Ron Sachs/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images Betsy DeVos appears before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension for her confirmation hearing. I n 1997, when Arizona launched the nation’s first tax-credit scholarship program, allowing individuals to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofits offering private school tuition grants, legislative aides estimated it would cost the state $4.5 million annually. By the 2015-16 school year, the yearly cost of the program had grown to more than $140 million, even though private school enrollment was actually below its 1997 levels. Florida launched the nation’s second tax-credit private school voucher program in 2001, with a cap of $50 million. Today the program tops out at $559,000,000 annually, and will increase to $699,000,000 in the next fiscal year. Pennsylvania’s tax-credit school voucher program, also launched in 2001, was originally capped at $30 million . Designed to provide tuition assistance to private schools, pre...
AP Photo/Julio Cortez New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses a question on President Donald Trump's travel ban during a news conference, Tuesday, January 31, 2017, in Newark, New Jersey. N ew Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s post-election tribulations continue to pile up. In September, Christie’s administration petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to vacate a 2011 ruling that found his prior education funding cuts unconstitutional. The petition also requested authority to bypass teachers’ collective bargaining agreements and tenure laws. The outspoken Republican, a long-time foe of organized labor, claims that these employment rules, not school funding levels, squander already scarce dollars and harm students in low-income districts. But Tuesday, New Jersey’s high court denied the Christie administration’s attempts to link tenure and collective bargaining to school funding. Long regarded as a national leader in progressive school finance, the Garden State’s funding formula is...
(AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Shari Lewis) KIPP Journey Academy teacher works with a group of students in Columbus, Ohio. P ublic school advocates and labor unions have been pressuring members on the Senate education committee to vote Tuesday against Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s controversial pick to head the federal education department. Pointing to the Republican billionaire’s track record in politics, advocacy, and philanthropy, critics argue that she represents an existential threat to public schooling. Flying under the radar of this high-profile fight is a little-known labor battle escalating at one of the nation’s most well-regarded and politically powerful charter school networks. With 200 schools across the country, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is known for boosting student achievement among low-income students, and elevating the “no excuses” style of teaching to the national stage. In late June, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City’s teachers...
REX/Shutterstock Betsy DeVos at her Senate Confirmatoin hearing in Washington D.C. on January 17, 2017. A t an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos's financial disclosures. So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent . But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos...
It’s no secret that school board politics can create bitter enemies, but rarely do such battles end in actual employee firings.
But nine New Jersey public school employees are claiming that a school board feud cost them their jobs, and they've recently filed a provocative federal lawsuit, each seeking $100,000 in damages.
The former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools—the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey—say they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights of political speech and association after they campaigned for certain school board candidates who ultimately lost. In what could turn out to be a costly twist, the school board says it might file a countersuit, alleging nothing less than federal racketeering violations.
The whole drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter political feud that’s divided two competing factions within the local Democratic party.
The case centers on the district’s November 2015 school board election, when three of nine seats were up for grabs. Two rival Democratic blocs endorsed different slates of candidates, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.
According to the federal complaint, one faction, known as “Continue The Progress” (CTP), has maintained a majority on the school board for about two decades. In 2015, three candidates (Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina, and Michelle Velez-Jont) ran on the CTP ticket.
The other Democratic faction, backed by Elizabeth’s mayor of 25 years, J. Christian Bollwage, supported three CTP opponents (Charlene Bathelus, Stephanie Goncalves, and Daniel Nina). Prior to the 2015 election, the school board comprised five CTP members and four Bollwage-backed members. But all the CTP candidates lost, giving the mayoral faction a 6–3 majority.
The plaintiffs allege that upon taking power, the Bollwage faction “purged” the district of employees who openly supported or were perceived to support the CTP candidates. They claim their contracts were terminated not due to performance, “but rather due to retaliation” for political activity. Their 28-page complaint, drafted by an attorney with a Philadelphia-based law firm, alleges First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
The stakes for this kind of suit are high. In the September 2015 issue of The American Prospect, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia, reported on the growing threat of “employer mobilization”—when employers recruit workers into political activity (or retaliate against them for their own political activity). Workers are already subjected to threats, harassment, and other forms of retaliation for union activity, and Hertel-Fernandez says that “it is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.”
In a statement released to Union News Daily (named for the New Jersey county Elizabeth is located in, not the labor movement), Elizabeth district spokesperson Pat Politano said the allegations made against the district, the superintendent, and the school board are “false, frivolous, and will be defended vigorously.” All contract renewals made since January 2016, he said, were done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations. According to NJ.Com, Politano’s former job involved consulting for the political campaigns of mayor-backed board members.
Politano said the school district is “considering all appropriate legal actions” in response to the complaint, including the possibility of filing the racketeering counterclaim, arguing that previous boards of education saw the district “as a source of personal benefit to themselves and their political allies.”
In this northern New Jersey city, it seems corruption charges can fly both ways—even within the same party.