Archives for category: Democracy

Tom Ultican explains why he spends so much of his time fighting for public schools.

The original cause for my supporting public education was that my rancher father married a school teacher. Growing up on a southern Idaho ranch, I learned many philosophical and theoretical reasons for supporting the establishment and maintenance of public schools from my mother. However, it was from watching mom and her dedicated colleagues in action that I learned to truly respect and appreciate public school.

I remember stories of my father being warned that he better not treat that women wrong. For several years in a row she won the Elmore County sharp shooting contest. She didn’t like to chop a chicken’s head off so she would pull out her rifle and shoot it off.

Mom had some old school attitudes but maintained a mind of her own. There was a period in which she had to come home at lunch time and milk the cow. One Friday, after having to chase the cow across King Hill creek again, she had had enough; didn’t discuss it just loaded that cow into a trailer and took it to market.

In my home, there was no doubt about the value of education and also an abiding belief that the American public education system was unparalleled. My father was a high school basketball referee and an ardent supporter of music study.

As was common in the community, school events were family events. Helping the local school was one of the main missions of our civic organizations whether it was building viewing stands at the football field or sewing costumes for school plays.

My grandfather was an immigrant from Scotland who came to America on the Lusitania. Three years after his arrival that ship was sunk by a German U-boat killing 1,800 passengers and further pushing America into engaging with World War I.

It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British Education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path; if that education would continue and weather it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future. American students were not immersed in testing hell.

Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year olds, did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.

Still today, Idaho has a greater than 90% white population making it one of the whitest places in the world. It used to be even whiter.

I did not meet a Black person until I was a 17 years-old high school student. That year the University of Idaho Vandaleers gave a concert at my high school. A local rancher’s wife threw an after party for the choir and that is where I met Ray McDonald. Not only was he a talented singer, he was also one of the top running backs in America who would soon be drafted in the second round by the Washington DC professional football team. All I really remember is I was star struck and he was a friendly guy who played piano.

Although there was very little racial diversity in the community there was significant religious diversity. We had Mormons, Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Assembly of God and other denominations attending our schools.

In a 2001 interview conducted at the Gathering, Richard DeVos lamented that it was awful that public schools had replaced churches as the center of communities. He did not identify whose church was going to be accepted as the community center.

The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school based relationships.

Public schools became the foundation for democratic governance in the region plus it was literally where people voted. To me, it is unfeasible that a healthy American democracy does not include a healthy public school system.

America’s Founding Fathers Believed in Public Education

The second and third presidents of the United States advocated powerfully for public education. Thomas Jefferson saw education as the cause for developing out of common farmers the enlightened citizenry that would take the rational action a successful republican democracy requires. Jefferson contended,

“The qualifications for self government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

When Jefferson who was a former ambassador to France was queried about the French Revolution, he responded, “It has failed in its first effort, because the mobs of the cities, the instrument used for its accomplishment, debased by ignorance, poverty and vice, could not be restrained to rational action.” He called for the establishment of universal free public education claiming it as a requisite for the survival of a democratic republic.

Jefferson and his peer John Adams were integral to the founding of the United States. Jefferson is credited as the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Our system of government with its bi-cameral legislative branch, judicial branch and executive branch came about in great measure because of John Adams’ advocacy.

Like Jefferson, Adams also saw public education as crucial for the survival of our fledgling democracy. In a 1775 essay, he wrote:

“reformation must begin with the Body of the People which can be done only, to affect, in their Educations. the Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. there should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselves”

Shortly before the American Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had published the controversial novel Emile, or On Education. He was widely condemned by the ruling elite for the religious views expressed in the book. However, the main portion of the book was about education. Rousseau’s character in the book was a tutor for children of the wealthy. That was the nature of education in the 18thcentury. Only children of the wealthy had the wherewithal to be educated by private tutors or in one of the few private schools.

Jefferson and Adams were calling for egalitarian progress giving common people the tools required to be self-governing. They were calling for a public school system.

It was the Massachusetts education advocate, Horace Mann, who more than any American political leader was responsible for the nationwide spread of public schools. With the challenges of industrialization, immigration and urbanization, public schools became the fabric of social integration. Horace Mann became the spokes-person for schools being that instrument.

It was Mann’s point of view that children in the common school were to receive a common moral education based on the general principles of the Bible and on common virtues. The moral values to be taught in public school were Protestant values and the political values were those of republican democracy.

Integrating the Protestant religious view into the common schools caused a split in communities. The burgeoning Catholic immigrant population did not want their children indoctrinated with an anti-Catholic ideology. Following the civil war, these influences irrupted into the “Bible Wars.” Author Katherine Stewart shared that it was in this atmosphere that “President Ulysses S. Grant declared that if a new civil war were to erupt, it would be fought not across the Mason-Dixon Line but at the door of the common schoolhouse.”

Stewart also shared an insightful admonition from Grant:

“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”

Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.

As the 21st century dawned, the American public education system was facing a billionaire financed attack. Instead of financially enhancing public schools, libertarians called them “failures” and too expensive. They called public schools “monopolies” shutting out private business that would surely outperform “government schools.” Hopefully the aphorism attributed Lincoln is true: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, which is part of the City University of New York. Gabor has written insightful articles about education in the New York Times and at Bloomberg.com. She is the author of After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Education Reform.

The following is a summary of a chapter in her forthcoming book, MEDIA CAPTURE: HOW MONEY, DIGITAL PLATFORMS, AND GOVERNMENTS CONTROL THE NEWS, which will be published by Columbia University Press in June. She prepared this excerpt for this blog.

She writes:

For the past twenty years, American K-12 education has been on the receiving end of Big Philanthropy’s efforts to reengineer public schools based on free-market ideas, with foundation-funded private operators taking over large swaths of school districts in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Between 2000 and 2005 alone, three foundations—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—quadrupled their spending on K–12 education to $400 million. By 2010, the top 15 foundations had spent $844 million on public education.

Moreover, these Big Philanthropies coordinated their spending, investing in what Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Johns Hopkins’s Steven Teles call “jurisdictional challengers”—efforts aimed atupending traditional educational institutions, in particular public schools and school boards. Instead, the foundations funded a range of private and public institutions, including charter-management organizations and alternative teacher-development institutions such as Teach for America, as well as school-board candidates who would back the philanthropists’ reform agenda and help break the “monopoly” of public-school districts.

Diane Ravitch and a slew of other academics, bloggers and writers have documented the growing influence of Big Philanthropy and its convergence with federal education policies, especially under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, creating what the political scientist Sarah Reckhow calls “a perfect storm.”

As part of its soup-to-nuts strategy designed to maximize the impact of its gifts and expand its influence, Big Philanthropy has expanded its reach to universities, think tanks, government institutions, and the news media.

My chapter, “Media Capture and the Corporate Education-Reform Philanthropies,” in Media Capture, explores the efforts of the Big Philanthropy to shape public opinion by ratcheting up its spending on advocacy and, in particular, by investing in local news organizations. The philanthropies have supported education coverage at a range of mainstream publications—investments that often helped promote the foundations’ education-reform agenda. In addition, they have founded publications specifically dedicated to selling their market-oriented approach to education.

For the news media, battered by internet companies such as Craigslist and Facebook, which have siphoned off advertising revenue, funding from philanthropies comes at an opportune time. Nor can private foundations be faulted for supporting the news media, especially given the rise of “alternative facts” and demagoguery during the Trump era. Foundation funding has long been important to a range of respected news organizations such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, as well as established education publications, such as Education Week.This is not to say that this funding has unleashed a spate of pro-reform coverage. Indeed, I have published essays critical of the education-reform philanthropies in many foundation-funded publications. However, logic suggests that publications desirous of repeat tranches of funding will at least moderate their critical coverage.

