A weekly rundown of news and analysis about the harm caused by privatizing education, water, and other public goods—and the workers, pubic officials, journalists, and activists fighting back.
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- Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Republican lawmakers are working on legislation to, among other things, allow students to leave public schools with a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan.
- Fortunately, Baltimore has opted out of privatizing its water meters.
- The Florida state Senate has launched a sweeping school voucher plan.
1) National: President Biden is moving swiftly to undo the damage Trump did to the public interest. “In his first 48 hours in office, Mr. Biden cranked out about 30 executive orders, of which 14 target a broad range of Trump executive mandates, with the remainder aimed at implementing emergency measures intended to deal with the pandemic and the economic crisis. ‘I don’t think it’s fair to say that most of what Trump did can be undone in an afternoon. It’s going to take at least ten days,’ said John D. Podesta, a former adviser to President Barack Obama who lobbied for the targeted use of executive action in Mr. Obama’s second term when congressional Republicans blocked his environmental and immigration proposals.”
This week Biden is expected to issue executive orders on Buy American, racial equity, climate actions, healthcare (including rescinding the so-called Mexico City policy), and immigration.
2) National: Donald Cohen of In the Public Interest passes on what some of our friends are saying about the Biden/Harris agenda and working people, student debt, school privatization, “a much more powerful, transformative alternative to Trumpism,” solidifying nutrition standards for kids’ school breakfasts and lunches, and urban investment. See also favorable responses to Biden’s executive order on environmental justice.
3) National: The National Law Journal has released its unbelievably comprehensive 2021 report on what states are doing to respond to COVID-19 both in terms of health and in reopening the economy. The sheer number of actions covered indicate how essential state and local public structures are in our response to the pandemic, and how vital it is to get them properly funded.
4) National: President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have issued a joint statement affirming their support for reproductive freedom and setting out an agenda for expanding access and protections. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe. We are also committed to ensuring that we work to eliminate maternal and infant health disparities, increase access to contraception, and support families economically so that all parents can raise their families with dignity. This commitment extends to our critical work on health outcomes around the world.” Over 90 organizations behind the Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice recently released a related a “first priorities” list of executive and agency actions that Biden and his administration could take in the opening days of his presidency.
5) National: President Biden has reinstated the Obama-era federal flood protection standard. “This flood protection standard had required federally funded infrastructure, like public housing, hospitals, fire stations, and water treatment plants, to be built with a higher margin of safety against extreme floods and sea level rise. Former President Trump had revoked the flood protection standard just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017.”
6) California/National: The worst fears about Prop 22 seems to be materializing, but people are pushing back. Earlier this month “essential workers” at Vons, Pavilions, and other California stores owned by Albertsons Companies were fired and replaced by drivers who are “independent contractors.” But “on Jan. 12, four rideshare drivers and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) sued to overturn Prop. 22. Valdez calls the lawsuit ‘exciting.’ Plaintiffs filed the suit in the California Supreme Court, rather than a lower court, arguing Prop. 22 violates the state constitution. (Disclosure: SEIU and another opponent of Prop. 22, the United Food and Commercial Workers union, are financial supporters of this website).” Nevertheless, concerns about the Prop 22 model spreading across the country are real. And even employees are not safe—even if, and especially if—they form a union. Last week Lyft decided to terminate employees who unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1546 in Skokie in early 2020.
7) Think Tanks: The Obama foundation has resources on what can be done to strengthen police accountability and spur reforms. “If you’re looking for additional ways to drive change, below you’ll find resources to learn about police violence and antiracism, as well as actions you can take to encourage reform. Ending systemic racism in policing will require broad participation, so we are spotlighting a number of organizations calling for a range of reforms, all of which have been working on these complex issues at the local and national level for years.”
However, even where police accountability laws have been passed, as in Connecticut, there is still resistance from police unions and many Republicans to being held accountable for how they serve the public.
8) Music for the Common Good: In the Public Interest Executive Director Donald Cohen has a message for all social justice and music lovers. “My good friend, Carsie Blanton, is putting out her next album and wants to use it to help movement groups. We listen to her latest album, Buck Up, on repeat. For John Prine lovers, she wrote this song the night he died. See the message from Carsie below. Take her up on it—we need music! Get in touch with me if you have other ideas for ways she can help.”
