As California fires rage, the rich are hiring private firefighters

In the Public Interest’s weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide. Not a subscriber? Sign up.

Education

1) National: In the Public Interest has published an updated background briefing on the best ways for communities to incorporate charter schools into their educational systems. “As educators, elected officials, and communities struggle to develop policies to strengthen and improve our education system, the role of charter schools has become a major issue. Too often the debate is fueled by outlandish claims, emotionally charged language, and vague promises. Developing sound policy should be based on facts and actual oversight and regulatory experiences.”

2) National: A top official in Betsy DeVos education department, A. Wayne Johnson, is to resign and call for student loan forgiveness. “‘We run through the process of putting this debt burden on somebody…but it rides on their credit files—it rides on their back—for decades,’ he said, adding, ‘The time has come for us to end and stop the insanity.’ Mr. Johnson said he arrived at his position to cancel student debt after he joined the administration and had a firsthand look at problems, including the high level of defaults and the difficulties of administering a program to erase loans for public sector workers. (…) Mr. Johnson proposes forgiving up to $50,000 for anyone with federal student-loan debt, about $925 billion, he said. Nearly 37 million borrowers would have their entire student-loan balances canceled under the plan, he said. He would also advocate for a tax credit of up to $50,000 for people who already repaid student debt, which he sees as key to attracting wider support for canceling student debt.” [Sub required]

3) National: A federal judge has tacitly threatened to lock up Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos “for her ongoing failure (or refusal) to comply with court orders in a student loan case. (…) Consumer advocates filed suit against her and the Department, and they won. As part of the 2018 court ruling on the collapse of for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges, the federal judge ordered DeVos and the Department of Education to cease all collections activities on federal student loans used to attend Corinthian schools, given that they would likely be eligible for discharge under Borrower Defense to Repayment. DeVos ignored the ruling, and the Department of Education continued to pursue defaulted former Corinthian students. The Department continued to garnish people’s wages and intercept their federal tax refunds, depriving them of critical sources of income in direct violation of the 2018 court order. (…) An attorney for the Department of Education told Judge Kim that they would comply with the original court order. In the meantime, the Department has finalized a second rewrite of the Borrower Defense to Repayment rules, which would—again—significantly weaken the program.” 

4) National: Elizabeth Warren has released her plan for how to “stop the privatization and corruption of our public education system.” The plan was met with howls of protest from charter school supporters. Shawgi Tell, author of the book Charter School Report Cardgave them a sharp response. “The situation has become so absurd that beleaguered parents increasingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Parents are increasingly confronted with two bad choices: either enroll in a privately-operated charter school that is segregated, deunionized, and riddled with other serious problems highlighted daily by many newspapers, or enroll in a public school that the neoliberal state that created privately-operated charter schools has spent years deliberately starving, demonizing, over-testing, punishing, and privatizing.”

5) Arizona: KJZZ’s Steve Goldstein was joined by Arizona Republic investigative reporter Craig Harris to discuss “reports that new financial records show that an East Valley charter school chain, American Leadership Academy, paid over $45 million to companies owned by its founder, Glenn Way, or one of his relatives. Last year, an investigation showed that Way profited about $37 million in real estate deals connected with American Leadership Academy expansion schools.” [Audio, about five minutes]

6) Arkansas: The intrepid Cathy Frye has posted a new installment in her series on charter schools in Arkansas—this time providing a Who’s Who in the sector. “So let’s meet the Arkansas players. Starting with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, we’re going to look at its three boards: the Policy Board, the Charter School Advisory Board and the Rural Districts Advisory Board. The boards meet quarterly. Before each meeting, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith requires that his loyal assistant (and resident spy)—office manager Lisa Walters—draft agendas for the three meetings. Once those agendas are in play, APSRC team leaders are required to attend at least two executive meetings to go over what will be said—or not said—during each meeting.” While traditional rural public school superintendents may think they are safe from charterization, says Frye, that’s “not true. The Waltons aren’t looking to infiltrate districts with the goal of opening new charter schools. The Waltons—and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with the full support of Trump and the Republican party – want to do away with public education altogether.”

7) California: Mark Powell, a member of the San Diego County Board of Education, says the state’s new charter school laws could trigger a voucher initiative. “Without a viable charter school alternative, the likelihood of passing a school voucher proposal is high. If a voucher program passes, and polling indicates that it could, the result could shape the future relationship between public and private schools in California for decades to come.”

