The Charter School Primary

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 15, 2019.
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When Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, released his wide-ranging education plan in mid-May, most of the media coverage focused on his proposals around charter schools. Commenters specifically focused on his calls to ban for-profit charters, which represent about 15 percent of the sector, and to halt federal funding for new charter schools until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.

Many education policy experts suspect that such an audit would eventually lead to banning all new charters, but the Sanders campaign says they are just taking their cues from the NAACP. In 2016, the civil rights group called for a moratorium on new charters until existing ones were brought under the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, told The New York Times that his organization loves that Sanders’s plan adopts their language around charters. “If we have a problem with the delivery of our education system, you don’t create ancillary systems for some of the children and not address the comprehensive problem,” he said.

To fight back, many charter supporters have sought to cast Sanders as uniquely extreme on the issue, especially in his efforts to link charter schools with segregation. But it’s hard to target Sanders as extreme when the entire 2020 field has joined and even surpassed Sanders on the issue. The charter school movement’s complete loss of clout in the Democratic Party is one of the more surprising stories of the election cycle.

At the start of July, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released an open letter, imploring Sanders to withdraw his call for a moratorium and “back away from calls for additional regulations that are not in the best interests of schools or students.” The 244 signatories defended the results from charters, citing a 2015 report from the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes, and stressed that charters are in high-demand among families of color. “District-operated public schools have systemically failed students of color for generations,” they wrote.

While the letter didn’t specifically cite Sanders’s call to ban for-profit charters, the signatories included Fernando Zuleta, the president of the for-profit charter management company Academica, and seven board members of National Heritage Academies, another for-profit charter company that operates over 80 schools across nine states.

Sanders isn’t the first mainstream Democrat to criticize charter schools—while campaigning in 2016, Hillary Clinton came out against for-profit charters, as did the Democratic Party platform for the first time. Even many charter leaders, including the president of the Democrats for Education Reform, have condemned for-profit charter schools in recent years.

The pressure to ramp up the rhetoric against charters stems not only from a fierce competition to court teacher unions—an influential Democratic constituency long hostile to charters—but also due to dwindling support among white Democratic voters. According to polling from Education Next, 50 percent of white Democrats now oppose charters, and support among white Democrats fell from 43 to 27 percent between 2016 and 2018. By contrast, charter support among black and Hispanic Democrats remained steady over those two years, and more of both groups support charters than oppose them.

Similar results were found in a recent poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform. The group found that 58 percent of black Democrats are favorable towards charters, while 31 percent are opposed. Among Hispanic voters, 52 percent supported charters, while 30 percent opposed. But among white Democrats, 26 percent were favorable, and a whopping 62 percent were opposed.

The candidates’ critical positions seem to be responding in part to this new political landscape. And as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains a staunch champion for both school vouchers and charters, Democrats see distancing themselves from education reform as an easy way to contrast themselves with the deeply unpopular Trump administration.

Earlier this month, at a presidential forum hosted by the National Education Association (NEA), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came out swinging against charters, which educate 10 percent of public school students in his city. While de Blasio has long been known as a charter school skeptic, and has battled with Eva Moskowitz, the leader of New York City’s largest charter network in the past, he also has sought to assure voters that he does not outright oppose charter schools, and can negotiate compromises with them.

At the forum he made clear he was no longer seeking such nuance or compromise. “I am angry about the privatizers,” he told the crowd. “I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.” When asked a question about standardized testing, he responded, “Get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools.” His last point goes beyond what what Sanders has called for.

Meanwhile, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, released his education plan this month, which also called for an end of federal funding to new charter schools. He made no mention of a study or even a moratorium. Inslee also called for improvements in charter accountability and transparency, and bolstering diversity at existing charter schools.

Inslee has been critical of charters in his home state, where just a dozen currently operate. In 2012, when he first ran for governor, he opposed a ballot initiative to allow the creation of charters and in 2015 he emphasized that his position remained unchanged. “I opposed the initiative that created charter schools because I did not believe that public money belongs in schools that lack public oversight and accountability,” he said.

Hours after Sanders’s education plan was released, Elizabeth Warren told reporters that she agreed for-profit charters are “a real problem.” She has not yet released her own K-12 plan. While the Massachusetts senator has supported charter schools in the past, in 2016 she came out against a high-profile ballot initiative that would have allowed charters to expand much more quickly in her state. The measure ended up failing, with 62 percent of voters siding against it.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also came out to say he supports Sanders’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools, though he affirmed a month earlier that charters “have a place” in the education landscape “as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.”

