Welcome to the Courtroom That Is Every Renter’s Nightmare

Originally published in Next City (with illustrations by Sky Kalfus!) on September 14th, 2015.
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Deborah Jennings lives in a house in East Baltimore with her daughter and granddaughter. When she first moved in nearly five years ago, she was working as a nursing support technician, helping to draw blood. Hours were long, but she was able to pay her bills. That changed two years ago, when she became disabled and had to stop working. Without a steady paycheck, 57-year-old Jennings has struggled to pay her rent, and each month, that means a trip to rent court.

Each courtroom visit, the same complaints are made, the same issues described, and the same ultimatum given: Jennings must pay her rent or risk eviction. Although the conditions of her house are poor — the basement sink had water running for two months straight, paint hangs from her roof and water has settled in the ceilings — Jennings is in no position to negotiate. “You can start talking, but then the judges say, ‘I understand, but we’re here in reference to this rent, do you owe this rent?’ They don’t want to hear whether or not you have any issues,” Jennings says. “They don’t want none of that.”

“I’m not expecting to live here free,” she adds. “I said bear with me, you’re going to get your rent.”

Each year, Baltimore landlords file roughly 150,000 cases in rent court, which is housed in the District Court of Maryland. The city has 125,000 occupied rental units. Many tenants, like Jennings, are taken multiple times per year.

Despite its undeniable public impact, rent court remains one of city’s least transparent institutions. Any public records are hard to come by and in an era of metrics and open data, analysis of courtroom verdicts appears to be nonexistent.

“People know about it, but there’s no interest to understand why this keeps happening year after year,” says Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. “The whole system just does not function as it should.”

In the neighborhood of Oliver, where Jennings lives, nearly a third of families live below the poverty line, many of them on blighted blocks checkered with vacancy. Yet Oliver, along with other sections of Baltimore, is slowly beginning to see population trends reverse and new investment trickle in. With new residents and development come higher rents and more pressure for tenants like Jennings to pay up or get out.

“There is a lot of development in Oliver, a lot of new homeowners, but there are still a lot of people without a lot of money here,” says Darryl Dunaway, office manager and community organizer with the Oliver Community Association. “We hear about rent court all day. From 9 a.m. to 12, I am sending people down to 501 East Fayette Street for eviction prevention. I sent someone there this morning.”

Dunaway says that the community association and others like it around the city help as many people as they can each month, but there is only so much that can be done. “If you can’t pay one month, there is help. You come back next month and you are on your own,” he says.

Originally created to provide a nationwide model of justice for landlords and tenants, Baltimore’s housing court today serves as little more than a state-run rent collection agency, financed by taxpayers and the beleaguered renters themselves who pay court fees for each judgment ruled against them.

“The court system is not for the tenant,” says Jennings wearily. “It just becomes a money thing. It’s no longer about human beings.”

A Court Designed for Tenants

In 1936, the Baltimore Sun published a series of articles that illustrated some of the horrific conditions of Baltimore slums — where 40 percent of the city then lived. With the highest proportion of substandard housing among America’s big cities, local Baltimore officials moved to take action. But by 1941, unsatisfied with the city’s slow progress, some individuals formed the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to apply more pressure. What emerged in Baltimore — a campaign for new building and sanitation codes, and stronger mechanisms for enforcement — would eventually influence the wave of urban renewal across the country, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Housing Act of 1954.

The Baltimore Plan, as it came to be known, was based on a model of setting — and vigorously enforcing — minimum housing standards. The hope was to one day clean up all of Baltimore’s slums; if some delinquent properties had to be removed, so be it. Besides beefing up the number of housing inspections, reformers also wanted to create a special housing court designed to enforce the new standards. Even in the 1950s, regular courts were fairly overwhelmed, and disputes like rental issues were simply low-priority cases. The idea was to create a new space where both landlords and tenants could come in and expect a fair and thorough hearing. The courts would hold landlords accountable to health and sanitation standards, while landlords could expect the backing of the court if tenants were damaging their property or failing to pay rent. Baltimore’s rental housing court would become the first of its kind in the country. Today, most cities have similar systems in place.

“It was supposed to be about fundamentally changing the way property relations work,” says Daniel Pasciuti, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies Baltimore’s rent court.