8) CaliforniaMontebello Unified has rejected a charter school for a third time. “Kaiven Yuen, assistant superintendent of educational services, listed numerous reasons for recommending the board deny the request, including: The school has no location in the district. The plan lacks details about its curriculum. There are no state-required physical education classes. The school will offer only three College Board-approved AP classes.” 

9) CaliforniaLegal jockeying over the merger of two Marin County schools, one a traditional school and the other a charter, is continuing. “As to structure, will the new school be a traditional public school like Bayside MLK or some version of charter school? Willow Creek is a charter authorized by the district and so it receives state public school funding administered through the district. Legal opinions from the two schools are not yet in alignment, so a third, independent legal memo is being sought, according to Garcia.”

10) IllinoisChicago’s citywide teacher strike spread to charter schools last week, and the charter teachers won their demands. “This is the first time that district and charter teachers have struck simultaneously in Chicago, an occasion marked by high energy and a raucous chorus of ‘Solidarity Forever’ on the picket line. The city’s unionized charter teachers all belong to CTU, which represents 25,000 CPS teachers and support staff, following a merger last year. Members of the Association of Flight Attendants’ Master Executive Council, which represents United Airlines workers preparing to negotiate a new contract, also joined the group. ‘We feel really powerful today,’ Kady Pagano, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Passages who is on the union’s negotiating team, told In These Times. This is Pagano’s first time on strike, after teaching last year at a non-union community center. ‘The difference is night and day,’ she said.” 

Among the victories for charter teachers are “big wins on paraprofessional pay and rights as well as grievable protections for special education minutes and support. Bold action made these wins possible. When Passages educators learned that the charter operator was holding a fundraising gala Thursday, they threatened to confront donors with conditions in the school, forcing management to cancel the high-ticket gala. That direct action got the goods. Watch their video message to all their CTU family on YouTube.”

11) IndianaAuditors are questioning the long-term financial viability of an East Chicago charter school. “Specifically, auditors found that as of June 30, 2019, the school was liable for $665,335 in payments to creditors and other expenses, primarily the $308,000 needed to cover teacher payroll during the 2019-20 school year. However, auditors said the school only had $128,531 in current assets to cover those costs, with the bulk of those assets in grants receivable and prepaid expenses. The school had just $13,829 in cash on June 30, according to the audit.”

12) New Jersey: Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum reports that political spending by a charter school pressure group is targeting elections across the country. “The political arm of The City Fund, the organization with ambitions to spread charter schools and the ‘portfolio model’ of school reform across the country, plans to spend $15 million to influence state and local elections over the next three years. That political group, known as Public School Allies, has already directed money toward to school board races in Atlanta, Camden, Newark, and St. Louis, and state elections in Louisiana, Georgia, and New Jersey. Donations have ranged from $1 million to as little as $1,500.” 

13) North Carolina/National/Think tanks: Dana N. Thompson of the University of Pittsburgh and Gwen D. Roulhac of the University of North Carolina have published a study, “From Desegregation to Privatization: A Critical Race Policy Analysis of School Choice and Educational Opportunity in North Carolina,” in the Peabody Journal of Education. 

“School choice policies and the movement to privatize education have become the currently preferred school reform methods on both the state and federal levels under the guise they will provide equal educational opportunities and access for all students. The 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education arguably paved the way for equal educational opportunities, including school choice; however, we contend that the present-day school choice and privatization movements may be a part of a larger social, political, and legal cycle of inequality that has established residence in the American educational system for more than a century. We conduct a critical race theory policy analysis using a framework that has been effective in previous work with examining cyclical inequalities, the convergence-divergence-reclamation cycle (or C-D-R cycle). 

In this article, we are focusing our analysis on the state of North Carolina due to its complex legal and political history with school desegregation and its recent support for various school choice options and privatizing public education. We assert that the push for school choice and privatizing public education in North Carolina demonstrates a broader, recurring problem in American public schools-–creating progressive education laws and policies appearing to promote educational equity and opportunity and then regressing to policies supporting White privilege while maintaining the status quo of inequitable educational opportunities for historically underserved and minoritized students.” [Sub required]

14) Pennsylvania: The Coatesville Area School District “is facing a potential budget shortfall of $9.2 million, meaning taxpayers could see up to an 11.8% tax increase,” Interim Superintendent Rick Dunlap Jr. says. “The information is bleak,” said Dunlap as he and Charles Linderman, interim business manager, offered the school board and citizens a first look at a draft $189 million budget they say is negatively impacted by charter school enrollment costs. “Legislators need to fix that,” Linderman said.

