The coming privatization of space

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

 

This week’s highlights

Education

1) National: Capital & Main’s Bill Raden interviews anti-privatization activist Diane Ravitch about her new book. “Slaying Goliath charges that, after 20 years of having wholly hijacked education reform with destructive high-stakes testing and standardized test scores, and by demonizing teachers, the school choice movement—whose members Ravitch pejoratively redubs ‘the Disrupters’—has not only failed at reform, it has awakened a sleeping giant.” 

2) Alabama: The Birmingham Board of Education has denied two charter school applications during a special meeting, including one that would have led to the opening of the state’s first LGBTQ-affirming charter school. “Birmingham Aids Outreach, an organization that has provided multiple services to the LGBTQ-community and those living with HIV and AIDS for 35 years, turned in its application to open Magic City Acceptance Academy in December. Birmingham’s review committee, which is responsible for reviewing charter school applications, recommended board members deny MCAA’s application due to its lack of detail when it comes to educational program design, an operations plan and financial plan. The board accepted the review committee’s request for denial with a 5-3 vote. Board member Sandra Brown abstained. Board members Cheri Gardner, Michael Millsap and Mary Boehm voted for the charter.” 

3) Connecticut: Writing in the Stamford Advocate, In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler questions Stamford’s possible use a public-private partnership to finance the construction of public schools.  “So far, what’s been discussed publicly in Stamford is a cartoonish version of public engagement. Director of Administration Michael Handler claims a public-private partnership would be 70 percent cheaper than traditional public financing. But is that simply because a municipal bond might expire in 20 years, while the partnership would stretch for 45 years, or even 90, as has been proposed? How could such a lengthy contract impact Stamford’s bond rating? These are the types of questions that need to be answered publicly before Stamford becomes the first in the nation to sign away decision-making power over new public schools.”

4) Florida: A Hernando County charter school may get a shorter contract. The school, BEST Academy, a science and technology charter, had asked for five years. “But Board chairwoman Susan Duval, citing concerns over the institution’s financial position, student performance scores and discrepancies on the application, said she could support only the two-year charter renewal term recommended by Dawn Williams, supervisor of school choice for the district.” 

5) Hawaii: More bad news for a Puna charter school devastated by the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

“Federal prosecutors allege that the former financial officer for Kua O Ka La public charter school embezzled $628,000 from the campus between December 2012 and January 2019.

A complaint filed in U.S. District Court said Kelaukila Estabilio even took money from the school after its campus near Ahalanui Park was covered by lava in July 2018. Authorities said Estabilio used the money to pay for her family’s personal expenses and to pay off her Capital One credit cards.” 

6) Indiana: The Indianapolis Public Schools are considering privatizing their bus system. “The new company, First Student, comes with a new fleet of buses, equipped with the newest video cameras that watch over students and photograph drivers who ignore bus stop arms. The company would also test a test a program that actually keeps track of individual students. ‘If they got on the bus, where that bus is. If they got on the bus where they got off the bus, when they got off the bus,’ [Scott Martin, the IPS deputy superintendent for operations] explained. He expects 135 IPS bus drivers and bus attendants would lose their jobs, but could be hired to work for First Student.”

7) Mississippi: A “public-private partnership” to build a new Madison Academic and renovated Jackson Central-Merry high schools is entering its final stages. “There are a lot of concerns,” the Jackson Sun reports. “City of Jackson officials said their concern is that they don’t have the budget for the increased cost of the project. The city has faced a budget crisis after revelations about Gist’s spending habits showed the city borrowing money to cover basic capital needs. There are concerns that the CRA’s $2.7 million contribution to the project isn’t realistic after the property value in its Tax Incremental Financing district went down.” 

8) Missouri: A Senate committee has approved a bill that would allow charters to expand to dozens of districts. “Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently from school districts, are currently allowed only in Kansas City and St. Louis. The bill would allow them to expand to other districts that meet minimum size requirements, such as the Columbia Public School District. Eigel said nearly 50 districts would be eligible. Sen. Doug Libla, the committee’s vice chair, cast the only vote in opposition to the bill. Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, was part of a bipartisan filibuster that defeated last year’s version of the bill. He has said he opposes the bill because of charter schools’ poor track record and high cost.” 

