Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

California Teachers Unions Push for Cushion Before Upcoming SCOTUS Case

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that could severely weaken the power of public-sector unions. The justices will decide whether such unions can charge “agency fees” (also known as “fair share fees”) to individuals who wish to dissociate with their union’s political lobbying but still benefit from workplace collective bargaining.

These reduced annual dues help stave off “free riders”—those who enjoy the advantages of union membership without financially contributing to the union’s work. The case’s lead plaintiff, Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, insists her free-speech rights are denied by paying agency fees, and argues that unions won’t actually suffer if she wins in court. “It’s hard for me to describe,” she told The Washington Post. “I just want liberty. I want to stop this silencing of my voice and the silencing of millions of teachers out there.”

As the Prospect’s Justin Miller put it, “the Friedrichs case has the potential to overturn decades of legal precedent [since 1977] that has become intractably embedded in union strategy—and state law.”

In the meantime, The Sacramento Bee reported that teacher unions in California are pushing Governor Jerry Brown to embrace a last-minute measure that would permit unions to address all new teachers during their orientations. Such conversations could help unions recruit new members, and thereby mitigate the negative effects of an unfavorable ruling in Friedrichs. As reporter Christopher Cadelago wrote:

Up against the clock in the Legislature, the labor groups are pushing for a bill that could give unions some time—a half-hour—to meet with employees to voice the benefits of union participation. That, some believe, could prevent workers from fully withdrawing from their ranks if the court rules against fair share fees.

One version of the teacher unions’ bill is “nearly identical” to a California bill that grants unions up to 30 minutes to speak to new home health-care workers during their orientation period. That law was passed shortly after the Supreme Court’s 2014 Harris v. Quinn ruling, which said that Illinois home health-care workers could not be required to pay agency fees. (Harris v. Quinn avoided the free-speech questions that will be considered in Friedrichs.)

Groups like the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, and the California Special Districts Association say that bills like the ones proposed by the teacher unions should be considered only after the Supreme Court makes its final decision in Friedrichs, and only when there is more time available for public comment.

I’d guess that if California legislators were planning on supporting a bill like this, they’d wait until after the Friedrichs decision came down, just as the home health-care worker bill passed after the Harris case was decided. Either way, we won’t have to speculate for much longer, because California’s legislative session ends this week.  

The For-Profit College Industry Is Losing its Most Loyal Politician

Congressman John Kline is not exactly a household name, even to D.C. politicos. And for the past dozen years, he’s preferred it that way. Kline has successfully flown under the radar while quietly becoming one of the most powerful politicians on education policy, reaching his apex in 2011 when he took the helm of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

Kline, who represents Minnesota’s 2nd District, announced yesterday that he will not be seeking reelection in 2016. While most are likely focused on the fact that this opens up a crucial seat in a noted swing district, you can be sure that the for-profit higher education industry is heartbroken.

That’s because Kline has notoriously been the industry’s closest political ally, taking gobs of contributions from for-profit education groups while fighting back regulations on the Hill designed to rein in the problematic sector. Nobody in Congress has taken more money from for-profits than John Kline—and since his appointment as the head of the education committee, his coffers have been flooded.

In 2010, he received $57,000 from for-profit institutions, according to OpenSecrets. In 2012, $204,000. And in 2014, $186,000. The money comes from the biggest (and most lucrative) for-profit education groups in the country. Most notable of them all is Apollo Education Group, which owns the biggest for-profit chain, University of Phoenix. In 2013-2014, the group spent nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions and in 2014 alone spent nearly $1.4 million in lobbying.

As the industry has exploded over the last ten years, so has its political influence and lobbying presence. Given that these schools are heavily dependent on federal student loans, wielding power at the Capitol is essential. The industry has become a political target for reform as it has become known for predatory recruiting tactics, lackluster training, and abysmal student outcomes. Recruiters regularly target low-income minority students who are prime candidates for financial aid, as well as military veterans who have GI Bill funding. When President Obama pledged to regulate the industry in 2010, lobbying became a priority. In 2009, the industry spent $2.9 million in lobbying; by 2011, that number reached $12.5 million.

The money has paid off so far as legislative reforms have run into various roadblocks. That’s mostly thanks to John Kline, who controls what education policy comes before his committee. In 2014, a bill that would have prevented for-profits from milking the federal aid system and targeting military veterans died within 15 minutes of being introduced in his committee. Kline said that the bill was “nongermane” to his hearing on financial aid.

