When Charters Go Union

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of  The American Prospect
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The April sun had not yet risen in Los Angeles when teachers from the city’s largest charter network—the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools—gathered outside for a press conference to discuss their new union drive. Joined by local labor leaders, politicians, student alumni, and parents, the importance of the educators’ effort was not lost on the crowd. If teachers were to prevail in winning collective bargaining rights at Alliance’s 26 schools, the audience recognized, then L.A.’s education reform landscape would fundamentally change. For years, after all, many of the most powerful charter backers had proclaimed that the key to helping students succeed was union-free schools.

One month earlier, nearly 70 Alliance teachers and counselors had sent a letter to the administration announcing their intent to join United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the local teachers union that represents the 35,000 educators who work in L.A.’s public schools. The letter asked Alliance for a “fair and neutral process”—one that would allow teachers to organize without fear of retaliation. The administration offered no such reassurance. Indeed, April’s press conference was called to highlight a newly discovered internal memo circulating among Alliance administrators that offered tips on how to best discourage staff from forming a union. It also made clear that Alliance would oppose any union, not just UTLA. “To continue providing what is best for our schools and our students, the goal is no unionization, not which union,” the memo said.

The labor struggle happening in Los Angeles mirrors a growing number of efforts taking place at charter schools around the country, where most teachers work with no job security on year-to-year contracts. For teachers, unions, and charter school advocates, the moment is fraught with challenges. Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.

Though 68 percent of K-12 public school teachers are unionized, just 7 percent of charter school teachers are, according to a 2012 study from the Center for Education Reform. (And of those, half are unionized only because state law stipulates that they follow their district’s collective bargaining agreement.) However, the momentum both to open new charter schools and to organize charter staff is growing fast.

IRONICALLY, THE FIRST MAJOR PROPOSAL to establish charter schools came from the nation’s most famous teacher union leader. At the National Press Club in 1988, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave a speech outlining a “new type of school.” Shanker envisioned publicly funded but independently managed schools, which would be given the space to try out new educational approaches and would continue to receive public dollars so long as their approaches proved to be effective. These schools would act as educational laboratories, testing grounds of new and better practices that could then be adopted by traditional public schools. A few months after his speech, Shanker dubbed his idea “charter schools,” in a reference to explorers who received charters to seek new land and resources. Later that year, the 3,000 delegates at the national AFT convention endorsed Shanker’s charter idea.

At its conception, then, unions were integral to the charter movement. The thinking was that without job security and elevated teacher voice, which unions help ensure, how else would charter teachers feel comfortable enough to take educational risks in their classrooms? In Shanker’s original vision, as Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter trace in their book A Smarter Charter, not only were charter teachers to be unionized, but union representatives were to sit on charter authorizing boards—the entities tasked with overseeing charter accountability—and all charter school proposals were to include “a plan for faculty decision-making.” In return, certain union regulations would be relaxed in order to facilitate greater experimentation.

The charter movement has grown from a single Minnesota school, which opened in 1992, to more than 6,700 schools spread across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Today, charters educate more than 2.5 million children—more than 5 percent of all public school students. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), charter enrollment has increased by 70 percent over the past five years. Public support is growing, too: A 2014 PDK/Gallup survey revealed that 70 percent of Americans support charter schools, up from 42 percent in 2000.

Somewhere along the way, however, charter proponents—conservative and liberal alike—decided that having no unions was an important ingredient for charter school success. By making it easier for principals to hire and fire staff, the proponents argued, schools could better ensure that only high-quality teachers would be working in the classrooms. The blame for the widening achievement gap between black and white students, the proponents believed, rested with underperforming teachers and the unions that defended them. Over time, advocates came to see charters not as institutions designed for collaboration with public schools, but as institutions that could compete against them, perhaps even replacing public schools entirely.

As the charter movement developed a more adversarial bent—one that no longer spoke of productive partnerships with public schools, and one that championed union-free workplaces—traditional teachers unions grew understandably defensive. The AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s two largest teachers unions, moved to openly oppose charter schools. Only in the past few years has their stance toward charters begun to soften. Beginning in 2007 and 2008, the AFT set up a national charter-organizing division, and today has organizers in seven cities: L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and Philadelphia. Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing, says that as more charter teachers began approaching her union, the NEA started to see them as educators who should be treated no differently from anyone else. Both unions also recognized that such new national initiatives as the Common Core standards and President Obama’s Race for the Top meant that teachers at charter and traditional public schools faced similar challenges that the unions could help them address.

But organizing charter school teachers while opposing the establishment of more charter schools is no simple balancing act. “How could I support a union that for the last ten years spent a good portion of their time attacking our right to exist?” asks Craig Winchell, an Alliance high school teacher who turned out in opposition to April’s press conference. “They’ve spent the last ten years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do.” Especially when opening a new charter is paired with closing down a traditional school, unions are typically found rallying in protest. Critics argue that unions’ newfound interest in charter teachers, then, is just a ploy to collect more membership dues.

Having abandoned their outright opposition to charters, many of the AFT and NEA’s recent efforts have been focused on shutting down low-performing charter schools, especially within rapidly expanding for-profit chains, and pushing for a set of national charter accountability standards. While the thought of national guidelines for charter school makes many charter advocates squirm, the public overwhelmingly supports the idea. According to a survey conducted this year by In The Public Interest and the Center for Popular Democracy, 89 percent of Americans favor requiring charter management organizations to hold open board meetings with the public, as well as requiring all teachers who work in charter schools to meet the same level of training and qualifications as those in traditional public schools. Eighty-six percent favor requiring greater transparency over charters’ annual taxpayer-funded contracts and budgets, and 88 percent favor requiring state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances.

In 2014, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University released a report that documented a host of charter school problems, ranging from uneven academic performance to funding schemes that destabilized neighboring schools. The report laid out national policy recommendations designed to promote increased accountability, transparency, and equity.

The AFT and NEA came out strongly in support of the Annenberg standards, and have been working to promote them to state legislatures and school boards around the country. Leaders in the charter world, however, were less than pleased. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), an organization that seeks to influence the policies and practices of state authorizers, called the standards “incomplete, judgmental, and not based on research or data.” Michael Brickman, then the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, said the Annenberg standards would stifle charters’ innovation by “bludgeoning them with regulation.” He accused the authors of “standing in the way of progress” with their “overzealous statutory recommendations.” (The president and CEO of NAPCS, Nina Rees, told me she actually likes the Annenberg standards, but doesn’t know if they should be adopted across the board.)

IN 2007, BRIAN HARRIS started working as a special education teacher at the Chicago International Charter School’s Northtown Academy. “I’d just got out of grad school and was happy to have a job,” Harris says. “It didn’t bother me that it was non-union because it wasn’t something I paid attention to.” In May of 2008, the company’s CEO announced that in the following school years, teachers would have to teach a sixth class in lieu of supervising an academic lab (which is similar to study hall). Teachers were surprised and upset at what amounted to significant change in working conditions. Those who didn’t like the new arrangement, the administration told them, could find some place else to work.

It was an eye-opening moment for Harris, and he realized that this is what it meant to have a workplace without an organized staff. “We didn’t know [this CEO], we didn’t have a lot of connections with management, and people were unsure what the line of authority was,” Harris says. So with the help of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), a union connected to the AFT and its Illinois affiliate, Harris and his colleagues launched a 13-month organizing drive. Yet even when presented with union affiliation cards from 75 percent of the faculty, administrators refused to recognize their union; they insisted that the teachers would have to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election. The teachers did just that, won the election, and Northtown became the first unionized charter school in Chicago.

Today, Harris serves as president for Chicago ACTS, which has grown to represent 32 charter schools and nearly 1,000 teachers. Chicago ACTS’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an AFT local known for its militant opposition to school privatization and charter school expansion, has also evolved substantially over the years.

CTU was initially ambivalent, even suspicious, of these new unionized charter teachers. But Chris Baehrend, an English teacher at Chicago’s Latino Youth High School and vice president of Chicago ACTS, says this wariness was not reciprocated—indeed, ACTS was inspired by CTU and looked to it as a model. In the spring of 2012, as CTU was gearing up for its successful, eight-day strike against Chicago’s school district, ACTS teachers began to discuss how they could best offer CTU support. They decided to put forth a strongly worded resolution at the AFT’s national convention that summer. In it, the charter teachers called for a moratorium on new charter schools and an end to school closings and turnarounds “until their system-wide impact on educational outcomes can be properly assessed.” Baehrend and Harris worked with CTU leaders to finalize the resolution’s language, which was approved, though not adopted as official AFT policy.

The resolution was the first joint action that Chicago ACTS took with CTU. Since then, the two unions have convened for joint delegate trainings, workshops, and even parties. “We’re making conscious efforts to make connections and to encourage charter and traditional public school teachers to be joined in solidarity,” says Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of CTU. Sharkey himself turned out to a press conference in February to publicly support two Chicago charters in the midst of organizing.

ON APRIL 30, EDUCATORS AT North Philadelphia’s Olney Charter High School voted to form a union. The vote came after a long three-year battle with their employer, ASPIRA. With a final tally of 104–38 in favor of unionization, Olney became one of the largest unionized charter schools on the East Coast.

When the Olney campaign first went public, as Jake Blumgart reported for The American Prospect back in 2013, teachers went to deliver their union petition, signed by 65 percent of the staff. “[The principal] not only refused to accept it, but chased them down the hallway to give it back,” Blumgart wrote. That was just the start of a full-bore, anti-union campaign: Administrators held closed-door, one-on-one meetings with teachers and staff, threatened teachers with layoffs and benefit cuts, put anti-union literature in teachers’ mailboxes, required teachers to attend mandatory meetings with anti-union consultants, and announced that teachers could be fired or disciplined for remarks they made about ASPIRA on social media.

When I asked Sarah Apt, an ESL teacher at Olney, if she ever tried to talk to management about workplace issues before going the union route, she laughed. “We’ve had a million committees and conversations,” Apt says. “You can have a conversation with them now! But without your coworkers standing behind you, the [outcome of] the conversation depends entirely on the whims of the administration.”

Apt says she and her coworkers want to build a union that will agitate for themselves and their students, in collaboration with parents and the community. “Chicago [where striking teachers won high levels of community and parental support] has set a new standard for what can be done with a teachers union in the United States,” she says. Parents have been standing behind the Olney organizing effort, from showing up to support teachers at school board meetings to making calls to the administration on their behalf. More than 40 local businesses also signed a petition backing the teachers’ campaign.

Though regional characteristics and local politics shape each charter school’s distinct organizing drive, the general hopes, challenges, and frustrations expressed by charter teachers I spoke with were strikingly similar.

Greg Swanson, an English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, the top-performing charter school in Louisiana, echoes Apt’s frustrations about the power dynamics that can inhibit teachers from effecting change in a non-unionized school. (New Orleans has the highest charter density in the country, claiming roughly 90 percent of the city’s public school students.) Before Ben Franklin High’s teachers decided to unionize, Swanson says, they tried different ways to increase teacher voice, such as forming a committee to advocate for teacher and student issues, including better teacher course loads, increased curriculum coordination, and more academic supports for incoming students. “When we brought [our ideas] to the attention of the administration, we were just told that they can deal with some things and not others,” Swanson recalls. “Without the pressure of the union, [our voices are] not heard in the same way.”