By the late 1960s and ’70s, widespread tenants’ rights changes were taking place all over the United States. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act became law, barring housing discrimination. Six years later, the federal government launched the Section 8 program, offering rental vouchers so eligible low-income tenants could live in private buildings, and in turn, requiring landlords to afford federally subsidized tenants a new set of rights. Perhaps the most notable reform, however, came from a federal ruling in 1970, Javins v. First National Realty Corp., where the D.C. Circuit ruled that if a living situation is deemed uninhabitable, the tenant is freed from his obligation to pay rent. This establishment of “the implied warrant of habitability” was widely seen as a revolution in landlord-tenant relations; it set the precedent for treating leases as contracts between landlords and tenants, a change considered to be more modern and fair. Tenants would now have the right to introduce evidence of housing code violations if they were sued for late rent, and if the living situation were found unacceptable, the tenant would not have to pay.

But in recent years, housing courts look less like the guardian against slum conditions imagined by New Deal-era advocates and far more like other municipal courts that target low-level offenders and focus disproportionately on the poor.

After visiting rent court in the 1990s, University of Maryland law professor Barbara Bezdek concluded that, beneath “the veneer of due process,” litigants “who are members of socially subordinated groups” are systematically excluded. Though rent court was originally meant to be an accessible space where tenants and landlords could speak directly to a judge without a lawyer, the reality is that the arrangement favors the landlords. Bezdek found that differences in speech, the effects of poverty and the unduly high hurdles tenants were asked to overcome to even raise a defense prevented them from being truly heard. All in all, Bezdek described the legal dynamics as “a charade.” In the two decades since, not much has changed.

A Judicial “Charade”

On a typical day in rent court, the average number of scheduled cases ranges from 800 to 1,000. Shah says the court’s “dirty little secret” is that it depends on the overwhelming majority of summoned tenants to not show up — meaning default wins for the landlord — because there’s no way judges could ever hear as many cases as they schedule. Mark Scurti, associate judge at Baltimore City’s District Court, agrees they would not be able to handle as many cases as they schedule if all tenants were to appear. “It would put a tremendous strain on our current staffing and judges,” he says.

For tenants who do show up to court, it’s not much better. “The court really operates like a giant black box. I have a friggin’ Ph.D. and I’m sitting there like, if this were me and I was actually there [for a case], I would have no idea what’s going on,” says Pasciuti. “There’s no direction, there’s nobody there to explain anything to you.” While some legal aid groups try to offer assistance, their availability is minimal, and most tenants go in without professional help. On days with full dockets, a case can easily receive less than 30 seconds of judicial review.

Rent court is one of the few courts in Maryland’s judiciary system for which no digitized records are available. Whereas all other court cases are filed online, no similar computer system has ever existed for these housing disputes; everything must be manually processed and gets filed away into a vault. Relatedly, no court records are available to determine things like the number of judgments ruled in the landlords’ favor, or how many times an individual tenant is brought to court annually. “I think those are critical numbers to know, and I’m all about watching statistics and watching trends,” says Scurti, who hopes the court will be included in a statewide electronic court filing initiative that is being rolled out over the next couple years. “Why we’ve never been electronic before, I don’t know,” he says. “I suspect it has to do with funding.”

Obtaining data on the number of evictions is similarly difficult. While the sheriff’s office tallies monthly eviction stats for rent court stakeholders to review, it does not make the data easily accessible to the public. It took several weeks for the city to agree to share with me that they had a total of 6,309 evictions in 2014. Housing advocates say the number has hovered around 7,000 evictions annually for the last 10 years. An Abell Foundation report published in 2003 found that the chances of eviction are greater if one rents in Baltimore than in comparable cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Rent court is easily one of the state’s speediest judicial proceedings. Landlords can file for trial a mere one day after rent is late, no matter what the reason. In other states, like New York, landlords must serve tenants with a “rent demand” that gives them three or five days to pay overdue rent before an eviction case is started. New York tenants who do not receive these notices can raise that as a defense in court, says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. There is no similar pre-filing period required in Baltimore, leading to, what Shah describes as, “an enormous amount of unnecessary litigation.”

Such a rapid system also gives tenants little time to prepare their defenses, but from the landlord’s perspective, the process has to be quick. “On a large commercial scale [court speed] is not such an importance because they have an ability to withstand not getting rent, but when you’re not a commercial landlord and you have maybe just three, four units, or just one unit, plus a mortgage on the property, [not getting] your rent is a big deal,” says Dennis Hodge, a lawyer who has been representing landlords in the Baltimore area since the mid 1980s. “Most landlords do not want to do evictions, they prefer just to get their money,” he adds.