Time and time again, Kline has used his position in Congress to beat back attempts at regulating for-profits all the while claiming that his biggest campaign contributors have no influence on his politics.

So as Kline announces his impending retirement, let’s keep an eye on what he does with the rest of his term as the gatekeeper on education policy. It will also be interesting to see the industry scramble as they try to find a replacement lap dog to continue championing their right to profit off the exploitation of vulnerable students. 

There's Plenty of Evidence on the Value of School Integration

I read an exchange on Twitter yesterday between Maggie Severns, an education reporter at Politico, and CJ Libassi, a researcher at the Education Policy Initiative, an organization committed to “applied, policy-relevant research for improved educational outcomes.” They were discussing my recent piece about Obama’s record on school integration. I was struck in particular by this part:

 

 

I found it surprising, and worrying, that a prominent education journalist and an education policy researcher would both say that they have looked around and cannot find “any actual evidence” on the value of school integration.

School desegregation conversations are complex and difficult, which is all the more reason we should strive to make our discussions as informed as they can be. I have no idea what Severns’ and Libassi’s attempts to find evidence looked like, but given that perhaps there are other mainstream journalists and researchers who have faced similar issues, I decided it would make sense to quickly post some starting points:

1. The Spivack Archive is an accessible social-science database that explores the impacts of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic integration. Its stated purpose is to “provide scholars, education rights attorneys, policy makers, and the general public with accessible state-of-the-art knowledge.” The archive has been an on-going project led by sociologist Roslyn Mickelson since 2005. It’s received funding from the American Sociological Association, the National Science Foundation, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

2. The National Coalition on School Diversity, which formed in 2009, has published a series of short policy briefs on the benefits of school integration. The briefs explore impacts on academic achievement, on college attendance, on poverty reduction, on non-minority student impacts, and other areas. NCSD is a coalition of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders.

3. The Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles has commissioned hundreds of studies on issues related to desegregation, racial diversity, racial disparities in school discipline and other related areas. CRP is a research and policy think tank that was founded at Harvard in 1996, and has been run out of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies since 2007.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a decent place to start if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with some of the quality research. I hope more people do, especially those writing and thinking about education.  

How the NLRB Just Radically Changed Labor Relations

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board finally released its much-anticipated decision on a case that sets a new paradigm for labor relations and will likely send ripples through the workforce, particularly in the contracting and franchise sectors of the economy.

“The decision today could be one of the more significant by the NLRB in the last 35 years,” a labor lawyer who helped the Chamber of Commerce try to oppose the case told The New York Times.

The case pertained to whether the company Browning-Ferris was legally a joint employer of people hired by a contractor to staff the company’s recycling center. Ruling 3-2 along partisan lines, the NLRB answered with a resounding “absolutely.”

“It is not the goal of joint-employer law to guarantee the freedom of employers to insulate themselves from their legal responsibility to workers, while maintaining control of the workplace,” the Democratic majority wrote. “Such an approach has no basis in the act or in federal labor policy.”

The decision overturns decades of precedent that was set by the business-friendly Reagan-era NLRB. Defining a company and its contractors or franchisees as joint employers removes a shield that has been used by businesses to minimize costs, and in doing so, leave many workers with lower pay and limited protections.

As the Times explains, this decision will require parent companies, in addition to the contractor, to come to the bargaining table if its workers unionize. Previously, companies have fired contractors when their workers unionize, which would now be illegal.

While this case directly applies to contractors and the companies who hire them, labor experts are more interested in the pathways that this opens up for current efforts to organize fast-food workers. Companies like McDonald’s have long argued that they have no substantive influence over how its numerous franchisees operate their businesses, and thus aren’t the actual employers of the franchise workers. This ruling substantively means that McDonald’s, with its 12,500 franchise operations, is now a joint employer of 660,000 people.

Union organizers with the Fight for 15 and SEIU now have a considerable amount of leverage against McDonald’s headquarters. If one franchise store unionizes, corporate must come to the table as well. As Steven Greenhouse writes in The Atlantic, there are a number of pathways that union-organizing strategists are considering. They could get McDonald’s to sit down and agree to higher wages for both its corporate and franchise stores. Or they could launch a union push at so-called “hot shops” that are primed to unionize, which could feasibly result in dozens of unionized stores within a year.

The question then is how to avoid drawn-out contract negotiations. But still, it’s a breakthrough for the most vibrant labor-organizing movement in the country, and it gives organizers many more strategic options.

