Houston public schools fight back against state takeover: “This seems almost akin to a political coup”

Here’s our weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide. Not a subscriber? Sign up.

Education

1) National: Education secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed “handing over the federal government’s $1.5 trillion student loan portfolio to a ‘stand-alone government corporation,’ a move observers condemned as a corrupt ploy to strip the next president of the ability to cancel student loan debt. ‘This very much appears to be a Betsy DeVos scheme to block the next president from unilaterally forgiving federal student debt, which she is well aware a president could do without Congress,’ The Intercept’s Ryan Grim wrote in a series of tweets late Wednesday. ‘The DeVos family is heavily invested in the student loan industry and this is just flat-out corruption.’” Administration officials are exasperated by DeVos’ failure to come up with a credible plan to counter Democratic proposals for student debt relief, reports the Washington Post.

2) National: Far more students of Corinthian Colleges—the failed private, for-profit “education” company—faced debt collection than has been previously reported. “Attorneys for the borrowers are livid over the department’s latest revelation, with lawyers continuing to receive stories from former Corinthian students about how the collection has affected their lives. Some who lost wages said they were forced to borrow money from family or cover basic expenses with high-interest credit cards, had utilities cut off or faced eviction.”

3) National: How much do families and students know about the financial stability of the private colleges they may be considering? “Private colleges shut down a list that projected when specific private colleges could run out of money and close.” Inside Higher Ed has the details. “Inside Higher Ed had planned to write about the projections, but the company’s decision changed that plan, too. The goal was to foster an open discussion about what has become an elephant in the room for higher education: Which financially stressed colleges are likely to shut down, and what can be done to protect students and taxpayers from abrupt closures? ‘At this point, there’s zero consumer protection like this. And I don’t think that’s the optimal amount,’ said Doug Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University. ‘If a school goes under, it’s really bad for the students.’”

4) National: “Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic presidential candidates are rejecting the Obama administration’s embrace of charter schools, and media observers aren’t taking kindly to it,” writes Julie Hollar, senior analyst for FAIR’s Election Focus 2020 project, in How Media Turn Support for Public Schools Into Opposition to Children of Color.

5) NationalEducation privatization was a significant feature of the December 4-6 “States and Nation Policy Summit” of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right wing bill mill. The speakers were “all significant players in the privatization push, including Matt Beienburg, Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute; Matthew Ladner, Senior Research Strategist for the Arizona Chamber Foundation; Emily Sass, Policy Director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Innovation in Education; Becky Hill with Charles Koch’s Yes Every Kid; and Katherine Bathgate, CEO and co-founder of the school privatization spin machine SchoolForward.” 

6) ArkansasTom Ultican has scoped out the well funded school privatization network in Arkansas and its drive to take over the Little Rock school district. “Little Rock is fighting against a long history of white supremacy and racism. January 2020 could be a pivotal time for throwing off the yoke of discrimination. Having children of both financial and racial disparities integrated into the same school is best for all students rich, poor, black, brown or white. Democracy is the path of American governance that made it the world’s leading country and oligarchs opposing that path must be stopped. Will Arkansas embrace the light of locally controlled public education or the darkness of racism and white supremacy?” [Little Sis Map Showing Leaders of the Attack on LRSD]. Commenting on a story in the Arkansas Times, Vanessa says “It’s not Little Rock, and it’s not the same, but the big white money seems to want Houston, too.” (See below for more)

7) Connecticut: Controversy has broken out over a plan to use a “public-private partnership” to replace six Stamford public schools. “My problem is accountability and negligence,” said parent Andre Labrosciano. “I don’t mind paying taxes if they’re going to go into our infrastructure and things are going to get better.” [Sub required; the story is behind a paywall at the Stamford Advocate, unlike a lengthy boosterish piece it published on Friday]. See the plan here. The school board has questioned the viability of the plan before.

