Here’s our weekly analysis of privatization in the news and in communities nationwide. Not a subscriber? Sign up.
This week’s highlights
- Mitch McConnell thinks states should be able to go bankrupt. Has he looked at the trainwreck of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy process lately?
- The pandemic is revealing gaps and inequities in online, “distance” learning.
- Why are charter schools, which get public funding, applying for federal aid?
Governing for the Common Good
1) International/National: The Transnational Institute (TNI) sponsored a useful webinar last week titled “Public is Back: Proposals for a Democratic Just Economy.” Presenters included Philip Alston, the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of the global union federation Public Services International (PSI); Aderonke Ige of the Our Water, Our Rights Campaign in Lagos/Environmental Rights Action /Friends of The Earth Nigeria; and Sulakshana Nandi, Co-chair of the People’s Health Movement Global (PHM Global). “Support for public services and limits on private profit is at an all-time high in the wake of the pandemic. How do we ensure this prioritization of public needs and goods becomes permanent? What are the best models of democratic and participatory public services?” [Video, about an hour and a half].
2) National: PBS Newshour explored how “disdain for government has undermined the U.S. response to the pandemic.” George Packer says “Trump spent the first three years of his administration almost in combat with his own government, his own bureaucracy, rooting out people he perceived as disloyal, placing cronies and sycophants in key political jobs, and creating an atmosphere of fear and of chill among the career civil service, so that, by the time the pandemic came, there was a kind of passivity and even absenteeism in big, important areas of the federal government that Trump had seen as serving no purpose, beyond his own personal political interests. And so once he needed a bureaucracy to do things in order to keep the country safe, to protect us, it wasn’t there.”
Nevertheless, despite their dim views of the performance of the federal government, “the trust story is different when it comes to local government,” according to the New York Times. “In 2018, about two-thirds of Americans said they viewed their local government favorably, according to Pew. And there is some evidence that during this crisis, people are learning to rely on one another in their communities and rediscovering the power of local government. Clark Donnelly, a teacher in Mendota, Minn., says he is sick of bad talk about the government. Mr. Donnelly, who serves on the Mendota City Council, said residents were going out of their way to help one another, leaving food packages in the tiny town post office. They are still willing to volunteer their time, and that gives him hope.”
3) National: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took a verbal shot at President Trump without naming him by talking about the important role of competent government for the common good. “Cuomo opined that the public view of government is changing during the pandemic, as Americans realize the important role the federal, state and local governments play in addressing such a profound crisis. Effectiveness in government, he said, rests upon the competence of those involved—which led to an apparent allusion to President Trump’s response to the crisis. ‘Today, government is going to be held to a different standard, and it has to be fundamentally different,’ Cuomo said. ‘It has to be smarter than it was. You have to know what you’re doing, not just look or sound like what you know what you’re doing. You’re not going to tweet your way through this. You have to be smart and competent at what you do.’”
4) National: Scott Warren of Generation Citizen, a national civics education nonprofit, says that in order to build the kind of robust government action needed to deal with the coronavirus crisis, we need to invest heavily in civics education. “This is not a vague call for action. In forthcoming stimulus deliberations, Congress has the opportunity to invest in civics education organizations that are supporting districts and schools hit hardest by our public health crisis. In a moment when young people are struggling to understand the role of government in their lives, this is a critical investment in the long-term health of our democracy.”
5) International: Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Jean-Victor Wittenberg and Edward Waitzer stress how good governance strengthens public trust. “We have seen how a deeper sense of collectivism and respect for the role of government and for the ‘commons’ has led to better outcomes in addressing the pandemic. Germany is a good example of a country where most appreciate having in place a well-functioning governance system—nothing flashy, but it gets the job done where markets alone have proved incapable of doing so. The result has been strengthened trust in the government, respect for the social-welfare system and recognition of the need for redistribution, even at the expense of individual rights.”
