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An Upcoming Supreme Court Ruling Could Starve Public Schools—In Favor of Religious Ones

Tuesday, January 21st, 2020

Image result for Alice HermanOn January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case that could result in the massive expansion of public funding for private religious schools. The petitioners in the case—which will be litigated by the conservative law group, Institute for Justice—are asking that the court rule unconstitutional the denial of “public funds’ to religious schools, invoking the First Amendment “freedom of exercise” clause to defend the position. In the event that the court rules in favor of the petitioner, the result, argue its detractors, would be tantamount to a mandate for religious voucher programs in every state.

Through voucher programs and tax relief for private school donors, more than 20 states are already redirecting public funds into private education. Public schools, already strapped for resources, face increasingly limited budgets when public money is diverted to private schools. In Illinois, a so-called “school choice” state, public school teachers and staff went on strike for 11 days beginning on October 17  to demand support staff in every school and smaller class sizes. The Chicago Teachers Union has identified voucher programs as a cause of underfunding in the city’s public schools. Michelle Gunderson, an activist in the Chicago Teachers Union, says that in her school—where she teaches first grade—persistent underfunding, exacerbated by the state’s funding of private education, has led to unmanageably large classes populated by kids with high needs.

“I just had a teacher tell me that she was denied being reimbursed for headphones for one of her students who needs audiobooks because of a disability,” Gunderson says. “We can’t go through the siphoning off of our public funds into voucher systems.” Although vouchers are billed as a resource for low-income families, state-funded private-school scholarships do not always cover the full cost of school tuition, and families who cannot afford to make up the difference cannot ultimately make use of the programs. The programs, Gunderson says, “[end] up subsidizing the schooling of fairly wealthy children.” In fact, in Illinois, up to 28 percent of state scholarships for private education went to middle- and upper-income students in 2018. The upcoming ruling could result in the expansion of similar programs throughout all states.

The origins of the Espinoza case lie in a December 2018 Montana court ruling that a state tax credit program incentivizing charitable donations to private school scholarship funds could not be applied to scholarships for religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court held that the state-implemented tax credit could only be applied to non-religious private schools, per a “no-aid” clause in the state’s amendment—so the petitioners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the event that the Supreme Court rules in the plaintiff’s favor, public funding for private education will increase not only in Montana, but in the 37 states whose constitutions ban the provision of public funds for religious schools. Over 65 percent of private schools are religious, and of those schools, over 78 percent are Christian.

David Armiak of the Center for Media and Democracy pointed out the utility of the case to the right wing, which, he argued, “is increasingly embracing the Christian right.” To that end, Koch-funded organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have allied with the Christian legal groups pushing anti-LGBTQ litigation like the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s ruling that allowed a bakery to refuse service to a gay couple. Because Espinoza could result in nationwide subsidies for Christian education, conservative Christian organizations have jumped on the case, filing five amicus briefs in the petitioners’ favor. The Institute for Justice, which is litigating Espinoza and has ties to both ALEC and the Koch brothers, has in the past pushed for publicly funded religious education in Ohio and Arizona.

The Espinoza case forms part of the broad conservative legal strategy to weaken labor and public education, which right-wing organizations have identified as electorally powerful—and progressive. Janus v. AFSCMElitigated by the Koch-affiliated National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF) and the Liberty Justice Center (LJC), dealt a blow to public-sector unions across the country by mandating that union members in all states “opt-in” to pay union fees, starving unions of dues, their traditional source of funds. Janus, which was decided on June 27, 2018, marked the culmination of a decades-long effort by the Right to Work Foundation, Liberty Justice Center, and myriad other anti-labor organizations funded by Koch and Bradley Center money.

The Janus ruling has only animated the right-wing effort to undermine labor unions: Since the summer of 2018, conservative groups have hired canvassers to encourage union members to opt out of paying dues and sued unions for member payments made before Janus went into effect. The ongoing assault on labor has taken place alongside the gutting of public education; internal Bradley Center documents, reported by In These Timesdescribed the organization’s aim to “defund teachers unions and achieve real education reform” at the same time. By stripping public schools of funding, while passing anti-labor laws, conservative groups intend to limit the organizing power of the left. One such bill, passed by the state of Wisconsin in 2011, simultaneously defunded Wisconsin public schools and deprived public sector workers of the right to collectively bargain. That piece of legislation, known widely as Act 10, has been replicated throughout the country.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has filed an amicus brief in the Espinoza case. She pointed out, on a press call on January 16 that this case is spearheaded by “the Institute for Justice, which has collected tens of millions of dollars from the Waltons, the Devos’s, Charles Koch, the Lynde & Harry Bradley foundation.” The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the late Walmart owners Helen and Sam Walton, has funded multiple school privatization efforts, while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s family has long adopted school privatization as an ideological mission. Similarly, the Koch political network and  Lynn & Harry Bradley Foundation have both sustained anti-labor efforts around the country.

“If you peel back the layers,” she added, “you see that the real agenda here is to silence parents, to silence teachers, silence students, and silence those who are trying to make the public schools schools that our kids want to go to.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works at a restaurant. She contributes regularly to Isthmus, Madison’s alt-weekly, and The Progressive magazine.