American Schools and Universities reports that “an earlier proposal called for private owners to construct new school facilities on their land, primarily unused corporate parks. The new plan would not place school facilities permanently on corporate land, but would still give private developers a role in constructing the new school buildings. Under the revised plan, the city would sell its school land for the specific sites to a private party for one dollar. The private developer would demolish the existing school and build a new facility that it would lease back to the city for a 45 to 90 years, after which ownership of the land and buildings would revert to the city.”

@Joe_Hutch, a Stamford journalist and trade unionist, says “‘Public-Private Partnerships’ are a bad deal for working people– As a union member and Stamford resident I oppose the privatization of Stamford schools.”

8) Iowa: State Senator Joseph Bolkcom (D) says that a rushed plan to privatize the electricity and water systems of the University of Iowa is dangerously risky and has not been subjected to rigorous public scrutiny. “Like a hedge fund, the University of Iowa will invest this borrowed money in the markets, in hopes of realizing large capital gains to both payback the borrowed money to the investors and realize a financial gain to fund the University. Like a home mortgage, every dollar that the University receives in an upfront payment will have to be paid back with interest over the next 50-years. Exotic and possibly risky financing with international investors’ money is the latest plan by Governor Reynolds, the Board of Regents and university leaders to support educating our Iowa college students. The plan relies on the performance of the markets to succeed. If for some reason the University can’t pay back the money, Iowa taxpayers will.”

The Gazette reports that “early in its exploration of a potential public-private partnership, the UI hired a trio of consultants without soliciting public bids. Officials defended their hire of a law firm, engineer and Wells Fargo—without searching publicly—by citing the unique nature of the endeavor.” Randy Evans, executive director with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the “ongoing secrecy about this proposal is extraordinarily troubling.”

Tomorrow the “Iowa Board of Regents will publicly release the name of the top bidder for the contract and the amounts bid. University of Iowa officials recommend the board vote on the contract that same day.” 

9) Texas: The Houston Independent School District has filed suit to block a state takeover. “Houston ISD’s larger argument is that by seizing power from its elected school board, the state would yank voting rights from its voters in a school district with a majority of students of color. That argument rests on Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices and was successfully used to force at-large city councils and school boards to switch to single-member systems. Most recently, lawyers in those cases across Texas have proven that the election system dilutes the voting power of a minority group.”

Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 6,500 HISD employees, told the Texas Observer “this seems more like a power grab and almost akin to a political coup than a political governance system.” The HFT has filed a lawsuit “stating the proposed state takeover of the Houston Independent School District is unconstitutional under U.S. and Texas law because it disenfranchises and discriminates against people based on race and national origin.” 

10) West Virginia: After the state made public community colleges free, enrollment has spiked. “In another bright spot, the overall number of high-schoolers taking courses through the nine public community colleges surged 27 percent. The number increased from about 430 to 1,000 at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. ‘We’ve actually gone out and deliberately built, throughout our main catchment area, deliberate relationships with principals and guidance counselors,’ WVU-Parkersburg President Chris Gilmer said. He said the school is using seven early-college models.”

Infrastructure

11) National: “Why is our public infrastructure such a consistent national disgrace? Why can we make no progress in creating the infrastructure we need for the next 100 years?” Writing in the American Prospect, Prof. Robert E. Paaswell proposes fundamental changes to how the United States approaches the problem of fixing its crumbling infrastructure and preparing to meet future needs. “The federal government was once the single most impactful component of our infrastructure systems. Our history shows that it alone has the resources and the mandate to address the sweeping national challenge of building a system to carry us into the next century. Public accountability, access, and democratic values demand that this be a fully public initiative. Many of the current policies, procedures, and programs have been layered onto what is essentially a mid-20th-century framework. A new government, pledged to address 21st-century environmental, economic, and social needs, can make a fast and fresh start with forward-facing resources and policies.”

12) National: A federal case to watch. Are tolls state taxes? The legal picture has become less clear after a U.S. appeals court ruling backed truckers in a legal fight against tolls. The eventual outcome of the case could affect public financing of infrastructure, and also possibly affect “public-private partnerships” whose public subsidies often rely on tolling. 

