Environmental Activists Target Exxon’s Lead Attorney In Climate Liability Case, A Prominent Democratic Donor

Originally published in The Intercept on December 12, 2019.

The lawyer who defended Exxon Mobil against a lawsuit brought by New York’s attorney general accusing the oil giant of misleading investors on climate change is a prominent Democratic donor who has given more than half a million dollars to Democrats over the last 30 years.

Ted Wells Jr., a partner and co-chair of the litigation department at the New York firm Paul, Weiss, was Exxon’s lead attorney in the case that concluded on Tuesday, when a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that the attorney general failed to show that the oil company broke the law.

The high-profile Exxon lawsuit is one of more than a dozen cases brought by state and local governments against fossil fuel companies, with plaintiffs seeking to hold corporations financially liable for their role in perpetuating the climate crisis — and just the second of these cases to go to trial. Over the last few months, students at Harvard Law School have been mobilizing around Wells’s involvement in the Exxon lawsuit, as he is one of the 13 members of the Harvard Corporation, which consults with the university president to decide whether to pursue fossil fuel divestment. A university spokesperson told the Harvard Crimson that Wells recused himself from discussions or votes on divestment once he began representing the oil company. Wells did not return requests for comment.

“By sitting on this board, Ted Wells can provide cover, and does provide cover, for the fossil fuel industry,” said Isa Flores-Jones, a recent Harvard graduate who is now active with the Sunrise Movement.

Attorneys like Wells and their law firms that represent fossil fuel interests while also contributing to Democrats and other liberal causes have been drawing increasing scrutiny from environmental activists who are calling on the Democratic Party to distance itself from the fossil fuel industry, either by swearing off donations from executives and lobbyists or by divesting from these companies.

The No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which launched in July 2017, is a cornerstone of that strategy. By taking the pledge, a politician and their campaign promises to not knowingly accept any contribution over $200 from the political action committees, lobbyists, or Securities and Exchange Commission-named executives of fossil fuel companies.

“We are targeting the very top people at a company, the top donors,” said Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at the climate advocacy group Oil Change International. “We firmly believe that the symbolic act of taking the pledge and publicly saying no is one of the real pieces we need. It changes your policy view and starts to change the political calculus to make [fossil fuels] less socially acceptable.” Lawyers who represent fossil fuel companies are not currently included in the pledge.

Beyond Wells, students have been thinking about how to pressure liberal firms that entangle themselves in the climate crisis. “We’re putting a plan together to organize around when these firms come to campus to recruit early next year,” said Aaron Regunberg, a Harvard law school student.

Kurt Walters, another Harvard law school student involved with these organizing efforts, said it was a surprise for him when he arrived on campus to see how taboo it was to criticize people for who they take on as legal clients.

“It’s been pretty shocking to me the way it’s all been so dominated by respectability politics, where criticizing people for doing bad things is seen as inappropriate,” he said. “Part of it is people who want to believe that going to a firm where you can make $190,000 in a year can still be somehow acceptable.”

Environmental activists’ push to get politicians to refuse money from the fossil fuel industry is rooted in recent political science research that found that the more congressional staff met with oil and gas groups, the more likely they were to underestimate public support for climate action. And the more financial contributions politicians received from the fossil fuel lobby, the less those politicians believed that the public really wanted to see bold change.

In the 2020 campaign, all Democratic presidential candidates have signed on to the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge with the exception of the recent entrants, Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg.

Despite this traction, the Democratic National Committee has continued to resist pressure from activists over banning corporate donations from oil and gas. In June 2018, the national party committee passed a resolution pledging to reject campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, yet two months later, it effectively reversed course, passing a new resolution inviting contributions from not just fossil fuel workers, but also “their unions’ or employers’ political action committees.” While the second resolution was cast as a labor-friendly measure, activists noted that energy workers and their unions had been free to donate to Democrats under the first proposal.

Beyond organizing resistance to fossil fuel industry leaders, activists have begun paying closer attention to individuals and institutions with ties to the fossil fuel industry, even if they don’t work directly within the industry itself. These advocates have been urging leaders to be similarly suspicious of how corporate and financial connections to fossil fuels may distort or influence political decision-making.

