Education, News, Trump Administration

Report: In red, right-to-work states, teachers are rising up

We might have seen this coming, given last year’s report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In that report, researchers laid out how 29 states, including North Carolina, continued to fund their public education systems below pre-recession levels.

Now, with teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia rallying over educator pay, left-leaning ThinkProgress says the states in question have more in common than the fact that they tend to vote for Republicans like President Donald Trump. They’re all so-called “right to work states,” meaning employers cannot require that workers join a labor union or pay dues.

From ThinkProgress, which is a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund:

Whether teachers prefer to call them walkouts, work stoppages, or strikes, all of these states have a number of things in common. Yes, these states all went toDonald Trump in the presidential election — something many journalists and pundits have focused on.

But more importantly, they are also all states with right-to-work laws who have cut public services.

All of these teachers are organizing in similar ways. The strikes’ message goes beyond the teaching profession and extends to better salaries for other state employees and funding for public education as a whole. Teachers also aren’t being entirely led by their unions in the strikes, and they’re working with their school districts, nonprofits, and other state employees to ensure that they have as much public support as possible.

The chronic underfunding of education, sustained tax cuts, and right-to-work laws have created this environment, bringing the fight for education and labor rights to a boiling point in all of these states.

In many of the states where teachers are striking or considering taking action, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession.

This chronic underfunding hit the majority of states. A 2017 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report shows that in 2015, 29 states provided less education funding per pupil than in 2008. In 19 states, local funding also decreased from 2008 to 2015. In states where local funding increased during that period, it still didn’t make up for state cuts.

Most of the states now protesting are the ones that experienced the worst cuts. That includes Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers are currently striking. New Jersey, where there was a one-day strike in Jersey City last month, also had their education funding per pupil drop during that time period.

It also includes, Arizona — where we could see teachers take action next. Teachers in Arizona are discussing the possibility of a strike. Although Texas teachers may not strike, they have been unhappy with education funding in the state for a long time and anger is “bubbling beneath the surface,” Louis Malfaro, the head of Texas American Federation of Teachers, told Austin American-Statesman. In Florida, the teachers union has discouraged striking, but some teachers are still interested in a strike.

The cuts to education spending are hurting students’ quality of education and teachers’ quality of life. Oklahoma teachers have posted photos of old books that are falling apart and have panhandled for school supplies. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky say they are taking on second jobs and that they have considered leaving their states.

All these strikes are public backlash to years of Republican-led efforts to push for more tax cuts, which has squeezed funding for education.

West Virginia’s tax cuts began more than a decade ago. The states reduced its corporate net income tax and got rid of a corporate charter tax and alternative minimum tax — to name just a few of the cuts — and ultimately lost $425 million in state revenue each year since 2007.

Oklahoma has offered tax breaks to oil companies that diminished revenue from 2008 to 2014, according to WTOP, and led to a 24 percent reduction in per pupil funding over that time period. Twenty percent of Oklahoma school districts are open for only four days a week to cut down on costs. As Kentucky teachers demanded more education funding, state lawmakers considered a proposal that would cut income taxes and result in $114 million less revenue for the state. That legislation — which will result in higher taxes for most residents while corporations and the wealthy pay less — passed the legislature and is heading to the governor’s desk. It’s unclear if Gov. Matt Bevin (R) will sign it.

Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country.

“A lot of our students don’t come to school ready to learn math and to read. They come to school and they’re hungry,” Laura Hartke, a teacher at Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, told ThinkProgress when Kentucky teachers went to the state capital on Monday. “They may have been abused. The programs and things that they want to cut for these children are detrimental to their education. They need more than just a teacher. They need support systems and those are the things that they’re cutting.”

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Education, News, Trump Administration

Education Week: Betsy DeVos bickers with Congress over spending, school choice

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Given the one-party rule in the nation’s capital these days, one might have expected a smooth roll-out of top priorities for Betsy DeVos, the country’s controversial education secretary under President Donald Trump.

But things are, quite clearly, more complicated than that—particularly when it comes to DeVos’ relationship with federal lawmakers in her own party, as Education Week explained in a new report Monday.

It’s been a rough month for DeVos, a wealthy, GOP booster whose uncomfortable interview with “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, broadcast two weeks ago, has become fresh fodder for Trump and DeVos’ harshest critics. 

Now it’s clear that the education secretary—who’s reportedly “alarmed” officials in the White House with her performance on the CBS news program—is struggling to implement her vision on Capitol Hill.

Of course, according to the report, such tension isn’t unheard of when it comes to the nation’s top K-12 policymakers.

