. He was one of the few Democrats not to co-sponsor the $15 minimum wage bill the House passed this summer, and while he ultimately voted for its passage, he also voted for an unsuccessful amendment that would have exempted millions of workers from the law.

Cuellar has also criticized many of the signature labor reforms of the Obama era — including expanding overtime pay to 4 million workers and holding corporations liable for the violations of their franchisees. He’s one of just three Democrats to co-sponsor legislation restricting the definition of a joint employer, which would make it harder for workers at franchised companies to unionize and hold large corporations accountable.

Cisneros told The Intercept that she can be counted on to support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and supporting the broader joint-employer standard outlined by the National Labor Relations Board in 2015. “I look forward to being a true champion for the working people of our district,” she said. “This can’t be done without strong labor laws that allow workers to negotiate for proper pay, good working conditions, and the benefits they deserve.”

Strother argued that since Cisneros has never run for office or been in politics, her positions at this stage amount to “fairy tales.” Her stated priorities of a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, he insisted, “would be devastating to the labor movement in this country” and make her “the most anti-labor Democrat that’s run in this district since Henry’s been elected.”

On trade, Cuellar has similarly stood out from his Democratic colleagues in the House and has made no secret that he’s doing all he can to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Trump’s renegotiated version of NAFTA. In October, he told Politico that he’s ready to approve the deal, describing it as “an easy vote.” Unions have repeatedly said the deal is not ready to come to the floor, as its provisions around labor, the environment, drug pricing, and enforcement are not yet strong enough.

“He’s OK with a race to the bottom to allow companies to compete where they can find the cheapest labor market,” said Harrison Hiner, a spokesperson for CWA District 6.

Cisneros pointed to her hometown of Laredo, the largest trade port in the country. “Our trade partnership with Mexico affects the lives of everyday workers in our district and is critical to our economy, yet unlike my opponent, I oppose trade agreements that fail to include enforceable labor standards,” she said. “I would not support legislation to authorize ‘fast-track’ procedures to approve trade agreements without sufficient congressional approval and oversight.” A main concern is that a weak trade deal would drive down U.S. wages and further exploit Mexican workers.

Strother, Cuellar’s campaign spokesperson, contested the idea that the trade pact is being rushed through, pointing out that lawmakers have been working on it for years. When The Intercept asked if Cuellar was working with labor on the trade deal, Strother said, “I wouldn’t characterize it like that,” but said that Cuellar will listen to anyone who raises concerns to try and build consensus.

The CWA hasn’t endorsed Cuellar since he first ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002. “We try to work with both sides of the aisle, but Democrats usually pitch themselves as representing working-class people,” Hiner said. “On a number of issues, he has broken ranks with workers, and that’s putting it nicely.”

Krissy O’Brien, an organizer with AFSCME Local 1624, told The Intercept that the national attention Cisneros has received has really helped galvanize activists back in Texas, which is partly why she was invited to speak at the union’s upcoming event. Nina Turner, a co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, will be the rally’s keynote speaker.

“The conference is to ignite the base in Texas, especially our membership,” said O’Brien. “We want to talk about what’s at stake, the flippable congressional seats, the chance to take back the Texas House, redistricting — there’s just all these things we want to make sure everyone is aware of. We want to get our members excited, engaged, and ready to rock.”

Given Cuellar’s record, one might ask why he’s faced no serious challenger before. A former Democratic lawmaker in the Texas legislature chalked it up to the fact that labor is fairly weak in Cuellar’s district, so unions weren’t really able to focus their attention on House primaries. “But since someone is now making a very serious run and has proven herself as a serious fundraiser, they’re paying attention,” they said.

Hiner agrees. “I think all the national attention, and the fact that she’s proved she can raise money, has made her a viable alternative to folks who really haven’t had that before,” he said. “And sometimes other good options just never step forward.”

While the unions may not all be flush with cash, they can provide formidable boots on the ground, especially from big cities across the state. Other progressive groups in Texas, like the Texas chapter of the Working Families Party, are already planning to get involved in the race.

Cuellar’s campaign, for its part, is trying to argue that the CWA’s endorsement is illegitimate. The congressman has “always been supportive of labor,” said his spokesperson, “and in fact, the CWA endorsement was really a farce. We didn’t even get a chance to sit for an interview.”

Cuellar’s record, Hiner responded, spoke for itself.

Harvard Grad Students Are Taking on the Trump Administration and Their Own School

Originally published in VICE on October 30, 2019.