Beto O’Rourke, who opposes a national moratorium on new charters, told the NEA presidential forum that “There is a place for public nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them.” O’Rourke has supported charters in the past, and his wife is a former charter school leader who now sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charters in El Paso.

Kamala Harris has not yet released any plan on charter schools, though in January a spokesperson for her campaign told me that the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” California lawmakers passed a ban on for-profit charters last fall, and passed new transparency measures this year. As attorney general, Harris launched a probe into K12 Inc., a for-profit charter school company, alleging it used false advertising, saddled its California schools with debt, and inflated its student attendance numbers to collect additional state funds. K12 ended up settling with the state for $168.5 million.

Even Joe Biden has made unusually critical comments about charter schools, notable as the Obama administration was very supportive of them and the former vice president generally seeks to align himself closely with Obama on the campaign trail. “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period,” Biden said at a Houston town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers. He also added that “there are some charter schools that work.” His education plan does not actually mention charters.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate most closely associated with supporting charter schools, has also tamped down some of his charter rhetoric. While he continues to defend the educational reforms he led in Newark, including an expansion of charter schools, on the campaign trail he’s also sought to distance his hometown from charter experiments elsewhere.

“I’ve seen charter school models that are outrageous and unacceptable. I’ve seen charter laws propagated by Republicans that just outright dangerous. And so I understand those people, I’m one of them, that wants to stop those kind of movements,” he told the Washington Examiner in response to a question about Sanders’s education plan. “But I’ve also seen in places like Newark, New Jersey, and other places where local leaders are making decisions that elevate the best educational possibilities of their children, and local leadership should be allowed to do that.”

The turn against charter schools within the Democratic primary does not offer the industry an easy way to separate Sanders or Warren from the rest of the 2020 field. It’s part of a larger sea change on education within the party, though one that’s unevenly reflected so far across racial groups.

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Will Bernie Sanders Stick With a Carbon Tax In His Push for a Green New Deal?

Originally published in The Intercept on July 3, 2019.
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A DEFINING FEATURE of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s political career is his consistency. The economy is rigged against the working class, the independent senator from Vermont charges, and bold political action is necessary to remedy that. His approach to tackling the climate crisis has long reflected that mindset, with Sanders ignoring the advice of the Democratic consultant class to champion taxing the nation’s largest polluters and redistributing the bulk of the earned revenue back to consumers and vulnerable people.

Now, as the 2020 presidential candidate prepares to release his climate change plan, a key element to watch out for is whether Sanders will abandon the tool he’s heralded for years to combat global warming, or integrate it into his push for a Green New Deal. As he makes this decision, Sanders is wading into an increasingly contentious debate among environmentalists about the right role for market-based solutions in progressive policy.

Sanders has long argued that a carbon tax “must be a central part of our strategy for dramatically reducing carbon pollution,” and he’s often touted the consensus behind it from economists across the political spectrum. He’s called a carbon tax “the most straight-forward and efficient strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and has urged his colleagues “to catch up with the scientific community and with the rest of the country.”

But over the last year, some influential groups on the left have soured on a carbon tax, pointing to a recent ballot measure that failed at the polls in Washington state and also the yellow vest protests in France over rising fuel prices — sparked by taxing carbon. And as more conservatives and business leaders have warmed to the idea of a carbon tax, some progressives have grown correspondingly distrustful — skeptical that Republicans will really do anything other than undermine the bold action that is needed.

Sanders, an original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, has been touting a Green New Deal often on the 2020 campaign trail but has so far been silent on taxing carbon. His campaign website, unlike in 2016, says nothing about it, and in June, a Sanders speechwriter told E&ENews, an environmental trade publication, that a forthcoming Green New Deal speech does not say anything about a carbon tax, though he added that doesn’t mean Sanders might not tackle the issue in the future.

“While Bernie has, in the past, introduced federal carbon pricing legislation in the Senate, the IPCC report makes clear that our window for action is closing,” Sarah Ford, the deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign, told The Intercept, referencing a landmark 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that underscored the urgency of the crisis. “So, if we are to solve the issue of climate change, a price on carbon must be part of a larger strategy and it must be formulated in a way that actually transitions our economy away from fossil fuels and protects low-income families and communities of color.”

The campaign pointed to Sanders’s Senate office, which is in the process of drafting new climate legislation. A spokesperson for his Senate office told The Intercept over email that “all I can say is that we’re still in the legislative development of our climate policy and GND, which we hope to unveil soon, and we still need to review, get input, etc.” In June, Keane Bhatt, a spokesperson for Sanders’s Senate office told E&E that he foresees his boss’s Green New Deal bill to be “focused primarily on public investment.”

Where the Vermont senator lands on the issue could be a bellwether for what’s to come.

SANDERS HAS NEVER supported a carbon tax as the exclusive measure needed to tackle the climate crisis, but he has insisted it’s an integral one. To protect families from potentially increased energy prices, a 2013 bill he introduced with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., stated that 60 percent of the carbon tax revenue would be rebated, per capita, to every legal U.S resident. He and Boxer also promoted a number of other ideas, including weatherizing 1 million homes per year, funding worker retraining programs, and making massive investments in clean energy research and development. Sanders called it “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.”

In 2015, after Sanders had mounted his bid for the White House, he used his support for a carbon tax as a way to distinguish himself from the more piecemeal climate proposals pushed forward by his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Her advisers, many of them still bruised from the failed cap-and-trade fight from 2010, urged her to steer clear of anything resembling a tax, which they said could leave her vulnerable to Republican attacks of raising energy prices.

But Sanders, who has never been very fearful of potential Republican smears, leaned into the policy idea he believed in. On the campaign trail, he called for a carbon tax, banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, and ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies. He also called for increased federal investment in wind, solar, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and public transit — items that will likely be central to any Green New Deal.

“Bernie will tax polluters causing the climate crisis and return billions of dollars to working families to ensure the fossil fuel companies don’t subject us to unfair rate hikes,” his plan stated. “Bernie knows that climate change will not affect everyone equally. The carbon tax will also protect those most impacted by the transformation of our energy system and protect the most vulnerable communities in the country suffering the ravages of climate change.”

One major success of his 2016 campaign was getting language included in the Democratic Party platform in support of a carbon tax. The platformstated that Democrats “believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities” and that Democrats should “support using every tool available to reduce emissions now.”

ONE OF THE most prominent voices in the environmental movement to turn against a carbon tax is Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state and the presidential candidate who is running primarily on tackling climate change. Inslee has strongly supported taxing carbon in the past (an idea sometimes called imposing a “carbon fee”), but bills in favor of the proposal never made it out of his state legislature, and related ballot initiatives failed in 2016 and 2018. (The fossil fuel industry spentmore than $31 million to beat the 2018 initiative, more than twice the amount spent by supporters.)

In January, Inslee announced that he had grown wary of relying on a carbon tax to reduce emissions. “To actually get carbon savings, you need to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable,” he told NBC News, adding that he was more interested in taxing the rich to fund a Green New Deal. His aggressive proposals on the 2020 campaign trail also do not include taxing carbon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, the original Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also pointed to Washington’s failed carbon tax ballot measure as reason to not hold much hope in a similar national effort. “If it can’t pass in Washington state right now, I’m not sure that says that there’s much of a pathway at this moment nationally,” he told Politico in December.

Other proponents of the Green New Deal have argued that a carbon tax just shouldn’t be a primary focus. A set of talking points released — and then retracted — by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office in February emphasized that any carbon tax “would be a tiny part” of a Green New Deal. A carbon tax generally “misses the point and would be off the table unless we create the clean, affordable options first,” the fact sheet said. Ocasio-Cortez also wrote on Twitter that ideas like a carbon tax can’t be the premier solution to tackling the climate crisis.

Paradoxically, the successful grassroots organizing led by environmental groups like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has been building bipartisan support for a carbon tax and dividend since 2007, has now sparked wariness among other environmental activists who say Democrats can’t afford to compromise with a party that denies climate science and answers too often to the fossil fuel industry.

Others on the left have been increasingly skeptical of relying on any sort of market-based solution to tackling the climate crisis. In January, more than 600 advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth, the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch, Indivisible, and People’s Action signed a letter pledging to “vigorously oppose” any climate legislation that promotes “market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.” This kind of language kept eight of the largest environmental groups off the letter, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, separately criticized Democrats for “still seem[ing] fixated on the half solutions of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.” He argued that “market pricing schemes should no longer be the centerpiece of a comprehensive climate strategy.”

Aside from signing the congressional letter, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has also signaled it’s not very interested in a carbon tax. While Sunrise’s political director, Evan Weber, has said a carbon tax “has the potential” to be part of a Green New Deal, he’s also dismissed the idea that it’s an important tool for tackling the problem. “There’s been a predominant conversation in Washington, D.C., that’s been led by economists and politicos that have tried to frame a carbon tax as the only way,” he told Politico. “It’s proved time and time again to be not politically popular, and we haven’t even priced the policy at where economists say it needs to be. The idea that [a carbon tax is] the way out of this mess is something we need to be pushing back on.” Neither the Sunrise Movement nor Weber returned The Intercept’s request for comment.

SUPPORT, HOWEVER, STILL exists for a carbon tax, even among environmental groups that have embraced the Green New Deal framework. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have endorsed both bold public investment and a carbon tax as ways to combat climate change. New polling from Data for Progress, a progressive polling organization, also recently found strong support among Democratic voters for both approaches to tackling the crisis.

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Many congressional supporters of the Green New Deal also agree there’s room and need for both. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., an original co-sponsor of the resolution, has said a price on carbon has “got to be part of the solution.” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a vocal supporter of a Green New Deal, has also argued that it’s perfectly compatible with a carbon tax.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., another original Green New Deal resolution co-sponsor, has also pushed back on the idea that the failed carbon tax ballot measure in her state means it’s too politically unpopular to pass anywhere — pointing to the large sums of money the fossil fuel industry had to spend to defeat it. “I am not in the camp that thinks it failed because of a carbon tax, I don’t believe that,” she told E&E“I think it failed because industry really doesn’t want it to succeed.” She acknowledged that the progressive movement has been “a little bit all over the place” when it comes to carbon taxation.

Climate change experts also continue to vouch for a carbon tax. In its report issued last October, the IPCC endorsed pricing carbon to reduce emissions and recommended imposing prices of $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 to keep global warming in check. But an OECD report from last September found that few countries that do have carbon taxes are setting them at levels high enough to meaningfully curb emissions — highlighting the political challenge at hand.

IN MANY RESPECTS, there is more legislative traction around carbon pricing than there’s been in years, and Republicans are increasingly warming up to the idea. While groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity still adamantly oppose it, other conservative businesses and even fossil fuel companies have come out behind it, though sometimes with conditions that progressives would unlikely support — like environmental deregulation or immunity from any lawsuits.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee heldits first climate-related hearing in over a decade, and in late November 2018, three Republicans and three Democrats in the House introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the first bipartisan carbon tax proposal in Congress in almost 10 years. Known colloquially as the “Deutch proposal” after one of its Democratic authors, Rep. Ted Deutch, it would direct proceeds from the tax back to consumers in the form of monthly rebate checks. The legislation has been described by experts as a “highly progressive” proposal, given that high-income households would pay a disproportionate amount of the tax, yet the resulting revenues would be distributed equally to all households. Under this bill, a family of 4 with two adults would take home an annual dividend of $3,456 by 2025. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby said it “may be the strongest and most comprehensive climate bill ever submitted to Congress,” though the group also stressed that “no one should expect any single policy to solve climate change by itself.”

There are other carbon pricing proposals on the table. One, known as the “Baker proposal,” has earned the endorsement of many in the business community, and it embraces a carbon tax in exchange for repealing other environmental regulations and limiting legal liability on the energy industry. Another bill, known as the “Whitehouse proposal,” would redirect most of the carbon revenue generated to reduce the employee portion of the payroll tax. Named after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the proposal was co-introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another presidential candidate and original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.

The idea of a carbon tax came up briefly in last week’s Democratic presidential debates, when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Rep. Tim Ryan how he would fund climate projects “if carbon pricing is just politically impossible.”

As Time’s energy reporter Justin Worland noted, the question itself confused the point of a climate tax, which is meant to make polluting the environment more expensive, not primarily finance green projects. Ryan didn’t reference any carbon pricing in his answer, yet former Rep. John Delaney, who co-sponsored the Deutch proposal last November, picked up on the opportunity to tout his work pushing the bipartisan solution. “My proposal, which is put a price on carbon, give a dividend back to the American people — it goes out one pocket, back in the other,” Delaney said. “I can get that passed my first year as president, with a coalition of every Democrat in the Congress and the Republicans who live in coastal states.”