For example, in September on the campaign trail, a 24-year-old activist with the Sunrise Movement asked Joe Biden in Iowa about his climate adviser, Heather Zichal, who earned $1 million from serving on the board of liquified natural gas company, Cheniere Energy. (Biden patted the Sunrise activist’s hand, ignored her question, and said, “Thank you for being … for admiring me so much.”)

And then there are the attorneys like Wells, who donated $100,000 to Priorities USA Action, the top Democratic Super PAC in 2012, and has given more than $135,000 to the DNC over the last three decades. His law firm, Paul, Weiss, similarly donated $1.9 million to Democratic candidates in the 2018 cycle and has already donated over $740,000 this cycle.

During a nearly three-week civil trial in November, Wells defended Exxon against New York’s claims that the company had misled shareholders by hiding pertinent information about how it was managing the risk of climate change and environmental regulations. In the 55-page opinion issued Thursday, New York State Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager accepted Wells and co-counsel’s arguments that Exxon had sufficiently developed a method for dealing with future climate change costs and that its statements to shareholders about those future costs were not deceptive. The judge called the attorney general’s securities fraud complaint against Exxon “hyperbolic” and said that while nothing in his judgment is meant to absolve Exxon of responsibility for contributing to climate change, the AG failed to prove that the oil company “made any material representations [to shareholders] that would have been viewed by a reasonable investor as having significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information available.”

The lead attorney for Chevron in another spate of recent climate liability lawsuits, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., is also a prominent Democratic donor. A partner in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Boutrous also regularly represents media organizations and reporters in First Amendment cases and has recently been representing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients on a pro bono legal team.

In an interview with The Intercept, Boutrous defended his Chevron representation. “It’s very easy for me to fight these lawsuits tooth and nail because I think they’re counterproductive and just make no sense from a policy standpoint and legal perspective,” he said, adding that it’s not “a proper use of lawsuits to bring cases that are completely baseless as a platform to debate public issues; that’s not really what we should be using the courts for.”

Boutrous has given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and causes, but argued that political contributions have exaggerated influence on policymaking. Echoing a position shared by many prominent Democratic leaders, he said that taking a hard line against fossil fuel companies could interfere with making progress on tackling the climate crisis. “The fallacy at the root of the lawsuit is that somehow punishing and singling out oil and gas companies is needed, when we need to cope with the fact that we still need this energy. And while we can look for alternative sources of energy [and] technological solutions, one of the best sources for this would be these very companies,” he said, adding that Chevron both “accepts” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings and supports U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. Advocates of partnering with energy companies point to the rapid growth of wind and solar, which has proliferated largely because it’s become profitable enough to do so.

Boutrous, who also successfully represented auto companies when California sued auto manufacturers to demand that they pay for the environmental damage caused by the emissions of their vehicles, argued at length that corporations could be held to account for being socially responsible without, as he put it, being demonized by the Democratic Party. He emphasized his commitment to tackling climate change, but raised particular criticism with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in September said he’d consider criminally prosecuting fossil fuel executives. Boutrous called Sanders’s position “so wrongheaded.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Boutrous also insisted that the fear of money’s corrupting influence on politics is exaggerated.

“I think it’s really overrated the influence that corporations and money have over politicians,” he said. “If you look at all the people who have the right to vote and don’t vote, and sometimes the votes are suppressed, but if you look at all those people, that is an enormous political force. So before we say it’s just money in politics that’s causing the problem, we all need to take responsibility for making sure our voices are heard. The people of the United States need to take responsibility for our country, our climate, and we need to stop blaming everything on too much money.”

The debate over how fossil fuel money influences climate policy has been playing out on college campuses like Harvard, where students have been mobilizing since 2012 to get their university to divest from companies that support fossil fuels. Increasingly, students there have been drawing attention to the fact that four members on the Harvard Corporation have ties to the fossil fuel industry. Their goal is to get the entire corporation to commit to divestment by Earth Day 2020.