Charter Schools’ Billion-Dollar Fraud Stinks Worse Than We Thought

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

Jeff Bryant

Earlier this year, when members of Congress repeatedly confronted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about a study finding the federal government’s charter school grant program had wasted an estimated $1 billion on schools that had never opened or opened and quickly closed, she dismissed the findings and accused the report authors of having a “political agenda against charter schools.” On December 10, the organization that published the study DeVos disparaged issued a more detailed examination of waste in the government’s charter grant program and concluded the $1 billion figure was indeed likely not correct—it was an underestimate.

The report “Still Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Results in a Pileup of Fraud and Waste” by the Network for Public Education (NPE) calculates approximately $1.17 billion in federal funding has been spent on charters that either never opened or that opened and have since shut down. Much of the added waste the study found in the charter program comes from the researchers’ findings that way more of these charters have closed or never opened than originally estimated. Based on its second pass through of the data, NPE upped the failure rate of taxpayer-funded charter startups from 30 percent to 37 percent.

The new report arrives at an especially critical time in the discussion about charter schools in the Democratic presidential primary.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the four front-runners in the race, has proposed “halting the use of public funds to underwrite new charter schools.” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, another front-runner, has pledged to, if elected, “eliminate” the federal charter school grant program and “end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools.”

Warren in particular has been taking the brunt of the pushback from charter supporters, who contend her call for ending the federal grant program for charter schools is “threatening the freedom” charters enjoy.

A pro-charter advocacy group recently interrupted Warren when she spoke at a campaign rally in Atlanta, Georgia, and a video interview Warren recently had with the National Education Association, in which she restates her opposition to charter school expansions, prompted New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait to imply Warren’s opposition to federal funding of charter schools is for political reasons and an effort to gain the support of teachers’ unions.

In her K-12 plan, Warren cites the first NPE report, “Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride,” which I coauthored with NPE executive director Carol Burris. Warren’s campaign document repeats that report’s conclusions that “the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never even opened, or opened and then closed because of mismanagement and other reasons.”

Because the newer report, which I also contributed to, finds the amount of waste is even worse, Warren and Sanders have had their positions strengthened, and other presidential candidates will likely feel more pressure to explain exactly how they would, if elected, stanch the drain of public funds from the federal charter grant program and take steps to address widespread fraud, corruption, and financial mismanagement of public money in the charter school industry.

Deeper Dive Into Wasted Charter School Funding

The first “Asleep at the Wheel” report, admittedly, “barely skimmed the surface” of the waste in the federal charter program. It also called attention to warnings from the education department’s own inspector general that the charter grant program was poorly monitored, and it scrutinized the application process to get the grants, noting that applicants frequently gave false or misleading information about their schools and programs, and application reviewers did little to no research on individuals and organizations asking for the money.

This new report provides a more thorough, state-by-state accounting of federal funds given to grantees from 2006 to 2014, the only data window the department has made available. (Astonishingly, during the first decade of the program, from 1995 to 2005, there is no record of how charter school grant money from the federal government—over $1 billion—was spent.) Based on the failure rate of schools in the publicly available dataset, the amount of federal tax dollars wasted on charter schools that never opened or quickly closed is likely $1.17 billion.

Although the overall rate of failed charter projects was 37 percent, in some states the rate of failure was much higher. States where the failure rate of charters receiving federal grants exceeded 50 percent include Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia, and Washington (state).

The amount of waste in taxpayer funds varied considerably from state to state.

In Georgia, 23 million federal dollars were wasted when 75 percent of the charter schools awarded government grants failed. The percentage of defunct charter school grantees in Florida matched the national average at 37 percent, resulting in $34.2 million in wasted taxpayer funds. In Michigan that failure rate was over 44 percent, costing taxpayers $21 million, and in Louisiana, $25.5 million went down the drain as 46 percent of the charter startups failed. But the most scandalous waste was in California where nearly $103 million was awarded to charters that never opened or have shut down—a 37 percent failure rate.

Money Given to ‘Ghost Schools’ That Never Opened

Details about the amount of money wasted on charter schools that never opened, which the report calls “ghost schools,” are infuriating.

NPE identified 537 charter schools in total that received public-financed government grants and never opened for even one day. According to the education department’s data, those schools received, or were due to receive, a total of $45.5 million.

Twenty-eight states had at least one charter ghost school, but California again was among the worst, where 61 charter operators pledged to open schools but never did, wasting $8.36 million. Michigan topped the list, though, where 72 grant recipients never opened their schools. Over $7.7 million was wasted there.

Drawing from records NPE obtained through a FOIA request to Michigan’s state education department, the report spotlights some egregious examples of how money given to start new charter schools never made it to classrooms, teachers, and students. Hundreds of thousands of precious education dollars went instead to the charter developers themselves, to for-profit consulting and education management organizations, to lease arrangements with school building owners, and to purchases of computers, printers, and other equipment that was never accounted for or given back to school districts when the schools failed to open.

One story the report recounts is about how a private consultant and her company hopped from one defunct charter school in Michigan to another, taking advantage of federal grants every time, to extract tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from schools that never opened or were open for only brief periods of time.

Another example: a Michigan couple who received a $100,00 “planning grant” to open a new charter used the grant to pay themselves $53,920 and purchase laptops, a printer, and Wi-Fi services worth $4,679.11. The school never opened.

Public Funds Went to For-Profit Schools

NPE’s report also found substantial funds from the federal charter school grant program went to for-profit businesses even though the program’s guidelines limit grant awards to only nonprofit organizations. A total of $124,929,017 in federal start-up funds in the education department’s database of grant awardees went to 357 schools that are run by major for-profit chains.