But when tenants are unable or unwilling to pass over that money, the courtroom’s speed comes into play again. With hundreds of cases to hear in a day, the judges have little time to hear the details of a tenant’s situation. And without professional legal assistance, tenants are generally unable to defend themselves against common chicanery like landlords tacking on additional charges veiled as rent.

Judges often ask tenants why they don’t just move if a rental is uninhabitable or too expensive. “People can’t afford to just pick up and move!” exclaims Detrese Dowridge, a 30-year-old single mother who has gone to rent court three time since May 2013. Dowridge’s Northwest Baltimore home had cracked walls and windows, scurrying mice and roaches, and a leaky ceiling. “And even if they can move,” she says, “then the person who comes in after them will still be stuck with the [same] landlord getting away with whatever.”

“There’s a lot of blaming and shaming the poor in the courtroom,” explains Shah. “I think the spirit with which the court operates is that you have to deserve your housing.”

Reforming Rent Court

Without a jury or many headline-making cases, civil courtroom proceedings have typically flown under the public’s radar. That is beginning to change. A Department of Justice report issued in the wake of police officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson singled out the Missouri municipal court for “constitutionally deficient” procedures that “undermine the court’s role as a fair and impartial judicial body.”

Now attorneys at the Public Justice Center have teamed up with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a Baltimore-based human rights organization, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a local activist group, to try and change the frustrating realities of rent court. With $280,000 in grant funding from the Abell Foundation, they hope to lead a court reform initiative and promote greater awareness about housing evictions around the city.

“The bare minimum allowable for any human dignity in the rental housing system is for this court to be fixed,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with RTHA.

“Our members that go through rent court are just defeated,” she adds. “They feel there is no dignity. It’s just really, really dehumanizing for them.”

Pasciuti, with a team of Johns Hopkins students, has been helping the three organizations conduct surveys and analyze their quantitative data. The goal is to collect meaningful information about what actually happens in rent court. “Our theory is if the public narrative about low-income renters was articulated, presented with numbers, substantiated in a really sound way, and we got it out to the right people, then we can get to a point where there is the political will, and even maybe the business interest to fix this system,” says Shah. The groups hope to go public with a completed dataset of over 300 tenant surveys, augmented by information from the court proceedings and regulatory agencies, later this fall.

In addition to bringing tenant voices into the public discussion, the Public Justice Center also aims to launch a legal strategy, in order to get sufficient clarity about what “rent” means in a residential lease context. Shah says they are considering either a class-action lawsuit or litigating through the appeals process to investigate tricky lease clauses that landlords often use to get more money or to evict tenants.

The activists’ timing might be just right. Scurti, the Baltimore judge frustrated by the lack of good data collection in his court, says he also wants to move toward a formal evaluation of docket patterns to see how the court can operate better. “I want to understand the process and to reevaluate it,” he says. He is particularly interested in figuring out how technology might help the court function more smoothly.

Ultimately, all sides agree that the court today is a flawed and inefficient operation. “You’re not going to encounter a judge, or a landlord, or an advocate for tenants who will tell you things are going well,” says Shah. The problem, however, is that improvement means different things for everyone involved. Despite the relative speed at which these cases move, Baltimore landlords, for instance, still feel the whole legal process should be adjudicated much more quickly and with less bureaucracy. Tenant advocates, on the other hand, want increased procedural accessibility and due process.

A promising place to look may be Massachusetts, which has one of the best housing court models in the country. First established in the 1970s, housing court officials in Massachusetts have prioritized creating a system that is accessible to both landlords and tenants.

In addition to a robust legal services community, Massachusetts employs court staff to serve as mediators between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes without going directly before a judge. According to Paul J. Burke, deputy court administrator, the majority of rental disputes are settled this way. The typical length of a mediation session is around 30 minutes, which can provide a greater sense of dignity than Baltimore’s hasty proceedings. In some cases, mediations can even last for several hours.

Ultimately it comes down to fairness. “From day one back in the early ’70s, it was anticipated that many people would be self-represented, would perhaps be lower-income, and perhaps not have the highest level of educational training,” says Burke. “The policies, the processes and the forms in our courts have always been set up with that in mind.”