Read on from Education Week:

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is frustrated with Congress these days. And it appears the feeling is mutual.

But she’s hardly the first education secretary to clash with lawmakers in her own party,over the department’s budget, policy direction, and more.

“I don’t see this being unique to Betsy as a person,” said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has received donations from DeVos and her family. “This seems to be the institutional clashes we’ve seen for a while.”

DeVos, who lead the American Federation for Children before becoming secretary, has spent her career doling out millions in campaign donations, mostly to GOP candidates, and many of them members of Congress. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from largely rejecting her proposals,including cuts to the agency’s bottom-line, a new private school choice program, and new federal resources for public school choice.

Congress—which is controlled by Republicans—also put language in the recently enacted spending bill that would block DeVos from moving forward on a reorganization of the department’s budget office, which arguably interacts with Capitol Hill more than any other arm of the department.

What’s more, during a recent budget hearing, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees K-12 spending, said he doesn’t understand why DeVos reupped her ask for choice programs that Congress was already poised to nix.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the chairman of the House appropriations committee, chided DeVos about the lack of coordination and communication between House staff and her department—a problem he said he’s had with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ staff as well.

Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which advocates for using research in policy and practice and a one-time aide to former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said it’s not a big surprise that Republicans in Congress weren’t taken with DeVos’ budget pitches.

Both Cole and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who oversees education appropriations in the Senate, represent relatively rural states where school choice often doesn’t get the traction it does elsewhere.

“I’m sure they are very discouraged,” McLaughlin said of DeVos and her staff. “Whether they’re more discouraged than any other year, I don’t know.”

But Frelinghuysen’s remarks to DeVos were more striking, McLaughlin said: “That clearly looked like it had some backstory to it.”

One Republican source noted that, as a major GOP donor, DeVos had long-standing relationships with congressional leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. The source is surprised that those lawmakers haven’t done more to defend her.

To be sure, GOP lawmakers have stepped in to support her. For example, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., defended the secretary against Democratic attacks at last week’s hearing, saying he supported her move to consider changes to Obama-era discipline guidance.

DeVos, too, hasn’t exactly been brimming with praise for the Hill.

“Clearly if I could snap my fingers and things would happen with that body up there, there’s lots of things that I would tell them to do,” she said in an interview with four reporters back in February. “Not only around choice. Lots of things.”

One of her biggest complaints: The Senate has been achingly slow to confirm the president’s nominees for key positions at the department.

“It really has been going on much too long. [There’s] a very, very high level of frustration around that,” she said. “We have many qualified, capable individuals waiting to come and contribute here, and they’re just messing around at that building on the Hill.”

Education, News, Trump Administration

Betsy DeVos under fire following rocky interview with “60 Minutes”

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

The United States’ top public school official is under fire this week after a brutally icy interview that aired over the weekend on national television.

As CNN reports today, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “stumbled her way through a tense interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night, struggling to answer some basic questions about schools in her home state of Michigan and admitting that she does not ‘intentionally’ visit underperforming schools.

From CNN:

“60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl asked DeVos if in Michigan, students who can’t afford to leave public schools are thriving, as the secretary cites.
“Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” Stahl asked.
“I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos said, noting that “there are certainly lots of pockets where the students are doing well.”
 But Stahl notes that the secretary’s “argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where (she) had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.”
DeVos responded: “I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”
“Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it,” she continued, admitting that she does not “intentionally (visit) schools that are underperforming.”
Stahl suggested she should visit those schools to understand what they’re doing. DeVos responded, “Maybe I should.”
White House officials watched the interview, along with media appearances DeVos made on Monday morning, with dismay, two sources familiar with their reaction told CNN. The White House did not respond to a request for an official comment regarding DeVos’ performances, and it wasn’t immediately clear what President Donald Trump’s reaction was.
The secretary also argued that the federal government has “invested billions and billions and billions of dollars … and we have seen zero results” in public education.
“But that really isn’t true,” Stahl argued, noting that test scores have gone up over the last 25 years.
DeVos said the United States has comparatively stagnated with test scores, pivoting again to school choice as the solution.
“What can be done about that is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids,” DeVos said. “Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children.”
DeVos’ passion for school and community choice also transferred into how she views school safety.
The secretary said allowing teachers to have guns in schools “should be an option for states and communities to consider,” later reconciling that she “couldn’t ever imagine” her own first-grade teacher brandishing a weapon in the classroom.
While DeVos maintained that addressing gun violence in schools is an urgent matter, noting that she’s heading up a task force to observe what states are doing to protect students, Stahl balked, saying “this sounds like talking instead of acting.”
DeVos also identified individual circumstances as to why she’s considering repealing Obama-era guidance that outlines “how to identify, avoid and remedy discriminatory discipline.”
“Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids,” Devos said, to which Stahl replied, “Well, no … it’s not.”
DeVos continued, “It does come down to individual kids. And — often comes down to — I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.”
DeVos also said that “one sexual assault is one too many, but “one falsely accused individual is one too many.”
Asked if the two were the same, DeVos remarked, “I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

