Abby Rapoport

Are Vouchers Dead?

AP Images/Ben Margot
When news broke Tuesday that the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s voucher system, which uses public dollars to pay for low-income students to go to private schools, the fight over vouchers made its way back into the headlines. The Louisiana program, pushed hard and publicly by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, offers any low-income child in the state, regardless of what public school they would attend, tuition assistance at private schools. It’s something liberals fear will become commonplace in other states in the future if conservative lawmakers get their way on education policy. Yet conservatives have been dominating legislatures since 2010 and there has been little success in creating voucher programs. Louisiana is one of only two states with such a broad program in place. After the 2010 Tea Party wave there was “a big spike in the number of states considering voucher legislation,” says Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State...

Cruz Control

AP Images/ David J. Phillip
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite L ast week’s news cycle began and ended with Ted Cruz. On Monday, a video of Cruz came out, in which he called his fellow Republicans “a bunch of squishes” on gun control. The talk, given at the Tea Party group FreedomWorks’ summit in Texas, prompted The Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin to write a piece called “ Don’t be a jerk Sen. Cruz ,” calling on Texas’ junior senator to apologize. If that was supposed to chasten him, it didn’t seem to work: By the end of the week, National Review was reporting Ted Cruz might be running for president. He was one of main points of discussion on Sunday talk shows, and James Carville raved that he was “ the most talented and fearless Republican politician ” in the last 30 years. That, in a nutshell, is Ted Cruz’s political career: through some combination of luck, bravado, and talent, the man always seems to wind up getting what he wants. Let’s not forget, that just a year ago, the Tea Party darling...

Three New Facts about the Tea Party

Flickr/FutureAtlas.com
For a movement that’s helped to reshape the Republican Party—and by extension, reshape American politics—we know shockingly little about the people who make up the Tea Party. While some in the GOP once hoped to co-opt the movement, it’s increasingly unclear which group—the Tea Party or establishment Republicans—is running the show. Politicians have largely relied on conjecture and assumption to determine the positions and priorities of Tea Party activists. Until now. The results of the first political science survey of Tea Party activists show that the constituency isn’t going away any time soon—and Republicans hoping the activists will begin to moderate their stances should prepare for disappointment. Based out of the College of William and Mary, the report surveyed more than 11,000 members of FreedomWorks, one of the largest and most influential Tea Party groups. The political scientists also relied on a separate survey of registered voters through the YouGov firm to compare those...

Rhode Island's Bipartisan Gay-Marriage Coup

AP Images
Same-sex marriage advocates have had their eyes on Rhode Island for a long time. Wednesday afternoon, they’ll very likely see the last barrier to marriage equality fall away, as the state Senate is scheduled to vote on a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. It’s already passed the House, receiving vocal support from Governor Lincoln Chafee, and most expect that the Senate has the votes to pass it by a big margin. The Senate has always been the biggest challenge in Rhode Island; the leadership opposes the measure, and two years ago, a similar bill died when it became clear it couldn’t get through the upper chamber. But this year, advocates expect a very different outcome. As if to highlight the shift, on Tuesday, in advance of the bill, the minority caucus in the Senate came out with a unanimous show of support. It’s the first time any caucus in any state has shown such a united front. More surprising? It’s the Republican caucus. Meanwhile it’s been Democratic Senate leadership that’s...

Explosion in a Wild West

AP Photos
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel A ny other week, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas—which killed 14 people, injured 200, and flattened 50 houses all in a town of under 3,000 people—would have dominated the news for days, with the explosion playing over and over again. Instead, most of us wound up watching the whole thing through YouTube videos. Just days earlier, bombs planted at the Boston Marathon had left the country on alert for terrorist attacks. The ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators ensured that a deadly explosion in the middle of Texas wouldn’t start the 10 o’clock news or lead Sunday talk-show coverage. The trouble is, while none of us can be fully protected from a person with a bomb, we usually assume the risks in areas under government oversight are much lower. While the incident in Boston helps illustrate the limits of public safety, the explosion in West illustrates a series of gaps in regulation—and the risks those gaps create. The investigation around the...