Ilana Cohen, a Harvard undergraduate and leader with her campus’s divestment movement, said her group launched a semesterlong effort at the beginning of the school year to teach students about the ties of these board members. They’ve been publishing information on their website, launching social media campaigns, and hanging up posters around campus. “We’ve worked really concretely to amplify the absurdity of having the attorney for Exxon on that board,” she said.

Flores-Jones, the recent Harvard graduate, compared it to how fossil fuel companies fund various types of university research and donate large sums of money for new fancy campus buildings, sometimes even named after them.

In 2007, Harvard’s Dean of the Kennedy School of Government announced the acceptance of a five-year, $3.75 million donation from Shell to “enhance and expand University research efforts on critical issues of energy policy.” This year MIT announced that it would be renaming a building where students study climate science the “Shell Auditorium,” after the oil company donated $3 million.

“Like politicians who are cast as ‘pragmatic’ for saying we need a carbon-neutral transition by 2050, Harvard is similarly being played for a fool by these companies,” Flores-Jones said. “It’s these swinging doors of having the credibility to be able to sit on the Harvard Corporation, and be associated with Harvard, while then defending the reputations of these companies.”

Walters, the law school student, said his goal is to continue in his field what began during the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court last year.

“Some people in the legal industry were playing by the old rules, even Democrats and people who believe sexual assault is bad,” he said. “You had them saying, ‘But this Kavanaugh guy, he’s so smart, let’s just approve him.’ Meanwhile, there were huge walkouts with hundreds of students. And so what we’re trying to do is continue to blow up that norm that says it’s more important to be friendly, than to call out people who do bad things.”

School Insecurity

Originally published in Democracy Journal on December 11, 2019.

In September, in a small school district located in the Missouri Ozarks, computer printers started mysteriously shooting out ransom letters. The pages instructed their recipients to send an email in exchange for a code, which would then show that hackers had taken control of their files. The district would have to pay up, the hackers said, to get the data back.

That same month, a small school district located in the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania was hit by a different ransomware attack, forcing schools to close and the district’s 3,000 computers to shut down.

The damage from these attacks turned out to be relatively limited, but it came on the heels of bigger cybersecurity breaches this past summer, like when computers in the Syracuse City School District—one of the largest in New York—were also crippled from a ransomware attack. The school district was locked out of its own computer system, and ended up paying the hackers a $50,000 insurance premium to get back in. The same month, Louisiana’s Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency after a malware virus attacked several schools, knocking out their computers. This declaration enabled the state to pool experts and resources from the Louisiana National Guard and the Louisiana State Police, among others.

Cybersecurity attacks on schools are new, coming with increasing aggression and frequency, and schools’ ability to withstand them varies dramatically across the country. Sometimes it’s criminals looking to make easy cash or simply inspire fear—capitalizing on schools’ lack of sophisticated defenses. Sometimes it’s members of a school community carrying or causing the data breaches themselves.

The risks presented are not just mild inconveniences. Recognizing schools’ dependence on computers and Internet access, administrators have grown acutely aware that their institutions are now extremely vulnerable to lengthy closures, crippled operations, and costly litigation. According to the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, U.S. schools reported 122 cybersecurity incidents in 2018, resulting in the theft of millions of taxpayer dollars, stolen identities, tax fraud, and altered school records. Experts believe this figure significantly understates the real number of attacks, as many incidents are not even reported publicly.

“Is it as bad as it sounds?” said Lee McKnight, a cybersecurity expert and professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. “It’s worse. It’s a complete mess, and anyone in IT who hasn’t been hit is not sleeping well because they know there’s a target on their backs.”

While the available data is not great, experts know the problems have grown even more severe in the last twelve months. Doug Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, and author of the K12 Cybersecurity Resource Center report, told me when I spoke to him in September that he’s already tracked more than twice as many incidents this year as compared to 2018, with a particular increase in third-party vendor breaches and a spike in ransomware attacks.

When it comes to the risk of a mass shooting in school, politicians and the media have been known to greatly exaggerate the chances of future attacks. Despite the wall-to-wall panicked coverage, particularly following the horrific Parkland, Florida massacre in 2018, a study released this year from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found multiple-victim school shootings are still extremely rare events, accounting for less than 2 percent of all youth homicides in the country.