This weekend’s interview marks another rocky moment for DeVos, a longtime GOP booster and school choice advocate chosen by President Donald Trump last year to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

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Environment, Trump Administration

Ex-DEQ chief Donald van der Vaart could lead EPA Council on Environmental Quality

Donald van der Vaart, former DEQ secretary, could lead the
EPA’s Council on Environmental Quality. (Photo: DEQ)

Donald van der Vaart, the controversial former NC DEQ secretary, is a leading candidate for a top EPA post, E&E News reported yesterday.

Van der Vaart, who long had his sights on an EPA job, has the support of conservatives who want to see him lead the agency’s Council on Environmental Quality.

CEQ wields power over several key environmental laws. It oversees  the implementation and interpretation of NEPA, the cornerstone of environmental protection. NEPA — the National Environmental Policy Act — requires federal agencies to assess the environmental, social and economic impacts of certain projects. For example, a new interstate would trigger an NEPA review, as would opening public lands to energy drilling.

CEQ also develops and recommends national policies to the president that promote the improvement of environmental quality.

E&E News quoted energy lobbyist Mike McKenna as saying, “Don is a well-thought-of name by people who matter in the administration.”

In what’s likely a promising sign to some conservatives, van der Vaart appears willing to review EPA’s endangerment finding on greenhouse gases, an anthology of climate science that forms the legal justification for regulating heat-trapping emissions. He argued that the finding should be constantly updated as science progresses — E&E News

Van der Vaart has a long history of opposing tighter environmental regulations. As DEQ Secretary, his vision for the department was to be more “business- and customer-friendly,” meaning that those interests often  trumped environmental protection. In November 2016, after Donald Trump was elected president, van der Vaart sent him a letter calling for the disbandment of the EPA — a view Trump also shared. Van der Vaart subsequently made the short list of nominees to be deputy administrator to Scott Pruitt, a position that later went to Andrew Wheeler, whom Pruitt knew from their time in Oklahoma. (Pruitt was attorney general; Wheeler worked for US Sen. Jim Inhofe.)

Van der Vaart, who is skeptical of humankind’s role in climate change, had worked in the Division of Air Quality. He then served under Gov. Pat McCrory for two years. A political appointee, van der Vaart then demoted himself back to an air quality post in order to protect himself from being fired when Roy Cooper became governor.

Van der Vaart resigned from DEQ last November after current Secretary Michael Regan placed him on investigative leave. Van der Vaart had co-written an opinion piece in a national environmental law journal supporting the rollback of a key air quality rule — which conflicted with the current administration’s view — and he had accepted a position on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. After EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt essentially cleared the SAB decks of independent scientists, he filled it with industry representatives and conservative state regulators, like van der Vaart.

While he has the support of several key allies, van der Vaart has not officially been nominated. The Trump administration is still stinging from the failed nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White. The former head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, she had made several controversial comments about climate change and carbon dioxide. The Trump administration withdrew her nomination earlier this month.

Now van der Vaart could achieve one of his career goals. E&E News quoted him as saying, “It would be a thrill for somebody like me who’s been in this field for a long time.”


Trump Administration

Trump unlikely to extend DACA deadline

The White House is showing no signs of extending a deadline for the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The Washington Post reports:

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said Tuesday that President Trump is not expected to extend a March 5 deadline for when legal protection and work permits begin to expire for young immigrants known as “dreamers” — raising the stakes for lawmakers struggling to reach a solution.

“I doubt very much” Trump would extend the program, Kelly told reporters during an impromptu interview at the U.S. Capitol.

Kelly’s comments come as lawmakers are trying to come up with a plan to grant permanent legal protections to dreamers and resolve other aspects of the immigration system. Kelly also said he would recommend against Trump accepting a short-term extension of the program legislative patch.

NC Policy Watch spoke to NC Justice Center immigration attorney Raul Pinto last week about Trump’s immigration proposals and the fate of thousands of immigrants currently protected by DACA. (Click below to watch an excerpt of that interview or listen to the full podcast.)

Roughly 28,000 individuals in North Carolina are protected by DACA, with another 13,000 covered by a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation.