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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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.

Elizabeth Warren Introduces Plan to Expand Affordable Housing and Dismantle Racist Zoning Practices

Originally published in The Intercept on September 28, 2018.

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, one of the most far-reaching federal housing bills in decades. The legislation calls for a half-trillion dollar investment in affordable housing over the next 10 years, creating up to 3.2 million new units for low- and middle-income families.

The bill also expands the protections of decades-old legislation to reduce discriminatory banking, ban housing discrimination, and desegregate neighborhoods. For example, Warren’s bill would make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against renters with federal housing vouchers, and would also impose new regulations on credit unions and nonbank mortgage lenders like Quicken Loans. The bill also incentivizes states and localities to loosen their racist and discriminatory zoning restrictions; eases the path for low-income families to move into more affluent communities; and provides federal assistance to first-time homebuyers from formerly segregated areas and those who saw their wealth decimated in the 2008 financial crisis.

Warren’s bill comes on the heels of two other federal housing bills introduced this summer by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, of New Jersey and California, respectively. Harris’s bill, which came first, aims to provide financial relief to renters by creating a new refundable tax credit. Booker’s bill would also establish a refundable tax credit for renters and incentivize communities to curb their exclusionary zoning rules to increase housing supply. Booker, Harris, and Warren are all names frequently thrown around as 2020 presidential hopefuls, though none has actually announced their intent to run.

“Much of the housing discussion has been about affordability, production, and tenant protections, which are all really important issues,” said Philip Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. “What’s so powerful about Warren’s bill is that it aims to tackle all those things, and it also looks at how are we going to structure our society going forward. Fair housing is really embedded in the legislation, and that’s why I find it so creative.”

To incentivize states and communities to ease their zoning restrictions and boost affordable housing supply, a Warren aide told The Intercept, the senator’s staff looked at the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. In Race to the Top, the federal government doled out $4 billion in competitive grants to states that adopted the administration’s preferred education reform policies, like lifting caps on charter schools and overhauling teacher evaluations. The program was massively effective: Forty-six states and Washington, D.C., revamped their policies to compete for the federal funds.

Warren’s bill takes that same competitive grant model, and allows states, metropolitan regions, and cities to compete for $10 billion in federal funds. (Race to the Top had two rounds of competitive funding; Warren’s bill proposes five.) To compete, jurisdictions must first reform their zoning restrictions and reduce other barriers to affordable housing production. Grant winners can then use the federal dollars to fund all sorts of projects, such as building parks and schools and improving local transit.

Often when new, dense housing developments are proposed, residents raise concerns about the overcrowding of schools or increased traffic congestion. Warren’s bill would arm political leaders with added resources to help make those housing tradeoffs a bit easier. Yes, increasing housing supply could lead to an increase in the public school student population, but reforming land use policies could also help cities access additional federal dollars to absorb those new residents more smoothly.

To fund the bill, Warren proposes a return to Bush-era estate tax levels, and increasing those taxes on the country’s 10,000 wealthiest families. The Massachusetts senator cited an independent study conducted by the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, an economics research firm, which determined that Warren’s bill was “fiscally responsible” and would “go a long way toward addressing” the affordable housing crisis. Moody’s projects the bill would lower rents by 10 percent and make it easier for low- and middle-income workers to live closer to their jobs, thereby reducing “long and costly commutes.”

POLITICIANS, INCLUDING PROMINENT progressives like Warren, have historically steered away from efforts to curtail exclusionary zoning, said Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. The difference now, he told The Intercept, is that “rents have become too damn high,” so elected officials, including presidential hopefuls, are more open to ideas that previously seemed too controversial to embrace.

Henry Kraemer, a Portland-based activist, co-authored an article in The Nation in May making the political case for Democrats to take up housing issues. In August, he followed up with a co-authored report laying out specific policy recommendations, such as new rent subsidies and expanded public housing. Kraemer and his report co-author, Laura Loe Bernstein, note that successfully enacting all their proposals would be “nearly or entirely impossible” without ending “apartment bans” — another name for exclusionary zoning. “Apartment bans restrict new home-building to the sort of single-family houses most commonly associated with suburbs and affluent neighborhoods,” they write. “Apartment bans are extraordinarily widespread, and render it illegal to build duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other spaces where multiple families can live nestled together (and often more cheaply) on the same plot of land.”

Kraemer told The Intercept it’s “fantastic” to see 2020 hopefuls “putting out bold solutions to the housing crisis” that Democrats can pursue if they reclaim Congress and the White House. In the short term, Kraemer said, the Harris, Booker, and Warren bills “send the right signals” to state and local lawmakers.

“Maybe more than any other politician, Elizabeth Warren helped set the tone and agenda for the party’s economic work around the country,” Kraemer said. “To see her saying now that these historic inequities in housing and soaring rents and mortgages are huge problems — well, that’s a big, big deal.”

The Trump administration has also recently signaled its intent to address zoning rules, at least rhetorically. In August, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson came out to say that he, too, wants to use federal funds to loosen zoning restrictions. “I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

But progressives have voiced rightful skepticism of Carson’s newfound enthusiasm for zoning reform, as he’s also been leading the push to weaken civil rights protections from his federal perch. For the past year, HUD has been trying to weaken the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was finalized in 2015 and designed to bolster fair housing enforcement. In August, the agency announced that over the next two months it would be opening the rule back up for public comment, claiming that “the current regulations are ineffective” and provide jurisdictions with “inadequate autonomy in developing fair housing goals.”

Carson went further in a statement, claiming that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule is “suffocating investment” in distressed neighborhoods and contributing to the lack of affordable housing.

“When Ben Carson talks about zoning, he’s not really talking about exclusionary zoning. He’s talking about fair housing rules that prevent the piling on of all the low-income housing in poor neighborhoods,” said Tegeler, whose primary concern with Warren’s bill is that it lacks language to prevent the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal housing funds from pouring exclusively into poor areas.

“It’s very important that this continues to be a fair housing bill and not play into the Trump administration’s framing,” Tegeler said. “As this bill is further refined, we’d hope to see some protections against piling on the bulk of this new development in high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods.”