How does this happen? As the report notes, only one state, Arizona, technically allows charter schools to be incorporated as for-profit corporations, yet 34 states allow for-profit management companies to contract with charter schools. These contracts create a convoluted system in which the charter serves as a passthrough for the for-profit corporation to make money from the school by providing staffing, curriculum, classroom furniture, computer equipment and software, and, in many cases, serve as the school’s landlord.

One example the report delves into is a chain of charter schools in Florida that were connected to White Hat Management Corporation, a now-defunct Ohio-based, for-profit school management company that used to be in five states. Nine of the schools in the Florida charter chain received grants from the federal government ranging from $25,000 to $705,696. All the schools are now closed, but nearly all that money likely ended up in White Hat accounts.

Some of the schools paid 97 percent of their income to White Hat, including to a separate White Hat real estate company for lease payments on buildings owned by White Hat. When White Hat also went out of business, any remaining assets the company had were sold to other privately operated charter management groups, even if those assets had been purchased with public money.

Both Sanders and Warren have called for bans on federal money going to for-profit charter schools. Other presidential candidates including former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have joined in this proposal. But candidates need to be clear that when they call for ending federal funds to expand for-profit charter schools, they also must call for ending federal funding of for-profit real estate businesses and management firms connected to the schools.

‘Down the Drain’

DeVos and the charter school industry will quite likely dismiss this new report from NPE as they did the first one.

There’s a substantial history of charter school proponents refusing to reflect on even the most reasonable criticism of their schools. Any negative reporting on the practical reality and consequences of charter schools, no matter how well documented, is often branded by charter school proponents and the media as an “attack” on all charters and an effort to undermine African American and Latinx families who send children to charters in greater proportions than white parents do.

After Warren was interrupted by a pro-charter group of predominantly black parents during her speech at the Atlanta campaign rally, she met with the protest organizers to learn more about their objections to her K-12 education plan and its proposals to curb the growth of charter schools.

During the exchange, there was a revealing moment when Warren pointed out to her critics that even if she were successful in her efforts to end the federal charter school grant program, her other proposal to increase federal spending on K-12 schools—principally, her proposal to quadruple federal Title I funds that go to schools serving low-income children, which includes many charter schools—would exceed what charters would lose by shutting down the grant program.

One of the charter school organizers, former superintendent of Milwaukee public schools Howard Fuller, who is a longtime advocate of charter schools and school voucher programs, countered that public schools will just “absorb” whatever additional money Warren proposes and the money “is going to go down the drain” unless there are “significant structural changes” that allow for charters and other forms of school choice in the system.

But given the results of this new report, anyone truly concerned about financial “drains” on public education would conclude Warren’s proposal to end the federal charter grant program is really the right way to go.

 

This article was produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute.  Jeff Bryant, chief correspondent for Our Schools  is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on December 16, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.

Kamala Harris proposes a longer school day—without tormenting kids or exploiting teachers

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Students leave school hours before their parents typically get home from work, creating a challenge for many parents and too often meaning kids are left alone. Sen. Kamala Harris wants to change that—but not by making teachers work longer, uncompensated hours, as all too many proponents of longer school days want.

Harris is proposing a pilot program to fund 500 schools serving low-income populations to figure out what works best to lengthen the school day from 8 AM all the way to 6 PM, without vacations beyond federal holidays. That shouldn’t mean students sitting still at their desks for developmentally inappropriate lengths of time. Rather, the schools should come up with “high-quality, culturally relevant, linguistically accessible, developmentally appropriate academic, athletic, or enrichment opportunities for students.” After five years, the Education Department would report on the best practices established during the pilot program and on its effects on parents, students, and teachers.

“The bill would also require the school to find a private or non-federal public funding source, such as state grants or philanthropy organizations, to match 10 percent of the federal grant money, a stipulation intended to help the programs remain sustainable after the initial grant money has run out,” Kara Voght reports at Mother Jones. “The matches can be money or an in-kind contribution in the form of volunteer staff time, meeting spaces, or equipment.”

This would have to be developed really, really carefully and thoughtfully, taking into account the needs of students and teachers. But it could mean moving beyond kids being cooped up except for painfully short recesses. It could mean adequate physical education and time for arts and music, rather than testing-based curricula squeezing everything else out. It could mean low-income kids getting the equivalent of high-quality afterschool programs that higher-income kids now have access to. It could mean teachers having prep time and time for grading built into their workday while students were in other activities.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is optimistic. “This bill would enable school districts and communities to find solutions that work for them,” she said in a statement, while “teachers and paraprofessionals aren’t filling in the gaps without respect and fair compensation.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor

Elizabeth Warren's education plan tackles privatization, segregation, and high-stakes testing

Monday, October 21st, 2019

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has released a K-12 education plan and, like so many of her other policy plans, it fully earns the headline term “sweeping.” Also “bold” and even potentially “inspiring.” In recent weeks Warren has taken some shots from the left for her past education stances, and in response to this plan we’re now going to see who was seriously concerned about education policy and who was just trying to drag her down to benefit their candidate. There’s so much good stuff here—increased funding, fighting privatization, fighting segregation, breaking up the school-to-prison pipeline, civil rights enforcement, supporting teachers, eliminating high-stakes testing—with Warren’s characteristic understanding of the links between racial justice and economic justice and government enforcement and transparency and the influence of money in our institutions.