15) Tennessee: After last month’s protests by parents and students, a Memphis charter school could be forced to close in a matter of weeks. See this slide show by the Shelby County school board outlining the reasons for closing Southwest Early College High School. Among the issues: “At the time of the investigation, documentation from SECH and PowerSchool showed that three classes did not have licensed teachers; Going into fall break, documentation from SECH and PowerSchool showed that seven classes did not have licensed teachers.” The report also says “Southwest Early College High is responsible for hiring all teachers for non college classes (primarily 9th and 10th grade). 60% of those teachers are unlicensed or teaching without a waiver.” The board also found that the school provided “inadequate special education services.” The board will hold a grievance meeting over the charter school today and a business meeting tomorrow.

Infrastructure

16) California: In the wake of disastrous wildfires, some of which were set off by PG&E’s faulty infrastructure and corporate mismanagement, UC Merced’s Charlie Eaton warns against selling off the massive bankrupt utility to Wall Street. “PG&E’s latest failure illustrates that markets—and how well they work for consumers — always depend on state regulation. For this reason, California must use the crisis to deeply reform its utility regulations. A critical regulatory choice for any market is the allowed forms of ownership for organizations that sell goods in the market. California’s courts, lawmakers and regulators are confronting this very issue as PG&E seeks to emerge from a bankruptcy that stems from its responsibility for recent wildfire catastrophes. The specific questions are: Who will own PG&E? How much control will regulators give them? And how much profit can owners extract from the utility? Any changes to PG&E’s ownership will have big consequences for consumers and communities as California tries to transition to a carbon-neutral power grid. So, policymakers should take into consideration the latest social science on how the form of ownership will affect both consumers and society. The first big lesson from recent research is about who should not be allowed to own PG&E—namely Wall Street. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other policy players should take every step necessary to block a consortium of 24 private equity and hedge funds that are currently attempting a hostile takeover of PG&E. Why?” 

Many complicated proposals on what to do with PG&E have emerged or are in the process of being studied, but bankruptcy law requires that plans of reorganization cannot be confirmed unless they can show that the entity that will emerge is financially stable. There is a June 30 deadline to exit bankruptcy, which if not met means all options are on the table. [Subs required]. UC Hastings Prof. Jared Ellias’s feed is a good place to keep up with developments.

As Californians debate the various proposals, it’s worthwhile reflecting on economist John Quiggen’s case for renationalizing Australia’s electricity grid.

17) MarylandChanges in reporting requirement for “public-private partnerships” could affect the state’s credit rating. “The changes possibly several years off could require state and local governments to count public-private partnerships for projects for roads and even school construction as debt. (…) Concern about the issue is not new. In 2016, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who chairs the state’s Capital Debt Affordability Committee, raised concerns about the funding of the Purple Line transportation system. ‘We don’t know what (the Governmental Accounting Standards Board) is going to decide on the P3 yet, that’s the short of it,’ said Kopp at the time. Rating agencies three years ago raised questions about the Purple Line project and expressed concerns about how payments would be made if ridership fell below anticipated projections.” [Sub required]. GASB is scheduled to “Review ballot draft of a final Statement and consider for approval” in March 2020.

18) WashingtonWall Street is spending millions of dollars to buy up the state’s water, the Seattle Times reports. “Some critics fear business models like Crown’s could lead to speculation or consolidation. ‘We’re potentially allowing a marketplace to develop here that could be pretty destructive in the future,’ said Paul Jewell, a policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties. ‘With a growing population and growing need for water, we’re going to be beholden to private interests with a profit motive for something that’s supposed to be a public resource.’”

19) International: Bill Purkis says “privatization of Ontario’s electricity system, AKA Greed Energy, (See: http://savethebalafalls.com) is screwing taxpayers with extreme prejudice! Price rises while demand falls?!” See the graph.

Criminal Justice and Immigration

20) National: Under widespread criticism and intense pressure by opponents of profiteering from incarceration and immigrant detention, the largest private prison companies have responded by backing a PR effort led by a veteran Republican operative to take on their critics. “The Day 1 Alliance announced its formation Friday. Tennessee-based CoreCivic will provide the group’s initial funding. Florida-based The GEO Group and Utah-based Management & Training Corporation will join in leadership roles.” The Day 1 Alliance is headed by Alexandra Wilkes, a former senior vice president at America Rising Corp. and executive director of America Rising PAC. For a detailed account of the America Rising family of organizations, see DeSmogblog’s report, “America Rising LLC | PAC | America Rising Squared | Definers Public Affairs.” 