More than 90 percent of graduate student union members at Harvard voted to authorize a strike last week, a signal of frustration as efforts to negotiate the elite university’s first collective bargaining contract with these workers drag on. While no strike date has yet been scheduled, union leaders now have the ability to call for a labor stoppage if they deem it necessary. A strike could mean students who also work as teachers and teaching assistants cancel their classes and office hours, refuse to grade papers and problem sets, and that research assistants also refrain from doing their jobs.

In other words, it would represent a public and stark demonstration of class conflict at one of the most rarefied institutions in the United States.

“Undergraduate and graduate student workers do much of the work that makes this campus run,” said Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a third-year law-school student and member of the union’s bargaining committee. “We do the research that brings in the grants and gives them the fame and glory. We do the teaching that lets people get an education here.”

Sandalow-Ash herself works as a research assistant and said she earns $12 an hour, the state’s minimum wage. It’s a wage that’s too low, she stressed, to properly tackle rising tuition and student loan debt.

Harvard’s wouldn’t be the first grad students to go on strike, and in fact are poised to join a growing movement of labor unrest among white-collar workers in industries like tech and journalism, and an increasing number of students at private colleges in particular. In June, University of Chicago students went on strike for three days to pressure their school to voluntarily recognize their union. In April 2018, the same month Harvard graduate students voted to form their union, hundreds of students at Columbia University went on strike over their stalled contract negotiations.

But in addition to battling their university, Harvard grad students also have the Trump administration to worry about. It’s just the latest example of an increasingly class-conscious generation butting heads with a reflexively pro-business White House.

In September, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is dominated by anti-union Trump appointees, announced a new rule that would effectively strip union rights from teaching and research assistants at private universities. If it passed, the rule would likely face a court challenge. The federal labor board has said ending the employer-employee relationship would help protect the educational experience of students, and better preserve academic freedoms.

The proposed rule is open for public comment until mid-December, and Jonathan Swain, a spokesman for Harvard, said the school was reviewing it. Among other things, the NLRB stance appeared to be that graduate students at private universities shouldn’t have union rights because they would be negotiating over academic matters that differ from the ones facing traditional workers.

It is true that for student workers, employment and academia sometimes overlap. In Harvard’s case, graduate students are seeking the right to fight what they described as potential classroom retaliation.

“Oftentimes our work supervisors are the same people who grade us academically, which means that retaliation can take an academic form,” Sandalow-Ash explained. “For instance, say that a lab researcher reports his/her principal investigator for sexual harassment on the job. That supervisor would likely be upset about this report, and might seek to retaliate against the student”—either by giving them a poor job evaluation, failing them on an exam, or kicking them out of the lab altogether.

Still, Charlotte Garden, a labor law expert at the Seattle University School of Law, said the fact that students were also bargaining over issues like dental insurance, parental leave, and non-discrimination procedures seemed to undermine the NLRB’s case. These “bread-and-butter issues are core concerns for employees no matter what kind of work they do,” Garden said. She suspected the NLRB would vote to undermine graduate student unions regardless of what happens at Harvard, though she also said “it is definitely possible that the Board will discuss the Harvard strike in its decision accompanying its final rulemaking.”

The graduate student union and Harvard have reached some agreements so far, most recently around immigrant and international student rights. Under the proposed agreement, international student workers would be afforded paid leave to attend court hearings and work through other visa issues, and immigration attorneys would visit Harvard each semester to consult with students.

“We also got guarantees that if someone is forced to leave the country for some immigration reason, Harvard will make its best efforts to keep employing them remotely,” Sandalow-Ash said.

The two sides were set to meet for more bargaining on Wednesday. The main sticking points in the negotiations have been around wages, healthcare, and protections against discrimination and sexual assault.

Swain, the Harvard spokesperson, told VICE that the University “believes that calls for a strike are unwarranted.” He emphasized that the University “continues to approach these negotiations in good faith, and has offered substantive proposals on compensation and benefits, as well as other areas of concern” raised by the union.

For her part, Ege Yumusak, a Harvard graduate student in philosophy and a member of the bargaining committee, said she was motivated to join the union because she saw how the school “systematically failed” survivors of sexual assault as an undergraduate. The union wants to give its members the option to address sexual harassment grievances using independent arbitration. In that scenario, an ostensibly neutral third party holds the decision-making power, rather than Harvard Title IX coordinators (named after the law banning sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds).

“What frustrates me the most is Harvard’s denial of these common sense, basic protections against harassment and discrimination,” Yumusak said. “We talk a lot about gender and racial equity in academia—well, that is not only an admissions issue. We do not have much diversity because people are not supported once they’re here.”

A recent survey administered by the Association of American Universities found a third of undergraduate women at Harvard reported they had experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact, a figure that is somewhat higher than average among the 21 schools surveyed nationally in both 2015 and 2019.