Apart from fast food, the decision will also have a profound impact on companies that outsource many functions to contractors. There’s been an uptick of union organizing among workers at staffing agencies or contractors hired by big tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. For instance, software-bug testers contracted by Microsoft recently voted to unionize. The NLRB decision would now require these tech giants to join its contractors at the bargaining table if workers unionize.

This is huge because it gives the ever-growing amount of temp, contingent, and contract workers a way to hold big companies more accountable for pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Not surprisingly, big business has been bracing for the decision and is not happy with the outcome. Lobbyists for the Chamber of Commerce and others in the big-biz lobby are pushing Republicans to overturn the NLRB ruling.

A vice president for the National Retail Federation had this to say: “This is further evidence that the NLRB has given up its position as an objective arbiter of workplace issues and sees itself as an advocate for organized labor as a means of imposing new workplace obligations and legal liabilities on well-known corporations.” Because, you know, increasing accountability for harmful business practices ain’t really copacetic with the corporate agenda.

What the Federal Poverty Line Leaves Out

The federal poverty line was first developed in 1963, and since then has been updated for inflation. Beyond the fact that it does not vary by geography (it’s a lot more expensive to live in New York City than in Tennessee), there are a number of flaws in the measurement. For instance, it was calculated by multiplying the cost of groceries by three (which consumed a larger portion of a family’s budget in the 1960s), while neglecting to factor in exact costs like housing, health care, child care, and transportation. But the costs of necessities like these have changed significantly in the past five decades.

In 2011, the Census Bureau released the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which was meant to improve our understanding of the state of U.S. poverty by accounting for regional variances as well as other costs such as child care. It also factors in assistance programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is important for demonstrating how federal policy can play a role in alleviating poverty.

But an even more nuanced measurement of economic well-being is the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator, which was updated yesterday to include 2014 numbers. The EPI calculator estimates how much it costs to “attain a secure yet modest living standard,” and provides data on ten different family sizes (one or two parents, with zero to five children) across 618 distinct geographic areas and cities. The new tool factors in community-specific expenses for housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities, and taxes, and the numbers it yields are startling.

For instance, in Morristown, Tennessee, which has the lowest cost of living, a two-parent, two-child family has a budget of $49,114—more than twice the 2014 poverty threshold of $24,008 for that size family. And forget economic security if you’re making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in Morristown, even if you’re single with no children: Your monthly budget of $23,458, according to the calculator, is still well above the $15,080 in wages you’d take home in one year.

(Courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute)

 

One of the key findings of the updated calculator is the wide range of child-care costs across different regions, highlighting a limitation of the SPM, which applies geographic variability only to housing. According to the EPI calculator, a family of four in 500 of the 618 areas can expect to pay more for child care than for housing.

(Courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute)

 

Perhaps surprising to only a few, Washington, D.C., had the highest cost of living, according to the EPI calculator. That same family of four would need an annual budget of $106,493, which even the city’s higher minimum wage (set to increase to $11.50 an hour in 2016) would fall far short of. Another prominent calculator of living wages, that of MIT, finds similar discrepancies between actual costs of living and federal poverty thresholds, which can determine eligibility for certain assistance programs and provide a picture of how many Americans live with severe economic instability.

Even still, these calculations do not include such middle-class luxuries as saving for retirement or job loss, or paying for summer camp or sports programs for children—or even saving for college. It’s a more secure standard of living than our current poverty levels, but the emphasis is still on “modest.”

How Domestic-Worker Activists Helped Fight Jim Crow

From the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, to Ava DuVernay’s award-winning movie Selma, to #BlackLivesMatter activists who have refused to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, there has been no shortage of civil rights remembrances this year. And yet, there’s plenty about the struggle for racial justice many of us are not aware of. A case-in-point is the subject of historian Premilla Nadasen’s new book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Nadasen’s text narrates the struggle and activism of 20th century domestic workers—women who were integral, yet rendered invisible—in the fight against racism and Jim Crow.

As someone who has reported previously on the inspiring labor organizing of domestic workers, I was floored by all the history I learned from Nadasen’s book. She focuses on household worker activists from the 1950s to the 1970s, though readers glean some context from before and after those decades as well.

You’ll learn about Marvel Cooke, an investigative journalist in the 1930s who went undercover to expose the disturbing working conditions of domestic workers in New York City. And you’ll read about Georgia Gilmore, who raised money for those boycotting buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by selling cakes and pies that she cooked daily. “Had it not been for people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been who he was,” Nadasen writes. There are others, like Geraldine Roberts who mobilized household workers to advocate for higher wages and job training in Cleveland, and Edith Barksdale Sloan, who helped to organize the first national organization of household workers: The Household Technicians of America (HTA).