9) Pennsylvania: Superintendents from seven school districts held a press conference to bring attention to the need for reforms to Pennsylvania’s charter school law and talk about “the impact of inflated charter and cyber school tuition payments in their communities.”  Mifflin County School District Superintendent James Estep, who organized the press conference, said “I’m fed up. I’m fed up with struggling every year to make a budget balanced. I’m fed up with worrying about how I can maintain the programs that matter for Mifflin County’s parents and kids. I’m fed up with having to worry about cutting teaching positions and increasing class size to make a balanced budget….I’m fed up that (while) year after year, some of our legislators who have recognized that this legislation is a real problem for taxpayers and have tried to introduce bills to start to fix the problem, (we) never see those bills never considered in committee, let alone, making it to the floor of the general assembly. That’s a real leadership problem in our legislature.”

Diane Ravitch reports that “leaders from public school districts in the five-county Greater Philadelphia region are joining with others from across the state in calling for meaningful, substantive reform of Pennsylvania’s charter school laws. They also support a moratorium on new charter school applications and a freeze on additional seats for students at existing charters until reform is enacted. Public school superintendents and other top school administrators recently formed LEARN, Leaders for Educational Accountability and Reform Network, as a way to coalesce around urgent issues impacting public schools, such as charter reform.”

10) PennsylvaniaA Souderton charter school is challenging the right of the school district to set teacher standards in court. “At its Dec. 19, 2019 meeting, Souderton Area School Board granted a conditional renewal approval with the two conditions being that by September of this year the charter school bring at least 75 percent of its teaching staff up to the same certification level required for district teachers and that the charter school provide the same health care coverage for its employees as the school district does. That conditional approval is being appealed to both the Charter School Appeal Board and in Montgomery County Court, Souderton Area School Board President Ken Keith said at the board’s Jan. 23 meeting.”

11) Utah: Education officials say they will audit a charter school over its reporting of special education funding. “After months of examining the ledgers and books at American Preparatory Academy (APA), accountants for the Utah Board of Education say they were unable to find any system that showed the money was “being properly expended.” Without that accountability, the state assumes the funds were not spent on students with disabilities as they should have been. And it requires strict repayment.” 

12) InternationalCanadian Marit Stiles (“MPP for Davenport. Education Critic for Ontario’s Official Opposition. Passionate about strengthening our community schools”) says “Private, for-profit play centers’ are no substitute for well-funded classrooms & face to face time w professional education workers. Your little field trip was in poor taste. Reverse your cuts and get our kids back to class.”

13) Think Tanks: Huriya Jabbar, Jesse Chanin, and Jamie Haynes have published a study of union organizing in charter schools. “Despite the growing media attention paid to charter-school unions, comparatively little empirical research exists. Drawing on interview data from two cities (Detroit, MI, and New Orleans, LA), our exploratory study examined charter-school teachers’ motivations for organizing, the political and power dimensions, and the framing of unions by both teachers and administrations. We found that improving teacher retention, and thus school stability, was a central motivation for teacher organizers, whereas, simultaneously, high teacher turnover stymied union drives. We also found that charter administrators reacted with severity to nascent unionization drives, harnessing school-as-family metaphors and at-will contracts to prevent union formation. As the charter sector continues to grow, understanding why teachers want unions and how those unions differ from traditional public school unions is crucial to analyzing the long-term viability of these schools and the career trajectories of the teachers who work in them.”

Infrastructure

14) National/International: Infrastructure Investor, the flagship journal of private finance in infrastructure, has a series of major articles in its current issue calling “public-private partnerships” into question. It’s a dramatic turnaround from years of boosterism, and indicates that the P3 industry, which has long been surrounded by a bodyguard of boosterish journalists and PR flacks, is losing the confidence of the hardcore finance types. With PPP volumes stagnating, the spinmeisters seems to be losing their touch as the P3 industry faces unprecedented, well organized and well informed pushback on all fronts. The situation bears comparison with that of the education privatization industry—as Diane Ravitch recounts in her new book—which is also losing its grip on the public.

In its lead article, Infrastructure Investor says “we spoke to 20 industry sources across three continents for this report and found several reasons why the procurement framework has been in decline. Some are region-specific, while others are more general. Among the key points of contention were contractual rigidity, inappropriate risk allocation, lack of clarity about value for money, public-private disenchantment and lengthy procurement processes.” One proposed industry solution? Push more risk onto the public sector.

Thierry Déau of Meridiam cuts to the chase, seconding a point that public interest groups have been exclaiming for decades: “[A PPP is] not a panacea and it’s not a magic wand regardless of the jurisdiction. I think that’s the mistake the public sector is making—thinking it’s free money. It’s not.” In its editorial, Infrastructure Investor quotes Ardian’s Mathias Burghardt: The PPP model, he says, “doesn’t favour innovation, but even more importantly, it doesn’t have the flexibility to adapt to change—whether that’s environmental, technological or with regard to evolving customer needs.” 