From Carsie: “I’M LOOKING FOR: mutual aid, volunteer-run, donation-funded, or publicly-funded non profits based in the U.S., whose work is focused on materially serving disenfranchised populations (poor people, homeless people, incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, sex workers, undocumented workers, and the uninsured). OR: think tanks, politicians, or lobbyists focused on election reform, criminal justice reform, debt cancellation, or Medicare for All. More information can be found here.”
9) National: Chris McNutt, a digital design educator at a public school in Ohio, writes in The Progressive that teachers can start a grassroots revolution for better schools. “There is now an entire generation of educators who have been exposed directly to inequity. Those engaged in this work now have droves of allies who understand a need for change, and the status quo is shifting. Just as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked necessary conversations about police brutality and criminal justice reform, there are winds of collective change in education.”
10) National: Writing in LA Progressive, Sarah Lahm says the charter school industry is looking at pandemic-related public school budget cuts as an opportunity to cash in. “In the wake of all this, families in cities like Saint Paul will increasingly be at the mercy of school privatization schemes. These market-based approaches to education policy simultaneously drain funds from the public system while further creating islands of winners and losers, rather than lifting up all kids for the sake of the common good.”
11) National: Education reporter Jeff Bryant says “in Biden’s strategy to reopen schools safely, his education department will collect data on schools’ mode of instruction and the impact on students. Remember when DeVos said this wasn’t her department’s responsibility? Elections have consequences.”
12) National: The National Education Policy Center (NEPC)’s researcher Christopher Saldaña interviewed Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire about their new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School. “Schneider and Berkshire see signs of hope in the collective movements organized by teachers unions and communities. In their view, if public schools are to survive and thrive, they require a well-organized collective to identify and push back against the contradictions inherent in market-oriented policies. They recommend that readers and listeners familiarize themselves with the groups advocating for privatization and consider how these groups work to influence policy in order to develop long-term strategies that successfully oppose privatization.”
13) California: The Palmdale School District “will open a transitional kindergarten through 12th grade dependent charter school this fall with a projected first-year enrollment of 300 ninth-grade students and subsequent grade levels opening yearly. The charter school is projected to have 600 students in ninth and 10th grades in its second year; 800 students in ninth through 11th grades in its third year; 1,000 students in ninth through 12th grades in this fourth year, and 1,200 students in sixth through 12th grade in its fifth year.”
14) Florida: The state Senate has launched a sweeping school voucher plan. Peter Greene says they are “joining in a national trend of using the pandemic crisis to fuel school voucher initiatives.” He writes, “Florida has allowed choice programs to grow like an unweeded garden, but Diaz’s new bill proposes to collapse five ‘scholarship’ (aka ‘voucher’) programs into just two Education Savings Account (ESA) programs. So Family Empowerment, Hope, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship—all under one roof now, along with the newly condensed Gardinier-McKay programs for students with special needs. We’ll look at the bill more closely in a minute, but let’s pause first to admire the cynicism behind this proposal to further gut Florida’s public school system.”
Greene cites a stunning example of how the school privatization industry is now promoting new levels of educational chaos: they want to slice up public schools into their component parts and rent them out: “This also dovetails nicely with the ‘flexibility’ touted above; the dream for ESAs for many ed privatizers and profiteers is the ‘unbundling’ of education. Why go to the trouble and expense to put a whole ‘school’ on the market when you can target more tightly—get in the math class biz, or the art class biz, or the ELA biz. Instead of sending a child to school, parents can assemble a variety of educational ‘resources’ and just put it all on the ESA card. Where the law used to say ‘A parent who applies for a Family Empowerment Scholarship is exercising his or her parental option to place his or her child in a private school,’ it now says ‘…exercising his or her parental option to determine the appropriate placement or the services that best meets [sic] the needs of his or her child.’ So it makes a dark sense that the bill wants to swap out ‘give the money to some specific entity created to manage these funds’ to ‘just give the money to something we’ll vaguely call K-12 education.’”