Just last week, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Department of Labor’s new regulations, issued in 2013, that entitle home care workers to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For 80 years, these workers—mostly women, immigrants, and people of color—have toiled away without the basic labor protections that other workers have long been afforded. Yet while contemporary domestic worker organizations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been instrumental in pressuring governments to take action on behalf of the rights and needs of exploited workers, Nadasen’s book is a powerful reminder that 20th century activism, led by some truly incredible women, has helped to make our present-day victories possible. 

Sanders Unveils Women's Rights Policy Initiatives

Last week, I wrote about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s lack of policy proposals regarding women’s rights. Over the weekend, the campaign updated its website to include several new policy initiatives. Sanders’s new plan for fighting for women’s rights is expansive, and the most detailed in the Democratic field.

If elected president, Sanders would only nominate Supreme Court justices who would protect Roe v. Wade and the right to family-planning services, especially important in the wake of last year’s Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby decision, which set a dangerous precedent for privately owned corporations who wish to deny their employees birth control.

Sanders’s new platform also vows to expand funding for Planned Parenthood, the Title X family-planning program, other initiatives that protect access to abortion and contraception, as well as the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition program, which provides federal grants to states for food, health-care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income mothers and their children. The Sanders campaign says he is working on a plan to make child care and pre-kindergarten available to all families, regardless of income.

Sanders zeroes in on the “international embarrassment” of being the only major country that doesn’t guarantee paid leave to workers, by calling for employers to provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. “It is not a family value to force the mother of a newborn baby to go back to work a few days after she gives birth because she doesn’t have the money to stay home and bond with her baby,” reads the new policy proposal, which he calls a real “family value” (a jab to Republicans).

On the wage-discrimination front, Sanders would sign the Paycheck Fairness Act and raise the minimum wage. Since women make up two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 would boost the wages of more than 15 million women—and help close the gender pay gap. Women also make up more than two-thirds of tipped minimum-wage workers who have been making $2.13 an hour, before tips, since 1991—Sanders wants to raise those wages to $15 an hour by 2023.

While expanding Medicaid in all states would provide health care for millions of low-income women, Sanders wants to take it a step further and enact a “Medicare for All” single-payer system. According to the campaign, women pay more for health-care expenses than men and pay a greater portion out of their own pockets.

Sanders also plans to expand Social Security. A 2013 study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center found that elderly women had fallen even deeper into poverty, partly due to cuts to Social Security Administration funding. The majority of Social Security recipients are women, and they receive smaller checks than their male counterparts. Thirty percent of elderly women rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their income, compared to only 23 percent of men. Any cuts to Social Security would devastate the economic well-being of elderly women.  

Critics of Bernie Sanders often point out that he’s only comfortable talking about economic issues—but releasing this new policy platform is a step in the right direction. And in the most recent polling in New Hampshire, Sanders is 7 points ahead of the presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Clinton—whose website right now only has a passing mention of affordable child care and nothing on reproductive rights—better watch out. 

Conan O'Brien Wants to Help Lincoln Chafee's Campaign

Here at the Prospect, we had intended to be your No. 1 place for Lincoln Chafee news. You know, Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor (and former Republican) who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination?

If we’ve been neglecting our duties, it’s only because, well, it wasn’t clear anyone actually wanted to read Lincoln Chafee news. In a 1,001-person poll last month, Chafee received absolutely zero votes, and his perhaps most well-publicized social media incident happened when his wife posted to his campaign’s Facebook page, asking if anyone on staff knew the password. He’s still polling at 0.0 on Real Clear Politics.

In answer to the glee many are feeling regarding Chafee’s long-shot campaign, comedian Conan O’Brien is making it his mission to get Chafee from 0 percent to 1 percent, at least in polling results. “Let’s be honest, I’m not trying to get him elected,” he said on his late-night show on Wednesday.

O’Brien offered his audience some facts about Chafee, including the candidate’s support for affirmative action, same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana, and adopting the metric system. “So that should easily win over African American lesbian stoners who are also CEOs of companies that manufacture measuring cups,” O’Brien joked before noting that Chafee is also a professional ferrier (which is a bit reminiscent of Mitt and Ann Romney’s Olympic dressage horse ownership).

The O’Brien effort to get Chafee at least on the board also includes a campaign song, performed by Aimee Mann and Ted Leo to the tune of Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.” Here’s the video of the Chafee-devoted Conan segment, and the lyrics to the song:

Used to be Republican

Switched to Dem in 2010

The pride of Rhode Island

His horse’s hooves were stylin’

Wants the metric system for the U.S.