In the second debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for “aggressive and ambitious measures” to tackle climate change and cited a carbon tax and dividend as one he’d support. “But I would propose we do it in a way that is rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole,” he said, invoking bills like the Deutch proposal.

Some commentators online criticized the way Democrats fail to adequately explain how a carbon tax and dividend work to voters.

Though Sanders was not asked anything about a carbon tax and dividend in the debate, he has for years demonstrated how to promote the idea in clear, progressive terms — highlighting the need to make wealthy polluters pay for their planetary destruction, while protecting working people and vulnerable communities from rising energy prices.

In 2016, though not a single question was asked in the general election presidential debates about climate change, Sanders seized on a question in the primaries about fracking to push his opponent on the need for a carbon tax.

“The truth is, as secretary of state, Secretary [Hillary] Clinton actively supported fracking technology around the world,” Sanders said. “Second of all, right now, we have got to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet. And that means — and I would ask you to respond — are you in favor of a tax on carbon, so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do?”

Three years later, it’s not yet clear how Sanders will proceed. Does he still believe taxing carbon is worth fighting for, or will he eschew consistency in favor of a new approach to tackling the climate crisis?

The New Politics of the Retirement Crisis

Originally published in the April 2019 issue of The New Republic magazine.
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In 2014, 64-year-old Jim Whitlock was earning a good salary as an inspector at Boeing, where he planned to work for another six years. His wife, Cheri, who was 54, was investigating public records for a title insurance company. Then Jim’s diabetes, sleep apnea, and chronic fatigue dramatically worsened. In May of that year, he was forced to retire early, and Cheri found herself serving as his primary caretaker in addition to working full-time. “The financial hit of it all was quite frankly pretty hard,” Cheri told me. Some months, she had to choose between making her next car payment, purchasing groceries, or paying the electric bill.

Two years later, when Jim was diagnosed with early onset dementia, small luxuries the Whitlocks had long taken for granted—like going to a movie or buying yarn for knitting—began to feel out of reach. Caring for her husband taxed Cheri, too. Her doctor worried about her skyrocketing blood pressure and how little sleep she got every night.

Cheri assumed she would never be able to retire. “All of Jim’s retirement funds were going to his care, we were looking at the potential of losing our house, and I was looking at a very destitute future for myself,” she recalled.

As dire as their financial situation was, Cheri and her husband were still better off than many Americans. Jim had an employee pension from Boeing, and when he passed away last July, after a rapid decline, he had a life insurance policy that doled out just enough money to keep Cheri out of poverty—and will, one day, allow her to retire. Very few Americans can say as much. Today, almost half—​45 percent—have $0 saved for retirement. Roughly the same number don’t simply worry about being financially insecure when they retire; they actually expect it. Indeed, just within the last few decades, retirement and senior care have become some of the most intimidating and untenable costs people face in their lifetimes, a burden more crushing than paying for college or buying a house.

Our modern system for dealing with the elderly emerged during the New Deal, when very different social and economic conditions reigned. The average life expectancy was 61 years old, most women didn’t work outside the home, and many workers had pension plans that provided them with a steady source of income in their old age. Private pensions were themselves a relatively new invention. In 1875, American Express offered the first such plan to employees who had been “injured or worn out” working its rail, barge, and horseback delivery lines. At the turn of the century, railroad barons implemented them, eager to remove aging workers from their ranks without political blowback. Many of those pension funds went bust during the Great Depression. Observing the decimation of millions of dollars in life savings, the federal government recognized that it needed to step in, and created the Social Security Act of 1935.

Over the next 30 years, life expectancy rose, the economy boomed, and in 1965, with flush federal coffers, the government passed Medicare to aid the growing elderly population. Both Social Security and Medicare, however, were designed to be supplemented by other sources. Benefits were nothing if not modest​—enough to keep people out of poverty but hardly enough to live on. Lawmakers had assumed that people would be able to draw on individual savings to augment their government subsidies. And for much of the twentieth century, they were right. Between World War II and the 1990s, most of the middle class earned enough from their jobs to enjoy a fairly comfortable retirement. But during that same period, an ideological shift was underway, as employers began scaling back the benefits workers relied upon to provide for themselves in their old age.