15) Iowa: Florida is not the only state where the privatization industry is using the pandemic to launch a full-scale attack on public education and educational equity. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Republican lawmakers will begin working this week on legislation to establish state funding for students in struggling public schools who wish to attend a private school; create a charter school program, and allow students to transfer out of schools with a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan.” You read that right. Students in a school with a diversity plan may opt to transfer out. Sounds an awful lot like the private schools some white parents sent their kids to to avoid the effects of Brown v. Boardback in the day.
16) Missouri: The state legislative session is going to grapple with another voucher bill. Senate Bill 23 would let parents use tax credits to pay for their kids to attend private school, get tutoring, school supplies, and other educational needs. “Brent Ghan with the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA) says the group strongly opposes such bills. ‘What it boils down to in their kind of convoluted schemes essentially to direct taxpayer money to private schools,’ he tells Missourinet. ‘We are not opposed to private schools but we draw the line when private schools receive taxpayer dollars whenever they are not accountable to the public like traditional public schools are.’”
Another bill would promote charter school expansion. Senate Bill 25 includes provisions that would “expand charter schools in any school district located within a charter county as well as in any Missouri city with a population greater than 30,000 people.” But Ghan says “charter schools just don’t play by the same rules as our traditional public schools. They don’t have the same degree of accountability for taxpayer dollars. Until we see greater accountability for charter schools, we are going to be very much opposed to their expansion to other districts outside of St. Louis and Kansas City.”
But now both bills have been consolidated into Senate Bill 55, a massive school privatization bill that originally focused on forcing public school districts to allow homeschooled students to participate in after-school sports and activities. “Over the last week, however, SB 55 has grown into a massive measure that includes the two most potentially controversial education-related bills of the session. (…) According to state analysts, the proposal could allow charter schools in an additional 56 school districts and divert more than $100 million from public schools. Which is why the committee’s three Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Elaine Gannon, of De Soto, voted against SB 55 Thursday and why the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) says it will lobby aggressively against many of the provisions in the bill.”
17) Utah: Can a developer rent out space to commercial tenants on a charter school campus? “A Provo charter school is battling with its landlord and developer over whether it must host commercial tenants at its campus—an arrangement the school claims could jeopardize its students and its charter with the state. Treeside Charter School officially opened for the 2017 school year at 1724 S. State Street and teaches about 430 elementary-aged students. The school was built by American Charter Development and its CEO, Mike Morley, on land Morley owns under a limited liability company called Zions M-13 Development. The campus has two buildings, a main classroom building and an auxiliary gym building. Immediately after the gym building became operational, non-school tenants with leases through Morley began moving in, including a dance studio, a chiropractor and athletic training businesses. ‘He took the profits for himself instead of giving them to the school, and that’s when everything went haywire,’ said April Clawson, Treeside’s board chair.”
18) Pennsylvania: In an editorial, the Pottstown Mercury calls for more equitable and fair funding for public schools as charter schools drain away their budget provisions. Pennridge is scheduled to vote this week on a charter school reform resolution which has been making its way around the state since last spring. “The most recent proposal—now already 12 months old with no legislative action—seeks to establish performance standards for charter schools to hold them accountable for educational outcomes, to cap enrollment at low performing cyber charter schools until they demonstrate improvement, require charter management companies to be subject to the state Right to Know Act and State Ethics Act, and create fair and equitable funding practices.
In the area of special education, making funding more equitable would save districts hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to an analysis on the state Department of Education website.”
19) Pennsylvania: Art Levinowitz president of the Pennsylvania School Board Association, and school director of Upper Dublin School District, asks why public schools are footing the bill for substandard cyber charter education? “School districts can expect as much as a $350 million increase in their cyber charter tuition bills this year alone, due to the pandemic-generated cyber charter school enrollment increases. It’s important to keep in mind that this massive sum is only part of the overall $475 million overall charter school tuition increase for this school year that school districts are facing in addition to navigating through a global pandemic. The $475 million increase in charter school tuition this school year effectively nullifies the majority of the federal funds public schools received under the CARES Act. This means most of those funds will not have their intended impact—to aid our public schools in a time of crisis. Moreover, for many districts, their Act 1 index rate will not allow for them to increase property taxes to cover the gap in increased charter school payments, leaving hopelessly unbalanced budgets.”