13) California: Spencer Custodio of the Voice of OC, who has been covering the issues surrounding a possible deal to sell Angel Stadium and its surrounding land to private interests, asks if Anaheim Council members knew about the stadium sale proposal beforehand. “After months of official silence on the future of Angel Stadium, Anaheim officials are now gearing up to quickly sell the stadium facility and the 153-acres around it to a development company that includes the owner of the LA Angels, with a special public hearing on the sale now scheduled for Dec. 20. The speed and secrecy of the process has one Councilman convinced his colleagues knew about the deal ahead of time. ‘Let’s just say that, it’s very rare that I’ve come into situations, even among like-minded people, that no questions are asked or other options are pushed,’ said Councilman Jose Moreno Wednesday. No other Councilmembers, including Mayor Harry Sidhu, returned calls for comment.”

14) Illinois: It’s the gift that keeps on giving—to financial investors. Tolls are going up again on the privatized Chicago Skyway. “The lease runs for 99 years and allows the operator to increase tolls on the road, which was built by the city in 1958 to connect the Dan Ryan Expy. to the Indiana Toll Road.”

15) Maryland: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s ambitious plan to push through what would be the largest road “public-private partnership” in the country has been delayed. “Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) had asked Hogan on Monday to delay Wednesday’s vote by the Board of Public Works. Franchot said he was concerned that changes proposed by the Maryland Department of Transportation ‘would substantially broaden and accelerate’ the plan that he had agreed to in June.” Franchot (D), considered the swing vote on the Board of Public Works, is reportedly considering a gubernatorial bid 2022.

Montgomery County officials have been frustrated by the lack of details and basic transportation data regarding the proposal, and the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition has called Hogan’s planed project “a license to loot the state treasury.”

“This issue is one with far-reaching ramifications for the mobility, economy and livability of the entire National Capital Region,” Franchot said. “It will, furthermore, establish transportation policy precedents that will affect how we build highway and transit infrastructure throughout Maryland for many years to come. I believe that all of us—and most importantly, the public—will benefit from this additional time for critical review, questions and input.” The item was moved to the panel’s final meeting of the year, Dec. 18.

16) Missouri: The battle over efforts to privatize Lambert Airport is getting more intense. On Wednesday, members of the Airport Commission grilled a top aide to Mayor Lyda Krewson on the deal. “Three commissioners complained to Linda Martinez, deputy mayor for development, that the panel has been left out of the process of considering whether to privatize the city-owned facility. ‘What is the value of this commission if we really don’t have a vote on it?’ asked commissioner Jack Stelzer, a former 8th Ward Democratic committeeman. Lee Kling, the son of the late business executive and longtime Democratic Party leader S. Lee Kling, said ‘we have been in the dark, forever.’”

Columnist Tony Messenger reports commissioners were tough on the privatization proposal: “‘Where’s the risk analysis?’ asked John Gaal, a retired Carpenters Union official. ‘Is this even a good idea?’ asked another commissioner. ‘What happens if (things go wrong)?’ asked Sean Fitzgerald, a vice president at Enterprise Holdings. ‘This is what businesses do,’ he added, saying that a risk assessment should have been one of the first tasks of the airport working group and its passel of well-paid advisers.” U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D), St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green and 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer, among other legislators, have called for a public vote

So what’s on tap? A bill amending the city charter to require a public vote, and a lawsuit by the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project

17) Montana: “Another Republican utility disaster [is] headed our way,” columnist George Ochenski writes in the Missoulian. “Twenty years ago Montana’s Republicans enacted the worst and most costly public policy decision in the state’s history. Overwhelming Republican majorities in the state legislature and Republican Gov. Marc Racicot colluded to launch a very complex bill hundreds of pages long near the very end of the legislative session that would overturn the historic regulation of monopoly public utilities in favor of what they called ‘consumer choice.’ Now, with Colstrip’s coal-fired power plants closing much earlier than predicted due to coal’s economic disadvantage against natural gas, wind and solar electricity production, Montana’s all-Republican Montana Public Service Commission is about to allow another corporate-friendly, consumer-disastrous decision that will offload hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to consumers, some of whom will never use the power for which they will be charged.”