21) National: CoreCivic announces that it will release its third quarter financial results on November 6 and hold a conference call the following day. The GEO Group has announced that it will release its third quarter financial results before market open on November 5 and then hold a conference call at 11am Eastern. Management & Training Corporation (MTC), another large for-profit operator of prisons, is a private company and does not publically release financial data or hold public conference calls.

22) National/South Carolina: At a forum on criminal justice reform in Columbia over the weekend, Democratic presidential candidates took aim at President Trump’s receipt of an award for his signing of a sentencing reform bill. “It’s not just his words that have given rise to hate,” Joe Biden said. “His actions—his actions—have failed the African American community, and all communities.” Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for the banning of private prisons, and Reuters reports that Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, O’Rourke, Gabbard, Steyer, and Castro have all pledged to do so as well. 

23) Revolving Door News: After working for 25 years at the federal Bureau of Prisons, Teri Gregory has joined Corizon Health as vice president of operations for the state of Kansas

Public Services

24) National: In an in-depth article, the New York Times reports on how months before the deadly 737 crashes, Boeing lobbied to weaken public regulation. “With a few short paragraphs tucked into 463 pages of legislation last year, Boeing scored one of its biggest lobbying wins: a law that undercuts the government’s role in approving the design of new airplanes. For years, the government had been handing over more responsibility to manufacturers as a way to reduce bureaucracy. But those paragraphs cemented the industry’s power, allowing manufacturers to challenge regulators over safety disputes and making it difficult for the government to usurp companies’ authority.”

25) National: Writing in Outside online, Frederick Reimers says that “a controversial advisory panel for the Interior Department has outlined a plan to privatize national-park campgrounds, allow commercialized services such as Wi-Fi and food trucks, and limit benefits for seniors. Critics fear that the plan will create financial barriers to entry by upping fees and erode the visitor experience by increasing crowding and noise pollution. Unsurprisingly, it represents yet another step toward public-lands privatization and an attempt to enrich the current administration’s cronies.”

26) National: A GAO report released last week says that federal land management employees were threatened or assaulted 360 times in recent years. “The majority of these investigations involved BLM and individuals motivated by anti-government ideologies. (…) One domestic terrorism threat to federal land management agencies and employees involves anti-government extremism, in part because agency employees are often the most visible representatives of the federal government in some rural western communities. (…) A 2014 Department of Homeland Security report predicted that the rate of violent domestic extremist incidents motivated by anti-government ideology would increase in the coming years, with a focus on several targets, including government facilities and personnel.”

27) CaliforniaWhile California fires rage, the rich are hiring private firefighters, the New York Times reports. “You can now add firefighting to the list of the ways that the wealthy are different from the rest of the world. The rich aren’t fighting their own fires, for the most part. But they are hiring private firms to supplement the firefighters provided by state and local governments. These teams, depending on who you ask, are either part of the dystopian systemic inequality in fire-ravaged California or are offering an extra, necessary service beyond what public agencies can provide.” Don Holter, an owner of Mt. Adams Wildfire, a private contractor in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Sacramento, says “it’s not who you are, it’s who you know.”

28) Texas: Priscilla Donovan, who worked for Library Systems and Services (LSSI) as director of the Leander Public Library, has lost her job following a second attempt to host a Pride Story Time on October 12.  “Leander Public Library has been under the spotlight this year, after a drag queen story time event planned for the library was canceled in May. Following the cancellation, Open Cathedral Church in Leander rented spaced at the library to host a family pride festival and storytime, which attracted hundreds of protestors and supporters. Then in August, Leander City Council voted to end room rentals at the library and require background checks for outside presenters involved with programming geared toward children 17 and younger.” 

29) Virginia/DCAmalgamated Transit Union contract workers at WMATA’s privatized Cinder Bed Bus Garage have gone on strike. “The first privately operated WMATA bus garage in more than 40 years, Cinder Bed is managed by Transdev, a French multinational corporation that specializes in taking over public transportation systems and slashing wages and benefits. Transdev bus operators and maintenance workers at Cinder Bed have been repeatedly subject to illegal surveillance of peaceful picket actions which have made reaching a fair contract for these workers impossible.” ATU reports that “workers at Cinder Bed Road are demanding that they receive the same pay and benefits that other regional bus operators make. The Local 689 members at Cinder Bed drive the same routes, on the same roads, with the same buses as WMATA, but they earn $12 per hour less than other operators in the region just because they work for a private contractor.” 