What is particularly troubling are the large contributions to local news organizations—many of them earmarked specifically for education coverage—by foundations that explicitly support the takeover of local schools and districts by private operators. My chapter explores how philanthropic support of news organizations—including new publications founded and run by education-reform advocates—is aimed at creating a receptive audience for the foundations’ education-reform agenda.

The Gates Foundation’s effort to influence local and national policy via the news media is a case in point.

The Gates Foundation alone devoted $1 billion in the decade from 2000 to 2010 to so-called policy and advocacy, a tenth of the foundation’s $3 billion-a-year spending, according to an investigation by The Seattle Times.

Although much of that money went to analyze policy questions—such as the efficacy of vaccine-funding strategies—“the ‘advocacy’ side of the equation is essentially public relations: an attempt to influence decision-makers and sway public opinion.”

In 2011, The Seattle Times published an exhaustive article about its leading hometown philanthropic organization and asked: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?” (At the time, the Gates Foundation also was bankrolling a slew of education policies, including the common core, and building political support for “one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.”)

The Seattle Times showed how the Gates Foundation funding goes far beyond providing general support for cash-strapped news organizations:

“To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.”

Indeed, Gates usually “stipulates” that its funding be used for reporting on issues the philanthropy supports—whether curing diseases such as HIV or improving U.S. education. And although Gates does not appear to dictate specific stories, the Seattle Times noted: “Few of the news organizations that get Gates money have produced any critical coverage of foundation programs.”

The Seattle Times story was written before the newspaper accepted a $530,000 grant, in 2013, the bulk of it from the Gates Foundation, to launch the Education Lab. The paper described the venture as “a partnership between The Seattle Times and Solutions Journalism Network” that will explore “promising programs and innovations inside early-education programs, K–12 schools and colleges that are addressing some of the biggest challenges facing public education.” The Gates Foundation contributed $450,000, with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funding the rest.

In a blog post, the newspaper addressed the potential conflict of interest posed by the grant: “The Seattle Times would neither seek nor accept a grant that did not give us full editorial control over what is published. Generally, when a grant is made, there is agreement on a specific project or a broad area of reporting it will support.” The newspaper earmarked its funding for so-called “solutions journalism.”

It may be laudable for a publication to focus on “solutions” to societal problems. But almost by definition, a mission that effectively targets “success stories” diminishes journalism’s vital watchdog role.

Then too, Gates’s influence extends well beyond Seattle. The Associated Press documented the Gates foundation’s soup-to-nuts effort, in 2015, to influence education policy in Tennessee.

“In Tennessee, a Gates-funded advocacy group had a say in the state’s new education plan, with its leader sitting on an important advising committee. A media outlet given money by Gates to cover the new law then published a story about research funded by Gates. And many Gates-funded groups have become the de facto experts who lead the conversation in local communities. Gates also dedicated millions of dollars to protect Common Core as the new law unfolded.”

Meanwhile, the same year in Los Angeles, fellow philanthropist,Eli Broad, identified Gates as a key potential investor in his $490 million plan to dramatically grow the city’s charter-school sector. The plan included a six-year $21.4 million “investment” in “organizing and advocacy,” including “engaging the media”and “strategic messaging.” (The charter-expansion plan itself followed an $800,000 investment by a Broad-led group of philanthropists to fund an initiative at The Los Angeles Times to expand the paper’s coverage of K–12 education.) In 2016, Gates invested close to $25 million in Broad’s charter-expansion plan.

The Gates Foundation also served as a junior partner in one of the most audacious, coordinated efforts by Big Philanthropy to influence coverage of the education-reform story—the establishment, in 2015, of The 74 Million, which has become the house organ of the education-reform movement. The 74 has been a reliable voice in favor of the charter-school movement, and against teachers’ unions. In 2016, it published The Founders, a hagiography of the education-reform movement. And it has served as a Greek chorus of praise for the education reforms in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter district, while ignoring the experiment’s considerable failings.

Key contributors to the publication, which boasts a $4 million-annual budget, were the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Soon after it’s founding, The 74 acquired a local education publication, the L.A. School Report, which itself had been heavily funded by Broad. In 2016, Gatescontributed, albeit a relatively modest $26,000, to The 74.

.

Jeanne Kaplan is a veteran civil rights activist who was elected to serve two terms on the Denver school board. She has been active in multiple campaigns to stop privatization and over-testing and energize a genuine effort to improve the public schools. She wrote this piece for this blog.


  THE SISYPHEAN TASK IN DENVER

The dictionary defines Sisyphean task as something you keep doing but never gets completed, an endless task.  In Greek mythology Sisyphus is punished by the god Zeus and is tasked with endlessly pushing a rock up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down each time he nears the top.  I will leave the deeper philosophical meanings to others.  Simply interpreted, public education advocates residing in the Queen City of the Rockies, “transformers” if you will, will find similarities to this story as we reflect on our battle to defeat “education reform.”  In Denver’s case the Sisyphean task master has not been a vengeful god, but rather a school board member or a school board itself which through their betrayals continues to keep “transformers” tasked with pushing the education transformational rock up the mountain.

Call it the Sisyphean Challenge, Groundhog Day, a Broken Record, Déjà vu.  However you describe it, these “transformers” are experiencing another setback in their attempts to stop or at least slow down the business-based “education reform” model. In 2009 Denver voters thought they had put an end to the then still budding “education reform” movement.  “Transformers” won four of seven seats on the school board but quickly lost that advantage when, within hours of the election, one supposed “transformer” flipped sides.  For the next ten years education reformers had free reign in Denver. Four to three boards became a six to one board, became a seven to zero board.  All for “education reform.”  Forward ten years to today.  “Transformers” once again gained control of the Denver School Board in theory.  This time the transformer majority was believed to be 5-2.  But local education reformers – with a lot of help from national reform partners – once again figured out how to get their privatization agenda through this hypothetically anti-privatization 5-2 Board.  By consistently voting to renew and re-establish privatization policies and projects, today’s Board has deprived Denver voters once again of reaching the mountain top, and usually by a 6-1 vote.  And from today’s perspective the rock has once again rolled down the mountain.

The below listed organizations, initiatives and foundations have all had their hand in preventing educational transformation in Denver. The list is thorough but not comprehensive:

1 – A+ Colorado30 – Empower Schools
2 – Adolph Coors Foundation31 – Gates Family Foundation
3 – Anschutz Family Foundation32 – Janus Fund
4 – Bellwether Education Partners33 – KIPP – Knowledge is Power Program
5 – Bezos Family Foundation34 – Koch Family Foundations
6 – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation35 – Laura and John Arnold Foundation
7 – Bloomberg Philanthropies36 – Laurene Powell Jobs – Emerson Collective
8 – Boardhawk37 – Leadership for Educational Equity
9 – CareerWise38 – Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
10 – Chalkbeat39 – Lyra Learning – Innovation Zones
11 – Chan Zuckerberg Initiative40 – Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
12 – Schusterman Family Foundation41 – Moonshot
13 – Chiefs for Change42 – PIE Network (Policy Innovators in Ed)
14 – City Fund43 – Piton/Gary Community Investments
15 – City Year44 – Relay Graduate School of Education
16 – Colorado Health Foundation45 – Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation
17 – Colorado Succeeds46 – RootEd
18 – Community Engagement & Partners47 – Rose Foundation
19 – Daniels Fund48 – School Board Partners
20 – Democrats for Education Reform49 – Stand for Children
21 – Denver Families of Public Schools50 – Students First
22 – Denver Foundation51 – Teach for America
23 – Denver Scholarship Foundation52 – The Broad Academy/The Broad Center
24 – Donnell-Kay Foundation53 – Third Way
25 – EdLeadLeadership54 – TNTP
26 – Education Pioneers55 – Transform Education Now (TEN Can)
27 – Education Reform Now56 – Wallace Foundation
28 – Education Trust57 – Walton Family Foundation
29 – Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Below are some of the reform ventures coaxed through by these groups.  Many have been used to maintain the failing status quo.  Some have been used to make money for friends and colleagues.  Some have been outright failures.   But by its failure to address them or by its continued tolerance of them, the DPS Board has sanctioned the continuation of privatization in our city:

·      At a time when education reform was truly hanging on by a thread in Denver, the Board assured its continued existence for the foreseeable future by voting to renew the use of the racially biased state accountability system, going even further into reformland by promising to develop a new accountability “dashboard” (a key “reformer” tenet).  While testing is state mandated, the District did not even explore the possibility of waiving its obligation to rely on this system. This one decision has also allowed the proliferation of many of the above listed groups and has given new life to the overall privatization movement.  A lot of new players are making a lot of new money from the public education system in Denver. After all, what is the business model really about if it is not about making money?  This one vote has allowed the continuation of some of the most divisive and punitive practices such as:

1.     Relying on high stakes testing even though the Board has given lip service to wanting a waiver this year due to COVID; 

2.     Relying on a non-transparent Choice system, which some believe is being used to fill unwanted charters;

3.     Ranking of schools and continued competition resulting in winners and losers among students and schools;

4.     Relying on Student Based Budgeting where the money follows the student;

5.     Marketing of schools, whereby wealthier schools and schools with their own board of directors (charters and Innovation Zone schools) have a distinct advantage;

6.     Giving bonuses to employees of schools based on test scores.  

Other recent reform-oriented Board decisions include:

·      Voting to renew or extend all 13 charter school contracts that were up this year even when some were struggling for enrollment and academic success.  The Board claimed it did not want to disrupt kids and families.  Portfolio model.

·      Promoting school MERGERS as opposed to school CLOSURES for under enrolled neighborhood schools, somehow thinking voters won’t notice that merging schools results in the same failed policy as school closures, that campaign promises have been broken, and that charter schools are being treated differently.  Portfolio model.  

·      Voting to approve new Innovation Zones, the hybrid portfolio model that supposedly gives schools more independence while, unlike charters, is still under the control of the school board.  These Innovation Zones do, however, have their own administrative staff as well as their own boards and have ushered in their own cottage industry. Portfolio Model.

·      Working with City Fund funded School Board Partners for Board training. City Fund is a relative newcomer to the education privatization world and is largely financed by Netflix Reed Hastings and John Arnold of Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Locally, City Fund has dropped $21 million into Denver’s own RootEd to assure “every child in Denver has the opportunity and support to achieve success in school, college and their chosen career.” This needs to be done equitably, of course!  And only within a non-union school!  Grant funding from private sources to promote private interests.

·      Hiring a Broad trained Superintendent search company, Alma Advisory Group.  Alma has also been involved in executive searches for both City Fund and The Broad Academy, two quintessential privatizers.  More than four months have gone by since DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova resigned.  Four metro Denver school districts have had superintendent vacancies this winter.  Two have already found their leaders.  Denver is still holding community meetings which if they follow DPS history, will end up be ing rather meaningless.  Most importantly, will this “reform” inclined group be able to bring a wide-ranging group of candidates forward? The Broad Academy, training leaders in education reform.

·      Continuing to allow and expand non-licensed teachers and administrators from programs such as Teach for American and Relay Graduate School of Education into DPS’ schools and continuing to tell the public they are just as qualified as professional educators.   Anyone can teach!

Why do these examples matter, you might ask?

For starters, review the list of organizations and people pushing privatization.  The sheer number is staggering.  Then check out the similarity of language in their missions, visions, and goals and the uniformity of strategies and messaging.

·      Every child deserves a great school. 

·      Every school deserves all the support it needs to ensure equity.

·      Every school should have parent and community partners.

·      Every school should be anti-racist, celebrate diversity, be inclusive.

These are all worthy goals, albeit very general ones.  But what is the overall strategy to achieve them?  Privatization and the business model focusing on innovative and charter schools using an accountability system based on high stakes testing to define success seems to be their answer.  And in spite of claims that “reformers” are agnostic as to the type of school they foster, there are a few common characteristics they demand in their privatized schools:  

·      the ability to hire and fire anyone at any time; employees do not have to be licensed; at-will employees if you will.  That’s right.  No unions in innovation or charter schools.  Anyone can teach. 

·      an accountability system based on high stakes tests; schools and employees evaluated and punished by the results of these racially inappropriate tests.

·      market-driven criteria used to define school success.  Winners and losers, competition, closures, choice, chaos, churn.

·      “learning loss,” the pandemic-based slogan, must be addressed by unrelenting dependency on high stakes testing.  No test waivers for this crazy school year.  “Reformers” must have that data, and they must remind everyone that in spite of Herculean efforts on many fronts, public education has failed. 

Add to this scenario the amount of money being spent to further this agenda. Determining this takes some patience because the tax records are often difficult to find and decipher. Then try to deduce who is benefitting from each program.  This also takes some digging, for let me assure you, public education has spawned not a cottage industry but rather a mansion industry!  Search the group you are interested in and check out its board and staff.  And finally, look at the effect all of this has had on kids.  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Isn’t it always about the kids?  In reality few of these extra ventures have had any effect on kids.  Fewer still touch kids directly.

Each privately funded unit on this list has had a privatized DPS connection of some sort.  Some initiatives are duplicative. Some are very narrowly focused. Some purport to be THE ANSWER to public education’s struggles.  There is no tolerance for differing beliefs.  Yet, after 15 years of experimentation Denver’s students remain mired in mediocrity, suffering from an ever narrowing curriculum and dependent on evaluations, ratings, and a definition of success based on racially biased tests.  Nationally, Denver Public Schools remains a leader in implementing “education reform” but alas, it also remains a leader in teacher and principal turnover and home to one of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the nation. 

We in Denver have been subjected to the high-octane version of “education reform” for more than 15 years.  Choice, charters, competition, closures have resulted in three unequal tiers of schools (charter schools, innovation zones, neighborhood schools).  Reformers call this “the portfolio model.”  I call it structural chaos. Michael Fullan calls it fragmentation, a system wrongly focused on “academics obsession, machine intelligence, and austerity.”  To those privatizers who say, “but you have no solution,” Fullan has one that would turn public education on its head and could possibly produce what all of us involved in the public education scene say we want: robust, equitable education for all.  Fullan has a solution for whole system success that would be focused on the human elements of public education:  learning and well-being, social intelligence, and equality of investments.   But in order for anything like this to work the superintendent and the board must be on the same page.  Elections matter.  And candidates need to understand what is at stake and what they have been elected to do.

Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. (Given today’s America it might have slipped to second place behind voting rights). I ran for school board on that belief, I witnessed its importance through the lives of my immigrant parents. I do not believe our democracy will survive without public education, but the cornerstone must change. Radically.  Dramatically.

Imagine if all of the efforts of those 50 plus organizations were combined into one united movement focused on an anti-racist, equitable systemic change.  And imagine how truly revolutionary, transformative and unifying this movement could be if it included voices and ideas not aligned with the business model but with people who are willing to truly look at things differently, people who were willing to be honest and show leadership.  Imagine how during this unique time in our nation’s history this new system could have resulted in a new and exciting way of delivering and evaluating teaching and learning, well-being, equity and equality.  Imagine how exciting this unique time in Denver could been had we taken advantage of this opportunity.  , Instead, DPS decided to continue with the status where money and power continue to rule, where a business model has been buttressed to portray a non-existent success, and where an elected Board of Education has turned its back on its mandate.

Historically “transformers” in Denver have been dogged in their attempts to get that rock to the mountain’s peak.  We have kept fighting even when betrayed by school board members, even when organization after organization has put down roots to continue the mirage of success, even when untold millions of dollars have been invested in programs that have yet to make a significant difference in educational outcomes.  Can we in Denver defy Greek mythology and end this Sisyphean nightmare? Or are there too many yet unknown obstacles in our path to stop us once again?  Elections will decide. Time will tell. 

Jack Schneider is a historian of education at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. He and Jennifer Berkshire recently published a superb book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, which I recommend to you.

The “Public” in Public Schools

There are two stories that we tell over and over these days about our schools. The first is that schools are a mechanism for getting ahead in our society. In a competition of each against every, schools are the ostensibly meritocratic sorting mechanism that determines who gets what. The second story is that schools are the engine of the economy. Education builds human capital, which in turn promotes economic growth.

These aren’t entirely wrong. Despite the fact that the privileged work feverishly to tilt the playing field for their children, schools can and often do serve a leveling function. And it is impossible to imagine the American economy thriving in the same way without an educated populace. Yet this is a torturously narrow way of understanding the value of public education.

We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can win advantage in an unequal society (and we especially don’t have public schools so that racially and economically advantaged families can launder their privilege). Nor do we publicly fund education so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society. 

The founders knew this. As early as the 18th century, leaders were making the case that education was too important to be left to the whims of the market. If the young republic was to be governed by the people, those people needed access to schooling. Of course, education wasn’t universal from the outset; racially minoritized students were excluded and segregated, low-income students attended poorly-funded schools, and students with disabilities were refused at the door. But access to public education increased in commensuration with the recognition of other rights. Over time, our notion of “we the people” has expanded most obviously in our schools, and the benefit of this has accrued to all of us. We live in a stronger and healthier society because of our investments in public education.

And public schools weren’t merely seen as purveyors of academic content. As early advocates like Horace Mann understood, an increasingly diverse society needed a mechanism for fostering civic relationships and mutual understanding. Schools could draw young people from various walks of life together under a common roof and teach them to work in common cause. Although this inclusive vision of education has often remained an elusive ideal, integrated schools are also a reality. They have strengthened all of the communities in which they exist, and at a time of increased social fracturing it is perhaps more important than ever to heed the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall—that “unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will learn to live together.”

As Jennifer Berkshire and I document in our new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (which Diane wrote about in The New Republic), public education in this country is presently facing an extinction threat. Those who wish to privatize it like to make the case that the “public” part of public education isn’t so important; in fact, they argue that it’s a liability. I vehemently disagree. In the nineteenth century, we had a system much like the one envisioned by the radical right. And is essential to remember that public education was developed as a replacement for that largely-private system, which had proven insufficient at advancing the public good. There are things that all young people in this country should learn, and common destinies for which they should be prepared. Moreover, this is work that should be done in equal fashion for all, since we all stand to benefit from the education of our populace.

We’ve been so distracted by the use of schools for social mobility and economic sorting that many of us have forgotten about the essential role education plays in making and sustaining an American public. Yet what other institutions do we have for fostering the kinds of civic virtues that increasingly seem so short in supply? Shall we leave it to private entities to build that public? Do we trust that the profit motive will advance the interests of us all? Whatever the flaws in our existing system, we risk tremendous harm in unmaking it. 

Robert Skeels was a public education advocate in Los Angeles who decided to become a lawyer to fight the powerful corporate charter industry. After receiving his BA in classical civilizations at UCLA, Skeels spent years as an activist, inspired by Paulo Freire, then earned his law degree in 2018. This is the only instance to my knowledge where a charter critic decided that he had to get a law degree to fight the charter industry.

As a part-time associate at a law firm in Los Angeles, he has won two cases against the powerful and well-funded charter industry.

He wrote in Medium:

My first win against a corporate charter school was a year ago as third chair in a suit to overturn a wrongful expulsion of a student of color. The Partnerships to Uplift Communities (“PUC”) charter chain (of convicted felon Ref Rodriguez fame) violated that student’s due process rights. Violated isn’t a strong enough word for what they did. PUC unilaterally changed the charges at the appeals hearing and branded the child as a terrorist in his permanent record. Under the tutelage of the brilliant partners at the law firm I was a part-timer at the time (I am currently transitioning to full time there), plus sage advice from @DrPrestonGreen, we built a strong case.

Skeels’ second victory came just days ago, when he defended the blogger known as Michael Kohlhaas in his pursuit of the records of a charter chain. Kohlhaas exposes the dirty secrets of government, businesses, and other powerful forces in Los Angeles. In one of his important exposes, he revealed that Nick Melvoin, who represents the charter industry on the Los Angeles school board, had shared the board’s legal strategies with the California Charter Schools Association while in litigation with them.

Skeels writes:

This latest case was a charter trying to hide all its dirty secrets by not complying with the CPRA [the open records law]. The scandal-ridden The Accelerated Schools (“TAS”) charter chain’s leaders absconded when the community started pushing back and started asking questions about union busting.

Michael Kohlhaas dot org sent sent TAS several CPRA requests in 2018, which they ignored (unlawfully). A year later, I filed the petition for writ of mandate for them. Some ten months later TAS sent some records, but claimed “blanket exemptions” on a bunch of other ones.

An infamous law firm that only represents lucrative, privately managed charter school corporations staked out the position that any communications with the charter school industry’s trade association — the CCSA — was subject to a range of exemptions under the CPRA.

I suppose I can’t blame them. The charter industry — long used to unaccountably spending tax dollars in total secrecy — fought tooth and nail the imposition of the CPRA and Brown Act added by Ed. Code § 47604.1(b)(2)(A). When the law took effect January 2020, charter school corporations were already looking for ways to skirt the law. At the firm I’m a junior associate at, we use the CPRA for pre-discovery work against charter corporations. Michael Kohlhaas dot org, on the other hand, has used it to expose some of the ugliest, scandalous conduct by an industry already infamous for scandal. Uncovering the vile Nick Melvoin’s sharing Los Angeles Unified School District’s (“LAUSD”) confidential legal strategies with their party-opponent in a lawsuit (the CCSA) was a blockbuster revelation enabled by the CPRA.

The judge in the case ruled that the charter chain was not entitled to the blanket exemption from disclosure for its records.

Skeels wrote: “Let the corporate charter school industry know that they aren’t going to be able to hide their dark secrets anymore.”

I like this post by Peter Greene a lot because it clears up confusion about what defines a public school. Many people think that charter schools are public schools because most state laws define them as “public charter schools.” The charter industry wrote the state laws, and they desperately wanted to be considered “public schools” so they could qualify for the same funding as public schools (in Texas, they get even more funding than real public schools). The proliferation of corporate charter chains make it even harder to see charter schools as public schools, since nowhere in the history of public schools were multiple schools managed by a corporation.

Greene asks the questions that define what a real public school is.

Here are a few of them:

Is the school and its resources owned by the public?

Who owns the building? If the school closed tomorrow, who would take possession of the building, the desks, the chairs, the books, the music stands, etc etc etc. If the physical resources of the building are owned by the public, it’s probably a public school.


Is the school run by local elected officials?

When we get to the very top level of management, do we find a board of local people elected by local taxpayers? If so, it’s probably a public school. We’re in a fuzzy grey area in districts under mayoral control, but not at all fuzzy when discussing upper management that is not elected by anybody at all.

Did those local officials open the school?

Who decided this school should exist, and that local taxpayers should pay for it? If that decision was made by a board of local citizens elected by local taxpayers, it’s probably a public school.

Are those local official required by law to meet only ever in public?

Can the board of local citizens elected by the local taxpayers meet in secret? Or must their meetings be announced and in public, with exceptions only for times when the group must adjourn for privacy regarding, say, personnel or student issues? Public school boards don’t get to meet unannounced, privately.

Are all financial records available upon request, and subject to state audit?

If you’ve gone to court to block the state from auditing your school financial records, you are not a public school. It’s simple, really– you’re spending taxpayer money, and the taxpayers are entitled to an accounting of it. Any taxpayer should be able to access your financials. The state should audit you regularly.

If your school doesn’t meet these minimal requirements, it is not a public school.


Ezra Klein of the New York Times interviewed Senator Bernie Sanders for his podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show.”

Listen to “The Ezra Klein Show”:Apple PodcastsPocket CastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsStitcher (How to Listen)

Bernie Sanders didn’t win the 2020 election. But he may have won its aftermath.

If you look back at Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’s careers, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, looks a lot like the proposals Sanders has fought for forever, without much of the compromise or concerns that you used to see from Senator Joe Biden. That’s not to take anything away from Biden. He’s the president. This is his plan. And it is to his credit that he saw what the country needed, what the politics of the moment would support and where his party had moved, and met it with full force.

But Sanders’s two presidential campaigns are part of the reason that the Democratic Party had moved, and the politics of the moment had changed. And so I’ve wondered what Sanders makes of this moment. Is it a triumph? A disappointment? A beginning?

And I’ve wondered about his take on some of the other questions swirling around the Democratic Party: Are liberals alienating people who agree with them on economics by being too censorious on culture? Is there room to work with populist Republicans who might be open to new economic ideas even as they turn against liberal democracy itself?

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or clicking play above. An edited transcript follows:

The 2009 stimulus was 5.6 percent of the G.D.P. in 2008. The Rescue Plan this year is 9.1 percent of last year’s G.D.P. So it’s just much bigger. And the individual policies in it are, in my view, much less compromised. So why are 50 Democrats in 2021 legislating so much more progressively than 59 Democrats did in 2009?

Well, I think that there is a growing understanding that we face unprecedented crises, and we have got to act in an unprecedented way. Members of Congress look around this country, and they see children who don’t have enough food, people facing eviction. People can’t get health care. We have, obviously, the need to crush this terrible pandemic that has taken over 500,000 lives.

And I think the conclusion from the White House and from Congress is, now is the time to do what the American people need us to do. And it turned out to be a $1.9 trillion bill, which, to my mind, was the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.

Let’s say I’m someone on the left who supported you in 2020. I’m looking at the American Rescue Plan and I see the $15 minimum wage got dropped, paid family leave got dropped. The child tax credit, which is my favorite part of the bill, it’s only temporary. Convince me that I should be excited about this. Why do you think it’s so significant?

I don’t have to convince you. We have already convinced 75 percent of the American people that this is a very good piece of legislation. And I think progressives out there understand that given a fairly conservative Congress, it is hard to do everything that we want to do.

I was bitterly disappointed that we lost the minimum wage in the reconciliation process as a result of a decision from the parliamentarian, which I think was a wrong decision. But we’re not giving up on that. We’re going to come back, and we’re going to do it.

But in this legislation, let us be clear we have gotten for a family of four — a working-class family struggling to put food on the table for their kids — a check of $5,600. Now people who have money may not think that’s a lot of money. But when you are struggling day and night to pay the bills, to worry about eviction, that is going to be a lifesend for millions and millions of people.

We extended unemployment to September with the $300 supplement. We expanded the child tax credit to cut child poverty in America by 50 percent. Now, that’s an issue we have not dealt with for a very long time — the disgrace of the U.S. having one of the highest rates of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. Well, we did it, and we hope to make it permanent. That is a big deal.

And obviously, we invested heavily in dealing with the pandemic, getting the vaccines out to the people as quickly as possible to save lives. In terms of education, billions of dollars are going to make sure that we open our schools as quickly and as safely as we can. We tripled funding for summer programs so the kids will have the opportunity to make up the academic work that they have lost. Tripled funding for after-school programs so when kids come back next fall, there will be programs the likes of which we have never seen.

So this is not a perfect bill. Congress does not pass perfect bills. But for working-class people, this is the most significant piece of legislation passed since the 1960s. And I’m proud of what we have done.

However, it is clear to me — and I think the American people — that we have more to do. This is an emergency bill that says, in America families should not go hungry. People should not be forced out of their homes.

Now we have to deal with the long-term structural problems facing our country that have long, long been neglected way before the pandemic: rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, address the existential threat of climate change, create many millions of decent-paying jobs, build the millions of units of affordable housing that we need.

In terms of the social issues: fight structural racism, immigration reform, fight against the growing trend of authoritarianism. We’re living in a nation today where 30 percent or 40 percent of the American people have given up on democracy — a worldwide problem. How do we combat that? We got to deal with voter suppression and the effort of Republicans to make it harder and harder for people of color, lower-income people, to vote.

There are a huge number of issues out there. Some of them are existential — they have to be dealt with. And I intend to do everything that I can as chairman of the Budget Committee to make sure that we continue to move forward.

This bill, as you mentioned, passed through budget reconciliation. The things that couldn’t go through budget reconciliation got dropped from it. But a bunch of the different policy measures you just mentioned can’t go through budget reconciliation. You can’t do immigration reform there. You can’t do H. R. 1, the For the People Act, or H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Act.

Well, I’m not so sure.

You’re budget chairman. Tell me why.

I don’t want to bore the American people with the rules of the United States.

Bore me. [LAUGHS]

If you have insomnia, pick up the rule book. You’ll be asleep in about five minutes. It is enormously complicated. It is enormously undemocratic. It is designed to move very, very slowly, which we cannot afford to do, given the crises that we face today.

This is the way I look at it: We have a set of literally unprecedented crises. Ideally, it would be nice that we could work in a bipartisan way with our Republican colleagues — and maybe in some areas, we can. But the major goal is to address these crises. That is what the American people want. And if we can’t do it in a bipartisan way with 60 votes, we’re going to figure out a way that we get it done with 50 votes.

I have never heard a theory under which you could do democracy reform bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or a major immigration reform bill through budget reconciliation. Do you see a way around that? Are you talking about the Democrats changing reconciliation or changing the filibuster?

Well, obviously, I believe that we should do away with the filibuster. I think the filibuster is an impediment to addressing the needs of this country, and especially of working-class people. So I believe that at this moment we should get rid of the filibuster, and I will work as hard as I can to do that.

I’m not going to lay out all of our strategy that we’re working on right now. But what I repeat is that this country faces huge problems. The American people want us to address those problems. And we cannot allow a minority to stop us from going forward.

There’s a lot of coverage, as there always is, about potential friction in the Democratic caucus in the Senate — differences between, say, a Senator Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and others. Do you find the caucus to be united on strategy more, or less than in the past?

Obviously, you’ve got 50 people. And when you have 50 people, the crazy situation is that any one person could prevent us from moving forward. But I think and hope that there is an understanding that despite our differences — and some of these differences are significant — we have got to work with the president of the United States, who I think is prepared to go forward aggressively in a number of issues. We cannot sabotage the needs of the American people.

So any one person really has enormous power. But I would hope that by definition, when you are a member of a caucus, you fight for what your views are within the caucus. But at the end of the day, nobody is going to get everything they want. I did not get everything that I want in the American Rescue Plan. Others did not get everything they wanted.

But at the end of the day, we have got to go forward together because we need to be united. And I think there is a widespread understanding about the importance of that.

Let’s talk about the dynamics between the parties right now. A few months ago, you were working with Senator Josh Hawley on bigger stimulus checks. That was a very effective project. But then Senator Hawley votes against certifying the election. He raised his fist to the mob from the Capitol. How have your relationships with Republicans changed in the aftermath of Jan. 6?

Well, all in all, I don’t want to get into personalities here. But this is what I would say. And I think it’s a very sad state of affairs.

Obviously, in the last many years, only accelerated by Donald Trump, the Republican Party has moved not only very far to the right, but moved in the direction of authoritarianism. You have a president of the United States saying a month before the election that the only way he could lose that election is if it was stolen from him. After he lost the election, he says, obviously, it was stolen. And you have now a very significant majority of Republicans who believe that the election was stolen.

That is where many Republicans are. You got a lot of Republican senators, members of the House, who are refusing even today to say that Joe Biden won a fair and square election. So you’ve got a whole lot of problems. That’s one of the issues that as a nation, as a Democratic Party, we have got to address.

Do you think a byproduct of how the Republican Party has changed is that it puts less emphasis on economic issues than it used to? I was struck by how much more energized Republicans were the week that the American Rescue Plan passed by the debate over Dr. Seuss’s books than by this $1.9 billion spending bill.

Look, the energy in the Republican Party has nothing to do with tax breaks to the rich. Republicans are not going into the streets, the Trump Republicans, saying: We need more tax breaks for the rich, we need more deregulation, we need to end the Affordable Care Act and throw 30 million people off their health care. That’s not what they’re talking about.

What Trump understood is we are living in a very rapidly changing world. And there are many people — most often older white males, but not exclusively — who feel that they’re losing control of the world that they used to dominate. And somebody like Donald Trump says: “We are going to preserve the old way of life, where older white males dominated American society. We’re not going to let them take that away from us.” That is where their energy is.

One of the gratifying things is the American Rescue Plan had a decent amount of Republican support — 35 percent, 40 percent. But among lower-income Republicans, that number was 63 percent.

So I think that our political goal in the coming months and years is to do everything we can to reach out to young people, reach out to people of color, reach out to all people who believe in economic and social justice, but also reach out aggressively to working-class Republicans and tell them we’re going to make sure that you and your children will have a decent standard of living. We’re going to raise the minimum wage for you. We’re going to make it easier for you to join a union. We’re going to make sure that health care in America is a human right. We’re going to make sure that if we do tax breaks, you’re going to get them and not the billionaire class.

I think we have a real opportunity to pick up support in that area. And if we can do that — if you can get 10 percent of Trump’s support and grow our support by addressing the real issues that our people feel are important — you’re going to put together a coalition that is not going to lose a lot of elections.

The Republican strategy right now, to your exact point, is to go to these people and say, the Democrats want to take away things that are culturally important to you. They want to take away your Dr. Seuss books. They want to take away your guns. They want to make it so your kids can’t go to religious school.

How do you talk to voters who are actually worried about those direct questions — who may agree with Democrats on the economic side, but are worried the Democrats are going to take things they culturally care about?

It’s a good question, and no one that I know has a magical answer to it. I do think that addressing economic issues is helpful. It’s not the 100 percent solution. As you know, you’ve got the QAnon people telling their supporters that Democrats — I’m not sure what the latest particular thing is, killed babies and eat their brains or something. Is that the latest thing that we’re supposed to be doing? I don’t know.

But when people who are in trouble suddenly receive a check for $5,600 for a family of four, when their unemployment is extended, when they get health care that they previously did not have, when they’re better able to raise their child, it’s not going to solve all of these cultural problems by a long shot, but it begins maybe to open the door and say, well, you know what? This is good. Trump didn’t do this for us. And maybe these Democrats are not as bad as we thought that they were.

I think it’s going to take a lot of work. These cultural issues, I don’t know how you bridge the gap. You have people who are fervently anti-choice, and I’m not sure that you are going to win many of them over. But I think what we have got to do is do what I’m afraid the Democrats have not always done in the past. And that is treat people with respect.

I come from one of the most rural states in America, and I lived in a town of 200 people for a couple of years. And I think there is not an appreciation of rural America or the values of rural America, the sense of community that exists in rural America. And somehow or another, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America. I think we’ve got to change that attitude and start focusing on the needs of people in rural America, treat them with respect, and understand there are areas there are going to be disagreements, but we can’t treat people with contempt.

Do you think there is truth to the critique that liberals have become too censorious and too willing to use their cultural and corporate and political power to censor or suppress ideas and products that offend them?

Look, you have a former president in Trump, who was a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. This is a bad-news guy. But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about that.

Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and an insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t. So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned, and tomorrow, it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.

I don’t like giving that much power to a handful of high-tech people. But the devil is obviously in the details, and it’s something we’re going to have to think long and hard on.

Do you think Joe Biden is having an easier time selling an ambitious progressive agenda than Barack Obama did, at least to these audiences, partly because he’s an older white man, rather than a young Black man?

I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s not forget that Barack Obama, after four years, was re-elected with a pretty good majority. He was a popular president and a very popular figure today. But I think you can’t look at Biden or Obama without looking into the moment in which they are living. I think in the last number of years since Obama, political consciousness in this country has changed.

I think to a significant degree, the progressive movement has been successful in saying to the American people that are in the richest country in the history of the world, you know what? You’re entitled to health care as a right. You’re entitled to a decent-paying job. Your kid is entitled to go to a public college or university tuition-free. That it is absolutely imperative that we have the courage to take on the fossil-fuel industry and save this planet by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels. That it is a moral issue that we finally deal in a comprehensive way with 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

I think Biden is in a position where this country has moved forward at the grass-roots level in a much more progressive way. It is not an accident that today the House of Representatives is far more progressive than it was when I was there in the House.

And then you had a president who was a moderate Democrat throughout his time in the Senate, who had the courage to look at the moment and say, you know what? The future of American democracy is at stake, tens of millions of people are struggling economically. They’re really in pain. Our kids are hurting. Seniors are hurting. I’ve got to act boldly. And Biden deserves credit for that.

But what I hope very much is that understanding of the need to act bold goes beyond the American Rescue Plan and is the path that Biden continues during his administration.

Let’s talk about those generational differences. You’re no spring chicken, but you were the overwhelming choice of young voters in 2020. How are the politics of younger voters different, and why are they different?

I love the younger generation. I really do. And it’s not just because they supported me. People say, how did you get the support of the younger people? We treated them with respect and we talked about the issues to them in the same way we talked about the issues to every other generation that’s out there. I think you’ve got a couple of factors, though.

No. 1, for a variety of reasons, the younger generation today is the most progressive generation in the modern history of this country. This is the generation that is firmly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia, anti-xenophobia — a very compassionate generation that believes in economic and social and environmental justice. So you’ve got that.

And then the second thing you’ve got is, this is a generation of young people that is really hurting economically. This is the first generation in the modern history of this country where, everything being equal, they’re going to have a lower standard of living than their parents. And that’s even before the pandemic, which has made a bad situation worse.

This is a generation where, on average, young workers are making less money than their parents. They’re having a much harder time buying a home or paying the rent. This is a generation stuck with a huge amount of student debt. And I was surprised, when we first raised this issue of student debt back in 2016, how it really caught on.

Because people are saying, you know what? What crime did I commit that I have to be $50,000 or $100,000 in debt? I was told over and over again, get an education. I got an education. I went to a state university. I went to a private school. I went to school for four years, and now I’m stuck with a $50,000, $100,000 debt. I went to graduate school. I went to medical school. I got $300,000 in debt. That’s insane.

I think if you look at the young generation from an idealistic point of view, it’s a generation that has expectations and views that are much more progressive than their parents and grandparents. But it is also a generation that wants the government to address the economic pain that they are feeling.

It was a striking moment when President Biden released a video pretty explicitly backing the workers trying to unionize at Amazon’s Alabama warehouse. What could Congress do to help? What do you want to do to help reverse the decline of unionization in the U.S.?

I’m chairman of the Budget Committee, and we just had a hearing which touched on that issue. We had a young woman from a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., the Amazon plant there, and she was talking about why they need a union. I invited Jeff Bezos to attend the hearing to tell me why a guy who was worth $182 billion thinks he has to spend millions of dollars to fight workers who are trying to form a union to improve their wages and working conditions.

What I have believed for a long time, what Joe Biden believes, is we need to pass legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions. Because if workers are in unions and can negotiate decent contracts, their wages will go up. Their working conditions and their benefits will improve. So we are working hard on that issue, and something I know the House has passed. I want to see it passed here in the Senate as well.

Should Democrats be pushing for something bigger, like sectoral bargaining?

I believe so. I campaigned on that. But I think bottom line is that Democrats got to take a deep breath and to make the determination of whether or not they’re going to become the party of the American working class — a class, by the way, which has suffered really terribly in the last 40 or 50 years, where today, workers are barely in real wages making any more than they did 40 or 50 years ago, despite huge increases in technology and productivity. I think we got to do that.

And I think when we do that — when we have the courage to take on powerful special interests, taking on Wall Street, taking on the drug companies, taking on the health care industry, taking on big campaign contributors who want to maintain the status quo — we are going to be able to transform this country and create an economy and a government that works for all. And I think Democrats are going to have very good political success as well.

The Rescue Plan will be followed up by a big jobs and investment package. What needs to be in that package for it to win your support?

The simple stuff and obvious stuff is, you’ve got an infrastructure which is crumbling and roads and bridges and water systems and wastewater plants. I would add affordable and low-income housing to any discussion of infrastructure. So you’ve got to deal with infrastructure, and when you do that, you can create millions of good-paying jobs.

But obviously, also, you have to deal with the existential threat of climate change. We’ve got to guarantee health care to all people as a right. You got to deal with immigration reform. You’ve got to deal with criminal justice and systemic racism. So those are some of the big, big issues that are out there.

You can listen to the entire conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or clicking play below.

The following essay was written by Michael Podhorzer, Senior Advisor to the president of the AFL-CIO. I totally agree that the key to building a strong middle class is the expansion of unions. The plutocrats have done a great job of demonizing them and destroying the ladder into the middle class that unions offer. Right now, Amazon workers are deciding whether to form a union in Bessemer, Alabama. I hope they win. Jeff Bezos should share the wealth with those who work for him. He should not have nearly $200 billion. Why should Elon Musk and Bill Gates have nearly $200 billion? Couldn’t they be satisfied and live in luxury with only a few hundred millions? In a just world, societies would dedicate their best efforts to reducing inequality and eliminating poverty. Let’s give credit to Joe Biden on this important issue. He has said he is a union guy, and he is pushing legislation to enable workers to join unions.

Podhorzer wrote:

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the PRO Act this week, Amazon workers in Alabama continue to vote to form a union and President Biden’s released a video encouraging working people to join unions.  

While the prospect of a national conversation about supporting working people organizing themselves against their exploitation is long overdue, maddeningly, even those who support unions regret the “decline in union membership.” Stating the fact that union members make up a smaller share of the workforce than they once did in the passive voice (decline) erases causality, implicitly confirming the idea working people are now less likely to want to be in a union, or that unions are outdated, or that unions themselves have done a poor job selling themselves. In fact, research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows more than 60 million people would vote to join a union today if given the opportunity and Gallup recently found that union approval stands at 65%, one of the highest marks in a half-century. 

A more accurate characterization of the same fact would be, “intense and sustained corporate campaigns to bust unions, make it more difficult to form unions, exclude more sectors of the workforce from access to union membership and depict unions in the worst possible ways, along with an often bi-partisan retreat in federal support for working people, relentless roll backs by Republican Presidents and Republican trifecta states have dramatically reduced the number of working people who even have the option of joining one.” 

This is yet another example of progressives repeating their opponents’ framing with the effect of making the intentional and contingent seem natural and inevitable.   Similarly, we routinely talk about profits rising, but never about the fact that an increasing share of those rising profits come from preventing working people from sharing in the gains from their increasing productivity. Thus, since the pandemic, all of Amazon’s gains have been captured by Jeff Bezos and the company’s largest shareholders, not the working people risking (and losing) their lives to enable many of us to get through this year without much to disturb our lifestyles. 

Meanwhile, progressive opinion leaders and policy wonks wring their hands and heroically search for fresh solutions to the most pressing crises of the day as if there isn’t a substantial body of evidence that increased union membership ameliorates many of them, including income inequality, democratic participation, racism and authoritarianism among other things (below).  

Studies show that union workers make about $150 billion more a year than non-union workers in wages alone controlling for industry, occupation education and experience. And union workers are much more likely to have health, pension and leave benefits than non-union workers, and those benefits are much more substantial than those non-union workers who have them at all. To put that in perspective: $150 billion is more than twice the SNAP program, yet costs the taxpayer almost nothing. 

All of this will seem improbable at best as long as you imagine that the benefits accrue from unions as the institutions you experience in your professional life.  The benefits accrue from allowing working people to organize themselves collectively and democratically to act on their own behalf.   It is the practice of acting democratically and collectively to negotiate contracts and set working conditions that produces more tolerant, effective citizens. Union members vote for things that matter in their daily lives from their shop steward to the health benefits in their contracts. They can see how much more powerful they are together, embracing their linked fate than they are on their own. They practice a democracy that has all but disappeared elsewhere in America. 

Even if most progressives don’t fully understand how much more powerful working people acting together on their own behalf are than government programs designed to help them, corporations do. That’s why, since the Wagner Act they have relentlessly attacked working people’s ability to combine. 

The Taft-Hartley Act is most known for opening the door to “right to work.” By the 1950’s most southern states were “right to work,” crippling the CIO’s multiracial organizing efforts in the region. The creation of an effectively non-union, low wage region of the country quickly had two profound effects. First, by offering a low wage domestic region to relocate to, unionized corporations had greater leverage against their employees demands. Arguably as important, but much less recognized, it put an end to the development of a national working class consciousness. 

Even less well recognized are the impacts of the restrictions Taft-Hartley put on joint action. The Taft-Hartley Act also banned  jurisdictional strikessolidarity or political strikessecondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. In doing so, the Act made illegal the ways in which working people could join together beyond their own employer on behalf of other working people. In this way again, corporations were able to criminalize the development of class solidarity. That has also radically shaped the incentives of unions as institutions. 

MORE THAN THE WEEKEND

While there’s growing acknowledgment of how much the neoliberal market absolutism that triumphed in the late 1970’s is responsible for the present state of affairs, there’s relatively little genuine awareness of what it replaced, or how breaking working people’s ability to act collectively was central to its success. 

Although very far from perfect, from the New Deal until the 1970’s was a period in which pluralism was seen as an essential element of healthy democracy. And there was no more important element of pluralistic America than the labor movement.  At an elite level, a tripartite pluralism consisting of business, labor and government was seen as crucial for the nation’s prosperity and robust democracy. (For example, John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism; The Concept of Countervailing Power and The New Industrial State.)

Unions demonstrated to ordinary people that community problems could only be solved by coming together; strength in numbers was more than a slogan, it was a democratic habit and the way America often functioned. This was a period of movements that led the way to the progress since eroded and continuously under siege.  The advances made on civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection and limiting foreign military intervention and nuclear proliferation (for a time) reflected sustained collective action that required immense social capital built up from the myriad associations that were common at the time to cohere and a shared experience that government would be responsive.