But that’s not the case with school cybersecurity attacks.

Amelia Vance, director of the Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum, a D.C.-based think tank, agrees the “risk is definitely not exaggerated.”

Vance started working on student privacy issues about six years ago, and says she observed a real shift in the school cybersecurity conversation around fall 2017, when rural school districts in Iowa, Montana, Texas, and Alabama were all attacked by an international cyberhacking organization called The Dark Overlord. A few months earlier The Dark Overlord earned national attention for releasing forthcoming episodes of “Orange Is The New Black,” a popular Netflix show, after Netflix refused to pay their ransom demand. The Dark Overlord took to Twitter after this incident to suggest other television networks would face similar fates. “Oh, what fun we’re all going to have,” it wrote.

By autumn, the international cybercriminals had moved on to public schools. Parents in the Johnston Community School District in Iowa suddenly began receiving threatening text messages, sent by the hackers who had stolen student data. Examples of texts included “I’m going to kill some kids at your son’s high school” and “Your child is still so innocent. Don’t have anyone look outside.” Other texts sent to the parents went further, citing their children by name and school.

Nobody knew who was behind this harassment at first, and the Johnston school district shut down the following day. One day after that The Dark Overlord claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter, and dumped student names, addresses, and telephone numbers online so as to make it easy for “any child predator to easily acquire new targets,” they claimed. The data had been compromised by a third-party vendor that worked with the school district.

Around the same time in Montana, more than 30 schools in the Columbia Falls School District closed after data was stolen, with parents again receiving graphic threats on their phones. The hackers demanded $150,000 in bitcoin in a seven-page ransom letter, and told a local reporter that they attacked the school district to rouse fear and make the government look bad. “The quaint, small, backwoods region of the US like yours is prime hunting grounds,” The Dark Overlord said. “This incident is the last thing you will expect to happen here.”

Their motivation for this particular attack appeared, in part, to be an effort to punish the FBI. “We’re escalating the intensity of our strategy in response to the FBI’s persistence in persuading clients away from us,” a Dark Overlord hacker told the Daily Beast at the time.

Like in physical kidnappings, the FBI discourages schools and other institutions from paying ransom in response to cyberattacks, noting it’s no guarantee an organization will even get its data back, and it can embolden other criminals to target more places. But sometimes school districts feel they have no choice but to pay up in order to resume operations.

Levin of EdTech Strategies has worked in education technology for upwards of the last 25 years, doing jobs like helping connect schools to the Internet, developing digital textbooks and tests, and serving as executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, which represents technologists working in state education agencies. “Cybersecurity never came up,” says Levin. “in the 1990s and 2000s, not at all.”

“I used to talk to superintendents and they’d say, ‘All we have is student names and email addresses, and how children scored on this quiz, nobody cares about that information,’” added Vance.

“They’d think because they didn’t have credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, nobody would try and steal it. That attitude has changed dramatically.”

Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a national nonprofit that represents technology leaders working in U.S. public schools, agrees. “We’ve administered a national survey to district technology leaders for the last seven years and cybersecurity was never on the list of top priorities,” he tells me. “About three years ago it became a number 3 priority, last year it became number 2 priority, and this year it was the number one stated priority.” For people in charge of technology in schools, Krueger stressed, “Cybersecurity has become front and center, and is no longer seen as something we should maybe do, but something we have to address.”

Levin started noticing more local news stories about school cyberattacks near the end of 2016—stories like hackers posing as superintendents and sending phishing emails to business office staff. The fake superintendents would claim there had been an emergency and that they needed to be sent a PDF of all the school employees’ W-2s as fast as possible.

Levin grew more curious, and soon he realized there was no comprehensive data available on how common these attacks actually were. He started to compile the incidents he could find in the news and other public sources, and today he manages an interactive map of nearly 700 reported cybersecurity-related incidents dating back to January 2016.

While international cybercriminals tend to generate headlines, unknown actors cyberhacking for malicious purposes actually comprised just about a quarter of all the data breaches Levin tracked. By contrast, in 2018, he found that just over half of all digital data breach incidents in public schools were directly carried out or caused by members of staff or students in the affected schools.

