Here’s our weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide. Not a subscriber? Sign up.
This week’s highlights
- Corporate-backed anti-government extremists are mobilizing far-right allies.
- IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson resigned from leading Texas’s largest charter school network Friday evening.
- Hundreds of immigrants detained in California are on hunger strike.
Governing for the Common Good
1) National: Faced with a crushing public backlash against their decades-long crusade against the progressive role of government—a core strategic goal that has been severely damaged by the corona crisis—corporate-backed anti-government extremists and their media promoters are mounting an effort to rescue their anti-government project by mobilizing far right allies. Some veteran agitators of the right wing infrastructure are playing a significant role behind the demonstrations demanding an end to the COVID-19 lockdown, with connections to privatization zealots such as the DeVos family. Trump himself has invoked the militia movement’s rhetoric to attack government efforts to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, urging his supporters to “liberate” states while upholding their second amendment rights.
“There’s no question these protests are organized,” writes Ed Kilgore in New York magazine. “The anti-Whitmer action was stirred up by a group called the Michigan Conservative Coalition. Conservative legislators joined and regaled the Kentucky crowds. Veteran militia leader Ammon Bundy was at the center of civil disobedience in Idaho. And as the Washington Post reported earlier this week, a much broader effort to fight restrictive orders is under way with a powerful group of conservative actors in charge: [C]onservative groups, meanwhile, are pushing for the White House and GOP lawmakers to push back against health professionals who have urged more caution.
“The outside effort from conservative groups is expected to be led by Stephen Moore, a conservative at the Heritage Foundation who is close with White House economic officials; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots; Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization; and Lisa Nelson, chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization with ties to the Koch brothers, according to the three people, who were granted anonymity to reveal details of an effort that had not been publicly revealed.” [Moore was the research director of President Ronald Reagan’s Privatization Commission—ed.].
A note from the intrepid public education champion Jennifer Berkshire: “Still feeling quite pleased w/ myself over forcing the New York Times to add in this info about the connection between Betsy DeVos & one of the groups behind the Michigan protests. This wasn’t in the original story.” Way to go Jennifer.
2) National: In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler, writing in In These Times, says corporations are not letting this crisis go to waste. “As expected, there’s been plenty of profiteering. Private equity firms have pitched massive returns for investors by gaming the small business loans program in the federal government’s CARES Act. (..) More sinister are the changes to rules and regulations that tilt the balance of power away from working people and even further towards the already powerful—possibly permanently. (…) We don’t know what will come next in this ongoing pandemic, but one thing seems abundantly clear: corporate America is not going to let this crisis go to waste. Unless, of course, someone stops them.”
3) National: In a letter to the editor, Fred Holzmer of Newport, Oregon, reminds us that the role of government will be the key issue on the 2020 ballot at all levels across the country. “These current times have made us all reflect on what matters, including the role of government and how it works or doesn’t work, to provide progressive leadership that is inclusive, and addresses social and environmental justice.”
4) National: “Americans are experiencing the biggest expansion of government authority in generations as elected leaders take unprecedented action to fight the deadly coronavirus pandemic,” writes Washington Post columnist Dan Balz. “The role of government has changed overnight, in ways no one imagined as this election year began. Despite a broad consensus behind this emergency surge in government spending and power, a huge debate over what government does and should do lies ahead.”
5) National: Columnist Susan Bigelow says the era of small government is over. “Any attempt to force modern government to be smaller and less responsible for social welfare and regulation of the economy inevitably leads to disaster. See, for instance, the Great Depression and the 2008 fiscal crisis, just to name a few. We’re in the middle of another disaster right now, and while there is so, so much blame to go around for our country’s criminally incompetent response to COVID-19, a very large share can be placed at the feet of everyone who thought defunding vital government programs, cutting taxes for the rich, letting corporate titans decide their own paid sick leave policies, and blocking universal health care was a good plan. As it turns out, being suspicious of anything the government does and trying to rely entirely on individuals to make their own choices is not a recipe for success in times like these.”