But in a possible hint of where private finance intends to go to salvage the problematic model, Déau looks to the global climate change crisis. They must “contribute massively to carbon emissions reduction. That, for me, would be the only way to revitalise PPPs” [Sub required]. As earlier PPP boosters used to say, “desperate government is our best customer.” 

15) National: The water industry’s lobbying organization just moved from D.C. to Philly. Here’s why. “The move was influenced by a few factors, its CEO Robert Powelson told the Philadelphia Business Journal. Chief among them being the two biggest national water utilities located in the city’s backyard. American Water, headquartered on Camden’s waterfront, and Bryn Mawr-based Aqua America are the two largest publicly traded water and wastewater utilities in the country. The combination of the two, along with smaller players based in the region, and favorable legislative conditions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have made the Philadelphia somewhat of a hub for the water industry, Powelson said.” [Sub required]

16) National: House Democrats have unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure plan with a strong climate component. “The framework that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats released Wednesday includes an amalgamation of existing highway, transit and water legislation, of the type that Congress passes every few years, as well as new efforts to boost the availability of broadband internet and help communities counter the effects of climate change. Housing and school construction will also be a ‘special focus,’ Pelosi told reporters. (…) But how to pay for all of it was largely skirted. She offered no hint of when the Democrats plan to turn the package into legislation the House can vote on, however. ‘We’ll go to the floor when we’re ready,’ she said. ‘We’re not talking about next week.’” 

17) National: The Federal Communications Commission has approved a $20 billion Rural Broadband Funding Plan. “The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will help internet service providers deploy broadband over 10 years to areas currently lacking service of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. The federal agency estimates about six million rural homes and businesses are located in areas that could benefit from the initiative. The FCC’s three Republican members voted for the plan, while the two Democratic members supported the plan but dissented in part.”

18) Florida: As the JEA privatization scandal rolls on, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has announced that the public utility’s former CEO has been terminated with cause and all six JEA board members will leave their positions by the end of February. JEA Board chair April Green resigned. “the Office of General Counsel laid out 24 reasons, in a letter addressed to Green, to support terminating Zahn with cause. Some of those reasons included: damaging JEA’s reputation, creating a conflict of interest while pursuing the sale, false testimony, failing to provide accurate information, misrepresenting the performance unit plan and failing to inform of his personal gain in the Performance Unit Plan, known as the PUP.”

@TheRealEarlGrey says, “This tone deaf statement can be quoted as the best argument against JEA privatization. ‘The public learned too much about a publicly owned company, exposing the corruption.’ Incredible.”

The Florida Times-Union reports, “Several JEA employees were on the steps of City Hall last Monday when City Council President Scott Wilson announced the formation of a special committee to investigate JEA. After the press conference, some of them pointed to the building behind them and said they hope the investigation will include people inside it. ‘I’m tired of this mayor saying he didn’t have anything to do with this,’ James Taylor said. ‘He had everything to do with it. He comes in, asks the whole board to resign, hand picks his people and appoints Zahn. Now he’s like, “I didn’t do it.”’” 

19) Missouri@GerryConnolly88 says “STL Airport privatization isn’t off my radar; @LydaKrewson  has not withdrawn the application to the FAA;  #BB175 has not had a BOA committee hearing; Payments to consultants for Q4 2019 not posted; #HappyHolidaySuit314 pending in 22nd Circuit Court.” 

20) New Jersey: New Jersey will become the first state to require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects, Gov. Philip D. Murphy (D) has announced. “The move by Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, is part of a widening effort by states to use regulations to address worsening climate conditions and to aggressively counteract the Trump administration’s push to roll back environmental regulations.”

Criminal Justice and Immigration

21) NationalCoreCivic will release its 2019 fourth quarter financial results after the market closes on Wednesday, February 12, and will hold its earnings conference call the following morning at 11:00 AM eastern.

22) ArizonaThe state corrections department is to pay a high price for the shoddy prison healthcare performance of Corizon, its contractor. “The Ninth Circuit refused to reverse a contempt order against the Arizona Department of Corrections for failing to improve a derelict prison health care system that caused needless pain and suffering and multiple inmate deaths. U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan fined the state $1.4 million in 2018 after finding that Corizon Health, a private prison health care provider hired to improve conditions at 10 state-run prisons, did not live up to the conditions of a 2014 settlement with inmates who sued over inadequate staffing, substandard care and indifference to prisoners with severe mental health problems.”

