Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former American Prospect writing fellow.

Recent Articles

The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, ex-felons in Baltimore demand the right to vote. 

Rachel M. Cohen
Rachel M. Cohen O n August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protesters made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents —a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street. The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of...

NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

In another interesting development for the movement to unionize charter schools, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Teach for America corps members should have been allowed to vote in a Detroit charter union election earlier this year.

Detroit 90/90, a charter management organization for the University Prep charter network, said that Teach for America teachers shouldn’t be permitted to vote because they are not professional employees. Instead, they argued, TFA members should be viewed as long-term substitute teachers.

Patrick Sheehan, a Detroit TFA-er told MLive that he and his fellow corps members are really pleased with the NLRB’s decision. “U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn't respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

Shaun Richman, the AFT’s deputy director of organizing told The Prospect that University Prep’s argument was an insult to all TFA corps members and alumni around the country. “Nobody would have dared to say that TFA corps members are not really teachers even a year ago,” said Richman. “But now that they want a union, suddenly those kinds of insults are apparently on the table.”

While Teach for America does not officially take a stance on unionization efforts, Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, praised the NLRB’s decision. "We’re pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership,” she said. “As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.”

There are roughly 11,000 current TFA teachers and more than 37,000 alumni around the country. About 60 percent of Detroit Teach for America corps members work in charter schools. Nate Walker, AFT-Michigan’s K-12 organizer and policy analyst, was a former Detroit TFA-er himself.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more union campaigns launched at charter schools, and more Teach for America members among them. Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters. According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones.

The Senate Wants to Eliminate One of the Most Successful Affordable Housing Programs

For more than 20 years, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program has helped rural, suburban, and urban communities provide housing for some of their most vulnerable citizens. HOME is the largest federal block grant for state and local governments that can be used to create affordable housing for low-income populations, including seniors, families with children, people with disabilities, veterans, and the homeless.

In FY 2010, Congress allocated $1.8 billion to the HOME program. One year later, thanks to the Budget Control Act of 2011—also known as the “sequester”—Congress sharply reduced HOME’s budget to $900 million. It hasn’t gone up since.

The lack of quality affordable housing is one of this nation’s most pressing economic problems. Despite this, the proposed FY 2016 House budget only provides $767 million for HOME—a 58 percent reduction from pre-sequester levels.

The Senate goes even further, proposing a mere $66 million for HOME—a 93 percent reduction from 2010. (HUD breaks down those cuts by state here.) Experts agree this would effectively kill the program.

On July 27, more than 1,500 organizations sent Congress a letter in support of HOME and urged legislators to lift sequester spending caps:

These constraints, and the severe HOME cut specifically, would have a drastic, negative impact on our nation’s ability to provide decent, safe, and sanitary affordable housing for those most in need at a time when housing markets and the broader economy continue to struggle and the need for affordable housing continues to grow. Therefore, we call on you and your colleagues in Congress to lift these caps and restore HOME funding to no less than $1.06 billion, as requested by the Administration for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.

According to Enterprise Community Partners, a real estate investment company that focuses on affordable housing and community development, HOME has helped to build and preserve more than one million affordable homes and has provided direct rental assistance to hundreds of thousands of families. The White House Office of Management and Budget says the proposed Senate cuts would lead to a loss of roughly 39,000 affordable housing units for low-income families.

HOME’s flexible block grant dollars have also been used to help fill financing gaps within other federal housing programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the U.S. Department of Rural Housing. That means HOME cuts could negatively impact those initiatives too.

Moving forward with these cuts would be disastrous. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, in 2013 only 26 percent of very-low-income households that were eligible for rental assistance received any assistance. And researchers say that nearly 2.2 million housing units could disappear from the nation’s affordable stock over the next decade. We need greater federal investments, and fast. 

Ohio Charter Teachers Fired for Organizing Will Be Reinstated

Teachers at the Ohio-based I CAN charter network decided to organize a union during the 2013-2014 school year. Yet when the school year ended, the administration did not renew contracts for seven teachers leading the union drive—resulting in a cancellation of the scheduled union vote. While about 40 charter schools in Ohio are already unionized, those are mostly conversion schools, meaning teachers had already worked for the district before going to work for a school-district sponsored charter. These I CAN schools would have represented the first start-up charters to go union in the state.

After the firing, I CAN educators and the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a federal complaint, which accused I CAN of making teachers feel like they were under surveillance and for pressuring employees to reveal the identities of union leaders. The complaint also alleged that I CAN increased staff salary and benefits just before the scheduled vote in order to dissuade teachers from joining a union.

One of the fired teachers, Kathryn Brown, told The Plain Dealer that she wants a union because teachers don’t feel valued. "The I CAN network believes that administration and a teaching template are all you need for education,” said Brown. “That's the big flaw and why I got involved in unionization. A school is not just administration."

This past October, the NLRB regional director sided with the teachers and accused I CAN of “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees.” The founders of the charter network, Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, denied the allegations, insisting that nobody was fired specifically for union organizing. (They pointed out that most involved in the union effort did have their contract renewed.) But Emerson and Stragand also made it clear they want to keep their schools union-free. "It would really cripple our principals and administrative staff. It could dramatically change the model. It could drastically change what we do," said Emerson.

While the I CAN schools would have been the first Ohio start-up charters to organize, other charters in the Buckeye State have since moved ahead with their own successful campaigns. This past March teachers at the Columbus-based Franklinton Preparatory Academy voted to join a union. Since then three more charter schools in Youngstown have also voted to unionize.

As for I CAN, this week the NLRB finally reached a settlement with the charter network and imposed penalties for interference. I CAN will have to re-hire four of the fired teachers and give all seven teachers back pay. School officials will also have to post a statement in their school buildings that says they cannot interfere with union organizing efforts. However, the NLRB settlement did not include any finding of wrongdoing and I CAN only needs to pay $69,000 to be split among the seven teachers.

David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union told The Plain Dealer that he and other Ohio Federation of Teacher leaders feel vindicated by the NLRB settlement, calling it “one of the strongest we’ve seen in our years of helping to organize our fellow teachers at charter schools.”

I CAN teachers are reportedly planning to schedule a union vote this coming fall. They will join a growing number of charter teachers around the country who are also organizing their own union drives.

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

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