In March, after 85 percent of his Ben Franklin colleagues backed a petition in support of unionization, Swanson and his coworkers signed the first collective bargaining agreement for New Orleans teachers since Hurricane Katrina. Teachers not only won greater pay-scale transparency in their contract but also the right to have department chairs elected by their colleagues rather than appointed by their CEO. They won increased time within the school day to prepare lesson plans, greater job security, and a fairer teacher evaluation system.

Ben Franklin has long been regarded as an educational leader in Louisiana, and Swanson’s team understood that their organizing had consequence for the broader political landscape. “We were looking to improve things in our school, but we were also very much aware of the larger implications of this for New Orleans, which is the testing ground for going full-charter,” said Swanson. With this in mind, they worked to develop a contract that they hope can become a model for charter teachers across the city. Teachers at another local charter, Morris Jeff Community School, followed their lead, and are currently negotiating their own contract.

Many New Orleans charter advocates are wary of the turn toward unionization, but some leaders are urging the community to stay calm. Andre Perry, an education policy expert, wrote in The Hechinger Report that New Orleans reformers should be open to unions given the Crescent City’s high rate of teacher turnover. Ten years after Katrina, he wrote, “we’re not going to fire our way to educational success.

EVERY YEAR, THE NATIONAL Alliance of Public Charter Schools publishes a rating system that evaluates each state’s charter law. While charters with collective bargaining agreements are still considered welcome within the charter school family, state laws receive a higher NAPCS score when they allow administrators to hire and fire teachers free from the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement. Nina Rees, the NAPCS president, says her organization places a premium on this because charters should have the freedom not only to hire and fire, but also to expand the school day and workload “without having to constantly negotiate with a centralized bureaucracy.”

Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, thinks that while “teacher voice” is a necessary component to any functioning organization, teachers unions use their power in ways that are not in the best interests of students. Moe and Rees both take the position that in the modern world, unions are not necessary in charter schools, either because there are already sufficient employee protections in place in our legal system, or just because the incentives within the charter world are such that there’s not really all that much to worry about.

“I’m in a nonprofit space,” Rees says. “Why is it that teachers need to have the right [to be in a union]? Why is it that teachers need these protections immediately when they enter the organization?” If one wants some of the protections and benefits that unions offer, she points out, there are other resources available to teachers. The Association of American Educators (AAE), for instance, is a non-unionized professional educators’ organization that offers a “modern approach to teacher representation and educational advocacy.” Membership in AAE can bring you things like liability insurance, supplementary insurance, legal protection, and employment rights coverage. It cannot, however, bring you leverage with your employer.

In A Smarter Charter, Potter and Kahlenberg recommend giving teachers an opportunity to vote on whether or not to form a union when a charter school first opens, rather than having non-union environments be the default option. Where a school has no union, they suggest reserving seats for teachers on charter school boards. But Rees is no fan of these ideas either. “If you start off with the premise that management is against the employee before you even start the enterprise,” she says, “I think it sets the wrong tone.”

The generally small size of charters, Moe adds, also obviates the need for unions. “In small schools, where everyone knows one another and they can talk about their issues …  you’re really not likely to get the same dissatisfaction that would drive people to unionize in the great number of charter schools,” he says.

Leading charter advocates echo Moe and Rees’s sentiments. Chester Finn, a conservative policy analyst, declared, “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Geoffrey Canada, a charter founder hailed as a pioneer by Obama, said that union contracts, “kill innovation; it stops anything from changing.”

Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of NACSA, doesn’t buy the argument that unions are structurally incompatible with charters. “There are people who politically don’t want unions or don’t want charters to be unionized, but [allowing workers to choose] is the law of the land.” The key question, he argues, is whether unionization ends up helping or hurting student achievement—a question that will be resolved empirically. “If teachers want to organize and negotiate for certain things, go ahead,” he says, because in the end, the charter school has to work for students or else its charter will be revoked.

So are unions compatible with fulfilling the promise of charter schools?

I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT. Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved “without a union?” he asks. “Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.” The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools.

Though Salgado was explicit that he disapproved of the way the union conducted its first organizing campaign—the organizers caricatured him as an evil boss, he says, solely to advance their strategy—he still feels the resulting unions, full of organized, passionate people, are no hindrance to excellence. “Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,” he says. “Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers. And they demand transparency, and transparency is important. It’s a value that we should all have.”

To date, the best existing research suggests that charter unionization has very little impact on student achievement. Labor economist Aaron Sojourner and education policy researcher Cassandra Hart looked at California charters several years before unionization and then several years after; they found no significant difference in student performance over time, though there was a temporary dip during the initial unionization year, which tends to be a more disruptive period.

Moreover, as Potter and Kahlenberg document in A Smarter Charter, other research on unions and traditional public school performance suggests that unionization either has small positive effects or no measurable effects at all on the achievement of most students. “The research does not paint a picture of unions as an enemy to student achievement,” Kahlenberg and Potter conclude.

That said, there are other ways to think about the way a union might impact a school. Higher teacher salaries, more transparent pay scales, and greater control over working conditions may help attract more qualified candidates to teach. Research does show that increased teacher voice helps decrease teacher turnover, and it also shows that high teacher turnover costs schools millions of dollars, disrupts student learning, and weakens institutional capacity. Many objectives that teachers hope to achieve through unionization are grounded in a desire for greater stability. “We want to stick around, we want to see our freshman graduate, we want to see their siblings and cousins come, we want to make this our home,” says Apt, whose Olney Charter High School has had high teacher turnover from year to year.