In 1982, when Social Security almost went bankrupt, some of the new think tanks that were establishing themselves in Washington at the time—like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute—pressed President Ronald Reagan to privatize the program. But when they realized doing so would be politically perilous, given Social Security’s strong support among seniors, strategists decided to promote a different approach. Politicians would assure seniors their Social Security benefits would remain the same, tell young people they could expect no benefits to be left when they retired, and convince current workers that private investment was a safer, more lucrative option.

The retirement vehicles known as 401(k)s first appeared in 1978, and within five years, nearly half of all large firms were offering them. Advocates made rosy projections, promising things like 7 percent annual compounded returns. “There was a complete overreaction of excitement,” Bank of America’s head of retirement services recalled in a 2017 Wall Street Journal articleBut when recessions hit in the 2000s, millions lost their savings. Today, these early enthusiasts admit their analyses failed to account for a trifecta of factors: the large swings in the stock market, the ordinary investing mistakes people routinely make, and the huge fees charged by money managers. (For the typical worker, fees can easily eat up 20 percent of a retirement fund over time.)

A century after railroad companies introduced some of the nation’s first pension programs, employers have all but relinquished their sense of obligation to care for their workers in their old age. Today, pensions are nearly gone, and most small businesses don’t even offer 401(k)s. In 2013, just 28 percent of large companies in the United States provided retiree health coverage, down from 66 percent in 1988.

 

It’s no surprise, then, that 46 percent of Americans expect to be financially insecure when they retire, anticipating their government and employers will do next to nothing to help them. But these grim fears also open up a political opportunity. In the last election cycle, Democrats campaigned heavily on health care (by mid-October, 55 percent of their television ads centered on the issue). It’s this focus, many suspect, that helped them improve their margins among elderly voters, with seniors casting their ballots almost evenly between the two parties—a marked shift from years past.

There are signs that retirement will play a significant role in the 2020 race. In February, Bernie Sanders reintroducedthe Social Security Expansion Act, with sponsorships from three other leading Democratic presidential contenders: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris. They belong to a congressional caucus dedicated to increasing Social Security benefits. Formed last fall, it already has more than 150 Democratic members, and Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, another presidential candidate, are its co-chairs in the Senate.

The party has come a long way from its stance a decade earlier, when few liberal politicians would endorse the expansion of Social Security. In the early 2000s, the boldest promise most Democrats would make was to “preserve” benefits or “fight cuts.” Their rhetoric only began to change after 2010, when advocacy groups like Social Security Works were launched to help transform the conversation.

Congress has signaled a willingness to consider policy proposals beyond Social Security, too. Representative Pramila Jayapal’s new Medicare-for-All bill includescoverage of long-term care, and just last year, with Republicans controlling both chambers, Congress expanded Medicare coverage to seniors with multiple chronic illnesses. The success of that bill suggests real bipartisan support exists for strengthening the national insurance program.

Encouragingly, the states have also begun to propose solutions. In 2017, Hawaii launched a program to reduce the cost of senior care, dispensing $70 a day for up to 365 days to family caregivers. In 2018, Maine voters considered a ballot measure that would have established the nation’s first universal home care program. The proposal suggested taxing Maine’s highest earners to pay for caregiving for any adult aged 65 and older who wanted it. It didn’t pass (powerful groups like the Maine Hospital Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce torpedoed the effort), but similar ideas will likely surface elsewhere. This year, legislators in Washington state are voting on a bill to provide residents with up to $36,500 for costs like nursing home fees, in-home care, and wheelchair ramps—assistance of a kind that Cheri Whitlock and her family would no doubt have eagerly welcomed.

Politicians who address retirement understand they can reach not only the elderly, but those who care for them. More than 40 million people provide unpaid caregiving, spending on average 20 percent of their incomes each year on expenses like mortgage payments and medical bills. The home health and personal care sector, meanwhile, employs some three million people nationwide and is one of the fastest growing in the economy. Most aides are women, who earn very little and work unpredictable hours. For them, and for families who rely on their services, a plan for universal long-term care would surely represent a welcome change. Few issues in American politics cut across so many constituencies, and affect the lives of so many.

Bernie, the Billionaires, and the School Board

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 12, 2017.
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Just 20 percent of eligible Los Angeles voters turned out to the polls on March 7 to vote for their city’s next mayor and school board officials, and turnout is likely to be even lower for Tuesday’s school board runoffs. And yet, this race that barely anyone will vote in has turned into a high-stakes battleground, complete with record-setting amounts of political spending and bitter negative campaigning. It has pitted some of the richest men in American against none other than Bernie Sanders, in a brawl over the future of public education in the nation’s largest state.

Incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, backed by labor, is running against the education reformer Nicholas Melvoin; in another district, labor-backed Imelda Padilla is facing off against the charter-backed Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in an open race.

Los Angeles is last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for local school board members—mayors in cities like Chicago and New York appoint their school boards, and Washington, D.C., dissolved its local school board altogether in 2007, giving education decision-making power to the mayoral-appointed schools chancellor.

Despite the current showdown, Los Angeles is hardly anti-reform. With 279 charter schools, Los Angeles has more charters than any other city in the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), roughly 156,000 LA public school students—24 percent of total enrollment—attended charter schools during the 2015-16 school year. The second highest city on NAPCS’s list was New York, which enrolled 93,610 students in charters that year.

But the ambitions of national reformers still far exceed the district’s appetite for change, at least thus far.

Although the LA school board has approved most petitions for new charters and charter renewals, charter advocates say they feel the board’s support for opening new ones is waning.

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And in September of 2015 The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document from billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation, revealing plans to increase Los Angeles’s charter school market share to 50 percent over the next eight years. This transformation would require the creation of 260 new charters, at a cost of $490 million. The bombshell report sparked intense controversy.

By March of 2016, education reformers had toned down their public rhetoric and goals, emphasizing that they’d support expanding all types of high-quality schools, not just charters. The modified plan did little to tamp down tensions between charter supporters and opponents. A union-funded study released in May of 2016 reported that the city’s charter sector drains upwards of $500 million a year from the school district’s budget. The teachers union and its allies charged that unmitigated charter school growth “imperils the financial stability” of the district, and limits opportunities for those students who remain in traditional public schools.

Last month, in a 4-3 vote, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to endorse three controversial bills in the state legislature that would place more oversight and restrictions on charter schools. The California Charter Schools Association strongly opposed the bills, and both Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez said they would oppose the measures if elected. (Zimmer voted in favor of endorsing the bills, and Padilla declined to take a position.)

Money from outside the city and state has been pouring into the two races. The previous record in outside donations for school board elections had been $7.4 million in 2013. As of April 29, outside spending had already reached $11.3 million, according to the city’s ethics commission campaign finance data. As LA Weekly put it, “To say the 2017 Los Angeles election for school board is the most expensive such race in the history of the United States is an understatement: It is the most expensive by more than 50 percent.” (And this is all for a job that pays $45,000 a year.)

Nationally, charter advocates often justify their reliance on the deep pockets of billionaire supporters as necessary to compete with the spending of local teachers unions. But other sources place reform spending at least in parity with union spending. As EdSource, a nonprofit education news site focused on California recently reported, “In past years, the teachers union far outspent the [charter] association on campaign contributions. Not anymore.”

In the Los Angeles school board race, the charter advocates have outspent the unions by roughly a third, with significant money coming from billionaire-donors like Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

And LA Weekly reports that $4.1 million has been spent on negative campaigning in the runoffs, compared to $1.1 million in the 2015 race, and under $1 million in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of the negative campaign financing has been directed by charter proponents against Zimmer.

The unprecedented escalation of the races has also attracted some high-profile, highly unusual endorsements from political leaders and celebrities.

“Billionaires should not make a profit off of public school children,” said Democratic senator Bernie Sanders in a statement earlier this month. “That’s why I’m supporting Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla for the Los Angeles School Board. They will fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda to destabilize and undermine public schools.”

Sanders’ endorsement—which links the education reform agenda of Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez to President Trump’s controversial education agenda—reflects a larger national strategy being pursued by advocates of traditional public education since Donald Trump was elected. It attempts to link charter advocates to a man Democrats despise. It also frames Tuesday’s choice as something larger than charter schools or traditional schools: an extension of a national debate about whether the public sector, including education, will be democratic and equitable, or privatized and outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Is it working? Time will tell, but Melvoin seems to be feeling the heat: in an article in LA School Report from March, he discussed pressure to dispel myths that he was a “Trump guy.”

Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez can claim support, however, from prominent Democratic charter backers. Both have received endorsements from Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under Barack Obama, while Fitzpatrick-Gonez formerly worked as an Obama administration education adviser.