We Can’t Talk About Housing Policy Without Talking About Racism

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 20th, 2015.
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Over the past year, unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson has inspired a nationwide debate on how to best combat systemic inequality and injustice. In the wake of high-profile police violence cases in these cities and elsewhere, this conversation has contributed to a renewed understanding of how federal and local housing policies helped create the inequality and racial injustice urban America confronts today. Yet lost in this discussion has been the complicated record of more recent desegregation efforts and what they can teach us about undoing generations of systemic racism and persistent segregation.

A case-in-point is HUD’s Clinton-era Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, the subject of a new study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. Focusing on MTO’s long-term economic impacts, the study sheds more positive light on a program long considered to be a failure.

Running from 1994-1998, MTO was a housing experiment that involved moving individuals out of high-poverty neighborhoods with vouchers and into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty to see if this would improve their life outcomes. The results were mixed. While critics of the program have dubbed it a failure for not significantly improving children’s school performance or the financial situation of their parents, there was a lot about it that proved successful. MTO yielded significant gains in mental health for adults, for instance, including decreased stress levels and lower rates of depression. It also greatly lowered obesity rates and improved the psychological well being of young girls.

The new Harvard study further bucks the notion that MTO failed. Instead of looking at MTO’s economic impact on parents, it looks at the adult earnings of their children. Such an analysis simply wasn’t possible to do a decade ago, given that the kids were still too young. Researchers now find that poor children who moved into better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more in the workforce than similar adults who never moved. The researchers also ranked which cities were “the worst” in terms of facilitating upward mobility. Out of the nation’s 100 largest counties, the authors found, Baltimore came in dead last.

Many writers were quick to make the connection between Baltimore’s low chances for social mobility and the recent bouts of unrest surrounding the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. However, few seemed interested in connecting the new Harvard study with the politics of why we have segregated communities and concentrated poverty in the first place.

Emily Badger’s Washington Post write-up of the study framed the ills people face in Baltimore as a city failure, rather than a state or federal one. She discusses the “downward drag that Baltimore exerts on poor kids” and says that Baltimore “itself appears to be acting on poor children, constraining their opportunity, molding them over time into the kind of adults who will likely remain poor.” Badger acknowledges that maybe this has to do with struggling schools and less social capital. “Change where these children live, though,” she writes, “and you might well change their outcomes.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. looks at the new Harvard study and concludes, “Neighborhoods themselves are clearly transmitters of poverty. The problem for residents isn’t racism: it’s where they live.”

Such narrow portrayals of Baltimore and its residents are only possible if we exclude decades of state and federal policy from our frame of analysis. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute wrote something I suggest reading in its entirety. But to quote:

In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie traces not only how efforts to segregate Baltimore succeeded, but also how there’s never been a sustained attempt to undo them.

The simple fact is that major progress in Baltimore—and other, similar cities—requires major investment and major reform from state and federal government. It requires patience, investment, and a national commitment to ending scourges of generational poverty—not just ameliorating them.

Expanding housing choice vouchers is a good thing. We should have subsidies available to ensure that everyone has similar opportunities for mobility. That said, moving millions of impoverished families out of high-poverty areas would be nothing short of a logistical nightmare. In effect, mass relocation efforts would require low-poverty communities to relinquish some of their gatekeeping discretion—no small political fight. MTO tracked 4,600 families in five U.S. cities. As Reihan Salam put it, “It’s not at all clear that an MTO-style approach would work if we scaled it up to, say, 40,000 families in one city.” Nothing is impossible, but we cannot have a serious discussion about housing mobility as a broad anti-poverty strategy without frankly discussing the politics of racism and segregation. 

Investing In Better Mobility Vouchers

So what does a more effective mobility strategy look like? A look to MTO’s own weaknesses may provide some clues. Indeed, for sociologists Stefanie DeLuca and Peter Rosenblatt, one problem with MTO was that it simply didn’t go far enough. Ina 2010 paper, they argue that while some students undoubtedly benefited from moving to wealthier communities, a lack of social capital, support, and resources, combined with housing vouchers that did not cover the cost of living in low-poverty communities, kept many students out of the highest-performing schools. At the same time, many families found that the obstacles created by poverty—like health problems and the chaotic nature of low-wage work—tended to follow them even as they left impoverished communities, and in turn contributed to poor student performance.

For DeLuca and Rosenblatt, there’s plenty that MTO did right but confronting endemic poverty and segregation requires a more systematic approach. That is, something perhaps more akin to the Baltimore Mobility Program (BMP), through which 2,400 Baltimore families have relocated since 2003. Whereas MTO offered housing search counseling to program participants, BMP provided that plus post-move counseling, second move counseling if necessary, and financial literacy and credit repair training. In another study released last year, DeLuca followed 110 BMP participants for nearly a decade, and found that over two-thirds of these families were still living in their integrated, low-poverty communities one to eight years after moving.