IN RECENT YEARS, as growing numbers of charter school teachers have sought to unionize, both the AFT and the NEA have stepped up their efforts to organize them. Since 2009, the AFT has been flying teacher activists from across the country to meet one another, share stories, and strategize national campaigns. The most recent gathering—they usually last three days—took place in Washington, D.C., in April, and Swanson, Apt, and Baehrend were among the 40 teachers in attendance. “The fights are very similar, so what we see one employer do in Detroit, we wind up seeing in other parts of the country too,” says Shaun Richman, AFT’s deputy director of organizing. “Teachers get the opportunity to support each other, and to learn how to deal with circumstances that may arise at their schools later.”

Also in April, for the first time ever, the California Teachers Association (CTA), an NEA state affiliate, convened 65 charter educators from across the state. One California teacher in attendance was Jen Shilen, who teaches U.S. history, economics, and government at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), a network of 11 virtual charter schools for grades K–12. Shilen and others have been fighting for a CAVA union since December 2013. When their workload began to change rapidly and inexplicably, and their many attempts to raise concerns with management went nowhere, Shilen said, they reached out to CTA. CAVA declined to comment.

“Going to CTA’s conference was the first time I’ve gotten to meet other charter educators organizing and it was a major morale boost,” says Shilen, who rarely even sees her own coworkers, since virtual charter teachers work from home.

Teachers organizing at L.A.’s Alliance schools were also there, as were union members from Green Dot, another rapidly expanding charter chain in Los Angeles. Green Dot schools occupy a unique place in the charter world, since their original founder was interested in establishing a unionized workplace from the outset. In 2006, Green Dot management approached the United Teachers of Los Angeles about their teachers joining their union, but UTLA, then fully opposed to charter schools, rejected the offer. As a result, Green Dot educators unionized with CTA, and their union, the Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU), had a relatively unfriendly relationship with UTLA for the next several years.

This too is changing. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the UTLA president elected in April 2014, said that his union is now actively pursuing better relations with AMU. AMU in turn, has come out in strong public support not only for CAVA’s organizing drive (which would be with CTA) but also for Alliance’s. Salina Joiner, AMU’s president, says that her organization’s leadership is all “in support and we’ll do whatever we need to do,” adding that she would never work at a non-union charter school.

Real tensions remain surrounding AFT and NEA’s desire to both organize charter teachers and to politically rein in charter schools. Not all charter teachers who’d be interested in a union would support the Chicago ACTS resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. And not all would agree with teachers like Shilen, who lobbied this year at the State Capitol in Sacramento on behalf of California’s “Annenberg Package”—four bills to promote greater charter transparency and accountability.

Joiner feels that union political activity that attempts to limit charter schools’ funding or expansion is “disrespectful to our educators that teach at that school” and “an injustice to parents that want school choice.” Joiner attended the CTA’s gathering of California charter teachers in April, and said that at least the union is now starting to ask them for their input on charter legislation. To CTA’s credit, she thinks the conversation is “moving in a positive direction from what it was before,” but that charter union members “still have a lot to do around the NEA and AFT.”

As more charter schools continue to unionize, CTU Vice President Sharkey expects some charter enthusiasts will walk away. “At some point, charter school teachers will work with the same conditions and pay as all the other schools, and at that point it’s not clear that charters will be as exciting to the entrepreneurs and businessmen promoting them now,” he says.

Unionized charters are not a panacea. The UFT Charter School, which opened in Brooklyn in 2005, was a widely publicized K-12 charter experiment to be run by the New York City teachers union. The results of its elementary and middle schools were mostly abysmal, and they closed down in 2015. (The high school performed better and stayed open.) The Wall Street Journal editorial board triumphantly declared that this episode shows the failure of “union dominance” over American public education. However, they conspicuously made no mention of UFT’s other charter school, University Prep, which has been ranked among NYC’s best.

The Wall Street Journal would never write about University Prep because it “disrupts their narrative” about unions, says Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT. “Look, there is not one silver bullet but what unionization does is it gives teachers a choice and a voice.”

Asharg Molla has been working at the Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School ever since she started as a Los Angeles Teach For America corps member in 2009. She likes working for a charter organization, and believes in its mission of creating a small collaborative community where teachers, board members, and parents can all work together. “But that’s just not what it’s been,” she says sadly. While she speaks highly of her school, colleagues, and principals, she joined in with the Alliance cohort organizing for a union because, she says, she recognizes there are limits to what even a good principal can do within a big, fast-growing organization. She knows too many Alliance teachers who are afraid to speak up, lest they rock the boat and lose their job.

The campaign in Los Angeles is gaining steam. Since Molla and her colleagues went public in March, the number of teachers who have pledged support has more than doubled—146 teachers (out of the roughly 600 who work at Alliance schools) have now signed the public petition. But Alliance administrators and their allies are doubling down on their efforts to thwart unionization. Beginning in late May, the California Charter Schools Association started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents at home, in an effort to drum up opposition to a union.

I don’t want to work for a machine that just cares about the growth and expansion of the organization,” says Molla. “Although [fighting for a union] is not an easy process, and can be exhausting, it really just shows these large organizations that we are the ones who make up this organization and that there needs to be that balance of power.”

Did The Koch Brothers Just Doom America to a Future of Crumbling Roads and Tunnels?

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 4th, 2015.
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It was never going to be easy for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an increase to the federal gas tax—a tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country. Last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has since lost much of its value, especially with the rise of fuel-efficient cars. With the Highway Trust Fund running huge annual deficits, plans for many infrastructure projects and repairs have been left hanging out to dry.

There were signs that raising the federal gas tax was possible, as when Republican Senators John Thune of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in early January that a gas tax increase couldn’t be ruled out, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, later agreed with him.

Well, forget it. Because last week more than 50 conservative groups, a number of them funded through the Koch brothers’ network, sent a letter to Congress expressing adamant opposition to raising the federal gas tax.