20) Think Tanks: Cecilia Rouse has been selected by President Biden to lead the Council of Economic Advisers. “Drawing from her academic and government experience, Rouse will be at the forefront of White House efforts to straddle the demands of moderates and liberals on key policy priorities, such as the elimination of student debt.” Rouse once served on the advisory board of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University Teachers College.
21) National: Questions still surround the new transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, about his and the administration’s infrastructure agenda. Buttigieg testified last week before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and hit on a few themes that are expected to become part of the wider Biden agenda, including restoring auto emissions standards weakened by Trump and building out a network of charging stations for electric vehicles. “Buttigieg did not specify where money could come from for big investments in infrastructure, but wouldn’t rule out a tax increase and floated the possibility of a major change in how highways are funded.” Private interests took heart at a couple of Buttigieg’s comments, noting his support for tax-exempt advance refunding and his mention of a possible vehicle miles traveled (VMT) driver fee scheme, which the road privatization industry sees as a potential cash cow for them. On mass transit, Buttigieg said little, but the neoliberals are already urging him to start “picking fights with labor unions.”
22) National: Skepticism remains about so-called public-private partnerships as an answer to public services and infrastructure needs, despite media and industry hype. “In the long run, the partnerships are not worth the risk, said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. A need to make public buildings more energy efficient, for instance, might arise well into the life of a P3 contract, requiring renegotiation. ‘It can be incredibly costly,’ he said, adding that cost overruns also are often the subject of dispute well into the life of a contract. ‘States are facing massive fiscal deficits,’ he said. ‘P3s don’t change that.’”
23) Maryland: Here we go again. Another P3 “opportunity” has been turned into a steel trap. Maryland taxpayers are being warned they are on the hook if another half-baked so-called public-private partnership project blows up before it gets off the launch pad. This time it’s the I-270/I-95 privatized toll lane project, which has been bedeviled by serious questions about affordability, environmental impact, and necessity from day one. Last time it was the Purple Line P3. Is it too much to ask that rigorous planning and public review and legislative approval be done before these problematic boondoggles are launched? Or is that not a bug but a feature?
24) Maryland: Baltimore has opted out of privatizing its water meters. “Mayor Brandon Scott said Friday that members of Department of Public Works meter shop staff will remain in place and receive training to ensure they repair meters effectively. The city will create a task force to implement the training. Scott said he could not explain why staff members weren’t trained when digital meters began to come online around 2017. Former Mayor Jack Young said in October that the city would close the meter shop, which is responsible for installing, repairing and manually reading water meters. Young planned to outsource the work to Itron Inc., which was paid more than $80 million to install digital water meters in the city and Baltimore County beginning in 2013. But the Baltimore Sun reports that a contract with Itron for the meter shop operations was never signed, and the shop’s employees remained on the city staff. All of the shop’s 63 employees were placed on paid leave in March after the coronavirus hit. By last month, only 18 had returned to work.”
25) Missouri: Watchdogs say Missouri American Water’s proposed rate increase would be ‘disproportionately bad’ for St. Louis area customers. “The St. Louis region’s largest water utility is seeking to raise rates and grow its revenue by as much as $102 million compared to its currently authorized earnings—an increase that could reach 32% overall, according to some consumer advocates. The company is also renewing a longtime push to have its 470,000 water customers across the state pay a single rate, a move that watchdogs say would force the St. Louis region to shoulder an undue share of the utility’s costs and effectively subsidize water systems in other parts of the state.”
Criminal Justice and Immigration
26) National: GEO Group’s stock was down nearly 10% last week partly on news that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided not to exercise its contract renewal option for their 1,878-bed Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, when the contract base period expires on March 31, 2021. Seeking Alpha reports that “the contract for the facility generated ~$42M in annualized revenue for GEO. The company expects to market the Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility to other federal and state agencies. ‘Federal prison populations in the United States have experienced a decline, more recently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,’ said GEO Chairman and CEO George C. Zoley. ‘This decline and other factors may result in future decisions by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to not renew additional BOP contracts.’ Last week GEO Group cut its dividend by about 27%.”