23) ArizonaWhat happens to a small rural town when a private, for-profit prison which is the mainstay of the economy shuts down? “Community leaders in Florence, AZ, are grappling with that question after Governor Ducey made a surprise announcement in his State of the State address that he intends to close the Florence Prison Complex in a move to save $274 million in upkeep, maintenance and repairs over the next three years. (…) The financial hit is likely to create a significant impact on town services. A statement released by the town expressed concern that, ‘Without legislative action, resources currently used in the community could dry up and could radically change this historic community and the county seat of the state’s fastest growing county.’ Although the Governor asserted that no prison employees would be laid off, hundreds of jobs could be leaving the community.”

24) California: Advocates are calling for Adelanto to fire the city manager for his “involvement and collusion with” the GEO Group, which “owns and operates the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California’s Mojave desert, one of the county’s largest immigration detention centers.” The Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice “is also urging the city to comply with a state law that regulates the process by which cities issue building permits to private corporations when it considers whether to allow the GEO Group to expand the detention facility. ‘The City of Adelanto has a responsibility and opportunity to hold its employees and GEO Group accountable for their misdeeds,’ coalition Executive Director Javier Hernandez and community organizer Lizbeth Abeln wrote in a letter to the council on Monday. ‘We urge immediate action to mitigate the damage that City Manager Jessie Flores and GEO Group Inc. have inflicted on the city’s image.’” 

25) California: The Record reports that “a huge crowd of protesters and counter-protesters showed up to a McFarland Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 21 in which the city took the first steps in allowing the private prison company GEO Group Inc. to expand immigration detention capabilities. Immigrant-rights activists and GEO employees fighting to keep their jobs clashed in front of the McFarland Veterans Community Center. At one point, the two groups formed lines of verbal battle across from each other and shouted ‘shut down GEO!’ and ‘we want jobs!’ to the other side.” 

26) Idaho: Is it Groundhog Day in the Gem State on private prisons? “Idaho must be in one hell of a pickle if it’s asking Corrections Corporation of America—now rebranded as CoreCivic—for help. When this private prison contractor operated in Idaho, people got hurt. Taxpayers got bilked. And the reputations of public officials got tarnished.” 

27) Tennessee: The Jackson Sun reports that CoreCivic’s Tennessee prisons have twice the homicide rate of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. “The corporation’s four Tennessee facilities hold roughly 35% of the state’s prison population but accounted for about 63% of the state’s prison homicides. A Jackson Sun review of five years of data reveals that even when controlled for similar inmate populations, the homicide rate at CoreCivic-run Tennessee prisons is more than twice the homicide rate of prisons run by the Tennessee Department of Correction.”

28) Think Tanks: John Clegg, collegiate assistant professor in the social sciences and Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, and author of The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration, joins Doug Henwood to discuss the subject. [Audio, about half an hour]

Public Services

29) California: The University of California has reached tentative four-year agreements with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents UC’s approximately 16,000 patient care and 10,000 service workers. “UC’s contract continues to prohibit layoffs as a result of subcontracting decisions and creates career employment opportunities at UC by placing additional restrictions on UC’s ability to contract out service unit work. The new contract will also make it easier for eligible contract workers to convert to UC employment.”

30) FloridaWaste Management has dodged crime-fraud allegation—for now. If upheld, the charges would have forced the company to disclose confidential records it says are protected by the attorney-client privilege. In a ruling, “Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter accepted as ‘reasonable’ company  explanations for seven allegations leveled by Bergeron Environmental and Recycling regarding internal documents pertaining to Waste Management’s $510-million asset purchase of Davie’s Southern Waste Systems (SWS), including Sun Recycling, in 2016. Bergeron is suing Waste Management, and others, contending it misled federal and state antitrust regulators to win approval of its takeover of SWS as part of a conspiracy to ruin Bergeron’s business and steal its customers.” The court said “ultimately, a fact finder will have the final say on evidence.” 

31) Iowa: In a guest editorial, the Des Moines Register looks at another round of stiffing healthcare providers under Iowa’s privatized Medicare system. Iowa Total Care, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene, “gladly took the state’s money but did not pay an estimated 106,000 claims submitted by health care providers. After watching the GOP-orchestrated privatization for three years, this should not surprise anyone. For-profit insurers failing to pay providers is one of the hallmarks of privatization—along with secrecy, denying care to patients, making it difficult to file appeals, demanding more taxpayer dollars and pocketing hundreds of millions of them to boost profits.”

32) Massachusetts: Senators and unions are pushing back against more privatization plans for the MBTA. They staged a full court press last week at a meeting of “the Fiscal and Management Control Board to block efforts by the transit authority to buy 60 new buses and turn them over to a private contractor to operate and maintain. Six of the state’s 40 senators and a host of union officials testified before the control board, pressing the panel to invest in its own workforce rather than contracting the work out.  ‘Do not default to privatization, default to working with your employees,’ said Sen. John Keenan of Quincy to rousing applause from union workers in the audience.” State Senator Walter F. Timilty says“such a measure will not provide increased service or better quality of life for riders.” Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight co-chair Sen. Marc Pacheco, “said the plan could backfire and that the T should instead invest more to support its workforce. Privatization, Pacheco said, is an ‘unnecessary gamble with a long history of failure.’ ‘Private bidders have no allegiance to the taxpayer or the bus passenger,’ he told the board. ‘At the end of the day, privatization only results in higher costs and lower-quality service. That’s where they make the money, by cutting back on the services.’ 

Boston @CarmensUnion589 President Jim Evers criticized commuter rail operator Keolis, the @MBTA’s money room and issues with fare gates as he argued that “privatization isn’t the answer for our public transportation system.” An RFP may be issued in February. 

33) MinnesotaLots of money was at play in St. Paul’s November 2019 trash referendum. (For background see here). “A trash company also got involved, effectively matching “Yes for St. Paul” contributions dollar for dollar. In early October, Republic Services of Crestwood, Ill., contributed $28,000 to the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative advocacy organization that supported organized collection, for online advertising. Republic paid $2,000 to Golnik Strategies of St. Paul for consulting services.” They were overwhelmingly defeated. “The vote will keep trash collection as-is, with trash haulers billing St. Paul homeowners every three months. More than 62 percent of voters voted ‘yes’ on the referendum question.”

34) New York: The federal monitor of the New York City Housing Authority is proposing the use of drones to “inspect” public housing. “Drones can conduct high-resolution scans of building exteriors in less than an hour, enabling engineers to identify potential hazards quickly and give contractors precise guidance about where repairs are needed. The use of drones could save NYCHA millions of dollars.” In Los Angeles, the ACLU of Southern California objected to the use of drones by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department over concerns “about ‘mission creep’ and worry the devices will one day be armed with weapons or used to conduct mass surveillance.” Meanwhile, complaints about NYCHA privatization persist.

35) Revolving Door News: The Center for Economic and Policy Research, which has housed the Revolving Door Project for the past year, looks back on what happened at independent federal agencies in 2019.

Everything Else

36) National: In the Public Interest’s Donald Cohen joined Council 4 AFSCME’s podcast to discuss the perils of privatization and outsourcing. [Audio, about a half hour]

37) Intergalactic: Journalist Peter Ward joined the This is Hell! Podcast to discuss “capitalism’s push to space, the future of exploitation, accumulation and the rest of us on planet Earth, and his book The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space from Melville House. [Audio, about an hour].

Governing for the Common Good

38) National/International: As the novel coronavirus epidemic spreads, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staffers are on the front lines trying to meet the challenge. Honoring our CDC Public Health Heroes. “CDC has been proactively preparing for the introduction of 2019-nCoV in the United States for weeks, including putting out alerts, creating guidance for clinicians for testing, developing a diagnostic test to detect the virus and implementing public health entry screenings at U.S. airports, among numerous other efforts.” 

At the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) front line researchers are working around the clock to find a testable vaccine by April. “Traditional vaccine development efforts have usually taken decades, not months,” said Barney Graham, deputy director of the VRC. “This is, first, a response to this new virus, but it’s also a drill for pathogen X … [to] press the system, to see how rapidly we can go.” A government-wide response, at all levels, is ramping up.

39) NationalAmericans go to the library more than anywhere else. “Americans went to the library an average of 10.5 times in 2019, beating out trips to movie theaters, sporting events, national parks, museums and zoos. According to a new Gallup poll, libraries were almost twice as popular as movie theaters and ten times as popular as zoos. The high rate of library visits is driven largely by women, who averaged 13.4 visits in 2019, compared to men’s 7.5 visits. While men still preferred libraries, they were more likely than women to go to casinos, sporting events and national parks.”

40) NationalState lawmakers are stepping up to try and confront the national crisis of affordable housing. “Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., last year passed a variety of legislation that addresses the housing affordability problem, from tax credits for developers to rental assistance and eviction protections for residents, said Sarah Scherer, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonprofit with offices in Denver and D.C. California, Washington and Hawaii passed the most laws. This year, legislators in eight states pre-filed housing bills before their sessions began, Scherer said. Both Democratic and Republican governors are calling for affordable housing fixes.”