“Everyone knew it would be difficult, but you had a lot of senators and representatives saying privately that they would be open to raising the gas tax, so long as it could be framed in a certain way,” a high-ranking American Public Transportation Association official told me. “This letter just killed our momentum, I think permanently.”

While incredibly frustrating, this move is unsurprising given the rise of anti-tax groups committed to blocking serious public investment in national infrastructure. In addition to opposing the gas tax increase, the letter also calls for an end to all federal funding for biking, walking and public transit. Ever so disingenuously, the organizations claim they just want to look out for the needs of poor people.

As Angie Schmitt, a writer for Streetsblog USA, put it:

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

The first signature on the letter belongs to Brent Wm. Gardner, vice president of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, the organization founded in 2005 by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch. In my feature in the current issue of The American Prospect magazineI look at Chris Christie’s cancellation of a new rail tunnel desperately needed in the Northeast, and the role that the national Republican Party and anti-tax groups played in the New Jersey governor and prospective presidential candidate’s decision to kill the project known as ARC (Access to the Region’s Core). Now, in the wake of damage from Superstorm Sandy, civil engineers are unsure that the tunnels currently in use by hundreds of thousands of commuters between New York and New Jersey will hold out for another 10 years.

Building a new tunnel would have required Christie to raise his state’s low gas tax, a move that the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity has been rallying against for years. From my article, “Blind to the Future”:

Mike Proto, the New Jersey communications director for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded anti-tax group, says that Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project “was one of the best he’s made.”

It’s unclear what it will really take to get this country to invest in its future. We should pray it’s not a big, preventable disaster that kills thousands of people. Building new tunnels, fixing broken bridges, and making America just generally safe to live in should be an urgent bipartisan priority for everyone.

It should be, and it used to be.

Blind to the Future: Chris Christie and the Republican Default on Public Investment

Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect.
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Some day not long from now, if you are traveling by rail in the Northeast, you may be stuck in a train waiting to enter a tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. Perhaps your grumbling seatmate curses Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, or politicians generally. But one leader in particular will deserve to be singled out on such occasions: Chris Christie, who, as governor of New Jersey in 2010, blocked a joint federal-state project to build a new passenger rail tunnel.

Today, few outside the New York metropolitan area know much about Governor Christie’s decision to veto the Access to the Region’s Core plan (ARC), a $9.8 billion project in the works for nearly 20 years that would have doubled cross-Hudson rail capacity, with a projected 2018 completion date. Christie gained notoriety for one Hudson River tie-up in September 2013, when his aides and allies closed traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a local Democratic official. But compared to “Bridgegate,” as that twisted tale came to be known, Christie’s veto of the new rail tunnel is a far more serious scandal. For the sake of short-term political gain, Christie sacrificed the long-term interests of his state and the nation. The story of the blocked tunnel is also evidence of a wider problem: Republican leaders’ refusal to deal with failing infrastructure for fear of raising taxes and antagonizing anti-tax groups on the right.

Transportation authorities have long agreed on the need for new rail tunnels under the Hudson River. Built more than 100 years ago, the two existing tunnels are inadequate to handle projected ridership growth and have suffered serious deterioration. Tunnel traffic already operates at 95 percent capacity during morning rush hour, with a train entering Midtown Manhattan from New Jersey every two minutes. As a result, the tunnels are the biggest choke point along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., limiting the potential for passenger rail to expand as the region’s population grows and congestion on the highways increases.

In October, Amtrak reported that the seawater that poured into the tunnels during Hurricane Sandy contained chlorides and sulfates that significantly damaged the concrete bench walls, the wiring in the signal, electrical, and mechanical systems, and the tracks themselves.

The tunnels’ age and deterioration also pose significant risks of disrupted travel in the near future. In October, Amtrak reported that the seawater that poured into the tunnels during Hurricane Sandy contained chlorides and sulfates that significantly damaged the concrete bench walls, the wiring in the signal, electrical, and mechanical systems, and the tracks themselves. Closing just one of the tunnels for repairs, however, would reduce tunnel traffic by a stunning 75 percent, since the remaining tunnel would have to accommodate trains running in both directions. No one knows for sure when that might become necessary.

Rail transportation between New Jersey and New York is vital to the economy of both states as well as the nation, not to mention the 160,000 passengers who ride trains through the tunnels every day, mostly to and from work. But in October 2010, without offering any alternative plan, Christie killed the ARC tunnel and used the $1.25 billion in state funds previously set aside for the project to plug a hole in his budget and avoid a tax increase. It was a move that served Christie’s presidential ambitions—as long as the public doesn’t understand just what he did and why it ought to disqualify him from national leadership.

The ARC of the Past

Construction of the ARC tunnel had already begun when Christie was elected governor in November 2009. The groundbreaking five months earlier was a rare moment of elation for transit advocates and policymakers who had been pushing for the project for nearly two decades. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Peter Rogoff, who had just been confirmed to lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), contrasted ARC with projects that previously had been “either debated to death or simply ignored.”

According to the Government Accountability Office, the project would have generated 44,000 permanent jobs as well as 5,700 construction jobs.

The new ARC tunnel would allow an additional 25 trains an hour to enter New York City and was projected to increase daily passenger trips between New Jersey and New York to 254,000. The tunnel’s economic benefits had long been documented. According to the Government Accountability Office, the project would have generated 44,000 permanent jobs as well as 5,700 construction jobs. Easy access to New York City, the region’s commercial hub, is critical to New Jersey’s economic growth. The Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization for the New York metropolitan area, estimated that increased rail capacity would raise the value of homes within two miles of New Jersey train stations by a total of $18 billion, reducing pressure to raise property tax rates.

The costs of the ARC tunnel were to be split three ways. The federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would each contribute $3 billion. (Jointly controlled by the two states, the Port Authority is a self-sustaining public authority, with revenues from its bridges, tunnels, airports, and marine terminals.) New Jersey would pay $2.7 billion since the tunnels were largely for New Jersey Transit riders and the state would reap sizable economic benefits. The federal contribution marked the largest funding commitment ever pledged for a transit project in the nation’s history.

When he became governor, Christie faced a choice. On the campaign trail, he had supported the ARC project and pledged to reduce taxes. But as governor, he would be unable to do both.

New Jersey’s dedicated Transportation Trust Fund was broke. The fund was designed in 1984 to finance roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects by floating bonds that would be paid off with the proceeds of the state’s gasoline tax, tolls, and other earmarked revenue. But in 2010, New Jersey’s gas tax hadn’t been increased since the 1980s. At 14.5 cents per gallon, it was (and is) by far the lowest in the region. Pennsylvania’s gas tax, in contrast, is 41.8 cents per gallon, while New York’s is 50.5 cents. In 2009, New Jersey’s gas tax was 47th in a ranking from highest to lowest among the 50 states. (It is now 49th.)

Many had expected New Jersey to raise its gas tax to meet its obligations for the ARC tunnel and other transportation investments. But Christie was emphatically opposed. In January 2011, after killing the ARC tunnel, he declared, “With rising gas prices right before us, the idea of raising taxes in this economy is something that this administration simply will not do under any circumstances.”

At the time he killed the tunnel, Christie claimed that the project would force New Jerseyans to pay $2 billion to $5 billion in cost overruns. According to a 2012 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, the projected range of costs for the ARC project was effectively unchanged between the time Christie took office and when he canceled it. Federal and state officials had long said that costs might run from $9.5 billion to $12.4 billion. If costs did rise toward the higher figure, the GAO report concluded, there was no evidence that New Jersey would have to shoulder those overruns alone.

Despite bipartisan support for the tunnel, some criticized the design, which would take New Jersey Transit riders to a new station under Macy’s department store in Herald Square, a short walk from midtown’s Pennsylvania Station, the NJT trains’ current destination. The plan had been a compromise negotiated with state and city officials in New York.

fter Christie announced the cancellation, state and federal officials pressured him to reconsider, but he allowed only two weeks for further discussions. Federal representatives made several trips to New Jersey to try to work out a solution. Both New Jersey Transit and the FTA proposed ways to save the project, including trims to the project’s scope and alternative financing measures such as public-private partnerships. But Christie wouldn’t budge.

“Christie’s behavior was so rash, so hurried, and he was so unwilling to listen to other points of view, even from his own transit agency,” says Martin Robins, the initial ARC project director and director emeritus at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center of Rutgers University.

Perhaps Christie was unwilling to listen because killing the ARC project had an additional advantage besides avoiding a gas tax increase. It also enabled him to redirect more than $3 billion that had already been put aside for the tunnel.

Diverting the Tunnel Money

In a commuter state like New Jersey, transportation spending is a hot political issue. Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, had set off a political firestorm in 2008 when he tried to pass a plan that would have used dramatic increases in highway tolls over a 12-year period to cut the state’s $32 billion debt in half and pay for transportation improvements. Although the plan was defeated, Corzine did succeed in doubling tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. While the revenue wasn’t enough to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, it included $1.25 billion earmarked for the future ARC tunnel.

Christie took that money as well as $1.8 billion from the Port Authority’s ARC capital fund and used the more than $3 billion in total to pay for road and bridge projects in the state. Critics insisted that Christie did not have the legal authority to redirect those Port Authority funds to state infrastructure repairs, but he did so anyway. (The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Manhattan District Attorney are currently investigating the legality of the diversion.)

Christie’s use of the funds was part of a larger pattern regarding the Port Authority. He crammed more than 60 political appointees into what had long been a highly professional, independent agency. It was through those appointees that lanes on the George Washington Bridge were closed in 2013 to send a message to a local official who refused to endorse Christie for re-election.

Under the Port Authority’s rules, a governor of New York could have refused to go along with the diversion of the tunnel money. But Christie’s move came just as Andrew Cuomo was elected governor. “By January 2011,” Robins said, “the first thing on Cuomo’s desk was Christie’s demand to the Port Authority that $1.8 billion be given to New Jersey for highway projects, and [Cuomo] approved it.” The ARC tunnel was generally considered a New Jersey project, and Cuomo may have wanted Christie’s cooperation with projects such as rebuilding the World Trade Center in New York.

But the diversion of the tunnel funds meant that besides forfeiting $3 billion in federal money, New Jersey would no longer have Port Authority funds or its own capital set aside for a future tunnel. As the editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger—New Jersey’s largest-circulation newspaper—put it this past August:

If this were about fiscal responsibility, New Jersey’s tunnel money would have been set aside until a better project came along. Instead, commuters and taxpayers are left with no tunnel, and no tunnel fund—and no solid prospects for building either one.

The implications of Christie’s decision go well beyond New Jersey because passenger rail development along the Northeast Corridor depends on expanding the Hudson River tunnels.

The implications of Christie’s decision go well beyond New Jersey because passenger rail development along the Northeast Corridor depends on expanding the Hudson River tunnels. Peter C. Goldmark Jr., who served as executive director of the Port Authority from 1977 to 1985, points out that except for the interstate highway system, America’s transportation infrastructure lacks a “systemic” owner. “Each piece of an artery like the Northeast Corridor needs the political and often financial support of the states,” says Goldmark. “So any single governor has a huge ability to slow down or shut down a ‘piece’ of what is really a system.”

“ARC was a carefully crafted project over two decades, two governors, and two mayors,” observes Richard Leone, who was chairman of the Port Authority from 1990 to 1994. “It’s tough to get a package approved by the state, and then approved in Washington, and whether right or wrong, [Christie] should have had to make a case that it was really worth abandoning, or that he had a better use for the funds. [The money] was essentially used to fill potholes in the budgets.”