6) Think Tanks: In the current issue of Public Administration Quarterly, Anna Zajicek Valerie H. Hunt, Will Miller, and Brinck Kerr offer “An Intersectional Approach to Public School Leadership: Employment Patterns among Principals In Multiethnic U.S. school Districts.” From the abstract: “U.S. educational institutions have been exploring ways to diversify leadership. Using an intersectional approach and a dataset compiled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), we examine factors associated with racial/ethnic diversity among women and men employed as principals in 613 multiethnic public school districts.” [Sub required]
7) National: “Research overwhelmingly shows that a computer can’t repla ce a real live K-12 public school,” writes Jeremy Mohler of In the Public Interest. “There’s growing body of research showing students who learn online perform worse academically. Get this: on average, only half of online high school students graduate within four years, compared to 84 percent of high school students nationally. Then there are the privacy concerns. Edtech services often collect far more information on kids than is necessary and store this information indefinitely. Platforms like Google Hangouts collect biometric data, which has been shown to lead to racial profiling. (…) As high school teacher Annie Abrams writes, “In the best cases, public education helps students situate themselves among broader communities than they may otherwise encounter while building civic trust. It helps them become adults, slowly, clumsily, day by day. There’s no app-based replacement for that.” ”
8) National: The pandemic is showing gaps and inequities in distance learning, Governing.com reports. “In Detroit, for example, students and staff were already ‘very familiar with utilizing online tools during the school day,’ using a common platform to access a wide range of online learning options such as Khan Academy, according to a FAQ for parents prepared by the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The district had provided devices to more than 34,000 students. But in the first week after school buildings closed, only 10 percent of students were accessing the district’s online learning tools. ‘The district has the online tools, and students and staff know how to use them,’ the FAQ states. ‘The issue is access at home.’”
9) National: Over the past few weeks there have been a number of articles in the media covering aspects of how “education reformers” have been capitalizing on the COVID-19 crisis, which is shaking up our educational system at all levels. These include a Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing teachers’ unions for allegedly pressuring the state to stop students from attending online schools (which a subsequent report in the pro-charter website The 74 declared false); a San Diego Union-Tribune report on how the county school district renewed for five years the charter of a school that has been criticized for “lack of racial diversity, special education compliance, conflict of interest, transparency and more” to keep it open during the crisis; and a Detroit News op-ed written by Heritage Foundation and Independent Women’s Forum operatives repeating the Wall Street Journal editorial’s claims. Rounding these out is an op-ed by David Osborne, the guru of Bill Clinton’s downsizing government crusade, attacking the Los Angeles teachers union (UTLA) for raising concerns about an opportunistic charter school expansion.
10) Arizona: The City of Mesa has decided to spend some of its federal coronavirus relief funds to support charter schools in their effort to gain technology for remote education access.
11) California: “Charter Schools Are Still Getting Public Funding. So Why Are They Applying For PPP Loans?” asks Kyle Stokes of LAist. “To United Teachers Los Angeles—a labor union which opposes charter schools on a number of policy issues—this raises the question: Why would charters need PPP money? ‘There’s been talk in the news,’ noted UTLA member and teacher Maria Sanchez,’ about … how some small businesses weren’t given a chance to get a loanbecause [the money] was all taken. The fact Gabriella Charter was getting a loan when they have the same funding as public schools just didn’t seem fair to me.’”
12) California: Palisades Charter High School’s board has voted to accept a $4.6 million Paycheck Protection Program Loan from the United States Treasury Department. “Palisades Charter High School differs from the elementary and middle charter schools in Pacific Palisades, as the educational facility met specific criteria required for the loan that the other schools may not qualify for.”
13) Connecticut: The Putnam School District is grappling with ways to deal with a major budget shortfall while avoiding outsourcing. Residents oppose outsourcing the jobs of custodians and bus drivers and cutting secretary hours. But outsourcing is still on the table. “I am not in favor of outsourcing custodians and bus drivers,” Chad Neal said. “These people are kind of the heartbeat of our schools.” A special meeting to discuss the issue is to take place June 2.
14) Connecticut: The wealthy Dalios have pulled out of the “public-private partnership” to reach troubled youth. “The partnership, announced in April 2019, was plagued by p roblems almost from the start including criticism that Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly made it exempt from Freedom of Information and state ethics laws.” Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the House minority leader, “said she too does not believe the issue is political, but blamed a lack of trust in the partnership due to the structure and effort to limit public information. Klarides said she has always supported the mission of the partnership and the private philanthropy work of the Dalios.”
15) North Carolina: The state has put some numbers on the whopping increase in taxpayer dollars going to charter schools. “Since 2009-10, total state funds allotted to charter schools has risen 291 percent. In 2019-20, North Carolina allotted $734.7 million for charter schools.”
16) Think Tanks: Disagreement has surfaced over an event to be held tomorrow at the Center for American Progress, “Beyond the Talking Points: Charter School Policy and Equity.” CAP says “Charter schools have been the source of some contentious debates in the education policy space, often centered on the growth of charters and their impact on traditional public school systems. Yet beyond these debates are a number of issues and policy choices that have deep impacts on the equity effects of charter schools.”
Commenting in Diane Ravitch’s blog, Laura Chapman writes, “The discussants in this affair are cheerleaders for charter schools who seem to have some mental inventory of criticisms of charter schools, are floundering, and also pondering ‘how equity can be infused more holistically into charter policy.’ Informed critics will see through this promotional exercise with participants who claim to be MORE concerned with ‘equity’ and in greater measure than supporters of traditional public schools.”
17) National: Toll roads are looking to Congress for a direct bailout, the Bond Buyer reports. They are also looking for a reduction in interest rates on TIFIA loans, which the federal government extends to support both public and private infrastructure investment. Toll road revenues are down in some cases up to 90% across the country. “Without that funding, many toll facilities will ‘be forced to comply with bond covenant requirements,’ which could mean reductions in workforces and delays in capital projects among other cuts, IBTTA wrote.” [Sub required]. It is unclear whether private toll road operators such as Transurban would be eligible for any bailout money, but the IBTTA letter says “support for the tolling industry provides a lasting and growing benefit, as the industry’s ability to promote both public and private investment in infrastructure will be bolstered, which will protect a long-term option for sustainable funding.”
18) National/Michigan: The breach of two privately-owned Michigan dams has put a spotlight on the national issue of private dams. “We need to be very clear. This is a privately owned dam. We can talk about the merits of whether private companies should own critical infrastructure. I don’t think that they should,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) at a news conference. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says more than half of the nation’s 91,458 dams are privately owned, some by power utilities and large corporations and others by private land owners.”
The Washington Post reports that “many private dam owners do not finance regular rehabilitation projects, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And if dams lose their federal licensing—and thus their power revenue—there often isn’t a clear mechanism to pay for needed repairs and upkeep.” @DataMinerista says “This is what privatization of what should be public works projects looks like.”
19) National: In a lengthy overview in Infrastructure Investor, the privatization industry seems to think that a major federal infrastructure package tied to coronavirus relief would crowd out (read, be cheaper than) private capital investment in public infrastructure. But desperation could float their boat. “Infrastructure budgets are likely to shrink or are already depleted, [DJ Gribbin] explains, so the political risk of privatization may be more palatable to state and local governments managing weak economies. The need to save public money, move financial liabilities down the road and speed up project development provides a ‘great environment for PPPs,’ he adds. However, Gribbin says that if the federal government were to follow through on calls for the next phase of pandemic-related stimulus to focus on infrastructure, which the government could use to create jobs and inject capital into local communities, the private sector would likely be boxed out of any near-term investments.” [Sub required]
20) National: Looks like we may be getting a U.S. Supreme Court case involving where to draw the line between public and private in “public-private p artnerships.” The case, brought by Indian River County in Florida, involves the county’s challenge against the U.S. DOT’s approval of a private company’s (Virgin Trains USA) access to Private Activity Bond financing. The suit also involves whether or not the private railroad project complies with NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, which PPP developers have long seen as a thorn in their side and public interest groups see as vital to protect communities and the environment from risky and dangerous projects. The Supreme Court is deciding whether to take the case, and Virgin and the DOT must file reply briefs on the cert. application within 30 days. [Sub required]. Read the 186-page cert. petition.