ATU International President John Costa said “these workers are toiling at far lower hourly wages than their public sector MetroBus counterparts despite driving the same vehicles on the same routes,” Costa said“the Cinder Bed workers have walked off the job because they’ve had enough.” ATU’s Brian Wivell said “this is bigger than just one bus garage. Transdev is just one of many examples of failed privatization in the region.”

30) International: French President Emmanuel Macron has nominated Thierry Breton to become France’s European Union commissioner. Breton heads the giant outsourcing firm Atos, “which holds billions in UK government contracts, has a controversial reputation in Britain. The firm became the subject of protests while it ran disability benefits assessments for the DWP: a contract it quit early in 2014 after more than 600,000 appeals were lodged against its decisions. Four in 10 of Atos assessors’ original decision were overturned, costing taxpayers £60 million a year.”

Odds and Ends

31) National: Science magazine reports that private incentives can have damaging effects on fisheries and the oceans. “Studies have warned that shifting responsibility for environmental outcomes into the incentivizing control of investment finance might be detrimental and lead to adverse effects on small-scale fisheries through privatization and ocean grabbing. On the other hand, if the financial sector was to better recognize how ecological risks translate into financial risks, opportunities for mainstreaming sustainability into seafood-related financial decisions could emerge.”

32) National: Marta Bautista Forcada of the Women, Peace and Security Program at the International Peace Institute (IPI) says the privatization of war is “a new challenge for the women, peace, and security agenda.” She writes, “since the end of the Cold War, the outsourcing of military and security by armed forces activities has shifted from the exception to the rule. Moreover, this growth goes hand in hand with a regulatory gap around PMSCs and their activities which makes it challenging to hold private contractors accountable to human rights standards. As PMSCs take on more significant roles and are being deployed in greater numbers in conflict contexts, those working for the implementation of the WPS agenda should include this reality in their work, recognizing it as an emerging challenge to international peace and security.”

33) National: BB&E, a consulting company, is looking for a journeyman engineer or project manager to assist in utility privatization efforts for the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph AFB in Texas.

34) National: Katherine H. Wheatley, an attorney, raises an interesting question in a letter to the Washington Post. “One aspect of the outsourcing of U.S. foreign policy to private citizens such as Rudolph W. Giuliani has, I think, been overlooked. It is that these private ‘diplomats’ are not required—or even able—to comply with the Federal Records Act, which requires all substantive governmental documents to be retained for transfer to the National Archives so the American people can eventually know what our government did. Mr. Giuliani presumably does not have a government computer or cellphone or a government email account. So all of his communications with foreign governments purportedly on behalf of the United States are not captured by any government system.”

35) Florida: What would happen to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg if the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team leaves the city in 2027? “At 86 acres, more than 27 square blocks, it could double the size of downtown to the southwest.” Discussion is beginning among candidates in the upcoming Nov. 5 city council elections. “Incumbent council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman advocates for establishing a ‘community-benefit agreement,’ by which a portion of money raised off the development of the land could be reinvested into affordable housing in the southern neighborhoods. It would work like a community redevelopment area, she said, which reinvests funds raised in an area back into that area. Except in this case, funds raised by redevelopment would benefit the surrounding neighborhoods.”

As California fires rage, the rich are hiringprivate firefighters

36) Massachusetts: As fires and explosions spread across three towns, this is how local governments worked together to respond. “Working together, the communities coordinated with the state to shut down electricity to broad sections of the community to minimize the risk of further fires, and evacuated residents from neighborhoods across the region. The request to leave was tricky, officials said, because they could not immediately identify which areas were most at risk and also had no timeline to offer residents for when it might be safe to return home.”

37) Pennsylvania: A teenager, Lilly Minor, needed a tampon. When her school didn’t have one, she called her legislator. “Together, the two crafted Lilly’s Bill, a proposal that would require public schools (including charter schools) in Pennsylvania to provide free menstrual hygiene products in every bathroom accessed by female students in grades six through 12. Specifically, schools would need to provide a choice of at least two sizes of sanitary pads and a choice of at least two sizes of tampons.” The bill awaits a hearing before the House education committee. “Menstrual equity is an issue that’s not often talked about because a lot of people find it kind of icky, and that’s a really unfortunate thing, because it’s a completely natural process that’s been happening as long as women have existed,” Minor said.