And to help propel Christie’s rise onto the national stage.

The National Politics of Public Investment

Cancelling the ARC tunnel had national political ramifications. The federal funds for the project came partly from the stimulus program that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats had passed in response to the Great Recession. “The Obama administration really wanted [the ARC project] to go on,” a senior New York transportation official recalls. “It was the definition of ‘shovel ready,’ so basically the poster project of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

Christie’s cancellation of ARC earned him points with the Republican Party and conservative anti-tax groups. “I refuse to compromise my principles,” Christie boasted to prominent Republicans at a conference hosted by the George W. Bush Institute in 2012. “No matter how much the administration yells and screams, you have to say no. You have to look them right in the eye, no matter how much they try to vilify you for it, and you have to say no.”

Mike Proto, the New Jersey communications director for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded anti-tax group, says that Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project “was one of the best he’s made.”

The political advantages for Christie from cancelling the ARC tunnel reflect a deeper malady: the role of anti-tax conservatives in blocking public investment to meet future needs or even to maintain vital systems in good repair.

Today, the basic elements of America’s transportation infrastructure—roads, tunnels, bridges, and passenger rail lines—are in abysmal shape. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card, one in nine of the nation’s 607,000 bridges are “structurally deficient.” The Federal Highway Administration estimates that annual investments of $20.5 billion would be needed to eliminate the nation’s bridge backlog by 2028—$8 billion more per year than is currently spent.

Infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has dropped from 3 percent prior to the 1980s to less than 2 percent today. In addition, average state gas taxes, the most important source of state transportation funding, have not kept up with inflation. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan state and federal tax policy think tank, found that, on average, a state’s gas tax rate has effectively fallen by 20 percent since the last time it was increased.

Stagnant earnings for working-class and middle-income Americans have also undermined support for public spending and have created an opportunity for anti-tax groups to gain a greater following. Yet Americans were poorer during the 1930s than they are today, and the country still undertook public works on a massive scale. In fact, as the economic historian Alexander Field argues in his book A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth, the infrastructure investments during that period had an enormous payoff in higher growth in subsequent decades.

Public investment has a long history in the United States, dating back to New York State’s construction of the Erie Canal (opened in 1825), federal land grants to support the transcontinental railroad (a project of the Republican Party in the 1860s), and federal financing of the interstate highway system (created under a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, in the 1950s). Until relatively recently, public investment in transportation has been an area of bipartisan agreement. Especially in the Northeast, many Republican officials in the tradition of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller joined Democrats in supporting the development of infrastructure, including public transit.

Nationally, however, the Republican Party of the 1860s, the 1950s, or even the 1980s is not the Republican Party of today. Since the 1994 Republican “revolution” under Newt Gingrich, many areas of policy that were previously bipartisan have become polarized, and one of those is transportation. With fewer Rockefeller Republicans and more Tea Party types, the efforts of transportation advocates to find Republican allies have become more difficult.

In September 2010, Republicans lined up against Obama’s $50 billion transportation stimulus package. Then the 2010 midterms brought a wave of Tea Party Republicans to Congress and state governments. Newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin (Scott Walker), Ohio (John Kasich), and Florida (Rick Scott) positioned themselves against federally funded passenger rail projects, which they denounced as wasteful initiatives that would drain state budgets. All three governors proudly rejected millions of dollars in federal grants for rail projects that had been previously awarded to their states.

The shift of the Republican Party’s center of gravity from the Northeast to the South has also affected the party’s views of transportation.Public transit—passenger rail in particular—is far less developed in the South and has less support there than in the Northeast and urban centers in the Midwest.

As a result, Republicans have grown more opposed to projects like the ARC tunnel, which would help increase passenger-rail capacity in the Northeast. In 2012, House Republicans introduced a transportation bill (including cuts in Amtrak subsidies and increases in truck-weight limits) that Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation during Obama’s first term, called “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.” LaHood himself had been a seven-term Republican congressman from Illinois before he agreed to serve in Obama’s cabinet.

The increased opposition to public transit in the Republican Party is the context for understanding Christie’s cancellation of ARC. Although his decision broke with the long tradition of Northeast Republicans, he was positioning himself well within the mainstream of today’s national Republican Party.

Derailing Passenger Rail

The partisan politics of transportation show up in differing policies and attitudes toward public transit and the automobile. Consider what happened to transportation costs and spending in New Jersey when the Corzine administration gave way to Christie’s. Corzine had raised highway tolls (and would have raised them more) to finance transportation projects, including the ARC tunnel. Together with Cuomo, Christie did approve an increase in tolls for vehicles on cross-Hudson bridges and tunnels. But he canceled ARC, used the bulk of the money for roads, and pledged not to raise the gas tax. Three months after Christie assumed office, New Jersey Transit raised its fares by 25 percent.

Nationally, passenger rail has recently undergone significant growth after a long period of decline that came with the rise of the auto and air travel. Between 1946 and 1964, the annual number of rail passengers dropped from 770 million to 298 million. By 1965, according to the GAO, only 10,000 rail passenger cars were left in operation, 85 percent fewer than in 1929. But that trend has reversed. Amtrak has now been carrying record numbers of passengers; ridership grew by 55 percent from 1997 to 2012.

Yet passenger rail still faces an obstacle in public opinion. Many people, particularly conservatives, have a double standard in judging subsidies for rail versus subsidies for roads. Americans are socialists when it comes to financing roads. Government is just expected to build them and make them free for people to drive on. Most streets and highways don’t even have tolls. Yet year after year, Amtrak gets criticized for needing substantial federal subsidies to maintain expensive—and obligatory—long-distance routes.