Why the Dichotomy Between Racial and Economic Justice is A False One

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 21, 2015.
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Yesterday, Vox’s Dara Lind published a post analyzing what this past weekend’s protests at Netroots Nation tell us about splits within the progressive movement. I personally don’t think Bernie Sanders handled the Black Lives Matter demonstrators very well, and I imagine his advisers had several serious conversations with him following the conference about how to better approach these voters going forward. He’s a politician—I’m pretty confident he’ll figure out how to campaign more effectively.

It’s the media analysis I’m more worried about.

Lind writes:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I’ve written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That’s why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don’t see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it’s important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that “pivoting” to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

We must push back against this false dichotomy of “racial justice progressives” and “economic progressives.” I think it’s a harmful way to frame what’s going on, and it suggests that we can have racial justice without economic justice, and that economic justice can come about without tackling racism. Neither is true, at all.

Racial justice amounts to far more than dismantling our racist criminal justice system and reining in police brutality. Affordable housing, public education, and quality health care are all issues that impact individuals directly based on class and race. Drawing imaginary lines between them just doesn’t work.

I’m not frustrated with the coverage because, as Lind suggests, I just want to defend Sanders. I am frustrated because attempts to separate economic issues—whether it’s jobs, or retirement savings, or health care, or prisons, or loans, or taxes—from racial justice, is a deeply troubling way to lead a national conversation about racism.

What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2015.
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P
residential candidate Bernie Sanders has excited his base with some bold ideas surrounding higher education. He’s said college should be a right, that public universities should have free tuition, and that public universities should employ tenured or tenure-track faculty for at least 75 percent of instruction, as a way to reduce the growing dependence on cheap adjunct labor. But Sanders’ stances on K-12 issues—arguably more contentious topics for politicians to engage with compared to higher ed and universal pre-K—have garnered far less attention.

Here’s what we know so far:

1. He wants to roll back standardized testing, but still supports Common Core.

Sanders opposes the expansion of standardized testing we’ve seen through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); he argues that such tests narrow school curriculum and hurt student creativity and critical thinking. However, this past March he voted against an amendment that would have allowed states to opt-out of the Common Core standards without a federal penalty. The amendment also would have barred the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing, or coercing” states into adopting the standards.

2.  He supports expanding the school day and year.

Sanders is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and in 2011, he worked to raise support for expanding the school day and year. Citing research on “summer learning loss”—Sanders notes that low-income students stand to lose much of what they learn if they’re denied extra-curricular enrichment opportunities. He also secured more funding for after-school and summer learning opportunities in Vermont.

3. He wants to see teachers paid more, and is a defender of pensions.

Sanders believes all educators, from early childhood workers up to college instructors should be paid more. He said, “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” And while he believes the public pension crisis “must be addressed” he is more interested in reigning in Wall Street to solve it than reducing retiree payments.

4. He opposes Big Money in politics, but has not taken a clear position on the role of Big Money in education.

Sanders has come out strongly against oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and other special interests that pour money into politics. Citing these groups as a threat to true democracy—he wants to overturn Citizens United and push for publicly funded elections.

However, whether he will bring the same critical rhetoric to the foundations, consultants, and hedge fund managers shaping education policy remains to be seen. As Anthony Cody, the co-founder of Network for Public Ed pointed out recently, Sanders has yet to speak very clearly on these issues, but his opposition to Big Money elsewhere leads one to think that it’s at least a reasonable possibility.

5. He wants to strengthen who can be considered a “highly qualified” teacher.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education honored Sanders in 2012 for his “outstanding support” for educator preparation programs. In 2011 he introduced the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, which would aim to strengthen the definition of what a “highly qualified” teacher is considered to be, and work to reduce the number of unqualified teachers working in needy schools.

6. He has an unclear position on charter schools, but opposes vouchers.

He voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998, but has not engaged much in the polarized charter debate since. Vermont is one of the few states that do not permit charter schools, in part because the Vermont public education system already allows for “school choice” in other ways. However, Sanders is a strong supporter of teacher unions and collective bargaining, so if he does come to back charters, his support is unlikely to be paired with the type of anti-union rhetoric common in the charter advocacy world.

He also opposes private school vouchers, favoring an expanded federal investment in public schools instead.

So we have some insights, but questions remain. Ultimately if Bernie Sanders wants to win over progressive liberals and campaign as a left alternative to Hillary Clinton, he’ll have to start speaking more explicitly about K-12 education in the coming months.