18) New Jersey: Food & Water Action New Jersey Director Matt Smith calls a bill in the state legislature an assault on accountable and transparent democracy. “The greedy private water industry, bolstered by allies like Senator Sarlo, wants to get its hands on more publicly-owned wastewater systems,” says Smith. “But they know that in order to do that, they need to gut our democratic processes and upend voters’ right to decide the future of these essential assets. This bill will remove the public’s ability to control the resources that belong to them. The industry sees easy profits to be made in buying up water and sewer systems and jacking up rates on families and local businesses.” 

19) Puerto Rico: A delegation of Puerto Rican officials have travelled to Miami to try and iron out concerns over a “public-private partnership” to develop the cruise ports in Old San Juan. “The meeting intends to forward the discussion regarding concerns over the public-private partnership (p3) underway to set forth infrastructural improvements to the cruise ports in Old San Juan—a task that will be delegated to Global Ports Holding. Royal Caribbean was reportedly concerned over the p3, foreboding higher capital and loan costs. (…) ‘I have let them know that we remain open to dialogue and that within the rigorous parameters established in Act 29-2009 (Public-Private Partnership Act), we will listen to their input so that this project—whose intention is to improve the conditions of our facilities for the welfare of the tourism sector—does not become an object of major differences,’ [Governor Wanda Vázquez] added in the missive.”

20) Virginia: The community colleges state board is looking into establishing a DBFOM “public-private partnership” with real estate developers to build student housing. “Board member Peggy Layne also asked—if there’s a clear demand for additional housing near community colleges—why haven’t private real estate developers already stepped forward to meet the need?”

21) InternationalA national petition in France pushed by groups wanting to block airport privatization is gaining ground. The petition calling “for a referendum on the possible privatization of French airports operator ADP has attracted more than one million signatures, still far off the threshold needed to trigger a vote but piling pressure on the government’s plans.” 

Criminal Justice and Immigration

22) National: There is still no action on reported abuses at the Stewart Detention Center, which CoreCivic operates for financial profit. “At the heart of the detainees’ protest is a claim that they are in prolonged detention and denied bond or parole, even when they qualify for those benefits. The denials of these rights appear to be part of a national trend, said Michael Tan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who is currently challenging the ongoing confinement on behalf of detainees under the jurisdiction of ICE field offices in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia and San Antonio.”

23) National: McKinsey, the global consulting corporation, reportedly helped the Trump administration detain and deport immigrants, and “proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care and supervision of detainees, according to interviews with people who worked on the project for both ICE and McKinsey and 1,500 pages of documents obtained from the agency after ProPublica filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.”

24) National: Law professor and author César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández envisions a world without immigrant prisons. “History is key to the author’s core thesis that migrant prisons are both historically contingent and entirely unnecessary. If we wanted, newly arrived migrants and others facing potential deportation could be allowed to live freely with their families or in nonprofit shelters. It’s been the case and could be again. But dismantling the detention system will require battling a nasty tangle of entrenched economic interests, racism, and uncreative thinking.”

25) Arizona: State Rep. Diego Rodriguez (D) has introduced a bill to end the private healthcare mandate for prisons. “‘We all know that the normal sales pitch for privatization of a public function is that it’s supposed to be more efficient and save money,’ he said. But Rodriguez says a recent report commissioned by a federal judge in the Parsons v. Ryan prison health care settlement, combined with testimony he’s heard in the House Judiciary Committee and ad hoc committee on earned credits, has convinced him the promises of privatization have been broken.”

Public Services

26) National: A petition to stop the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service has garnered over 60,000 signatures. The petition is sponsored by Progress America, AFL-CIO, The Alliance fir Retired Americans, Daily Kos, Other 98%, People for the American Way, Social Security Works, and CREDO Action. 