If MTO were to be a truly successful intervention, then expanding the program’s available services—including educational assistance, housing counseling, job support, and transportation help—would be important. We can’t know how the MTO participants would have fared if they had been given increased support, but we do know that additional services helped to make the transitions more surmountable and lasting for BMP families.

From “Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program,” a report by The Century Foundation.

This chart by The Century Foundation shows how the MTO and BMP compare with Section 8 vouchers and the Gautreaux Project, a desegregation experiment that ended in 1990 and helped inspire MTO.

Needless to say, high-quality BMP vouchers are more costly than MTO and traditional Section 8 vouchers. Excellent mobility programs will require a real financial investment. As it is, there are long Section 8 waiting lists around the country, and local housing authorities currently receive fixed amounts from HUD to support voucher participants. Unless we significantly scale up funding, moving more people to affluent neighborhoods would mean moving fewer people overall through vouchers.

The findings from the new Harvard study are useful. They allow us to ask new kinds of questions. But in terms of policy, we must be wary of those who now suggest that simply uprooting families and planting them into new communities is the responsible thing to do—especially if we’re not ready to provide the supports that research has shown makes these types of moves more successful.

For example, in The National Review Jonah Goldberg writes, “Consider Baltimore. If you’re poor, it is a very bad idea to raise your kids there if you can avoid it.” He implicitly suggests that if you’re a good parent, if you care about your kid’s future, then you will leave Baltimore, or Detroit, or Philadelphia if you can. Let us hope that this policy conversation does veer into an ugly, parent-blaming one. Housing mobility vouchers are good options, but our best anti-poverty interventions shouldn’t have to demand that people abandon their social networks, churches, and communities if they want to stay. We should make high-quality vouchers available, but we should vigorously invest in the communities where poor people already live.

As Daniel Kay Hertz, a senior fellow at City Observatory pointed out to me, the Harvard study provides some new ammunition against those who have long doubted the effectiveness of a housing policy that puts integration front and center. Now there is some pretty strong empirical evidence that shows that children’s life chances were significantly affected by growing up within integrated environments. Additionally, these findings come on the heels of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which traces the growing opportunity gaps between wealthy and poor children around the country. In light of these new high-profile studies, perhaps policymakers will more readily accept the idea that your access to the American Dream has everything to do with your race, class, and geographic location.

At the end of the day, Baltimore ranks last in the Harvard mobility study not because poor, black people live there, but because leaders in power made choice after choice, year after year, to ensure that poor blacks’ opportunities would be overwhelmingly constricted. We can and must make new choices now.

What are Institutional Review Boards and Why Should We Care? An Interview with Zach Schrag

Interview originally published in The Washington Monthly on November 1, 2013.
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In 2010, George Mason University Professor Zach Schrag published a book, “Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences,” exploring the history of federally regulated academic research in the United States.

Institutional Review Boards, or IRBs, as they’re known, were first created in the 1960s to approve, monitor and review biomedical and behavioral research involving humans. The idea was to protect human subjects from harm—a premise everyone could agree with—but in the intervening decades, Schrag argues, they’ve become obsolete, ineffective and overbearing, scaring social scientists out of doing hard-hitting research in their fields.

In a recent conversation with the Washington Monthly, Schrag explains where IRBs came from, how they’re harmful to social science, and what possibilities exist for reform.

What kinds of social science research are most negatively affected by the current IRB?

The one that really leaps out is research on sexuality. Time and again IRBs have been extremely squeamish when researchers come to them and say, “I want to study some kind of group, particularly a sexual minority.” Whether it’s about being gay or about adolescents and their sexuality…it tends to shoot up red flags all over the place.

We have a problem in this country where kids grow up gay, or transgender, or in some other marginalized category, and they feel alienated, misunderstood. One thing that good social science can do for them is to tell them that in fact it gets better, that you’re not alone. When the IRB is trying to protect, say, gay youth, by not letting the researchers talk to them, it may actually in the long run be doing harm by denying them the results that the research would create.

What happens to researchers who don’t comply with the IRB at their university?