“We spend an awful lot of money building and maintaining a system for people to travel on with cars and trucks … but mass transit is always seen as this expensive add-on,” says Leone.

“We tell ourselves this little myth that our gas taxes fund everything,” says Phillip Longman, a policy expert at the New America Foundation. Indeed, as the Tax Foundation, a tax policy research group, found, gas taxes and tolls cover only a third of all state and local road spending.

Getting Rail Back on Track

In the wake of Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC tunnel, the challenges facing passenger rail in the Northeast are steep. As Amtrak officials point out, even if the ARC tunnel had been built to handle commuter rail between New Jersey and New York, Amtrak would have still needed additional capacity under the Hudson River to accommodate the burgeoning travel demand along the Northeast Corridor. With ARC, Amtrak wouldn’t have faced the same degree of time-sensitive pressure for tunnel construction, but the long-run need is for even bigger investments.

Amtrak’s proposed alternative, known as the Gateway program, would include a new two-tube rail tunnel under the Hudson River, with a price tag that could reach $16 billion. The full Gateway program also calls for an expansion of Penn Station and the development of other transportation arteries into New York and would not be completed until 2030. Amtrak estimates that the new tunnel could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Amtrak officials are not sure, however, whether the existing tunnels will hold up for another decade in light of the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

“We don’t yet know what the rate of deterioration will be for the existing tunnels in terms of reliability of service,” says Stephen Gardner, the vice president of Northeast Corridor development for Amtrak. “We can see the damage, but we don’t know what that will mean for future operations.” Currently, Amtrak says, repair work on the tunnels is being done during 55-hour weekend periods, but “longer-term closures cannot be avoided.

The damage from Sandy highlights a new issue that policymakers must take into account: the need to “climate-proof” infrastructure so that it can withstand future storms and rising sea levels. Climate-proofing will require even heftier investments than previously envisioned.

But there is another kind of climate—the political climate—that stands in the way of addressing these needs. Neither the federal government nor the state has committed the necessary capital for rail and other infrastructure development. The federal stimulus dollars are gone, the funds that New Jersey previously earmarked for ARC have been spent, and New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund has been depleted.

In New Jersey, the state government’s finances have spiraled downward under Christie’s leadership. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times. The state pension system has lost billions of dollars under management by one of Christie’s political appointees. After Christie withheld legally required state contributions to the pension fund, the fund’s trustees filed a lawsuit against the governor to demand that the payments be made. And Christie’s support at home has been slipping. A Rutgers University poll released last October found that more New Jersey voters held an unfavorable impression of Christie than a favorable one.

Still, many Republicans in the country consider Christie a real leader, a “tough guy” who stands up to big interest groups (like schoolteachers!). After friendly gestures toward Obama in 2012, Christie won re-election as governor the following year with 60 percent of the vote, including 32 percent of registered Democrats. Since then, Christie has been cultivating support from the Republican base. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he spent significant amounts of time throughout the 2014 midterm election season campaigning for Republicans in 37 states, all the while expanding his own personal national donor network.

Enthusiasm among Republicans for Christie may not be as robust as it once was, but he remains a serious contender for the party’s presidential nomination. After all, Republicans around the country are not going to ask why the governor of New Jersey canceled a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. And Christie will be long gone from state politics when people in the region are left to suffer the consequences of that decision.

In the wake of Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC tunnel, the challenges facing passenger rail in the Northeast are steep. As Amtrak officials point out, even if the ARC tunnel had been built to handle commuter rail between New Jersey and New York, Amtrak would have still needed additional capacity under the Hudson River to accommodate the burgeoning travel demand along the Northeast Corridor. With ARC, Amtrak wouldn’t have faced the same degree of time-sensitive pressure for tunnel construction, but the long-run need is for even bigger investments.

 

Chris Christie Counts on Public Amnesia

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 14, 2015.
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In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took over $3 billion in revenue earmarked for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and used it to plug a hole in his budget —leaving the people of his state and the region with no tunnel, and no money left for one in the future. Now Christie has endorsed a new report that includes a recommendation for expanding rail capacity between New Jersey and New York, as if no one would remember that he killed an earlier federally subsidized project that would have accomplished that purpose.

In the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect, I report the story of Christie’s 2010 decision and its disastrous consequences, particularly in the wake of the damage that Hurricane Sandy did to the two existing rail tunnels built over 100 years ago that are currently the chokepoint for rail transportation in the Northeast.Though Christie backed building a new rail tunnel on the campaign trail in 2009, he cancelled the project after entering office, when it became clear that it would require him to raise New Jersey’s gas tax(the next-to-lowest in the country). Doing so carried risks of antagonizing local anti-tax groups and jeopardizing his national ambitions within the Republican Party.

Last May, Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a panel tasked with recommending how to improve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency that controls river crossings, regional airports, and marine terminals. The move came amid a flurry of Port Authority political scandals. Though the two governors publicly endorsed the panel’s proposals, which were published in a 99-page report on December 27, they both vetoed bills their state legislatures had passed to reform the Port Authority, insisting that they would enact better measures on their own.

The panel’s report notes that cross-Hudson River travel has not kept pace with population growth and that passenger demand is projected to double by 2030. Accordingly, the panel recommended that the Port Authority lead a regional planning team in 2015 to explore, among other things, expanding rail capacity between New Jersey and New York.

This is all well and good, except that political leaders have known about these population projections and regional risks for over two decades.

As Christie gears up for a presidential run, the chances of his endorsing a tax increase to finance a new rail tunnel (and other infrastructure needs in his state) are vanishingly small. Catering to the anti-tax fervor in the Republican Party will have a big cost not only for the commuters in New Jersey but for the entire Northeast region.