6) National: Tim Paydos, the global vice president of IBM’s government industry business, lays out the essential role of government during COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic touches every aspect of business, technology and society. And stable and effective government is at the heart of managing through this crisis. What we do now will have longer-term implications for the health and safety of our families, our citizens, the economy, and even global stability.”
7) National: Former President Barack Obama, endorsing Joe Biden, says “this crisis has reminded us that government matters. It’s reminded us that good government matters.”
8) Upcoming Meeting: The Media, Inequality and Change Center (MIC) is hosting a Zoom meeting this Wednesday where we can hear from Amazon workers organizing on the front lines.
9) National: As a shift to online learning sweeps across the country under the impact of school closures, public interest advocates are warning about the threat to student privacy. This concern is the subject of an open letter released by dozens of human rights and consumer groups, including the Badass Teachers Association. “Children are disadvantaged by the power imbalance between them and school authorities under normal circumstances,” the letter reads. “But this imbalance is only made worse in the current circumstances, as some States Parties choose to impose surveillance, and allow commercial companies into children’s home life without consent. Others take the view that ‘tracking student data without parental consent is not only illegal, it is dangerous.’ Companies must not misuse the additional power that the current situation conveys on them, to further their commodification and use of children’s personal data, for their own purposes and to extract profit. Privacy is not only a right, it is integral to the development and adoption of responsible online tools, for the good of society, and for keeping children safe.”
10) California: United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) is holding the line against charter school co-location attempts. “The ongoing pressure campaign was on display in a socially-distanced demonstration at Shirley Elementary in Reseda on Tuesday morning, April 14, as teachers in masks stood six feet apart and protested a plan to open a new privately operated public school on their campus this Fall. UTLA President Alex-Caputo Pearl said in a weekly video update Monday that L.A. Unified told charter schools it cannot guarantee space will be given to charter schools this year, declaring it a ‘temporary victory.’ (…)I n recent weeks, UTLA leaders have sought to reframe their longstanding opposition to charter co-location in terms of public health and called for a moratorium on new charter approvals as the union successfully bargained with L.A. Unified on terms of distance learning.”
11) Connecticut: Who is supposed to pay private school bus drivers, and when? “School bus drivers in Stamford are still waiting for paychecks, two weeks after Gov. Ned Lamont ordered schools systems to keep paying transportation workers and the companies they work for. Why the delay? Stamford Public Schools and First Student, the district’s private bus carrier, released clashing statements Tuesday over whether or not they are working together on a revised payment plan. A First Student spokeswoman says the company is “actively working with the district” to come up with a revised payment agreement. Stamford Public Schools says that’s not the case.”
12) Louisiana: Who pays school bus drivers from private, for-profit companies during the emergency, if anyone? “The main topic of discussion during the [Evangeline Parish School Board] meeting was an amendment to the board’s contract with First Student for the board to pay bus drivers while schools are closed because of the coronavirus. Hubert Mabe, location manager for First Student, told the board bus drivers have not been paid since the schools were ordered closed on March 20. “If this amendment goes through,” he said, “the drivers will be paid back pay for the time they missed and going forward through the end of the school year. It this does not go through, we will probably furlough everyone except one or two people in the office.” After much discussion, the board tabled the matter until next week.” Will First Student claim any Paycheck Protection Program money?
13) New York: The Buffalo News reports that “a charter school wants a ‘claw back scheme’ by Buffalo Public Schools to be deemed illegal. Tapestry Charter School on Friday filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court, accusing the school district of illegally withholding $782,439 in state aid.” [Sub required]
14) New York: Are charter schools going to become condominiums? “Utilizing the organization’s tax-exempt status, the Zeta Charter School commitment was structured as a leasehold condominium deal between the building owners of the Joyland Group, who was represented internally. Transwestern provided Occupier Solutions services for Zeta Charter Schools. Prior to this deal, Transwestern also represented the school in its 98,000-square-foot deal at 425 Westchester Ave. in the South Bronx for Zeta Bronx 1, which is also expected to open for the 2021-2022 academic year.”