As with so many of her other plans, Warren takes a racial and economic justice approach to education, writing that “The data show that more school funding significantly improves student achievement, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. Yet our current approach to school funding at the federal, state, and local level underfunds our schools and results in many students from low-income backgrounds receiving less funding than other students on a per-student basis” and highlighting the racial disparities that result from this system. She calls for quadrupling federal Title I funding to schools with high proportions of students from low-income families, while requiring states to invest in education in order to get that funding, and changing funding formulas to better reach low-income students. Warren would also boost federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, create “Excellence Grants” for public schools “to invest in programs and resources that they believe are most important to their students,” promote community schools, and invest in school buildings, which are all too often crumbling.

But while funding is a key part of promoting equality in education, it’s not the only thing, and Warren adds a strong set of civil rights proposals. Funding is important in fighting rising school and residential segregation, the plan notes: “Modern residential segregation is driven at least in part by income inequality and parents seeking out the best possible school districts for their children. By investing more money in our public schools – and helping ensure that every public school is a great one – my plan will address one of the key drivers of residential segregation.” Warren would also strengthen civil rights enforcement in education, including applying it to the recent trend of “breakaway” districts, in which the wealthier, whiter areas of a town break away to form their own school district, leaving lower-income and less white populations in underfunded schools. Warren commits to civil rights enforcement not just for students of color but for students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and English Language Learners and other kids from immigrant families. She’d address some of the key policies making schools punitive and stressful for students, pushing back on zero-tolerance discipline policies that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, canceling school lunch debt and calling for free school breakfasts and lunches, and eliminating high-stakes testing, which has so damaged the educational experience: “Schools have eliminated critical courses that are not subject to federally mandated testing, like social studies and the arts. They can exclude students who don’t perform well on tests. Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test, rather than ensuring that students have a rich learning experience.”

In that call to eliminate high-stakes testing, which is also so much about allowing teachers to make judgments as professionals, and in the final two broad areas of Warren’s plan, she clearly take cues from the teachers’ uprising of recent years. Warren calls for higher pay for teachers, points out that her earlier plan to eliminate student debt would teaching a more sustainable profession, and supports unions as a path to strength for teachers. She also has a slate of plans to diversify the teaching workforce and to expand professional development for teachers—and she would make the government pay for those classroom supplies that teachers all too often pay for out of their own pockets.

Finally, “To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools.” She’s not kidding around there. Warren calls for a ban on for-profit charter schools, including ones that are theoretically non-profit but outsource operations to for-profit companies, and to end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools—a key Betsy DeVos priority. Beyond that, she would subject existing charter schools to the same oversight and transparency requirements as public schools, and crack down on rampant fraud. She’d apply lobbying restrictions and disclosure requirements to companies lobbying school systems that get federal money, “Ban the sharing, storing, and sale of student data,” and require high-stakes testing companies that currently sell prior versions of their tests to students who can afford them to release those materials to everyone.

In short, Warren once again does have a plan for that.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Trump’s pick for Education Secretary worked with an organization advocating child labor

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Donald Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education, billionaire voucher advocate Betsy DeVos, has made her imprint on policy through large donations to extremist conservative groups, including the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

In addition to being a donor, DeVos has served on Acton’s Board of Directors for 10 years. The Institute is a non-profit research organization “dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes.”

 In a recent blog post, an Acton Institute writer and project coordinator showed his dedication to something else: child labor.

The post’s author, Joseph Sunde, argues that work is a “gift” that we are denying American children. After all, Sunde concludes, the child laborers of America’s past were “actively building enterprises and cities” and “using their gifts to serve their communities.”

Some especially disturbing highlights from Sunde’s piece:

In our policy and governing institutions, what if we put power back in the hands of parents and kids, dismantling the range of excessive legal restrictions, minimum wage fixings, and regulations that lead our children to work less and work later?

Let us not just teach our children to play hard and study well, shuffling them through a long line of hobbies and electives and educational activities. A long day’s work and a load of sweat have plenty to teach as well.

The piece was originally titled “Bring Back Child Labor: Work is a Gift Our Kids Can Handle,” but Sunde removed “Bring Back Child Labor” after receiving public criticism. When the Huffington Post wrote about Sunde’s piece in November, the Trump transition team did not answer their request for a comment.

Long hours of regular work can harm children’s social and emotional development. According to the Child Labor Public Education Project, adolescents who work more than 20 hours per week have reported more problem behaviors, such as aggression, misconduct, and substance use. These students also report more sleep deprivation, and are more likely to drop out of school and complete fewer months of higher education.

It should come as no surprise that the Acton Institute appears on the DeVos philanthropic roster. Over the years, Dick and Betsy DeVos have funded a host of conservative, religious causes, including opposition same-sex marriage laws in several states and groups that push “conversion therapy.” What’s more, the entire DeVos family, including Amway co-founder Richard DeVos Sr., has given more than $17 million to conservative political candidates and political committees since 1989. More than half of that giving—nearly $10 million—occurred within the last two years. The DeVos name regularly appears on lists of attendees at donor summits hosted by Charles and David Koch.

There’s no doubt that Betsy DeVos has personally funded several groups that push an aggressive anti-public education agenda, as well. DeVos is a staunch believer in vouchers, which allow families to send their child to private (often religious) schools using government funding. When referring to the role that she and her husband play in education, DeVos has proclaimed, “our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.”

She has yet to say publicly whether children work in the Kingdom.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on January 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Annette Konoske-Graf is a Policy Analyst with the K-12 Education team at the Center for American Progress.