That social capital and sense of agency is shot, demonstrated by our learned helplessness in the face of Trump’s shredding so much of what those movements delivered.  This Brookings’ Tracking Deregulation in the Trump Era provides a staggering inventory of decimation. For example, not only has Trump been dismantling the environmental regulatory system, the EPA has been routinely granting thousands of waivers and just not enforcing the law. And, almost without notice, the longstanding treaties and instruments to control nuclear proliferation have been discarded.

The rest of this Weekend Reading provides a guide to resources that demonstrate the ways in which an empowered workforce changes everything and concludes with key points about the PRO Act. 

Inequality

The labor movement plays many positive roles in democratic societies—but the most foundational is making sure that the people who do the work of society share in the wealth they create.  This is one of many charts the show the connection between corporate success weakening unions and the increasing share of income going to the top ten percent. 

Income inequality is the result of unequal power. It’s that simple. 

  • Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages provides an excellent overview of much of the literature. 
  • This paper from Hank Farber, Daniel Herbst, IIlyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu is just-revised and packed with terrific (and comprehensive) analysis of the relationship between unions and inequality.  It shows how the strength of unions and collective bargaining in the United States after World War II disproportionately benefited low wage workers and workers of color.  It remains the gold standard analysis so far of unions and economic outcomes over the long-run in the 20th century.  
  • Internationally, this report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) documents the positive effects of unions across the developed world.
  • This paper found that, “the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality” from 1973 to 2007. 

Democracy

As I said earlier, it is only recently that the accepted idea of that holding free and fair elections was the only requirement to qualify as a democracy. The degree to which people have collective agency in their daily lives determines the health of the society and the democracy. We don’t even notice the ways in which the law facilitates the affluent acting collectively, most notably through corporations. Or the ways in which the law inhibits everyone else from acting collectively. The following research develops that idea. 

  • Authoritarianism. This study in Nature showed that “Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice.” Specifically, they found that “participatory meetings led workers to be less authoritarian and more critical about societal authority and justice, and to be more willing to participate in political, social, and familial decision-making.” It confirms earlier research here and here that unions fundamentally change members understanding of and expectations for the relations of power between themselves and their employers. 
  • Resistance to system justification. John Jost’s Theory of System Justification provides a powerful explanation of why oppressed people rarely rebel. Much more to come on this in future Weekend Reading and Open Mic. Relevant here is the theory’s logic, borne out in research that willingness to protest is much less a function of the extent of oppression than beliefs about group efficacy.  “Collective action is more likely when people have shared interests, feel relatively deprived, are angry, believe they can make a difference and strongly identify with relevant social groups.”
  • Responsive Congressional Representation.  This recent paper from Michael Becher and Daniel Stegmueller uses an impressive array of survey data and union membership data to show how the presence of stronger unions within U.S. House districts leads to more policy responsiveness for lower-income Americans (and less responsiveness for higher-income Americans), especially on economic issues.
  • Protest. This paper by Greg Lyon and Brian Shaffner documents how unions increase protest activity among non-members through social ties, especially relevant for thinking about how unions have seeded and supported recent protests.

Racism

Although very far from perfect, and especially in its origins often an accomplice to segregation and racism, the union movement has also been an essential partner in dismantling elements of systemic racism.  In Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965, Eric Schickler recovers the importance of the partnership between the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Civil Rights movement.   The solid segregationist South initially supported most of the early New Deal’s pro-worker legislation, including the Wagner Act. However, once the CIO began multi-racial organizing efforts in the South, Southern Democrats turned on the labor. Over the next several decades, the Civil Rights movement and the CIO the power of the Southern wing inside the Democratic Party, succeeding in adopting a Civil Rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention that triggered Thurmond’s third party candidacy that year which carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Speakers at the March on Washington included A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther. 

Furthermore, union membership increases racial tolerance. For example, this paper from Paul Frymer and Jake Grumbach uses survey data to show how union membership leads to more tolerant views of racial minorities among white workers, and is an important reminder of the spillover effects of unions on many other attitudes and preferences beyond economic policy.

Politics

Many have written about the role of unions in politics. Tom Edsall makes the point, obvious to Grover Norquist, business and the right wing, but somehow obscure to many Democrats and progressives, that gutting the labor movement would mean that, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.” Republicans wasted little time after their state electoral sweep in 2010 to attack unions, beginning in Wisconsin.  The recent book, State Capture, tells this story.  

Numerous studies document the connection between union strength Democratic and progressive political impacts. Union members vote more Democratic than their neighbors. Nate Silver (2008) and Harry Enten (2012) write about how consequential that gap was, accounting for about 1.7 points of Obama’s margin in both elections. After controlling for other demographics they found that union membership was one of the most important variables. Thus, it is not surprising that fewer union members = fewer Democrats:

  • Right to Work. In this 2018 study, Alexander Hertel Fernandez carefully examined the impact of the passage of Right to Work laws and concluded that Democrats pay an average of a 3.5 point penalty after passage. They attribute that to lower union density, less political activism and collateral impacts on family and neighbors.  Data for Progress takes a different approach, and finds the same result. Instead of looking at RTW, they create a time series relating union density to congressional vote for each of the 50 states. As union density in a state declines, so does the Democratic vote share. It’s a very steep curve after 1990.   (Includes density-Democratic vote graphs for every state.)
  • Fewer Resources for Politics. Both the OpenSecrets and FollowTheMoney websites track union giving. For example, the 2018 election cost $2.1 billion more than 2010, but union spending increased by only $81 million. That was the pattern at the state level as well. That said, unions are still a very significant share of independent spending.

So, while Democratic strategists obsess in their search for the message or counsel a “cultural” conservatism that will get a few more working class votes, they ignore the evidence that increased union membership would provide a much greater and durable increase in Democratic support.  

THE PRO ACT

The PRO Act is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression because it will:

  • Empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize and bargain. 
  • Ensure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized.
  • End employers’ practice of punishing striking workers by hiring permanent replacements. Speaking up for labor rights is within every worker’s rights—and workers shouldn’t lose our jobs for it.
  • Hold corporations accountable by strengthening the National Labor Relations Board and allowing it to penalize employers who retaliate against working people in support of the union or collective bargaining.
  • Repeal “right to work” laws—divisive and racist laws created during the Jim Crow era—that lead to lower wages, fewer benefits and more dangerous workplaces.
  • Create pathways for workers to form unions, without fear, in newer industries like Big Tech.

Click here for the AFL-CIO’s PRO Act toolkit.   Click here for the Economic Policy Institute’s Why unions are good for workers—especially in a crisis like COVID-1912 policies that would boost worker rights, safety, and wages.

This interview was recorded by Town Hall in Seattle, which is a great venue for speakers but in COVID Times was recorded remotely. I interviewed them about their important new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

They had some very valuable insights, and the time flew by. I hope you will take a few minutes and join us.

The tiny city of Cudahy, California, is locked in battle with the mega-powerful KIPP charter chain over KIPP’s determination to build a charter school on a toxic waste site. KIPP is avoiding the usual environmental review that would be required for public schools. Local environmental activists and parents are raising money to fight the KIPP machine.

Larry Buhl writes in “Capital & Main”:

At issue are a state law allowing different building standards for different types of schools, and a planning code, obscure to most local residents, that allows a charter school company to build a new school without thoroughly cleaning up the site’s alleged toxins.

Using a process that allows the company to skirt state environmental rules, KIPP SoCal Public Schools plans to build a new elementary school on land that its own reports show contains toxic substances including lead and arsenic. The company can do that because the regulations for building or renovating charter and private schools are less restrictive than for state-funded district schools, and because Cudahy has, according to critics and plaintiffs in a lawsuit, used the wrong planning code to approve the project.

If charter schools were public schools, there would be a full environmental impact review.