15) Ohio: The Ohio Supreme Court has accepted an appeal from the defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which is challenging the state Board of Education’s order that the school return $80 million in overpayments of state aid.
16) Texas: IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson resigned from his position leading Texas’ largest charter school network Friday evening. He led the charter network for two decades. “Some of Torkelson’s financial and operational moves led to criticism over the past several months. Torkelson’s desire to lease a charter jet as a method of reducing travel hassles between the network’s hubs drew sharp backlash in December 2019. One month later, more scrutiny followed the disclosure that IDEA spent about $400,000 annually on luxury boxes and tickets for events at San Antonio’s AT&T Center. IDEA officials said more than 1,000 employees received tickets each season as a reward for performance, with the ‘lion’s share’ allotted to campus-level staff and students. During Torkelson’s tenure, several relatives of IDEA executives and board members also engaged in business dealings with the charter, including a company co-owned by Chief Operating Officer Irma Muñoz’s husband that billed more than $600,000 for uniforms, other clothing and gear.”
17) Think Tanks: Kevin P. Chavous, president of academics, policy and schools at K12 Inc., the private online education corporation, has taken up a position on the “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission,” a project of the Heritage Foundation. While Chavous was a board member of the American Federation of Children he pushed for the post-Katrina privatization of New Orleans schools.
18) National: Isaiah J. Poole, writing in Common Dreams, says that “when it comes to infrastructure—especially in the throes of climate change—it’s more important to do it right than to do it fast. That’s why it was encouraging to hear House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late last week put the brakes on a push for a massive infrastructure bill through Congress. A rushed bill is more likely to perpetuate policies that have been bad for years and will prove worse in the future, such as overemphasizing highway construction and underfunding public transportation, just to name one.”
19) National: Bond Dealers of America has submitted additional comments on the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility. Among the comments: “Scope of participation. The Fed’s announcement specifies that only states, counties with populations of at least 2 million, and cities with populations of at least one million are eligible to access the MLF directly. The Fed provides that ‘States may request that the SPV purchase Eligible Notes in excess of the applicable limit in order to assist political subdivisions and instrumentalities that are not eligible for the Facility.’ Unfortunately, the cut-off for direct issuer participation is much too high. By our calculation, only 24 local governments nationwide would qualify for direct access to the Fed program. This would leave tens of thousands of local governments and authorities unable to access the facility directly. We urge the Fed to consider opening the facility to a broader group of local governments.” [Letter]
20) National: In an replay of High Hooverism, conservatives are weighing in against an infrastructure stimulus. Brian Riedl, a former research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who’s now at the Manhattan Institute, says “this ‘stimulus’ bill will bury America more deeply in debt, fail to stimulate economic growth, and likely be squandered by politicians.” Baruch Feigenbaum, an assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, says “ultimately, transportation is a poor match for stimulus spending,” so we should “unleash the private sector.”
21) National: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) is pressing the Federal Reserve to expand its short-term note program, which shortchanges many cities. “Waters said most cities such as Atlanta, Boston and Detroit would have to seek indirect support from their states. ‘This approach risks exacerbating racial disparities in the federal government’s response to COVID-19,’ Waters said. ‘Recent analysis noted the program’s exclusion of the thirty-five most heavily African-American cities in the country, and found that: For every ten percent more black the city’s population, it is ten percent less likely to qualify for the Fed’s program.’”
Bond Dealers of America and the Government Finance Officers Association seem to agree with Waters on some points—though they don’t mention racial disparities or income maldistribution between candidate issuers. “Unfortunately, the cut-off for direct issuer participation is much too high,” wrote Mike Nicholas, BDA CEO.