21) Missouri: Next Tuesday voters in Bolivar will decide whether to privatize their water system.
Criminal Justice and Immigration
22) National: Being in jail has become a “death sentence,” advocates say, and multiple lawsuits have been filed to release detainees. “No one can understand the agony of your loved one begging you for help like that while they’re trapped. It will haunt me for the rest of my life,” [Cassandra Greer] said. “If one person had helped me, I believe my husband would still be alive … The judge didn’t give him a death sentence, but that’s exactly what he got.”
One case is that surrounding the death of Escobar Mejia at the Otay Mesa contract detention facility. “According to [Joan Del Valle, Escobar’s former attorney], Escobar Mejia’s death was the result of two failures: first, O’Connor’s denial of his bond, and second, the decision on the part of officials at ICE and CoreCivic not to take him to the hospital when he asked to see a doctor. ‘If they had taken him to the doctor before, there’s very high likelihood that he would have survived,’ Del Valle said. ‘But we will never know because they never did that.’”
23) National: Bianca Tylek of Worth Rises says the HEROES Act that passed the House the week before last “includes the Martha Wright Reed Prison Phone Justice Act, which would immediately cap the cost of a prison call at $0.05 per minute and bar government agencies from collecting commissions. It’s not free, but it would change lives dramatically around the country if included in the final bill. We’ll be fighting for it for the next few weeks. We’d really appreciate everyone participating and sharing the actions below.”
24) Michigan: Corizon, the private, for-profit prison healthcare provider, did not inform inmates at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian that they had COVID-19, as it was supposed to do. “Department of Corrections ordered Corizon to release the information immediately. [Chris Gautz, a spokesperson for the Corrections Department,] said there were complaints about delays in notifying prisoners at other facilities. Corrections has had previous problems with the private health care provider. The state has fined Corizon for violating requirements for timely care in the past. Prisoners have complained they don’t get the tests or other treatments they need for some chronic conditions, as reported in a Michigan Radio documentary.”
25) Nebraska: The Department of Corrections is set to examine responses this week to a request for information it sent out to private companies to build a new prison. “Corrections Director Scott Frakes announced in February the state is considering a public-private partnership to build a new, 1,600-bed prison, possibly between Lincoln and Omaha, to help deal with overcrowding and staffing issues. It could have potential to expand by hundreds of beds, Frakes said.”
26) Tennessee: In an in-depth article, the Washington Post tells the story of how the COVID-19 crisis has brought together inmates and corrections officers and the families of both group to demand action to combat the epidemic in prisons. State officials say they have responded, but “the women on the front lines say otherwise. Shared fear has joined Blevins and Scroggins in an unlikely alliance—swept up in a small but growing effort to put pressure on Tennessee officials to address what activists say has been a disjointed and delayed response to a crisis in their prisons. ‘It’s not about whether you’re an inmate’s spouse or an officer’s spouse,’ said Blevins, a 27-year-old mother of five. ‘It’s about lives being in danger.’ The two women—more than three decades apart in age but both native to the South—met through Christopher J. Hale, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the district that includes the Bledsoe prison. Hale, a religious activist who helped lead Catholic outreach for then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, hosted the women on a Facebook Live broadcast last month.”
27) National: In the Public Interest says “If the Post Office runs out of money it would mean the end of delivery to every address. Tell Congress to #SaveThePostOffice. Because it’s yours.”