“Mostly when staff are involved it’s because they made a mistake, but occasionally it’s because they have an axe to grind, like sometimes you have disgruntled employees who were fired so they release or take data they shouldn’t,” he says. “Sometimes you have more sophisticated hacking from students, who break in to access, review or change student records.”

Levin thinks what he has tracked is much lower than the actual number. Local news coverage has declined dramatically, and even if school districts report an incident to a state agency, that doesn’t mean that incident is ever reported publicly. In North Carolina, for example, Levin noticed that the state’s Department of Justice had released a report on 2017 data breaches and its figure was ten times greater than what he had counted in the news. But when Levin’s colleague filed a Freedom of Information Request to learn about the other incidents, they were largely stonewalled.

In the last two years, Illinois, Texas, and Missouri have passed laws requiring states to notify parents if there has been a school data breach, but most states don’t have such disclosure mandates.

Despite a growing recognition that cybersecurity is a real issue, addressing cybersecurity concerns is not so easy—particularly for strapped, small school districts.

“If you look at this issue over time, hospitals were getting hit by ransomware several years ago,” said McKnight of Syracuse University. “You don’t hear about that so much anymore. You know who has money to improve their security systems and has the funds to hire and train staff? Hospitals.”

Schools, by contrast, are typically much more constrained in how they can afford to respond. This basic reality is also what makes schools such easy targets for hackers looking to make a quick buck, even if schools may be less likely to have the kind of credit card information that cybercriminals typically go for. “School districts are often a city’s largest employer, and many times they lack technical expertise while managing a lot of staff and data,” said Krueger. “In a lot of ways schools are just low-hanging fruit,” adds Vance.

The challenges are particularly acute for smaller districts, most of which lack the funds to hire an individual or a team of experts dedicated to cybersecurity. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts serve fewer than 2,500 students.

Another challenge is simply getting tiny, rural districts to accept that they, too, could be attacked. “Why this little school in Akron, Ohio?” asked Kelly Kendrick, the technology director for the Coventry Local School District, after its schools closed in May due to a malware virus. “It has really opened my eyes to how data of any kind is marketable, sellable.”

This realization Kendrick describes is key, Vance agrees. Yes, a criminal might not be able to run off with your bank account information if they hack a school district server, but “a lot of information is private because we don’t want our neighbors to know it,” she said. “Like maybe I don’t want my friends to know that I have trouble reading, or back in the second grade I slapped someone.”

Could part of the problem be that schools just have too much data? Is our data-driven policy culture leaving schools overly and unduly exposed?

It’s certainly true that schools, under real pressure to be innovative and forward-thinking, often adopt new education technology tools that some families fear are too invasive, or too vulnerable to hacking. For example, some schools use e-Hallpass, which digitally tracks student visits to the bathroom, the nurse’s office, and elsewhere. The company emphasizes that it is a more sanitary and efficient way to administer hall passes, that it is committed to student privacy and does not use GPS or other locating tracking services. But those assurances haven’t put everyone at ease.

Some parents have been organizing across the country to stop states from sharing personal student data with for-profit data-mining vendors. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy was founded in 2014 by two parents in New York and Colorado, and advocates have since written letters to Congress to strengthen federal student privacy rights, disseminated resources to parents, and developed student privacy principles for schools, education agencies, and third-party vendors.

Yet while student privacy concerns around ed tech tools add more complexity to the cybersecurity situation, experts say they are overlapping but distinct issues. Even with strong student privacy laws and enforcement, and even if schools cut down or eliminated the use of apps that store chat logs and other student data, school districts would still have serious cybersecurity concerns to deal with.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of collecting too much information,” says Eva Vincze, a faculty member in the cybersecurity and police and security studies programs at George Washington University. “It really just goes back to that issue of people thinking we’re not big enough for anyone to care about us, because we’re small.”

That’s not to say there aren’t safer measures schools can take with the data they collect. Cybersecurity experts like McKnight say there should be basic “cyber hygiene” such as data backups and storing information on cloud servers.

“Data collection is important, but schools should only be collecting the information that they need to answer particular questions, and some of that is mandated by federal law,” says Vance. “Basically schools should figure out what data is so sensitive that they shouldn’t have it at all, figure out at what point data should be deleted, and figure out who in a district should have access to what information.”

Another challenge is figuring out how to get the right advice. It’s not easy for districts to attract and retain skilled cybersecurity experts, since those professionals can usually earn much more money out in the private sector. “It’s not unusual for technology leaders to cut their teeth in education and then go get a better paying job elsewhere,” said Levin.

And even if all districts did somehow find the funds to hire cybersecurity experts at top dollar, there aren’t actually enough trained people in the country to take those jobs on. “We’ll never have a Chief Technology Officer for every school district, the private sector can’t even do it,” said Levin. “It will have to be some sort of coordinated response, sort of like what Louisiana did this summer but not as an emergency.”

“Not every district needs a cybersecurity expert,” Vance agrees. “What is needed is useful resources and templates and almost like plug-and-play supports that outside organizations and the government can provide.”

Lan Jenson, CEO of Adaptable Security, a nonprofit, is trying to be part of that plug-and-play vision. She founded her organization in 2017 with the goal of helping governments, schools, and small businesses navigate cyber-threats without breaking the bank. Unlike the school IT specialist who then goes to work for the private sector, Jenson started her career handling cybersecurity for a well-heeled financial institution.

“But financial companies have major resources, and governments and small businesses and schools are left behind,” she explained. So Jenson and a group of similarly motivated experts started Adaptable Security with the hope of providing assistance to more vulnerable institutions. “A lot of these leaders have some money, but they don’t have so much money, and they are trying to figure out what it would look like if we pool our resources,” she said. “They are willing to do something bigger, something shareable, and even though they may have that vision, everyone is so busy and wears multiple hats, so they don’t have anyone to be the coordinator. We’re trying to be that.”

So far Adaptable Security is working with 12 counties and a few core cities in the Bay Area, and Jenson hopes to scale the public-private model up nationally if it proves effective. In early October, her group sponsored the second annual Cybersecurity Symposium for Smart Cities, a free-to-attend, volunteer-led conference hosted in San Jose for school districts, small businesses, nonprofits, and local governments. Last year 250 people turned out, and this year more than 500 did—reflecting the growing awareness and concern.

McKnight of Syracuse University thinks public-private partnerships are the best way to move forward, especially since federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security are not the most popular with all communities across the country.

“We need more federal investment, but in partnership with nonprofits,” he said. “This is a democracy issue, a civil society issue. Things have to change because there’s no way every little school district will be able to do it on their own, and there’s no way to channel help from the federal level directly down everywhere—you need some new pluralistic entities to come in the middle.”

And there has been recent movement on the federal level. In the fall of 2018, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the more than 50 New York school districts that were hit that year with a type of cyberattack known as Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). These attacks caused Internet outages within schools by overloading the systems with traffic, though no information was actually released.

In June, House lawmakers passed a bill—the Department of Homeland Security Cyber Incident Response Teams Act—to establish a permanent team of security specialists that agencies could call on when their technology gets hacked. A Senate version was approved in late September. Senator Schumer, who backed the bill, also recently called on the FBI to help school districts and local governments better respond to attacks. “It’s time to hit ‘control-alt-delete’ on ransomware and take a megabyte out of hackers,” he said in a particularly corny statement.

Also in September, the Consortium for School Networking submitted public comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting a change to the Schools and Libraries Program, more commonly known as E-Rate. At nearly $4 billion annually, E-Rate is the biggest federal subsidy program to help public schools and libraries manage the cost of connecting to the Internet. But cybersecurity is not among the list of eligible E-Rate discounted services, and the Consortium for School Networking argues that the requirements and limitations of E-Rate heavily influence how schools then deploy basic cybersecurity tools.

The organization told the FCC that while the federal government should not be expected to cover all aspects of cybersecurity, “several simple changes to the E-Rate program would have a very profound impact on the ability of school systems to protect and defend their networks and systems from cyberattacks.” For example, the Consortium for School Networking requested an expansion in the range of firewall services that can be reimbursed through E-Rate. Right now schools can reimburse for “basic firewall” services, but that category excludes a number of features typically found under the banner of “standard firewall” services—like anti-virus and malware protection, and data loss prevention.