On Abortion, the GOP Tacks Right

Flickr/Paul Weaver
In March of 2012, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was in trouble. The Republican-dominated state legislature had passed a measure that would require women seeking abortions in the early stages of pregnancy to have a transvaginal sonogram—a procedure in which a wand is inserted into the vagina. Pro-choice activists jumped on the bill, calling it “state-sanctioned rape.” The outrage went national, and the conservative governor with aspirations to higher office backed off. A version of the sonogram bill did make it into law, but it does not specifically require transvaginal sonograms, just the better-known “jelly on the belly” type. The debacle was only the beginning of Republicans’ problem with women voters. Two Senate candidates—most famously Todd Akin of Missouri—aired shockingly unscientific views about how pregnancy worked, generating a strong backlash from voters. Elsewhere, cuts defunding Planned Parenthood and women’s health programs only made the perception that Republicans are...

The People’s Bank

flickr/BismarckPride.com
W hen the financial crisis struck in 2008, nearly every state legislature was left contending with massive revenue shortfalls. Every state legislature, that is, except North Dakota’s. In 2009, while other states were slashing budgets, North Dakota enjoyed its largest surplus. All through the Great Recession, as credit dried up and middle-class Americans lost their homes, the conservative, rural state chugged along with a low foreclosure rate and abundant credit for entrepreneurs looking for loans. Normally one of the overlooked states in flyover country, North Dakota now had the country’s attention. So did an unlikely institution partly responsible for its fiscal health: the Bank of North Dakota. Founded in 1919 by populist farmers who’d gotten tired of big banks and grain companies shortchanging them, the only state-owned bank in America has long supported community banks and helped keep credit flowing. The bank’s $5 billion deposit base comes mostly from state taxes and funds. The...

Prospects for Legal Marijuana? Higher and Higher

Flickr/Torben Bjørn Hansen
Anyone who still saw the marijuana-reform movement as a hopeless collection of hippies and slackers got a reality check last November, when advocates successfully passed three major initiatives. Massachusetts became the 18th state to allow for medical marijuana and, most notably, Washington and Colorado became the first two states in the country to legalize recreational use of the drug. Now, less than five months later, a slew of pro-marijuana measures has been introduced in legislatures across the country. At least six have a good chance of passing. Seventeen states have bills to allow medical marijuana. Nine others would make the punishment for possession a fine rather than jail time. Eight states' bills would create a taxing and regulatory system for the drug. And those are just the measures that have already been introduced; others are yet to come. Traditionally, most major progressive changes to drug laws have occurred through ballot initiatives rather than the legislative...

Take That, Political Science!

AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma and author of legislation designed to cut off the vast majority of federal support for political-science research T his week, ten years after swearing to destroy Saddam Hussein and build democracy in Iraq, the United States took a step toward dismantling its investment in studying how democracy works. For more than 15 years, congressional Republicans have been trying to do away with federal funding for political-science research. Every time until now, political scientists successfully fought back. One reason they could: The pot designated for political science in the National Science Foundation (NSF) was a tiny percentage of overall research money—about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget. That's less than two-tenths of a percent. But it's also the majority of total grant funding for political-science research. The field provides us with much of what we know about how democracies, including our own, function (...

Lounging at SXSW

Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision for Bulleit Bourbon/AP Images
Until the South by Southwest Interactive festival, it had been a while since I'd thought about Blackberry, the company. I'll confess that I have one of their old phones, the kind with keys that displays a bizarre version of the Internet as slowly as possible on a non-touch screen. In my daydreaming about iPhones and Androids, I'd forgotten that somewhere, somehow, the company that made my cruddy phone still exists. But on the first day of the hipster conference known for launching start-ups and showcasing technologic innovation, I found myself walking, with a friend, into the Blackberry House. Yes, that's right—house. Blackberry took over an entire property to remind someone, anyone, that it still existed. The house wasn't exactly easy to spot, being a few blocks away from the convention hall and the center of downtown. But upon arriving, it was hard to miss. The modest home suddenly had a giant "Blackberry" sign on it. Inside, the rooms had been painted blue and black (the company's...