27) National: “Weather is big business. And that could be trouble for the public,” writes Andrew Freedman in the Washington Post. “Private weather forecasting is a $7 billion industry (and growing), according to a 2017 National Weather Service study. It’s also increasingly testing the federal government’s hold on weather data and warnings. Those pressures are expected to grow as forecasting moves into environmental prediction, such as anticipating harmful algal blooms and dengue virus outbreaks. The Trump administration has so far shown little inclination to make sure government agencies stay ahead of private competition.”

28) NationalAndrea Witte, the Connect The Dots Lady, has put up a series of 41 slides on the American healthcare system. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t like private insurance companies.

29) National: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has released a $150 billion plan to support universal broadband as a public service. The plan includes requiring all providers to “offer a Basic Internet Plan that provides quality broadband speeds at an affordable price.”

30) California: An Escondido Public Library Watchdog has been set up. “In the almost two years our Library has been operated by a corporate interest,” they report, “significant problems are evident. Corporate protections in the city-adopted contract do not allow for effective, transparent, or even credible, oversight of corporate performance. Important information is kept from the Library Board of Trustees and the public. Financial information, salaries, and qualifications are unknown, staff turnover un-trackable, data is not transparent, key staff are not ‘hired’ by the Trustees, but rather presented to them from a candidate pool of one. The Watchdog seeks to provide some public oversight for our library.” 

31) District of Columbia/Virginia/Maryland: Watch this powerful video by Transdev’s Amalgamated Transit Union workers about their strike demands over wages, parity and privatization.

The Fairfax Connector strike illustrates a widening rift over the privatization of public services, the Washington Post reports. “Nearly 600 Fairfax Connector workers went on strike Thursday. They joined about 130 Metrobus workers at the Cinder Bed Road Metrobus garage in Lorton, who have been on strike since Oct. 24, affecting an estimated 8,500 riders. All the workers are employed by Transdev, a multinational transit provider that both Fairfax County and Metro have contracted with to provide service. The workers are all represented by local chapters of Amalgamated Transit Union, the nation’s largest transportation workers guild.” Sharon Bulova, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors, “said she is calling a special board meeting next week to decide how the county can pressure Transdev into reaching an agreement with Connector workers.”

In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler says “Transdev’s greed was on full display when, in retaliation for the strike, it cut health benefits to diabetics and single parents. Apparently, its $177 million in profits last year wasn’t enough. But the fault ultimately lies with the current leadership of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, known as WMATA.”

The Fort Hunt Herald reports that “Transdev’s employees believe they receive second-rate pay, benefits and working conditions compared to their public counterparts employed by the Fairfax County Government and the tri-jurisdictional government agency Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which oversees Washington DMV-area rail and bus services.”

32) Florida: Jacksonville City Council member Brenda Priestly Jackson has filed legislation calling on JEA to end its negotiations for a potential sale of the city-owned utility. “Priestly Jackson said the JEA board blindsided City Council members and the public when the board voted July 23 to put the utility up for sale by seeking offers from outside entities. She said the board should have sought support from the council before taking such a momentous step as inviting offers for the potential sale of JEA. She said the agenda for the meeting gave the public no indication before the meeting the JEA board would be taking action on authorizing staff to seek offers for a possible sale. She said JEA later “bizarrely” amended the agenda to add that item after the meeting was over.”

Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated state legislature is moving to cut off funds going from the publically-owned JEA to the city. Last Monday, a City Council committeepassed a resolution urging the Florida House to kill the measure. “Council members said the bill is an attack on home rule. Council members said the city of Jacksonville owns the utility and is entitled to the profits.” Two other City Council committees took up the resolution and it will go to the full Council this week.

33) MissouriKansas City has made public transit free at the point of use. “The Kansas City Council voted to direct the city manager to set aside $8 million to eliminate the $1.50 per ride fare that currently applies to the city’s bus system. Some frequent riders could save about $1,000 per year under the new plan, according to KCUR, the city’s public radio station. ‘It’d help me out a lot,’ college student Michael Mumford, who rides the city’s buses at least once per day, told the station. ‘Put some change in my pocket…buy some books for class.’” 