28) National: Federal employees on average make 26.71% less than their private sector counterparts, according to a study by the Federal Salary Council. The report says, “According to those calculations, the estimated overall disparity between (1) base GS average salaries and (2) non-Federal average salaries as estimated by BLS in locality pay areas was55.81 percent. In theory, therefore, the amount needed to reduce the pay disparity to 5percent (the target disparity established by FEPCA) averages 48.39 percent. Thus, when existing locality pay rates (averaging 22.97 percent of the average GS salary) are taken into account, the overall remaining pay disparity is estimated at 26.71 percent. Accordingly, using estimated data from the salary survey and the pay comparison methodology described above, we recommend the Pay Agent adopt the estimated locality pay rates set forth in Attachment 1 as those that, absent some other provision of law, would go into effect under FEPCA in January 2021.”
29) National: AFSCME says all EMS workers, public and private, should be eligible for a federal benefits program. Jason Brollini, executive director of United EMS Workers-AFSCME Local 4911, recently wrote a letter to the Justice Department saying “at times we can be overlooked and undervalued in our vital role. Therefore, we seek clear inclusion to the same benefits as other public safety officers and first responders so we at least know that should tragedy befall us, our survivors and dependents will be afforded same support, relief, and opportunities,”
30) National: Writing in Jacobin, Ari Rabin-Havt takes us inside the latest plan to “bankrupt” and privatize Social Security. “Republicans have been trying to provoke this crisis for a generation. A payroll tax holiday would shift the actuarial tables and create the perception that Social Security was going “bankrupt.” They would then use this as the excuse to cut Social Security or enact a privatization scheme, a favorite second-term hobbyhorse for Republican presidents. After denying it during the 2004 election, it was one of the first policies George W. Bush tried to get through Congress when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in 2005.”
31) Alabama: The City of Fairfield has filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. But Mayor Eddie Penny “said city services, including the police and fire departments, sanitation and the city school system, will remain unaffected by the bankruptcy filing. No city workers will be laid off, he said.” The city’s top creditors include the Fairfield Board of Education, Jefferson County Finance Department, Alabama Power, AMBAC, Alabama Finance Department–Computer, Birmingham Water Works, Regions Bank, Jefferson County Sheriff, and Retirement Systems of Alabama.
32) National: Mitch McConnell thinks states should be able to go bankrupt. Has he looked at the train wreck of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy process lately?
33) National: “Surveillance firms around the world are licking their lips at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cash in on the coronavirus by repositioning one of their most invasive products: the tracking bracelet,” The Intercept reports. “Jennifer Granick, an attorney specializing in surveillance and cybersecurity technologies at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept that SuperCom’s Covid-19 marketing efforts put a public health gloss on a police technology and thus helps it to ‘be normalized among the general population for medical reasons. … This should trouble us all.’”
34) National/International: The issue of how trade agreements can impede the right of governments at all levels to act in the public interest has reared its head again as reports emerge that lawyers for large private, for-profit corporations are openly discussing suing nations over profits lost to COVID-19 measures. “On Monday, the non-profit research group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) documented numerous examples of high-powered corporate law firms—including Ropes & Gray, Alston & Bird, and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan—publicly licking their chops over the lucrative opportunity presented by the Covid-19 crisis and government attempts to fight it. Ropes & Gray wrote in an alert on its website on April 28 that ‘for companies with foreign investments,’ the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system enshrined by thousands of trade agreements across the world ‘could be a powerful tool to recover or prevent loss resulting from Covid-19 related government actions.’”
35) Revolving Door News: The Project on Government Oversight is circulating a petition to stop Congress from reversing rules that prevent self-serving attempts by senior Pentagon officials to enrich themselves once they leave public service. “In order to ensure that officials are acting in the interest of the people, Congress should instead adopt POGO’s longstanding recommendations to broaden the definition of what counts as lobbying and extend the “cooling off” period during which senior officials cannot lobby for Pentagon contractors to five years (currently, the cooling off period is generally one or two years depending on seniority).”