The Fight to Save UMass Labor Center Is a Fight for Worker Power

Friday, September 16th, 2016

in these times

The Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Amherst is in turmoil. Its director, Eve Weinbaum, says she was abruptly pushed out of the position. In an alarming e-mail to alumni, students and allies, she protested funding cuts to teaching assistants and part-time instructors and, more troublingly, threats to the “Labor Studies faculty’s autonomy to make programmatic decisions and to designate a Director.”

Founded in 1964, the Labor Center is one of about 30 labor centers around the country. Most are rooted in the extension programs of land grant public universities. In addition to its extension work—providing trainings for unions and worker centers—the Labor Center runs undergraduate and graduate degree programs in labor studies.

These days it is most renowned for its limited residency Union Leadership and Administration (ULA) program, in which union leaders, staff and rank-and-file activists meet for intense 10-day periods of instruction every summer and winter and can earn a graduate degree in three years if they keep up with readings and assignments from home (or in the field).  As you might have guessed, I’m a proud alum of the program.

The response to Weinbaum’s letter produced nearly 500 letters of protest in a few days, according to organizers for a Save the Labor Center campaign. Local union leaders, heads of other labor centers, alumni and current students also expressed alarm about the situation in a prominent article in The Boston Globe. According to Jeff Schuhrke, another UMass alum and writer for In These Times, an organizing committee of at least 30 alumni is holding regular conference calls to plan the next steps of the campaign. The upheaval there has many worried about the future of labor education at public universities nationwide. Changes in the way education programs are funded are setting off a kind of labor center “Hunger Games,” where some programs grow while others die.

Founded in 1964, the Labor Center is one of about 30 labor centers around the country. (Save the Labor Center/ Facebook)

Founded in 1964, the Labor Center is one of about 30 labor centers around the country. (Save the Labor Center/ Facebook)

Austerity and the corporatization of higher education

The plight of the Labor Center is rooted in a very common problem: state divestment in public higher education. Public university systems that were once so adequately funded that they charged little-to-no in-state tuition to students have seen their state funding decline over a period of decades.

For a state as wealthy and as liberal as its reputation, Massachusetts’ divestment in its university system is particularly egregious. The state allocates some $508 million to UMass. That’s only 17 percent of the school’s $3 billion budget. And the legislature only increased state funding by 1 percent this June, which will lead to more increases in tuition and student fees.

The skyrocketing tuition and crippling student debt caused by this divestment have been well documented. What is a bit murkier is how it impacts the function of a university, as every academic discipline is forced to generate revenue. This is what critics refer to as the corporatization of higher education.

Science and engineering faculty must secure federal grants, philanthropic funding, corporate contracts and Congressional earmarks in order to gain tenure and get promoted. Those revenue sources fund an army of non-tenured research assistants, postdocs and research professors.

Law and business schools can turn to corporations and wealthy alumni for donations and endowed chairs to fund additional faculty lines. But the humanities and social sciences don’t have the same rich resources to draw upon. Their charge from administration is to drum up student enrollment, particularly for profitable master’s degree programs—hence, the pressure on the Labor Center to recruit more out-of-state students for its residential master’s program.

Labor centers are changing with the times

But not every labor center is struggling. Some, like the ones at Rutgers University and Cornell University, have deftly pursued program grants from unions and philanthropic organizations, allowing them to expand and create new institutes. Cornell’s Worker Institute is partnered with the AFL-CIO on a next generation leadership development program and convenes a workers research network, among other projects. Rutgers’ Center for Innovation in Worker Organization does leadership development work for alt-labor groups and is a key partner in Bargaining for the Common Good, among its other programs.

Bucking the state-funding trend, the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies has, according to its director, Gregory Mantsios, “received a commitment from the University to elevate the status of the Institute to a CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.” With this come more state funding and control over that money. It is the result, according to Murphy professor Stephanie Luce, of a sustained lobbying campaign by local labor leaders that labor should have a school with the same status as CUNY’s business school.

“It reflects that New York City, and the state, and CUNY have decided to invest in the labor school,” she said.

Luce, a former UMass labor professor, recently issued a report that showed that New York City has defied national trends and seen its union density increase to 25.5 percent. The NYC labor movement has both the power and the willingness to exercise it on behalf of labor education.

Another labor center that’s bucking the trend is the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. A private Jesuit university, Georgetown didn’t even have a labor center until a few years ago. They had just two labor history professors, Michael Kazin and Joseph McCartin.

Georgetown president John DeGioia sought to create a labor center at the university in 2006. He was eventually connected to the Kalmanovitz Charitable Foundation (which, ironically, was carved out of the estate whose caretakers left a deep scar in the city of Milwaukee by shuttering the unionized Pabst brewery in the mid-1990s). An influential board member, who was steeped in the Catholic social justice tradition and whose children had attended Georgetown, wanted to steer a significant grant to a labor education program in the Washington, D.C. area.

McCartin agreed to head up the new labor center, bringing the influential labor strategist Stephen Lerner along as a fellow. The modestly-funded initiative (its annual budget rarely tops $700,000) served as the incubator for Bargaining for the Common Good—a union coalition effort that aligns bargaining demands with those of other members and with community demands around progressive taxation, affordable housing, youth incarceration and government transparency.