Before You Know It, Change Happens

Movie Still/Mike Simpson
At SXSW, a festival geared toward the young, beautiful, and hip, I’m guessing few expected to be bowled over by a documentary film about aging and aged gay men. But Before You Know It , which made its debut this week, does indeed leave you wowed—and unexpectedly hopeful about the plight of gay seniors. The problems of aging are scary for any population, but for a generation of gay people, the situation is particularly difficult: many lost their connection to family when they came out and don't have partners to turn to for help as their needs increase. Following three gay men—one in his 60s, the other two in their 70s—director P.J. Raval sets out to chronicle what it is to be wrinkled and slow in a young, fast culture. Almost immediately, however, the movie documents the importance of creating a chosen-family—and just how difficult finding community can be for those who start looking late in life. In Galveston, Texas, Robert has built Robert’s LaFitte, a gay bar famous across the...

Education for Sale

Amy E. Price, SXSWedu
Amy E. Price, SXSWedu Bill Gates and Iwan Streichenberger, CEO of nonprofit inBloom Inc., discuss the potential for personalized learning technology to transform classrooms during Gates' keynote at SXSWedu, in Austin, Texas. A t a conference made up of educators, administrators, and entrepreneurs, Bill Gates is bound to be polarizing. The mega-philanthropist, who’s put billions into education-reform initiatives like charter schools and data-mining to better evaluate teachers, is a hero to some in the education community, an enemy to others. Last week, at South by Southwest Edu—the nerdy cousin of Austin's popular music and multimedia festival—Gates seemed to relish his role. “Software’s able to create this interactive, connective experience for the students in a way that simply isn’t economic in a public-school context,” he said at the final event of the four-day conference. Behind him, a pie chart showed a $9 billion dollar education market—a market in which technology currently has...

The Lone Star State Left Out To Dry

Flickr/Jmtimages
When the sequester deadline came and went last Friday, it was hardly a surprise. In Congress, Republicans had repeatedly made clear they would be willing to let enormous cuts to discretionary spending take effect rather than compromise with the White House on raising revenue. But cutting off their nose to spite their face hasn’t quite worked. As it turns out, the GOP may be defacing its figurehead: the State of Texas. The economic impact of the sequester on Texas will be enormous. As a Pew Charitable Trusts study shows, Texas receives 8 percent of its state revenue through federal grants, well above the national average of 6.6 percent. Only South Dakota, Illinois, and Georgia receive a higher proportion. One study from George Mason University showed that Texas is among the top three states that will lose out most as a result of the sequester, both in terms of jobs and GDP. The cuts could cost Texas $16 billion in gross state product—1.23 percent of the state’s GDP—and as many as 159,...

Republicans for Election Reform?

Flickr/Joseph Holmes
Election reformers were expecting big things from this year’s State of the Union address. They knew that President Barack Obama had invited 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a Floridian who’d waited three hours to cast her ballot. They had heard him acknowledge the many folks who stood in long lines when he ad-libbed in his election-night speech, “We have to fix that.” They were encouraged when he subsequently acknowledged the need for a broad range of fixes to the broken system. Hopes for an ambitious reform package were high. But Obama’s big reveal seemed less than inspiring: a bipartisan commission to study the problem. This is indeed a promising moment for bipartisan election reform, but that reform isn’t likely to come from Washington. Instead, it’s likely to emerge from the states where party lines on election reform are beginning to blur. This year, new laws to improve elections and expand voting may pass not only in blue states like New...

Save the Surpluses for Another Rainy Day

Guido Bergmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
The last several years have been bleak for state governments. Most had to tap, if not drain, rainy-day funds—money set aside for emergencies. But that usually wasn’t enough to bridge shortfalls. Some raised taxes and other revenue, but for the most part, states relied on cuts. Since 2007, states have slashed nearly $300 billion from their budgets, with health care and education being hardest hit; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, over the last five years 23 states have made deep cuts to pre-K and public school spending, while 20 have made major cuts to health care. But the economic recovery that began nearly four years ago is finally beginning to come to states, albeit slowly. Only eight states made emergency mid-year cuts to their budget, and others are finding themselves with more money than they’d budgeted. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 34 states wound up with revenues higher than expected. (...

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