22) Michigan: Vice reports that former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) “was warned about the dangers of using the Flint River as a water source a year before the water switch even occurred.” Jordan Chariton and Jenn Dize write that it was part of a plan to privatize the system. “Once in place as emergency manager, Brown, who was Flint’s former interim mayor, swiftly took on the Snyder administration’s water-switch plan as a cost-cutting measure. In February 2012, Brown wrote in the Flint Deficit Elimination Plan that the city was considering utilizing its Flint River as a short-term alternative to purchasing water from Detroit. Local Detroit officials and water activists saw a more sinister motivation at play, accusing Snyder of trying to break up DWSD in order to regionalize, and privatize, Michigan’s water supply. ‘Water was the cash cow,’ Meko Williams, political director for Detroit Water Brigade, told VICE, adding that Snyder was ‘heavily involved in shutting down DWSD and privatizing the system.’”
Criminal Justice and Immigration
23) National/California: Yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that advocates say hundreds of immigrants detained in California are on hunger strike. “Detainees have confirmed hunger strikes at Adelanto, Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield and Otay Mesa. Their demands include that ICE stop booking in new people, that all staff wear masks and gloves, that detainees be provided with adequate hygiene supplies and that those experiencing coronavirus symptoms be tested.”
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is demanding an investigation of conditions and practices at CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa ICE detention facility, which has experienced an outbreak of COVID-19. “But that’s not the primary reason why Harris wants the detention center looked at. She is worried about alleged abuse of detainees, especially allegations that detained individuals were forced to sign liability waivers before receiving protective equipment such as facemasks. ‘The horrifying conditions at Otay Mesa Detention Center are unacceptable,’ Harris said. ‘We are in a moment of crisis that requires leaders to respond swiftly and humanely in the interest of public health. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has failed to take sufficient commonsense actions that would save lives. That needs to change—now.’”
“Detainees should not have had to jump through any hoops to get protective masks,” the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board says, “especially because a detention center document obtained by the Union-Tribune showed 24 detainees there had tested positive for the new coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon. Seventeen are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the most of any ICE facility — and seven by the U.S. Marshals.”
Similar concerns have been reported about ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, also run by CoreCivic. “The health concerns regarding detainees at Stewart and other detention facilities are well founded. ‘The track record of the facility is a deadly one,’ says Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South, an Atlanta-based group that is representing Stewart detainees and alleging that they were subjected to forced labor by CoreCivic.” For more see Project South’s terrific 2017 report, Imprisoned Justice: Inside Two Georgia Immigrant Detention Centers.
Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi also owned and operated by CoreCivic, has reported five detainees COVID-19 cases and one for an employee.
24) National: Disappearing behind a mask of privatization. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “said it is not obligated to report contractors’ employees who have tested positive. Meanwhile, the agency confirmed its first positive case in Texas detention centers and continued facility transfers.” None of the cases reported by CoreCivic, GEO Group or Chenega Corporation “have been reported by ICE on its official list of COVID-19 positive detainees and employees, which lists only 25 infected detention center employees nationally. Instead, the agency says that information about infections of contractors must come from the contracting company. ‘The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Coronavirus website maintains information on individuals in our detention centers and ICE employees that have tested positive for COVID-19,’ ICE said in a statement. ‘Contractor information is maintained with each contract organization.’”
25) Florida: GEO Group has reported details of COVID-19 cases in the Blackwater River Correctional facility in Santa Rosa County, which it operates, “after state agencies repeatedly refused to answer questions about inmate deaths. (…) The state agencies, which are part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, for weeks have refused to disclose the information, despite numerous requests by The News Service of Florida and other news outlets. The agencies also kept the first two inmate fatalities secret for nearly a week, acknowledging the deaths only after they were reported by the News Service.”
26) National: Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), has demanded that a rescue of the U.S. Postal Service be included in the next congressional rescue package. “Dimondstein warned that Republicans and the Trump administration could be attempting to use the coronavirus crisis to advance the conservative movement’s longstanding goal of privatizing the Postal Service. (…) ‘I think it’s pretty straightforward,’ Dimondstein said of Trump’s agenda. ‘In June of 2018, an Office of Management and Budget report—that’s the White House—openly called for an opportunity to sell off the Post Office to private corporations. Their agenda is to enrich a few of their private sector friends at the expense of the people of our country… The underlying thing is, they’re coming after a right of the people.”