There are risks to researchers who complain about this system—those who either deliberately refuse to comply or who choose to read the rules very carefully and comply no more than they have to, which has been my approach. Graduate students and untenured faculty are extremely vulnerable to threats. I have the luxury of tenure but if someone were to decide that I have violated a regulation then tenure won’t protect me. People feel scared. People shy away from research topics. The ethics regime has dissuaded people from doing the kinds of immersive research that for a long time was very important to sociology.

So should IRBs be abolished or should they be reformed?

This is a system that was primarily designed to regulate the kinds of research that people were thinking about it in the 1960s. I frankly question its modern utility in relation to biomedical research, but it’s particularly inept at regulating more exploratory, open-ended qualitative research of the kind that a lot of researchers in the social sciences and humanities pursue.

There are a lot of alternatives, particularly in terms of better communication and training. For example, someone judging the ethics on ethnographic field work in Peru should be expected to learn, let’s say, not about biomedical research but about ethnographic field work in Peru. I value expertise and I hope to see the energy focused on putting researchers in touch with other researchers. They need that kind of ethical questioning.

Some have argued that this process is an insidious form of censorship. Is this a First Amendment issue?

The problem is that even those who believe that the current regulations are not consistent with the First Amendment may not believe that the courts, and particularly the Supreme Court will agree with them. For example, Philip Hamburger at Columbia University argues for the unconstitutionality of IRBs, but at the same time he says that given recent Supreme Court opinions, we can’t trust the court to recognize this. Most people who are affected by IRBs are affected in their role as employees, and employees may have many fewer rights than do general citizens. I don’t think there is a great likelihood that we would find relief in the courts based on the way that precedents have gone.

How else could the rules change?

The federal government has recognized that this is a problem. In 2011, a group of agencies put out an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making that recognized very explicitly that the system is not working well for many researchers. More recently, the National Research Council held a conference in which a lot of possible reforms were floated. Academics are still waiting to see what the next steps are with those options.

There are also a lot of people in Congress, in both parties, who are concerned with government overreach, and are worried about civil liberties. Indeed back in 1980 there was something of a bipartisan coalition thinking that these research regulations had gone too far. The House passed a bill that would have restricted the regulations somewhat. It died in the Senate.

Alternatively, you could find some relief at the university level because the regulations are brief, vague, poorly written, and somewhat contradictory. That gives universities a fair amount of wiggle room on how they actually implement the regulations. Ultimately though, we hope for more substantial reform.

The Future of Civics Education in Israel

Originally published in the Daily Beast on April 26, 2013.

The Israeli Finance Ministry’s new budget proposal states, among other things, that ultra-Orthodox schools will need to dedicate at least 55 percent of school hours to teaching the Ministry’s core curriculum if they wish to receive any state funds.

Though there are many serious, substantive problems in Israeli education that necessitate reform, and not all of them will be remedied by this new proposal, the bill does plan to address one fundamental problem facing the future of a democratic Israeli citizenry: civic education.

This past summer I traveled to Israel to learn more about how they teach civic education. I wanted to understand if and how the Israeli government fosters a sense of civic solidarity amongst Israelis who are divided into sometimes quite distinct public schools. Public schools, from a Durkheimian sociological perspective, are institutions meant to cultivate citizens—individuals with a shared understanding of norms, values and expectations of their society.

Within Israeli public education there exist four main school systems: an ultra-Orthodox system, a national religious system, a secular system and an Arab system. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the total number of students in the education system is expected to grow from 1.579 million students in 2013 to 1.695 million students by 2017—an increase of approximately 7.3 percent, at an annual growth rate of 1.83 percent.

The ultra-Orthodox student population is the fastest growing in Israel, with an average annual growth rate of 5.7 percent. The Arab student population, with an average annual growth of 3.4 percent, is the second fastest growing demographic. It is projected that by 2017, ultra-Orthodox and Arab students will make up 44 percent of all Israeli students. By comparison, the secular education system showed an annual growth rate of 0.1 percent.

The Executive Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Israel, Dr. Dan Ben-David, has been studying these population trends. If Ben-David’s findings continue on their current trajectory, it is projected that by the year 2040, 78 percent of primary school students will study in either ultra-Orthodox or Arab school systems.

There is nothing wrong with a changing demography, but it is important to ensure that there is an educational structure in place to prepare any and all citizens to participate in democratic society. As it stands now, ultra-Orthodox students are the only segment of Israeli society not required to formally study civics; this includes topics like minority rights, free speech and voting. The democratic future of Israel is already at risk, and this seems to add yet another unhelpful variable.