But, if you’re wondering why Kalmanovitz is an “initiative” and not an “institute,” the charitable organization provides rolling grants—not a bequest or an annuity—which leaves the Kalmanovitz Initiative as vulnerable to the fickle priorities of a charity as the public labor centers are to the indifference of state legislators.

The future of labor education at UMass and beyond

John A. Hird, dean of social and behavioral sciences at UMass, assures In These Times, “We have no intention of allowing the ULA program to stand on its own.”

He says the university is working with the Labor Center to increase residential enrollment in both the undergraduate and graduate programs, which have declined in recent years. He sees some promise in the planned “4+1” bachelor’s/master’s program for increasing labor studies enrollment. The program would allow undergraduate students to earn graduate credit in their junior and senior years and walk away with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in just five years.

“Rest assured we are doing everything we can to further develop this jewel of a program,” Hird said about ULA.

While UMass is earnestly conducting a search for a new director of the Labor Center, Hird concedes that it is likely the position will go to an internal candidate, and not a new hire, due to the financial picture. Sources at the Labor Center say they hope their campaign might result in a commitment to hire a new tenure-track labor professor to direct the center, or, at a minimum, to win more input for Labor Center faculty and staff in the selection of its next director.

“This crisis is going to bring more attention to UMass and more of a commitment to fund it,” said Paul Mark, a Democratic state representative.

Mark was a shop steward and executive board member of his IBEW local when he was a classmate of mine at ULA. He notes that Massachusetts’ senate president is also an alum of UMass, and that the Democratic legislature is moving a plan to institute a graduated income tax in order to better fund education and transportation. You read that right, the state that Republicans love to malign as “Taxachusetts” has a constitutional flat tax. It will take two successive legislative sessions to vote on a progressive tax amendment before the matter can be put before the voters in 2018.

Mark also reports that he has sat in on strategy meetings this past weekend with Tom Juravich, who is serving as interim director of the Labor Center, and state AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman, among others, to brainstorm ways to direct more union funding and programming to the center. If the current crisis gets Massachusetts’ unions to realize that they cannot take for granted that the Labor Center will always be there, well, that is certainly a silver lining. Although, even this may not be enough. As the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s McCartin laments, “Even if you’re taking care of your labor constituents well, they don’t have the resources they once did to keep you funded.”

Many people I talked to note that the Boston area is thick with private colleges, including elite institutions like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their many graduates have moved on to careers in politics. As a result, UMass doesn’t command quite the same alumni loyalty among legislators that many other state universities do. The other intrinsic challenge for UMass that supporters will note is its physical remoteness. Most of Massachusetts’ labor movement is based in Boston, in the eastern end of the state. The beautiful flagship UMass campus is located “in the sleepy west of the woody east” of Amherst.

I happen to think that remoteness is an asset.

Most of the surviving labor centers sprang up after World War II. They were founded in the spirit of labor-management partnership, a post-war consensus that emphasized mediation, arbitration and respectable political statesmanship. This is a framework that most employers abandoned long ago. But, to this day, most unions approach the labor centers as places for shop stewards and staff representatives to learn how to handle grievances or the finer points of collective bargaining.

What our movement needs from our labor centers is to be a place where leaders, staff and rank-and-file activists, from all kinds of different unions, can get the hell away from their offices and daily grievances and meet together in a retreat-like setting and study, read, discuss and debate—and maybe come up with some potential breakthrough strategies.

A model worth revisiting is the labor colleges of the 1920s. Brookwood Labor College in upstate New York was a bucolic retreat where thoughtful activists studied and debated the big strategic questions of the day. These included how to adapt craft union structure to mass industrial production and organize key sectors of the economy.

Brookwood made a substantial, if underappreciated, contribution to the strike wave that revived labor’s fortunes in the late 1930s. Our current economic order is marked by massive inequality that some call the New Gilded Age, and our current union structures are as ill matched as those were in the 1920s to the ways industry restructured to avoid our reach. Looking backwards to that time makes sense.

We need more spaces like the UMass Labor Center to regroup and reconsider our strategic choices, not fewer. Labor centers are worth fighting for.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on September, 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

$1.3 Trillion. 42 Million People

Friday, July 1st, 2016

With the problem this big, it’s no wonder so many people are talking about student debt.

Consumer Reports has weighed in with an issue dedicated to the discussion of the student debt crisis, including an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Along with personal storiesfrom young people dealing with student debt, the report includes a wealth of useful information for current and future student loan borrowers.

For instance: Do you know which common financial product comes with more robust consumer protections: student loans or mortgages?

OK, so maybe you figured out the answer to that one pretty easily, but here’s a breakdown from our friends at Consumer Reports.

It’s important to know your rights when taking on any debt, including student loans. As the Consumer Reports poll confirms, student debt has become such a burden for many borrowers that it affects their major life decisions as well as their everyday finances.

The special report also includes an important discussion guide to help you and your family make the best decision about college and student loans. The guide includes links to excellent government and other resources and lots of information about available tools and the different things to be considered when making such an important decision.

Consumer Reports also offers an interactive chart to help you understand your repayment options and their relative costs over time so you can be more informed in your choice of repayment plan.

Student debt can be scary and confusing, and there are a lot of improvements to be made to the system, but this new report from trusted consumer advocates is an excellent resource for students, families and borrowers alike.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on June 30, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sarah Ann Lewis, esq., Senior Lead Researcher, Policy.