One of the central components of the White House’s proposal, which it touted again in February as the Postal Service warned of looming financial disaster, was rolling back postal workers’ right to organize.”
27) National: Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) sent a letter to the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) demanding that CMS Administrator Seema Verma reverse the policy set out in a guidance mandating that 11 Maximus call centers contracting with CMS force employees to work in-person, rather than telework. “Maximus has already been forced to close call centers in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana due to COVID-19 outbreaks at the centers in these states.”
28) National: Despite federal help, public service budgets across the country will be hammered. “While we appreciate that this will allow an initial $71 billion to be made available to meet some immediate cash flow needs of state and local governments, the magnitude of the crushing economic impact this virus has had on our states and residents cannot be overstated,” wrote Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
The Bond Buyer quotes Moody’s as saying that “the short-term municipal market, where annual issuance of notes maturing in 12 months or less totals approximately $40 billion, is unlikely to provide enough funding for states and local governments to bridge potentially large cash flow gaps without pushing yields materially higher to expand the market.”
29) National: Public service? Jordan Barab, OSHA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary from 2009-2017, says “more than 9,000 U.S. health-care workers have been infected with the COVID-19 & 27 have died. The biggest workplace catastrophe ever to hit the nation’s health care workers, and the agency tasked with protecting them is sitting on its ass.” OSHA is headed by Loren Sweatt, a former lobbyist for Associated General Contractors, a role not noted on her official bio.
The Center for Media and Democracy reports that “AGC has opposed national sick leave legislation in Congress that could mandate earned or paid sick leave. Such proposals were prompted in part by the threat of the H1N1 flu virus to human health and to the U.S. economy in 2009. State and local AGC charters from the East to West Coast have aggressively opposed the policies. For example, the Oregon charter contended that such a policy adopted in Portland in 2013 effectively raised costs by two percent to pay for sick leave and deprives contractors of the ability to add such costs into existing contracts. The Oregon AGC has called for amendments that would exempt collectively bargained agreements from the ordinances or legislation.
Sweatt’s boss is Eugene Scalia, son of the late far right Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Eugene, according to Open Secrets, “has an extensive record of defending business interests as a lawyer for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. He represented Walmart in a 2006 case that struck down a Maryland law requiring the company to pay more for employee healthcare and lobbied for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2010.” Salon reports that he has been “slammed for ‘despicable’ efforts to roll back unemployment benefits and paid leave in coronavirus stimulus.”
30) National: Rural hospitals, many of them public, are facing financial ruin. “City-owned Magnolia Regional Medical Center in Arkansas, where the virus is projected to peak later this month, is in dire financial straits—the rural hospital just furloughed 10 percent of its staff for two months, in what CEO Rex Jones called a “painful” reduction for the 49-bed facility.” But $75 billion of help pushed for by Democrats may be on the way.
31) National: Reuters reports that “as coronavirus infections exploded in New Orleans, state and local officials repeatedly told the Trump administration that its new drive-through testing effort wasn’t going well. Those tested often waited more than a week for results, and local officials had no information on who had been notified by a federally contracted call center [operated by Maximus—ed.], according to emails between local and federal officials reviewed by Reuters.”
32) International: ActionAid has released a 100-page report calling for gender responsive public services. The report discusses the privatization of education, child care, water access, public health, electricity, and agricultural extension services. “Privatization offers a false solution that entrenches gendered injustices. When States fail, women are left to pick up the pieces. What is clear is that this is a political and economic choice—one advanced by those with vested interests, who get away with it because of the persistent invisibility of the injustices around unpaid care and domestic work. This is changing but it needs to change much faster than it is. It is clear now that it is through taking action on the strategic financing of public services, though action on debt, austerity and tax justice, that we will achieve the transformations that are necessary.”