A plan with zero gram’s chance of success

He’s Lincoln Chafee

For president

You don’t have to vote for him

Just get him to 1 percent

He’s only got 12 Facebook friends

He looks like Chris Matthews on a juice cleanse

He’s Lincoln Chafee

Let’s get him 1 percent

He’ll never be president

Just get him 1 percent

Chafee showed himself to be a good sport in responding to the segment, thanking O’Brien for the attention, and offering to “come on the show to help his ratings.”

I’d say stay tuned for more Lincoln Chafee news, but unless O’Brien’s plan is more effective than the “Colbert Bump,” it might be a while before we have more to write about.

Unionized Charter Teachers in Chicago Reject Merit Pay

Last week, unionized teachers at three schools operated by Civitas—a subsidiary of the Chicago International Charter School network—negotiated a new contract that no longer has merit pay in it. This means 31 out of 32 unionized Chicago charter schools have now rejected merit pay. And the one unionized charter that still has it—Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy—is currently negotiating a new contract and teachers hope to remove it there as well.

Merit pay, a policy that ties teacher salaries and bonuses to student standardized test scores and evaluations, is one of the most controversial tenets of the education reform movement. The idea has been tossed around for decades, but has never really gained steam. Most teacher salaries are tied to their level of education and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for Washington, D.C., schools, says merit pay is needed to create the kind of culture “where excellence is rewarded.” Proponents believe that this kind of policy would incentivize high-quality teachers to enter the profession. The Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program encouraged states to implement merit pay systems within their schools.

(Photo courtesy of the Council of State Governments)

 

While teacher salaries are notoriously low, many teachers have generally opposed merit pay because they do not think the system in which they’d be evaluated could ever really be objective or fair. They also worry that it could have unintended consequences, like incentivizing cheating or teaching to the test. 

Brian Harris, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, said that when his school unionized in 2009, they first tried to improve their “really awful” merit pay scheme by negotiating more objective metrics into their evaluation system. Teachers aimed to reform merit pay, not remove it.

Over time, according to Harris, teachers began to feel increasingly frustrated with even their new-and-improved merit pay system. When I spoke to Harris in April as I was reporting my When Charters Go Union piece, he had told me, “the opposition to merit pay at my school has grown insane.” Four months later, it’s now gone.

I asked Harris if anyone in his union wanted to keep merit pay and he said he has no idea. “Nobody has been brave enough to tell me to my face that they like merit pay.” He did note that some who like the idea of paying teachers who work really hard more money, acknowledge that it is really difficult to do so fairly. “Even a lot of people who were evaluating us acknowledged that this stuff was unfair,” Harris said.

About eight months ago, their union released a document with guiding principles for contract negotiations. Beyond killing merit pay, other contract goals include advocating for smaller class sizes, increasing teacher voice, and securing protected time during the workday to grade, plan, and collaborate.

It will be interesting to see if the momentum that unionized charter school teachers have created in Chicago motivates other non-unionized charter teachers who are dissatisfied with merit pay to consider unions of their own. It will also be interesting to see if this creates any pushback from the public—a majority of public school parents say they support the idea of merit pay.

O’Malley Joins Sanders in Calling for Public Campaign Finance

Yesterday, Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley added a new plank to his campaign platform: public campaign financing for congressional elections within five years. The former Maryland governor had previously supported a public-funding model in his state and had hinted on the campaign trail that he would come out with a substantive policy on the federal level soon.

The move comes as the Democratic field is being pushed by campaign-finance reformers to go beyond just calling for a repeal of Citizens United by endorsing robust public campaign financing. Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he would introduce legislation that would institute a federal public campaign-finance model.

Earlier this week, prominent campaign-finance reformer and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig said he is considering a presidential run as a referendum candidate, with a sole focus on restoring democracy through election reform.

Hillary Clinton, whose campaign is heavily reliant on mega-donors, has made vague platitudes suggesting support for public campaign-finance models in addition to her support for overturning Citizens United, but as of now she hasn’t articulated a clear policy.

While O’Malley’s plan would expand public financing to congressional candidates, it doesn’t specify whether it would be done through public matching funds, vouchers, a grant model, or something else. Nor does it address how to fix the ailing presidential public funding system. And it certainly doesn’t offer a realistic path for managing to get such a measure through Congress, but to O’Malley’s credit, nobody has proposed a cure for Republican ineptitude … yet.

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