As school districts move forward, leaders will have to be on guard for security grifters who are looking to sell expensive, ineffective products that capitalize on communities’ growing fears.

“There will always be markets for that, and there are always security services out there to scare you or just to convince you to buy things,” says Vincze of George Washington University.

“My fear is that without real leadership support, without IT staff with capacity, these security tools will probably not be put to their best use, and will be expensive,” says Levin.

While cybersecurity experts have been stressing that the problems are serious and demand action to mitigate risk and damage—at the end of the day, they say, no school should expect to be completely risk-free.

“Bad things happen,” says Vance. “We need to be humble. If Target and Wal-mart and big credit card companies can be hacked, so can a school district.”

On Pete Buttigieg and Charter Schools

Originally published in VICE on December 10, 2019.

On Saturday, surging Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg released his plan for K-12 education, a wide-ranging 20-page document that offers just one paragraph on charter schools.

Up to this point, Buttigieg’s comments on charters, the publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that educate about 7 percent of public school students, have been minimal. He didn’t respond to the Washington Post’s candidate questionnaire on the topic, and he missed an NEA-sponsored public education forum that ten candidates participated in in July. In April, at a Northeastern University event in Boston, he reportedly dodged a charter school question, but then responded to a follow-up by saying they “have a place” as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.” In May, he said on the trail that he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to ban for-profit charters.

The problem is that charter schools have become something of a flashpoint in the 2020 primary, as many candidates have criticized them for things like taking resources away from traditional public schools and privatizing education. In doing so, these candidates have been largely distancing themselves from the pro-charter school policies embraced by the Obama administration. The media has not pressed Buttigieg much on charters, or even on public education, perhaps because he was polling relatively low for much of the race.

But Buttigieg, who is now leading in some Iowa caucus surveys, has been holding private fundraisers with a number of prominent charter school supporters, according to invitations reviewed by VICE. While his education plan was enthusiastically endorsed by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who has praised all the leading candidates’ education platforms, Buttigieg’s financial ties with the charter school community raise questions about what policy positions he might adopt if ultimately elected president.

Buttigieg’s plan for charters itself is relatively uncontroversial, which is to say vague. For example, he calls for “equal accountability” between charter schools and traditional public schools, though a few lines later he softens this to a more non-specific standard of “comparable levels” of accountability. While the South Bend mayor says he would “take action” against authorizing entities that produce low-quality charter schools, and that he would work with states to ensure charter school innovations “can be subsequently shared to strengthen the traditional public school system,” he doesn’t provide details on how he would do either of those things.

Notably, his plan steers clear of the Charter Schools Program (CSP), an annual pot of federal money that finances the growth of new charters across the country. Elizabeth Warren has called for an end to funding that program under her administration, and Bernie Sanders said he would put a moratorium on federal funds for new charters until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.

(A campaign spokesperson told Chalkbeat this weekend that Buttigieg would stop CSP dollars from going directly to for-profit schools, though a 2014 federal guidance already prohibits this. The spokesperson declined to tell Chalkbeat who advised Buttigieg on his education plan, and did not respond to VICE on that question either.)

While Buttigeig’s standing in the polls has recently improved, especially in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, his ability to win over black voters remains a daunting stumbling block between him and the Democratic nomination. Black voters favor charters at higher rates than white voters, though still only 47 percent of black Democrats support them, according to an annual education opinion survey.

There aren’t many charter schools currently in South Bend, though that might be changing soon. Enrollment in the city’s public schools dropped by almost 700 students in the last year, and the South Bend superintendent is considering the adoption of a so-called “innovation school” strategy—where the traditional school district would run charter schools but those teachers couldn’t join the citywide teacher union. Two other Indiana cities use this strategy: Indianapolis, where 28 percent of students attended charters in 2015-16 and Gary, where 43 percent did, according to a report by the State Department of Education. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a prominent pro-charter advocacy group, has ranked Indiana as having the best state law for charter schools in the country for the last four years in a row.