In the Wake of Deadly Clashes, AFL-CIO Stands with Mexican Teachers Union

Friday, June 24th, 2016

charlie fanningAt least eight protesters were killed and 53 injured earlier this week in clashes with police in Oaxaca, Mexico, during demonstrations against neoliberal education reforms. The teachers union in Oaxaca has been leading protests this summer against the federal government’s move to impose a national education plan that blankets over indigenous concerns in Oaxaca and imposes teacher evaluations that disadvantage schools in the poor region, as well as attacks against the union, including the controversial arrests of union leaders, mass firings of protesting teachers and the freezing of union bank accounts.

On Sunday, police sought to break up a blockade of protesters and violence erupted, with reports of police shooting into the crowd. The recent tragedy is another in a long line of incidents in Mexico’s ongoing human and labor rights crisis, including the 2014 disappearance and murder of 43 students from the teachers college in Ayotzinapa at the hands of local police and criminal gangs.

AFT President Randi Weingarten has called for an end to the violence and the immediate start of productive negotiations, and described the situation as “a sad commentary on human rights when a government meets union concerns with deadly force.”

 Talks have begun between union officials and the government, as teachers in Oaxaca continue their protests despite police threats. The AFL-CIO stands with teachers and their families in Oaxaca in their struggle for justice and autonomy.

Further, as the U.S. and Mexican governments continue to push for expanded trade benefits under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the AFL-CIO and Mexican unions oppose the agreement and demand that the Mexican government—and other countries with dire human and labor rights records like Vietnam and Malaysia—undertake fundamental reforms to end impunity for human rights abuses and protect freedom of speech, association and labor rights.

This article originally appeared in aflcio.org on June 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Charlie Fanning is the Global Advocacy and Research Coordinator at AFL CIO

Mindless Underfunding Of Schools Continues, Doing Harm To Kids

Monday, June 13th, 2016

Jeff BryantHigh school graduation season is in full bloom in many communities around the nation, but in some places, parents with children still in schools have to be worried about the conditions of the schools they’ll return to in the fall – or even if the schools will open at all.

As states wrap up their budget seasons, many lawmakers are proving they simply aren’t up to the task of adequately funding schools. State spending, which accounts for about half of most public school districts’ budgets, has been in steep decline for a number of years in most states, leaving most local taxing authorities, which provide about the other half, unable to keep up unless the populace is wealthy enough to withstand higher property taxes. (Federal spending accounts for less than 10 percent of school funding, historically.)

Many of these lawmakers say the problem with the nation’s education system is lack of accountability, but school kids and their teachers are being hurt by government officials not being accountable to adequately and equitably fund our schools.

In Chicago, the nation’s fourth largest school system, the district’s school chief announced schools may not open in the fall due to a budget impasse in the state capital. Separate funding bills in the state House and Senate have drawn the ire of conservative Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who would prefer to inflict on schools a program of tough love that includes a $74 million cut in funding to Chicago.

It’s not as if the city’s schools are living in the lap of luxury. Inadequate budgets have driven up class sizes in every grade way beyond the point they are officially permitted. District chief Forest Claypool has already told Chicago principals they should prepare for whopping cuts of between 20 to 40 percent to their school budgets, which will drive class sizes through the roof.

The budget impasse, according to a report from the Associated Press, imperils schools across the state. According to the AP reporter. Democrats want new taxes, “but Rauner first wants pro-business and union-weakening reforms, ideas Democrats say hurt the middle class.”

In other words, no more money for schoolchildren until teachers make sacrifices.

As Rauner was defending his miserly stance, he took a swipe at Chicago schools, comparing them to “crumbling prisons.” That set off a firestorm on Twitter, where Chicago teachers defended the good things their institutions do to provide to students despite the budget cuts.

Actually, if the schools were more like prisons, they might be more apt to get a funding increase, as Rauner has proposed a substantial increase to prison spending for 2016.

Illinois isn’t the only state hell-bent on cutting money for schools.

The Wall Street Journal reports that state lawmakers across the nation, especially in the Midwest, are at seemingly intractable odds over how “to make sure the next school year can start on time.”

In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback has called a special session of the state legislature “after the state’s supreme court last month once again ruled that the state’s funding formula is inequitable and threatened to shut off funding to the schools,” according to a report from Education Week.

The court keeps telling state lawmakers the state is not funding schools based on what they deserve, according to another EdWeek report. State Republican lawmakers have considered various ways to circumnavigate the ruling, including changing the state constitution, but Democrats siding with the court forced their hand by petitioning for the special session.

Meanwhile, schools in Kansas City, Kan., where nearly 90 percent of the students are poor, “had to cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks,” according to The Hechinger Report.

The cuts are promulgated regardless of how the schools perform. In the case of Kansas City, schools had been making “double-digit” increases in some measures of achievement prior to the financial cutbacks that started in response to economic downturns in 2008.

Hechinger quotes a district administrator, “You could see the performance begin to decline as we had to cut back on people, human resources and all kinds of things to support our students.”

In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers enacted improvements to the state funding formula, a long-standing problem in the state, but left budgets mired at levels below what is needed to make the formula meaningful. Due to the inadequacy of state funding, a statewide survey of local officials finds “at least 60 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes and nearly a third expect to cut staff,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A third of respondents said their schools will increase class sizes in the year ahead.

This time the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat leading the charge for increasing school funding, but the legislature controlled by Republicans “oppose new taxes and say the state needs to cut costs and find new funding streams.”