But more needs to be done, says Brookings’ Rob Puentes. “Although it’s getting better, metro Kansas City ranks 40th nationally in terms of jobs accessible by transit in 30 minutes.” [See the national rankings by city]

34) International: This Thursday British voters will go to the polls in the most important election in decades. At stake is the possible privatization of the National Health Service if the Tories win, or, if Labour wins, an end to nearly forty years of privatizing public services begun under Thatcher. An American wrote in to the Guardian this week urging the Brits to cherish their health service and vote for it. “Take it from an American—the NHS is a marvel. You must vote to save it,” wrote Rob Delaney. 

“The stress you feel surrounding your health in the UK is so much lower than in the U.S., thanks to the absence of financial fear,” he writes. “Waiting for two hours in A&E at one in the morning sucks; waiting for two hours in an American ER at one in the morning as you rehearse the speech you’ll give the billing office about how the insurance from your new job doesn’t kick in until the end of the month and you can’t afford the CT scan your child is likely to need is a whole level of stress that I pray no one in the UK ever feels.”

Odds & Ends

35) National: Whitney Curry Wimbish, writing in the Baffler, takes a deep look at the past and present costs and failures of privatization. “Now privatization has found its most obvious champion in Donald Trump, a man operating under the delusion that a nation can and should be run as a business,” she writes. She concludes, “today champions of privatization still evoke the I-35W bridge collapse as a reason to sell our infrastructure to the highest bidder. It’s a long-held dream—as Peter Samuel put it in a 1995 Cato Institute policy paper, “State highways should be sold section by section to private owners.” One of today’s aspiring innovators is presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar, who lived a few blocks away from the I-35W bridge. She wants to prevent similar tragedies. How? Various ways, including helping “states and localities better leverage private funds.” You know what that means.”

36) National:Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, spoke with Vox about race and real estate. Talking about her book, Taylor says “I also wanted to look at the problems in public-private partnerships and the undue influence that the private sector has had in shaping public policies in America. This is a huge, complicated issue that has not received the attention it deserved.”

37) National: The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reports on a new stage in Uber’s use of outsourcing. “Now Uber is embracing another form of outsourcing—to labor contractors like temporary staffing firms. Just like hiring workers directly and calling them independent contractors, this type of outsourcing drives down wages and degrades working conditions. Workers employed through intermediaries like temporary staffing agencies earn less money and endure worse working conditions than permanent, direct-hires.”

38) National: Following recent scandals surrounding privatized military housing, which prompted much scurrying about in the Pentagon and Congressional hearings and roads trips, the GAO has released a new report on what’s being done about it. Their conclusion? “Military departments are increasingly monitoring privatized housing conditions at their respective bases, but don’t have reliable or meaningful data or metrics that adequately reflect the condition of housing.” Meanwhile, NC Policy Watch reports that legislative measures to address the problem are tied up in political wrangling and confusion

39) National: A rushed and sloppy rulemaking process by the Trump administration EPA to repeal clean-air caps on truck glider kits failed “to assess air quality impacts on children’s health,” the EPA’s own inspector general says.

Governing for the Common Good

40) National: The Center for American Progress has surveyed state progress on early learning this year. “Several states took actions in 2019 that laid the groundwork for early learning improvements. By convening stakeholder groups, conducting research, and establishing departments focused on early education, states have made incremental steps toward progress. Importantly, states must turn the recommendations of these reports and committees into policy change in order to reap their benefits. The states highlighted below have also increased investment in early learning in recent years, indicating their commitment to translating their goals into opportunities for children, families, and providers.”

41) International: Writing in Open Democracy, Roos van Os and Satoko Kishimoto look at how Amsterdam is putting the “public” back in public services. “There is solid evidence that privatisation costs more and undermines human rights. The resistance to privatisation has turned into a powerful force for a positive cause, that of (re)municipalisation, which refers to reclaiming and creating new public services on a municipal level.”

42) International: The International Transport Workers Federation has released a very accessible “People’s Public Transport Policy” based on four reports, including public ownership, public financing, employment and decent work, and climate change