Linda Lucy, who has served as the president of the South Bend teachers union since June 2018, told VICE she had never met with Pete Buttigieg, and had “nothing to add” about the union’s relationship with the mayor. “Politicians have hijacked the teaching profession in our public schools,” she said.

Buttigieg does appear to have made time for Heather Willey, one of Indiana’s top charter school lobbyists, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Buttigieg in Indianapolis on October 4, according to an invitation obtained by VICE.

Willey served on the board of the Institute for Quality Education, an Indiana school choice advocacy group, for years, and co-chairs her law firm’s “Charter School and School Innovation” group. In 2019, the Institute for Quality Education, Teach for America Indianapolis, and Charter Schools USA, Inc., a for-profit charter company, all listed Willey’s firm, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, as a hired lobbyist. According to her professional biography, Willey “has been intimately involved in the charter school and school reform movements since the inception of the laws in Indiana in 2001.” She did not return repeated requests for comment.

In Silicon Valley, meanwhile, Buttigieg has also had fundraisers with several prominent charter school supporters.

Satya Patel, a venture capitalist who formerly worked as a vice president of product at Twitter, co-hosted an event for Buttigieg in the Bay Area in late August. Between 2007 and 2017, Patel served on the board of KIPP Bay Area Schools, part of the nation’s largest charter school network, which has received tens of millions of dollars in federal grants. He did not return requests for comment.

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix and one of the nation’s most prominent charter school funders, co-hosted a Menlo Park fundraiser for Buttigieg in late July and maxxed out to his campaign in April.

In an email, Hastings told VICE that he had not spoken with Buttigieg about charter schools, saying, “[I] don’t know where he stands.” The federal role for charter schools and education generally, Hastings added, “is quite small.” In 2018, Hastings spent millions of dollars to unsuccessfully elect a pro-charter state superintendent in California, and this past year he donated $143,000 to 73 Republicans in Missouri to build more support for charter schools in that state.

Camilo Acosta, another San Francisco tech executive, held two fundraisers for Buttigieg—one on October 17, and another on July 24. According to his Crunchbase profile, when Acosta is not working at his start-up, he “does fundraising and advocacy work for education reform efforts, a cause” he “fervently support[s].” Another online bio for an appearance on the Bright Ideas podcast says he “hosts fundraisers for education reform organizations such as KIPP, and political candidates that support the cause.”

Acosta told VICE that he had talked to Buttigieg personally about charters at fundraisers, adding, “The reason I got involved with the campaign and started going to fundraisers and hosting them is because I’m a Latino immigrant and I wanted to be a voice for those inner-city kids and parents who can’t be in those rooms.” Acosta praised Buttigieg’s newly-released K12 plan, saying, “It’s what I had hoped to see, I think it took a very nuanced approach.”

In recent weeks Buttigieg faced criticism over his campaign’s lack of transparency around donors and fundraisers—before the campaign reversed course on Monday and indicated it would open high-dollar fundraisers to the press. (At least until that announcement, the Buttigieg campaign had stopped listing the names of hosts on its fundraiser invitations, making it more difficult to learn who was organizing those events.)

The Buttigieg campaign declined a request for an interview on his approach to charter-school policy. When asked if the campaign wanted to comment on the charter backers who have hosted fundraisers—and whether Buttigieg has spoken about charters at any of these fundraisers—spokesperson Sean Savett referred VICE to a June article published in NBC. That piece quoted Buttigieg saying, “I think the expansion of charter schools in general is something that we need to really draw back on until we’ve corrected what needs to be corrected in terms of underfunded public education.”

His rivals aren’t having as much success laying low on the issue. Warren, whose education plan calls for limiting charter school expansion and holding charters to the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools, was protested by charter school activists at a November campaign event in Atlanta, as the New York Times reported. This past weekend in New Hampshire, Warren who has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers, called on Buttigieg to open his three upcoming fundraisers in New York to the press and said she was concerned about presidential candidates who “sell access to their time to the highest bidder.”

Buttigieg, Warren, and at least six other presidential candidates are expected to appear at a public education town hall hosted by MSNBC in Pittsburgh next weekend.

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.