When I asked a representative from the Ministry of Education if this seems to present a great future challenge for socializing citizens, she replied, “Oh yes. It’s a big problem. But there are lot of politics involved so it is very hard to change.”

However, it seems as though the politics might indeed be changing. Newly appointed Education Minister Shai Piron said recently that he would refuse to fund institutions that do not teach civics, math and English. He declared, “The State cannot fund something that goes against its interests.

To be sure, organizations are already coming out to say that the proposal does not go far enough. Hiddush, an NGO that promotes the separation of synagogue and state, has criticized the bill, saying that it’s essentially “meaningless” because schools would only have to integrate 4-6 hours a week of core curriculum—an hour or less a day. Given that the core curriculum includes subjects like English, mathematics, science and Hebrew, it is unclear how these would be divided, and what role civics would play in such a division.

In Israel, policymakers are looking for a more equitable way to share both the resources from, and the maintenance of, a modern Western society. Addressing the role that the ultra-Orthodox play is a key step in that process. But when thinking about Israel’s future, it is important that civics be strongly prioritized as well. It is, arguably, most “core” of all.

#PostModernProblems

Originally published 10/05/12 in The Forward.

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the national feminist conversation with her provocative Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Writing about the challenges she faces balancing her role as a mother and a professional, she argued that systemic changes must be made in both the workplace and society for women to finally achieve equality with men. Her piece sparked a wide debate, naturally, and as I begin my junior year of college at Johns Hopkins, I can’t help but ask myself, where do I fall in all of this? What choices do I face as a 20-year-old Jewish American female student?

In one of my sociology classes this semester, we began to analyze the concept of “family through a post-modern perspective.” As a history and sociology major, I have encountered post-modernism many times, yet this was the first time that the theory struck an incredibly personal note.

Post-Modern theorists embrace the notion that the world has changed so much from previous eras, that today individuals must make choices about virtually all aspects of their lives. Before, choices were limited and one’s life was generally pre-determined from history, tradition and custom. Now, when it comes to questions of self-identity, we increasingly rely upon our own construction of reality to dictate who we are. These choices range from big life decisions about relationships, religion and careers to the most trivial questions — what should I tweet? What should my profile picture be?

In all of my years of schooling, and now in my time at college, I have been taught to work hard for success, to learn avidly, and to not settle for anything less than what I’m capable of achieving. I have been raised to respect those who use their talents to improve the world.

And like Ms. Slaughter, I also recognize the significance of where I stand in this moment of women’s history. First wave, second wave and third wave feminists have all fought for girls like me to vote, to be able to attend institutions like Johns Hopkins (a school without women until 1970), and then upon graduation, to compete in the job market with men. Even in 2009 with the signing of the Lily-Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that helps women fight against gender-pay discrimination, I am reminded that women out there are continually making political sacrifices so that I can do more and be more than they once had the opportunity to be at my age.

I was also raised in the American Jewish community. I have been to Holocaust memorials in America, Israel and Germany. I write this piece cognizant of the fact that many of the Jewish people who lost their lives never even imagined there could be a world where they could live as freely and confidently as I do today.

The struggle to make sense of what I want to do in the future comes in part from knowing that these different identities are not always so compatible. It does not escape me that “continuity” is an oft-stressed priority of the Jewish community, including “marrying Jewish” or at the very least, “raising your kids Jewish.” And as Ms. Slaughter recognized, creating and raising a family often can come at the expense of an ambitious adult career.

Will I marry Jewish? I don’t know. Do I want to eventually start a family? Yes. Do I want to continue to help the feminist cause? Yes. Do I want to chase my professional dreams? Yes. Do I want the existence of the Jewish people to continue? Yes. But I have not figured out what all of this means for me personally.

In many ways, I know that these challenges are a blessing, a gift and a privilege. This confusion is something many have only wished to have. But I think it is important for people to try to understand how many girls my age are feeling — to realize that simply because we understand that having choices is a “gift” does not really make it easier or less confusing.

Many girls today are unsure about which path to take, nervous to let people down, and anxious about living up to our own potential because of the costs our dreams might have on our future families. We are nervous to not live up to our own potential.

Every day I continue to explore my options and choices. But often the process can seem all too intimidating. And when it does, I retreat to my safe, imaginary realities of fiction, Netflix and Facebook — avenues where the cost of a “wrong choice” comes with far less significant consequences to my future.

#PostModernProblems