Harvard has resisted the demand to allow for third-party arbitration, citing concerns that giving some students an option to resolve complaints not afforded to all students would run afoul of federal Title IX regulation.

Union leaders say these fears are unfounded, and that the university should take the opportunity to negotiate a gold-standard contract or risk inviting something resembling class war on campus—especially with federal labor rules potentially changing soon.

“With a $40 billion endowment, this is the wealthiest university in the world,” Yumusak said. “We can have the strongest contract, too.”

Elizabeth Warren Releases An Education Plan

Originally published in The Intercept on October 21, 2019.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN RELEASED a wide-ranging education plan Monday, pledging to invest hundreds of billions of dollars into public schools if she wins the presidency, paid in part through her proposed two-cent tax on wealth over $50 million. Warren’s plan is infused with her broader campaign themes of reducing corruption and fraud; she backs measures like new taxes on education lobbying, limiting the profiteering of tech companies that sell digital products to schools, and curbing self-dealing within charter schools.

And it builds on some of her earlier campaign proposals, like pledging to appoint a former public school teacher as education secretary, supporting schools in teaching Native American history and culture, and expanding early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers.

In May, fellow Democratic hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders’s own education plan sent shockwaves when he endorsed the NAACP’s call for banning for-profit charter schools and holding nonprofit charters to the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools. In her new plan, Warren joins Sanders in embracing these positions.

Warren goes further than Sanders in calling not only for a for-profit charter school ban, but also extending the ban to any nonprofit charter that “actually serve[s] for-profit interests.” Warren said she would even direct the IRS to investigate nonprofit charters for potential tax status abuse and recommends referring “cases to the Tax Fraud Division of the Department of Justice when appropriate.”

Sanders has faced some pressure from the left over his narrower focus on for-profit charters. A Jacobin piece from July said while Sanders’s education plan went further than any other candidate, limiting his critique to for-profit charter schools means his “policy fails to get to the root of the issue.” (Warren does not call for an outright ban on nonprofit charters, as the Jacobin piece urges.)

WARREN’S PLAN EMBRACES some of the other bold ideas endorsed by her top rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, and in some cases goes further than what they have proposed. For example, both Sanders and Biden pledge to triple the amount of federal funding for high-poverty schools, known as Title I, from $15 billion to $45 billion. Warren’s plan commits to quadrupling Title I funding, and says she will use this new investment to press states to reform their own inequitable school funding formulas.

In her plan, Warren acknowledges that school systems which heavily rely on local property tax can shortchange students living in low-income areas. As of 2015, she highlights, only 11 states had adopted progressive school funding formulas, meaning those states allocate more money to students in high-poverty school districts than to students in affluent ones. The other 39 states either all gave students the same flat rate per pupil, or students in high-poverty districts actually received less state support than their more affluent peers.


Warren says she would condition access to her new Title I investments on states increasing their own school funding contributions, adopting progressive state funding formulas, and implementing those formulas with fidelity. From a political perspective, the plan is likely to draw fire from the types of wealthy suburbs that have leaned toward Warren’s candidacy, and which she would likely need in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan to win the general election.

While Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall for Education Plan notes that school districts funded by local property tax can result in “unconscionable inequalities,” his plan only proposes to “rethink the link” between property tax and school funding. He calls for “establish[ing] a national per-pupil spending floor” but doesn’t say what that floor should be. This is in contrast to Sanders’s teacher pay proposal, which commits to a minimum salary floor of $60,000.

On the subject of school infrastructure, Warren also goes beyond her two top rivals in outlining how she would improve aging facilities.

Sanders’s plan pledges to “fully close the gap in school infrastructure funding to renovate, modernize, and green the nation’s schools” but doesn’t offer details. Biden pledges to include funding for school buildings in a larger federal infrastructure bill, but doesn’t estimate how much that investment should be. (Republican Sen. Susan Collins managed to defeat a measure to boost federal investment in school buildings last time the nation authorized significant infrastructure spending through the 2009 stimulus.)

Warren’s education plan commits to at least $50 billion in additional school facility funding, and notes that some of her other plans include funds for school modernization and repair, like the lead abatement grant program in her environmental justice package, and money for retrofitting and upgrading buildings in her clean energy plan. The need for school infrastructure investment is substantial: A 2016 report estimated the nation underfunds school facility needs by $46 billion each year.

WHEN IT COMES to issues around education reform, Warren — like most Democratic presidential candidates — has continued to back away from the charter school movement.

Up to this point, Warren has faced some heat over her positioning on charter schools. In a 2018 Senate hearing, she praised the academic results of Boston charter schools — considered the highest-performing in the nation — and she has in the past said it’s the unregulated, unchecked growth of charters that she opposes. In 2016, Warren came out against a high-profile ballot initiative in Massachusetts that would have allowed charter schools to expand much more quickly in her state.