In Michigan, Detroit public schools will be out of money and unable to make payroll by June 30, according to a report from Reuters. House Republicans narrowly passed a bill to bail out the beleaguered school system, but Democratic leaders and the city’s mayor and teachers call the proposal a wasteful stopgap that funnels more money to charter schools while leaving the district adrift.

The big problem left unaddressed is how the state continues to underfund schools throughout the system. As a blog post from a district superintendent in the state explains, education funding in Michigan is in a 20-year decline. “This makes it impossible to provide the same level of teacher staffing, instructional materials, facilities maintenance, administration and operations,” he laments.

Outside the Midwest, “natural resource-dependent states” – such as Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia – are pulling “millions from their rainy day funds,” rather than raising taxes, to fund schools, according to Education Week. In Louisiana, the budget proposal would still leave schools in the lurch financially, leading to “teacher layoffs, cuts to programs, and cuts to the state’s department of education.”

Arizona is taking generally the same course, passing new legislation that raises education funding by raiding the state’s permanent endowment that supports stable financial resources for schools.

In Trenton, New Jersey, hundreds of teachers and school supporters rallied to protest funding cuts being proposed by the state’s conservative Republican Governor Chris Christie.

In North Carolina, conservative lawmakers are bragging about new teacher raises they just passed, but the state budget cuts millions from principal training, school Internet service, after-school programs, and a scholarship program to help fill shortages in math and science teachers.

“Can [school] districts raise expectations and improve achievement on a shoestring?” asks the author of the Hechinger article cited above. “How little money is too little for schools to function well?”

Maybe instead of cutting school funding to see how low it can go, it’s time we asked instead, “How much money for education is too much?” Indeed, without any real evidence that excess funding in the system is actually harming students and taxpayers, this continued austerity in education spending is mindless.

This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on June 10, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.

Who Needs To Reach Higher For Higher Education?

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Jeff BryantFirst Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled on Friday to provide a commencement address to the graduating class of 3,000 students at The City College of New York in Harlem. As the White House announcement states, her address has some additional historic significance in that CCNY was the first public higher education institution in New York City, “established as a free institution dedicated to overcoming barriers to advancement.”

It wouldn’t be at all surprising for the First Lady to mention this in her address, as she continues to emphasize in all her commencement speeches this year her theme of “reach higher.” TheReach Higher Initiative, according to the White House, “is the First Lady’s effort to inspire every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school.” So it would seem appropriate to recognize the monumental contribution that a free public higher education institution no doubt has had on helping multiple generations “take charge of their future.”

Unfortunately, though, CCNY hasn’t been free in 40 years. Even worse, student tuition and fees have increased dramatically in recent years, as the state continues to underfund the school since the economic downturn in 2008, while physical conditions and resources deteriorate.

As an article in The New York Times notes, at CCNY’s “handsome Gothic campus, leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts.”

The problems at City College are symptomatic of what’s happening to higher education throughout New York, where, according to the Times article, enrollment in the state’s City University system – a collection of 24 urban campuses that includes City College – has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years while funding from the state has dropped by 17 percent, adjusted for inflation.

Under the current austerity imposed by the state, another Times article explains, the CUNY system has had to raise tuition by $300 in each of the last five years and will likely continue to do so for another five years. Tuition hikes come on top of a $280 annual fee, significantly raising the financial challenge to CUNY students, more than half of who report family incomes of under $30,000.

Keep in mind this austerity has been imposed under the gubernatorial administration of Andrew Cuomo – a Democrat undermining the stated goals of a Democratic Party presidential administration. Cuomo’s plan is to reduce state funding to CUNY by $485 million, according to a report in Inside Higher Education.

Why is Cuomo intent on cutting higher education and raising tuition at the very same time government leaders are exhorting young people to take their education beyond higher school?

It’s not just Cuomo. According to a new report, most states are on par with New York or even worse in cutting their commitments to higher education. A review of the report by Hechinger Reportexplains, “States are collectively investing 17 percent less in their public colleges and universities, or $1,525 less per student, since 2007.”

While funding has been slashed, public colleges have increased published tuition prices by 33 percent since 2007.

Which states are worse than New York? According to the Times article cited at the top of this post, “Arizona is spending 56 percent less, while students are paying 88 percent more. In Louisiana, students are spending 80 percent more on tuition, while state funding has been cut by 39 percent.

Students, of course, are the ones having to take the brunt of the funding crunch by taking on more college loan debt. As Hechinger notes, from 2008 and 2014, the share of students graduating with debt from a public four-year college increased from 55 to 60 percent, while the size of the average debt load rose 18 percent. In the six years before the recession, the average debt only went up by 1 percent.

College and university faculty have taken a beating from the financial austerity, too. According to recent data, faculty positions are 76 percent more apt to be filled by part-timers than they were 40 years ago. During the same time period, the number of tenured, full-time positions has dropped by 26 percent and full-time positions on a tenure track have gone down by half.

Given these circumstances, it’s understandable why college enrollments in the nation are now in decline. Part of this decline may be attributable to increased availability of jobs, but that doesn’t change the fact that young adults forgoing a chance at a degree are also lowering their potential to have higher paying jobs later in life.

Declining enrollments are also not going to get the White House anywhere closer to its stated goal of ensuring, by 2020, that America once again has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

This Friday, Michele Obama may intend to commend City College graduates, and inspire other students, for their effort to “reach higher” in education. Let’s hope she also tells policy leaders and public officials to do the same to fund it.

This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on June 1, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.

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