27) California: The state Department of Justice has opened a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into whether the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, headed by the controversial Alex Villanueva, has engaged in a “pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.” Complaints about the department’s brutal practices and allegations of gang cliques among deputies, have been happening for years. “Another fierce Villanueva critic, Mariela Alburgues of @ReformLAJails, issued a statement calling the inquiry ‘long overdue, but welcome considering the rogue antics this Sheriff has spearheaded throughout his tenure.’”
28) National: State and local governments face a $225 billion shortfall for the coming fiscal year, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But “these estimates only account for revenue losses resulting from the pandemic plus normal cost increases states face, such as wage inflation, population growth, and increased Medicaid costs as more people turn to that program in a recession. Our estimates don’t include states’ and localities’ costs to continue fighting COVID-19 (including the more contagious new strain of the virus), such as personal protective equipment, testing, contact tracing, and increasing public health awareness. Nor do they include the added costs of providing services effectively and safely during a pandemic, such as training and equipping public employees who must regularly interact with other people.”
And the situation may get worse. CBPP says “very little data are available yet on how the virus’ recent resurgence is affecting revenues for states, localities, tribal nations, and territories, but it can’t have reduced their challenges. Federal policymakers would do well to keep that in mind as they determine how much aid to provide.”
29) National: Ian Millhiser of Vox is pushing back on the idea the Louis DeJoy and the postal board of governors members must continue to be millstones around the country’s neck. “I don’t see why this needs to be difficult. By law, members of the Postal Board of Governors may be fired by the president ‘for cause.’ Hiring Louis DeJoy is an act of either sheer incompetence or mindless partisanship that warrants removing the whole board for cause.”
30) Michigan: As the state begins its legislative session, Dan Gilmartin, the CEO and executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, urges lawmakers to invest in community-based relief and recovery. “Communities large and small are the heartbeat of our state. They are where our families build memories and where local businesses thrive with support from residents and visitors. Communities are also where Michigan’s economic growth outlook hangs by a thread, and they must be a focus of the state’s COVID recovery planning. The Michigan Municipal League urged state leaders in 2020 to adopt a community stabilization plan that would have ensured our local governments were able to deliver core services that families and businesses need now and into the future.”
If they fail in this effort the consequences will be severe. “At the extreme, local governments could once again face the appointment of emergency managers, or even worse, insolvency and bankruptcy. It does not have to be this way. We have been here before. We can chart a new course.”
31) International: What happened when the UK privatized COVID food aid? Children got scraps. “This week, social media has been flooded with photos of food parcels provided by private catering firms, with distressed recipients and right-to-food campaigners branding them inadequate and insulting. What was particularly shocking was not just the frequently tiny amount of food provided to families in financial crisis, but the way “scraps” of food were unhygienically packaged in makeshift containers, including, in some cases, plastic coin bags used by banks. These parcels sharply contrasted with examples of more generous food parcels provided by in-house school catering staff for the same amount of money, if not less.”
32) International: Linda McQuaig shines a light on the role of private capital in long term nursing care homes. “These financialized firms—which include private equity funds and real estate investment trusts (REIT)—have become a major presence in the seniors housing industry. They operate large chains and now control just over 30 percent of government-funded LTC homes in Ontario. Perhaps not surprisingly, LTC homes controlled by these financialized firms have experienced even higher coronavirus death rates than LTC homes controlled by other for-profit operators, according to Martine August, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning.”
33) National: Government Executive magazine says not to expect Trump’s workforce policies to be reversed overnight. “Stier said to expect quick action to rescind Trump’s three 2018 workforce orders, as well as the directive issued last September aimed at curtailing diversity and inclusion training at federal agencies and contractors, and an order issued Monday requiring approval of a senior political appointee for all federal regulations and rulemaking. Biden’s broader stated goal to go further than unwinding Trump initiatives to strengthen the federal workforce could take longer, however.”
Photo by Iowa Public Radio Images.