“Many charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students, and we should celebrate the hard work of those teachers and spread what’s working to other schools,” Warren said at the time. “But after hearing more from both sides, I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our Commonwealth, especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”

This past January, when Los Angeles teachers went on strike partly over charter schools, her spokesperson told me that Warren “believes rapid charter school expansion can pose a threat to the financial health of traditional public school districts.” Sanders has adopted a largely similar stance: His presidential education plan criticizes the damage wrought by “unregulated charter school growth.”

Warren has also faced criticism over the fact that one of her Senate education staffers, Josh Delaney, is a Teach for America alumnus. As The Intercept first reported last week, two of Sanders’s recent education advisers are also Teach for America alumni. Research suggests none of this might be as revealing as critics think: A recent study found that Teach for America alumni are 12 percentage points less likely to support the “expansion of high-quality charter schools” compared to similar nonparticipants — suggesting an ideological gap between Teach for America management and its teachers.

Details aside, Warren’s new education plan sends a strong signal of how her administration would think about not only charter schools but also other forms of school privatization.

Her plan calls to end the diversion of tax dollars from traditional public schools through vouchers and voucher-like tax credits. A campaign spokesperson clarified that this means both working to stop the expansion of voucher programs and working toward ending existing ones.

Biden’s and Sanders’s plans do not mention vouchers or tuition tax credits, though Sanders told the Washington Post that he would not support using public money in the form of vouchers or tax credits for private or religious school education, which he has a long record of opposing. Biden did not answer the same question when he was asked.

In her plan, Warren frames her opposition to the 2016 charter school ballot initiative as an example of “fight[ing] back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools.” She pledges to “go further” and now calls for eliminating a federal grant program used to promote new charter schools. She pledges to see if there are any other federal programs that subsidize new charters and would “seek to limit the use of those programs for that purpose.”

Both Warren and Sanders support helping charter teachers unionize, requiring that charter school boards include teachers and parents, and that charters be subject to greater oversight.

(Biden’s education plan makes no mention of charters, but he said at a campaign town hall that he wouldn’t support federal funds for for-profit charters, and he also criticized some charters for siphoning money from traditional public schools.)

ANOTHER MAJOR PLANK of Warren’s new education platform is around school desegregation, an area in which she again joins her top two rivals. She says school integration matters both because research shows it improves educational outcomes for students of all races, and because the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection demands it.

Warren flags her own law review article, published in 1975, that criticized a Supreme Court ruling which made it harder to bus students for school desegregation. If that was a dig at Biden, there’s also one that appears subtly aimed at Sen. Kamala Harris’s record of criminalizing parents for student truancy: Warren’s plan pledges to “address chronic absenteeism without punishing parents or children.”

Part of her new plan to integrate schools involves tackling housing segregation, and her previously released housing plan incentivizes eliminating zoning laws that perpetuate residential segregation. Warren says some of her additional Title I investment can also be used to incentivize voluntary school integration.

Beyond incentives, Warren says she’d strengthen Title VI enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, and like Sanders, she’d expand the federal Office for Civil Rights’ capacity to investigate discrimination and appoint federal judges committed to civil rights precedent.

Notably, Warren calls out the generally whiter and wealthier districts that have attempted to secede from their more racially diverse school districts over the last two decades. “Under my leadership, the Department of Education and the Justice Department will subject any attempt to create a breakaway district to careful scrutiny and bring appropriate Title VI enforcement actions,” her plan states.

To tackle school segregation, Sanders’s plan backs increased federal funding for “community-driven strategies” to desegregate, for school transportation, and for magnet schools. Biden, who has come under fire this campaign season for his work undermining school integration in the 1970s, has said he would provide grants to school districts to diversify schools and reinstate an Obama-era guidance that supported schools in pursuing desegregation.

Lastly, Warren, Biden, and Sanders all make calls to increase the federal government’s commitment to funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law which mandates services be provided to students with special needs. When the federal government passed IDEA in 1975, Congress pledged to finance 40 percent of its cost. But in practice, federal spending has hovered just under 15 percent, putting immense strain on states and local districts to support students with disabilities. Biden promised to “live up to our commitment” — meaning the 40 percent target — within 10 years. Sanders said he would provide mandatory funding covering “at least 50 percent” of the IDEA costs, and Warren in her new plan promises to meet the federal government’s 40 percent target, while also expanding IDEA’s investment to cover 3- to 5-year-olds, and early interventions for toddlers and infants.

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

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in The Intercept on October 16, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in The Intercept on October 9, 2019.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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